Paul's Problems and the Assumption of Mary

-by Fr John Hunwicke, Head of Theology at Lancing College, U.K. This paper was reprinted in the All Saints' Gazette, Assumptiontide, 1997. It originally appeared in The Messenger of The Catholic League".

It was to the Corinthians that Paul wrote two of his longest letters, and this proves that it was with the Corinthians that Paul had some of his biggest problems. Because Paul was a practical man, an existential theologian, and a busy missionary, he never wasted time writing letters unless he had some very pressing reason for doing so.

The problems he had with the Corinthian Christians have given rise to a great deal of speculation, because we have to guess from what he wrote, why he wrote it, what the problem really was, and what they had been saying to him. One distinguished Methodist scholar has called it rather like listening to one half of a telephone conversation - your 17-year-old daughter is out there chattering away, at your expense, and you can hear what she says but not her interlocutor. Naturally, you try to guess who it is and what they are saying, but it is not easy. Suppose you hear the phrase, 'Gosh, what a nice one!', there is a fair number of different reconstructions that might fit.

So, with Paul, there is scope for keen young people to write DPhil theses, and there are always new books coming out with bright new theories. But quite a few of those who have dipped into the Corinthian problem are convinced that the sorry tale began with inadequacies and shortcomings on the part of Pad's own original face-to- face teaching in Corinth. Since Paul was a practical man, an existential theologian and a busy missionary, he only told them what was necessary for the matter in hand. He failed to foresee their problems and misunderstandings, and in any case his tentmaker's rucksack contained no works of systematic Kirchendogmatik, or even a Universal Catechism.

One highly plausible reconstruction(1) assumes that when Paul first converted the Corinthians, the theological equipment he endowed them with was heavily eschatological - concerned with the end of the world. He said (or they thought he said) that it was very close. Indeed, the impression they appear to have got was that it was not so much close, but that the Kingdom of God was already present. They thought that by virtue of their baptism they were baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ, so that - as they rose dripping from the waters of the font - they were risen; they were in the everlasting Kingdom, passed from death to life; there was nothing left to happen. Perhaps they even sat on symbolic thrones of divine glory. They believed that the Eucharistic Food which they received Sunday by Sunday was a pharmakon athanaisai - a medicine of immortality - food and drink so stuffed with the power of the Spirit that it carried a copper-bottomed guarantee against death; a sacrament which maintained them in the everlasting life which their baptism into Christ had given them. They expected, naturally, to be very much alive and kicking when the Lord came in judgement. Paul's little local difficulty with tenses began when something awkward happened to the Corinthians: some of them died. They, it is argued, had not expected this, and neither had their friends, relatives and fellow-Christians. Paul - practical, existential and busy - had to deal with their distress and perplexity in a letter which is lost but which can with some degree of plausibility be reconstructed. They should not worry, Paul said: the dead are not really very dead. They are being - notice the present (passive) tense - raised up. Resurrection is - a present tense again - happening. Other of his letters(2) reveal distinctions in the tenses he used in his baptismal teaching. Sometimes - and most logically - he would write that the baptised have died and are risen with Christ. Sometimes, rather cautiously, he modified this to the claim that the baptised have died so that they will rise with Christ. Or he dealt with the problem of the resurrection already of the baptised by alleging that their life is hidden with Christ in God.

The Corinthians seem to have been rather put off by the new and cautious notes in Paul's teaching and by the thought that the dead - the Greek word nekroi actually means corpses - are being raised up. Decaying corpses somehow reanimated did not appeal to them, and none of this seemed like the simple, joyous, exciting package which Paul had sold them in the first place. Their reply to Paul appears to have contained scornful rebuttals: the corpses, they wrote, are not being raised up; there is - note again the present tense - no resurrection of the corpses going on.

And so we have Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians - that is, his first surviving letter. In it,(3) he combined reassertion of the truth that the corpses are being resurrected, with a new ' mysterion' - a new 'secret' out of his theological resource-pack. At the End, he said, at the last trump, two things will (in the future tense) happen; two things he had not quite mentioned before. The corpses will rise aphthartoi - unrotted - and we who are left still alive shall be changed. You have got to be changed, he went on; baptism or no baptism, your bodies at the moment are 'rottable' and they have to 'put on' unrottability - aphtharsion. And Paul felt no problem with this because God has the obvious solution up his divine sleeve - a spiritual body.

And 'spiritual body' does not mean an unreal body. 'Spiritual' is a word that has fallen on hard times.(4) People use it to suggest some sort of unreal, purely mental, game. I doubt whether there is a priest in existence who fails to groan when somebody asks him 'Do you really mean that, Father, or only in a spiritual sense?' But, for Paul, a 'spiritual' something is not something basically unreal and pallid and little more than a metaphor: it is something more real, more bursting with energy, more hard-edged, more potentially dangerous. Such is the spiritual body Paul brings in here - pneumatikon soma. And he does not say that there will be a spiritual body; he says that such things are - present tense.

