Faith Expressing Itself Through Love: Imagining Subjectivity And Community In Saint Paul’s Epistles


Faith Expressing Itself Through Love: Imagining Subjectivity And Community In Saint Paul’s Epistles

Roxana Doncu

University of Bucharest

         If Saint Peter was the rock on whom, according to the Gospels, the Church was to be built, Saint Paul was the one who rocked the foundations of the old world, a revolutionary saint still continuing to wreak havoc with his theology. He dealt a fatal blow to Jewish law and traditionalism by calling himself the Apostle of the Gentiles and thus turning Christianity into a widespread universal religion. His doctrine of justification by faith was first appropriated by Augustine of Hippo (the theologian that developed the concept of the Catholic Church) and later by Martin Luther as a weapon in his fight against Catholic indulgences, making sola fide one of the cornerstones of Protestant theology.

It was perhaps Nietzsche in The AntiChrist, with his passionate diatribes against Saint Paul that sparked a continuous philosophical interest in his epistles. Gilles Delleuze, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Serres, Slavoj Zizek have all commented on Saint Paul’s philosophical legacy. Nietzsche charges Paul with inventing a type of Christianity that “promises everything and delivers nothing” (38), and sees him as the worst of the rabbinical tradition, a perversion of the teaching of Christ and a return to the pharisaical type of priestly domination.1 In a way, however, both Saint Paul’s religious and Nietzsche’s philosophical aims were similar: both attempted to transcend the moral law, which they saw as being at odds with human nature. Nietzsche through his concept of the “transvaluation” of values, and Saint Paul through his concepts of grace and justification by faith. Both were deeply unsatisfied with the human being as such and sought to improve on it, Nietzsche positing the Übermensch, and Saint Paul the “new creature/man” as the goal of humanity.

A contested figure, Saint Paul remains one of the foundational thinkers of modernity. At present, there is growing interest in the theological thought of Saint Paul on the part of the left and the radical left, who have reappraised him in political terms as a revolutionary thinker and the architect of modern Christianity. While Delleuze remains tributary to a Nietzschean interpretation of Saint Paul, seeing his orientation towards the transcendent as a betrayal of immanence, for  Badiou and Zizek the importance of Saint Paul resides in his firm loyalty to the beyond of an “event” that marks a change in the world.

This renewed interest in Paul’s theological thought on the part of the left has been fueled by the process and the techniques of subjectification that the apostle developed in his epistles. As subjectivity and the way it is constituted has been one of the crucial research points for any scholar in the humanities since the work of the late Michel Foucault, and as the political agenda of the left includes an effort to reformulate and redefine subjectivity so as to leave as much space as possible for agency, it is no surprise that a theology which attempts to change the old man into a “new creature” should gain considerable ground in contemporary debates. For Badiou and Zizek, against all protest from historians who try to make too fine a point about Saint Paul’s historicity, he remains our contemporary, a blueprint for the committed, militant subject.

In an age in which ethnic conflict and identity politics have challenged old notions of belonging, Saint Paul’s remarks on the Christian subject envisaged as “neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:26) and his statement, against all Jewish traditionalism, that “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Rom. 10:5) have an odd contemporary resonance. Thus, if Badiou and Zizek emphasize the political militant nature of the subjectivity created by Saint Paul, Michel Serres goes even further and claims that with Paul we witness the birth of the modern subject, the “I” who is thought of independently, apart from any concept of belonging.

Serres begins by noting that Saint Paul had been triply formatted in the “fires of Hebraic monotheism, Hellenistic rational Wisdom, and Roman Law”(1), but managed to rise out of his triple belonging and in his peregrinations around the world, he invented “the coming era”. The newness of his creation, Serres argues, lies in his dissociation of the meaning of identity from the meaning of belonging. Disentangling the “I” from its previous commitment to ethnic groups, sexes or classes, he grounds subjectivity in the wavering motion of faith, which moves between the possible and the impossible, inventing consciousness as the proper domain of the subject (3-6).

My paper will take up Serres’ argument and focus on the ways in which faith, defined as a movement towards the transcendent and the infinite, manages to create a new subjectivity, “the new creature”, free from the constraints of the law and the bounds of tradition. At the same time I will show that Serres’ claim that Saint Paul imagined the “I” as free from any collective bond is ultimately untenable: in Saint Paul’s theology, faith has value only insofar as it expresses itself through love; and the work of love is the creation of community, a collective founded not on ethnic, sexual or class difference, but on the unity of faith. The value of Pauline theological thought for us may reside essentially in this new way of imagining and building community: Paul tries to move beyond differences and binary opposites like identity/alterity (we are we because we are different from you) and build his community on a universalizing faith and a concept of equally distributed grace that can spread to include everyone. The movement towards the transcendent, I will argue, is not a betrayal of immanence, but a guarantee of equality, as this transcendent (God) is the source of equally distributed grace to every member of the Church’s body.