Paul was practical, existential and busy; and he was another thing too - he was impatient. He was rather like a priest who tells his confirmation class that the Blessed Sacrament is the Body of Christ without bothering to encumber toddler intellects with Aristotelian distinctions. Paul was deeply convinced that the Kingdom is upon us; the powers of the End-time are at work among us. The resurrection and the life, since and because of the resurrection of Jesus, are. Yet this world - the present age - has not yet passed away. The New Age has overlapped with the last expiring gasps of the Present Age. How to verbalise this overlap - of the Present Age and the Age to Come - that was Paul's, problem. His Corinthian children, through baptism, have risen - and yet their mortal bodies might die and must, in any Case, be 'unrottified'. The dead Corinthian Christians had been incorporated by baptism into Christ's New Life, yet they have died; they are being raised - the powers of the Kingdom have not temporarily dozed off - and at the End they will be changed. For good measure, as clergy sometimes tend to do, Paul threw in a reproach or two(5): some of them had become ill and died - despite Baptism, despite the Eucharist - and this, he suggests, is likely to be because of their irreverent participation in the Blessed Sacrament.

New Testament Christianity really does believe in the reality of the Kingdom; the reality of God's power actually at work in the world; the energies of the Age to Come - in a way with which many twentieth-century Christians find it hard to come to terms. We live at the fag-end of a liberal Protestant tradition which reduces Christianity to a sentimental, historical ethicalism . . . great man and teacher . . . selfgiving love . . . Good Friday and Easter remind us that Evil does not have the last word . . . Paul would not have recognised this sugary rubbish. He and his Corinthian converts got themselves into a mess because what they were dealing with were real and highly explosive forces which God was releasing into his world. He (and they) did not fully understand and had enormous trouble making words fit round the Powers of the Kingdom. Perhaps it is rather like nuclear fusion - it is undoubtedly a real power whether or not you understand its finer points; whether or not we get our sums and our terminology exactly right if we try to talk about it. There are some memorable words of C S Lewis(6) about Easter Night: 'Death itself started to work backward'. A Jesus locked away in history and cocooned in candyfloss is comfortable and manageable because he is under our control; he is an artefact of our minds which we can play around with for as long as we like and then store under the settee as we settle down to watch 'Grandstand'. He is essentially an idol.

But the eschatological power of God in the New Testament is real. Tombs really breaking open; bodies really being raised and transfigured; human beings really eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of the Lord; it is all disconcerting and disorientating; hardly surprising if, like Paul, when we try to handle it, our tenses get noticeably strained.

St Paul was not the only New Testament writer to have trouble with his tenses when it came to Resurrection and Life. There is in the Gospel writers a persistent prejudice to the effect that, in the person and Body of Jesus, the powers of the Future, the Everlasting Life of God's coming Kingdom, are so powerfully present that you can never be sure, with Him around, how messy the logic of things might get; how confused our tenses might end up. Matthew(7) knew that 'the fulfilment of the Age' was not yet; but when Jesus died on the Cross, he believed that the tombs were opened and that many bodies of sleeping saints were raised. The evangelist seems uncertain how they spent the next 36 hours; it seems somehow inappropriate to him that those thus risen should leave their tombs and enter Jerusalem until after the Lord's Resurrection.

According to the Fourth Gospel,(8) Martha believed that her brother Lazarus 'will rise up on the last day'. The divine schoolmaster corrected the future tense with a present tense: 'I am the resurrection and the Life'; and then He capped His own divine pedantry by substituting imperatives for indicatives: 'Lazarus, come out, come here!' Speaking of the Eucharistic Food, Jesus said,(9) 'I am the Bread of Life; anyone who eats this bread will not die . . . the one who continues to eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up'. We have here the same notion we met in Corinth; the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality, the sovereign preservative against the power of Death. And we have the same glorious incoherence of tenses: am . . . has . . . will. It is the same gospel which presents Jesus as saying,(10) 'the hour is coming and now is'; as if 'muddled' tenses are to be revelled in rather than fudged.

The Body of Jesus is life; Resurrection explodes outwards from His natural presence; the energies of the Kingdom flowed out into the diseased womb of the woman in the crowd who touched no more than a secondary relic of the Messiah.(11) Life, unbroken and unending, is guaranteed by His eucharistic presence; proximity to Him confuses the Ages so that what will be already is, and the has-been is something that comes flooding back from the yet-to-be.

If there is, ecumenically, a 'problem' about our Lady's Assumption, it is not about what happens. The Assumption is in the Bible, in Paul's first Letter to the Thessalonians.'(12) Every Christian, Paul says, will be 'caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord'. What is true of every Christian must be true of Mary. No - the 'problem' is about the tenses: Has it already happened to her, or is it still in the future? If, like St Paul, Catholic teaching is existential, and is a precarious attempt to cope with the wonders of Divine power among us - with the coming upon us of the Boundaries of the Ages - then the Assumption of Mary is not some speculation about some putative or past historical event. It is the joyful affirmation of God's Now; of his Will-Be which is grounded in what he Has-Done and which pours its power into the Present. The solemnity of the Bodily Assumption of the Mother of God is God's feast of the world to come, crammed gloriously into the present moment. The Assumption of Mary affirms the New Testament principle that tenses are fragile, slippery, messy things; that the eschatological power of the Father is greater than tyrannous limitations of tenses; that God's last things do not happen in a stately progression. As always, the mystery of divine working transcends language so that as we look at it from one angle, we are moved to use one set of words; from a different angle the Spirit will guide us to say things apparently differently. For Mary - for her ultimate destiny - the future tense (her eschatological Glory) is presented to us as a present tense.