In Paul’s letters, faith is often juxtaposed to, and contrasted with the law (the Jewish law as put forth by the Ten Commandments). The relationship between the human subject (finitude) and God (the infinite) is impossible without some kind of mediation. In this respect, both the law and faith act as mediators that set the basis for this relationship. Yet, while the law is given to human beings only to make them conscious of sin (as a kind of universal moral standard against which people can measure themselves), it is only though faith in the resurrection of Jesus (the messianic event as Agamben calls it) that the human being can achieve salvation. Why is that? Derrida, Agamben and many others argue that Saint Paul deconstructs the law or makes it non-operational with regard to the human subject, and in a sense, they are right. With Saint Paul, the Law loses its power of transcendence, of opening the human being towards the realm of God (the infinite), while retaining its status as moral standard set up to differentiate between mortals (finitude) and divinity (the infinite)2. The Law becomes thus the very difference that universalizing faith must overcome in order to produce a different subject, one that is open towards the transcendent.

We cannot understand the complexity of Saint Paul’s theology without spelling out the relationships between the concepts of law, faith and sin. Sin is what constitutes human nature: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” (Rom. 2:9) as opposed to the divine, what philosophers have called “natural law” or “human nature”. We are all sinful, because we are all human, but we become conscious of sin only when the law is given. Sin is the distance that separates the human from the divine, when this distance is perceived through the commandments of the law. When sin is made manifest through law, the human being becomes susceptible to punishment: “the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Rom. 4:15) The mediation of the law is thus only partial, as it serves unilaterally to make human beings conscious of the distance that separates them from the divine (infinity), without offering them any hope of ever reaching or opening themselves unto it. At the same time, by making them conscious of human nature as sin, the law separates human beings both from the natural law and from God, and brings death: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9,10)

What the law is unable to accomplish, the reconciliation between the human and the divine, the transformation of human nature and the adoption of humanity by God comes through faith in the resurrection of Jesus. I am careful to specify “in the resurrection of Jesus”, because faith is envisaged by Paul as the corresponding human response to a life-changing, world-shattering event: the resurrection of Jesus, son of God. It is not a generic faith in God that can transform humans into the sons of God, but faith to a particular event. Paul’s thought has meaning only within the context of a relationship between the human and the divine in which the latter makes a movement towards the former in order that the former may open unto it. Faith becomes possible in its turn only when the infinite has penetrated the world in the shape of contingency (the contingency of the messianic event). Summing up, we can say that in the context of the human-divine relationship, the former may open up to the latter only after the latter has opened up to the human. And if the Law is the first sign of the divine, which makes us conscious of sinful nature, the event of resurrection opens up a space for the infinite inside the world. The world after the resurrection is not the same as the one before it, since it contains all the potentialities of the infinite. The infinite is not already here, but in the making, as it were, a virtual reality to be produced in the new world. The condition for its production is faith, and the human being called to undertake this work of producing the infinite is the believer, the new creature.

The old world, the world of Law, sin and death is a closed world. The world after the resurrection of Jesus is ontologically different from it, since it contains the potentiality of the divine. Giorgio Agamben has commented extensively on the difference between ‘kairos’ and ‘chronos’, messianic time and chronological time3, and has shown how messianic time, although embedded in chronological time, represents an inversion and a distortion of it. The same holds true for the relationship between the old and the new world: although the old world goes on seemingly undisturbed, the potentiality of the infinite which is realized through the believer opens it up to another dimension. Just as messianic time represents the movement of ordinary time towards eternity, the new world is the shadow of the infinite already present in this world.

“Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4), this new righteousness that comes through faith is open to everyone, Jew or Gentile, “to all who believe”. The new creature is born at exactly this point, at the end of the Law who marked its subjects as Jews and differentiated them from other peoples. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 3:21). The same is reiterated from another perspective: “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” (Rom. 10:12) The subject of salvation, unlike the subject of the law exists in what Ricoeur called “the economy of the gift” or the “logic of superabundance”. (205-7) The Law is based on the principle of moral equivalence: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and on the logic of crime and punishment, while grace, God’s gift given freely to everyone, marks the beginning of a different regime, that of the supraethical (a regime defined by love, faith and hope). A gift, as Ricoeur notices, exceeds the principle of equivalence, as it comes out of generosity and superabundance, without an interest and without the concern for reciprocation.4  Thus the whole relationship between the human subject (the finite) and the divine (the infinite) changes, as it is no longer mediated by law and the works of law, but by grace and faith. The new creature is no longer bound by the law, nor marked by its difference.