I believe that the grammatical lesson of August l5th, Assumption Day, is that it is very difficult - probably impossible -to disentangle our Lady's tenses. Indeed, I doubt whether she would have been capable of it herself. If the Lord's Mother bore Him as a virgin, I do not know how we can deny that she is, even genetically, concorporate with Him. And so it seems difficult to find any way round the fact that her body must be subject to the Divine compulsions of Resurrection and of Eternity; of the Will-Be turning into Is. I do not see how any attentive students of the New Testament, as they consider Mary's proximity to her Son - the Son Who did not simply rise on the third day but is the Resurrection and the Life - can avoid having their grammar confused, their tenses turned upside down. Catholic theology and liturgy, I feel, contain all the faults, incoherences and shortcomings of the New Testament writers whom we have surveyed.

I would like to remind you of those ancient shouts of triumph which echo throughout the Western Liturgies on August l5th: She IS taken up; the Kingdom is hers; Assumpta est Maria in Caelum; exaltata est Sancta Dei Genetrix; She in her Assumption put down all the heresies, all the cowardliness, all the faithlessness; cunctas haereses sola interemisti in universo mundo. Just as 'Theotokos' affirms and seals the truth of Incarnation, so 'Assumpta' affirms and seals the truth that the Kingdom is even now bursting impatiently upon us. The Future is the Present. If Jesus of Nazareth did not shatter death in Rising from his tomb, then, true, Mary is not glorified; if He is not the very power of life and Resurrection, fair enough, Mary is not glorified; if the Father has not broken down the dividing wall between ourselves and the Kingdom, yes, clearly, Mary is not glorified; if Mary is not the Virgin Mother of that divine Ascended Flesh(13) which presides in triumphant love over all Creation, then, obviously, there is no special glory on Mary's agenda. Just as we cannot expect those who reject the Lord's divinity to call Mary Mother-of-God-Incarnate, so we can hardly be surprised if her Assumption is an absurdity to those who cannot believe that the Hour which is coming now is.

I am no expert on Mariophanies, but I would find it eminently congruous that she who exists beyond the End, the Mother of God who stands awaiting us all on the Eighth Day,(14) should forget her tenses and be found in our Today; and that she should reveal herself not to the mighty but to the humble and unempowered whom she sang in her Magnificat. How natural that her message should be the same as that of her Son when He walked out of her kitchen yesterday morning:(15) peplerotai ho kairos; God's plan has been filled up, now is His moment; engiken he basileia tou theou: it has come, it is near; the Kingdom is God's; metanoeitr: be changed, be made new; pisteuete en to euangelio: God's mighty News demands your obedience and your faith.


  1. J.C. Hurd, The Origin of I Corinthians.
  2. Romans 6:1-9; Col. 2:12 and 3:1-4.
  3. I Cor. 15:32 ff; 51 ff.
  4. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, (Penguin, 1951), p 185. Suppose the Pope erroneously forecast rain? An improbable of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.'
    C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, passim, is interesting on the ''Spiritual'.
  5. I Cor 11:30 ff
  6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p 148. Is it not revealing that when they adapted' Narnia' for television they censored this out - much too vivid an expression of Christian reality for the liberal media to allow people to hear?
  7. Mt 28:20; 27:51 ff
  8. Jn 11:24 ff
  9. Jn 6:48-55
  10. Jn 4:23; 5:25
  11. Mk 5:30
  12. 1 Thess 4:17
  13. See the Ascension Office Hymn Aeterne Rex Altissime: ' culpat caro, purgat caro, regnat Deus Dei caro' [ '. . . flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, And God, the flesh of God, hath reigned' trans.J M Neale] expunged from the Roman office by the 1968 revision commit-tee as ' nimio lusu verborum expressos' ['too much of a play on words'] - not the only example of the same revisers eliminating majestically memorable phrases. The final version replaced these words but only after meddling with them.
  14. V Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp 194-5; after citing St Gregory Palamas: haute mone methorion estin ktisis kai aktistou phuseos, kai oudeis an elthoi pros Theon ei me di'autes . . . Lossky writes: She has crossed the frontier which separates us from the age to come. This is why, freed from the limitations of time, Mary can be the cause of that which is before her; can preside over that which comes after her . . . and paraphrases Palamas' description of our Lady as tameion kai prutaneis tou ploutou tes Theotatos and tamiouchos kai perioche chariton. John Paul II listens 'to the Churches of the East, which I know are living interpreters of the treasure of the tradition they preserve', and cites the theology of Theosis and its relationship to Mary. It is a shame that those who constructed his footnotes did not strengthen his argument with references to St Gregory - who, surely, can speak to our age as a bulwark of Christian reality (Orientale Lumen par. 5-6).
  15. Mk. 1:15. Mary, at Medjugorje, is held to say:

The only word I tell the world is: Convert and do not delay