This new universal subjectivity, beyond the differences established by law and rooted in faith is one of the main concerns of Paul in his epistles. He insists on the absolute necessity that the believer should become a new creature in the letter to Romans: “we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6) and to Ephesians: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self…; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (4:22-24)

Saint Paul’s revolutionary project of re-imagining and re-creating subjectivity along the line of faith is very simple indeed, although the effort to achieve it may be regarded as a superhuman one. I mentioned at the beginning that for Paul the messianic event was crucial. Some scholars went so far as to accuse Paul of neglecting the teachings of the historical Jesus, and choosing instead to concentrate his message on the event of resurrection. Saint Paul regards the resurrection as the focal point of his whole activity and the cornerstone of Christian faith: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14) Paul’s whole project of re-inventing subjectivity as that which lies beyond differences is grounded on the reality of the resurrection; because for him this constitutes the proof that human life is not doomed to finitude. Paul’s firm belief in the reality of the resurrection allows him to conceive of a human subject, which switches his orientation from the finite to the infinite, from the mere human to the divine. His system of values is deeply rooted in the belief in Resurrection and his missionary work, the advice he gives his community are all directed toward the creation of a new man, one that becomes, according to his formulation “a citizen of heaven” (Phil. 3:20)5.

It may be useful to remark here that whereas Badiou interprets Paul as one of the founders of universal thought (in his attempt to traverse class, sex and national differences), Agamben sees him as an advocate of radical separation. These two positions complement, rather than contradict each other, as Paul’s universalism, in his attempt to transcend differences, separates itself from the law, which produces difference. This separation is indeed radical, and Paul’s letters reveal a complex system of differences between the rule of law and the rule of grace. On the one hand, belonging to God (the infinite, the divine) we have the Spirit, love, wisdom, freedom from sin, the unseen, the spiritual body and eternal life. Under the rule of law we have man and his sinful nature, the visible, the natural body, the letter of the law, knowledge and gifts. Paul is careful to distinguish sharply between these two regimes, detailing their mechanisms and techniques as well as their results. Through grace and faith the new subject is released from bondage to sinful nature, and the release from sin is simultaneously the release from the rule of law6 and the entrance of the subject into a new order: “when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom. 7: 5-6). Since “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”, Paul argues in the 2nd letter to Corinthians that “you yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody…you are a letter from Christ, …written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (3:2-3). The same strategy of opposing one regime to the other through a system of careful discriminations is used when Paul speaks about love and knowledge, or when he places love above every kind of spiritual gift. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know, as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.” (1 Cor. 8:2-3). Knowledge and gifts belong to the finite, love to the infinite. The passage where Paul speaks about the virtues of love is so well-known that I need not quote it; yet equally beautiful are Paul’s ruminations on the vanity of knowledge and gifts: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears….Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Cor. 13:8-12).

But what exactly is love? With it we return to the idea of community. In his famous apology, Paul claims that: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have no love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) That Paul should exalt love over knowledge and the gifts is not strange; what is strange is the statement that faith without love is nothing. In the letter to the Galatians, while rebuking them for their willingness to become circumcised, he makes another statement: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (5:6).

Again, human love comes second to divine love: it becomes possible only within the context of the hyper-ethical regime instituted by grace. The human being can be capable of love insofar as it opens itself up to divine love and apprehends it: “I pray that you…may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:18-9). The four dimensions of the infinite love of God (how wide and long and high and deep) are there to remind the believers about the cross, which for Paul is the sign of God’s infinite love for humanity.

According to the logic of superabundance, it is grace, as God’s love given freely to everyone that institutes a universal community of people, in which each member shares equally. Yet this community remains only a possibility as long as the response to divine love is absent. The actual community of believers includes only those that take upon themselves the responsibility and the work of love.7

So far, we have seen that Paul invents a new subjectivity, one that is rooted in faith (faith to the messianic event), free from the old law and dependent on grace. The expression of this subjectivity (which, as any idea, remains an abstraction) is love. Just as the expression of law was in the works of the law (the fulfillment of the commandments), the expression of faith is love and the work of love, which consists in the creation of a community. Paul’s epistles have seldom been analyzed in their practical dimension, as a spiritual guide to the communities he took so many pains to organize. Paul is neither a philosopher nor a moralist, and his lengthy explanations have a definite goal, that of building up a community. For example, the first letter to the Corinthians, after beginning with the usual thanks, clearly states Paul’s anxieties about the divisions in the church- and the famous apology of love and its virtues stems from his effort to bring about unity. He preaches love as the fulfillment of the law, the love of one’s neighbour, as the primary fruit of Christian faith. In the letter to the Galatians, a community divided between following Paul and following Peter, Paul explains that the return to law which was preached by Peter’s followers meant the return to sin and the law, and insists that the only things that matter are “faith expressing itself through love” and “ a new creation”.

Any community is primarily established on some concept of belonging, and then works according to a set of principles. Since Paul had done away with differences of class, gender and nation, he needed a new concept, one which should make belonging a matter of inclusion and not of exclusion. In the letters to the Romans, Paul reinterprets the Hebrew scripture and contends that it was only through the faith of Abraham that God adopted the sons of Israel and that “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Rom. 9:8). In other words, he made belonging hang on a concept of affiliation rather than filiation. While the principle of natural descent made it either impossible or very difficult for the Gentiles to adhere to the new religion, Paul’s new concept of belonging based on affiliation to the same faith opened up a new vista for Christianity. Whoever shares the same faith in Christ’s resurrection is one with Him and his body – the Church. The new community is premised on this shared unity in Christ, and unity cannot be achieved without brotherly love and equality. And here Paul proves again his genius for “inventing the modern world”, for he bequeaths us two valuable things: an idea and a practice. Paul’s metaphor for the unity of all believers in God is the human body, whose members work together for the good of the whole: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”8 (Rom. 12:4-5). In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians he urges them to save money and give it to other communities in need. His message is crystal clear: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: “He that gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8:13-5). The early French and American communes, political ideologies like socialism and communism, charitable organizations active on a global scale and even telephone donations to help those in need are all indebted to Paul’s concept of equality manifested through financial practices very similar to what we now call redistribution. No surprise that the left shows so much interest in his philosophical legacy. Yet he has often been misunderstood by the left and accused of too much complicity with the transcendent, which, as the history of fascism, colonialism and imperialism has made us aware, was often mobilized for the justification of exploitation and genocide. Paul’s transcendent, it must be emphasized, is not the same as that of fascism and colonialism. His God is the guarantor of unity and equality, as the transcendent is the source of grace that is freely distributed to everyone:” You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-9).

The modern world as we know it today, in all its diversity and multiplicity, with all its partial and particular histories (in which Christianity often played a negative role, being closely tied to colonialist and imperialist practices) finds one of its main sources in the Christianity that Paul, perhaps more evidently than any other apostle, helped to develop. As Serres contends, Paul imagined a new subjectivity, one freed from the bonds of the old law and transcending differences of class, sex and nation. Grounded in faith, this new subjectivity was to find its expression in love, the spiritual glue that Paul used in order to build and sustain his communities. Taking Serres’ argument a step further, this paper argues that Paul imagined not only a new subjectivity, but also a new type of community based on the principles of functional unity and equality.


Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. The Church and the Kingdom. London: Seagull Books, 2012

—- .The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005

Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Anti-Christ: A Curse on Christianity” in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. A. Ridley, J. Norman, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 1-68

Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, M. Wallace, ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995

Serres, Michel. “Ego Credo”, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture, vol.12-3, 2006, 1-11

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984



  1. 1. In The AntiChrist, Nietzsche reacts not so much against the historical Jesus, as against what he calls the lie of Christianity, a lie that in his view was founded and propagated first by Saint Paul. According to Nietzsche, Saint Paul chose to focus negatively on the death (and the resurrection) of Jesus instead of, positively, on his life and teachings. The purpose of this shift in focus was, in Nietzsche’s view, Paul’s lust for power and his wish to return the new religion to the old type of Jewish priestly domination. Here is the quotation from Nietzsche: “To take this Paul …at his word when he takes a hallucination and dresses it up as a proof that the redeemer still lives, or even to accept that he had this hallucination in the first place, would be a true niaiserie on the part of a psychologist: Paul wanted the end, and consequently, he wanted the means to it as well…What he did not believe himself was believed by the idiots he threw his doctrines to.- What he needed was power; with Paul, the priests wanted to return to power,- he could only use ideas, doctrine, symbols that would tyrannize the masses and form the herds.” (39) []
  2. 2. This is what Paul means by saying that “we uphold the law”. []
  3. 3. Agamben distinguishes messianic time (the time that begins after the coming of the Messiah) from both chronological time and apocalyptic time: “What is messianic is not the end of time but the relation of every moment, every kairos, to the end of time and to eternity. Consequently, what interests Paul is not the final day, the moment at which time ends, but the time that contracts and begins to end. In the Judaic tradition there is a distinction between two times and two worlds: the olam hazzeh, the time stretching from the creation of the world to its end, and the olam habba, the time that begins after the end of time. Both terms are present, in their Grek translations, in Paul’s Letters. Messianic time, however, the time in which the apostle lives and the only one which interests him- is neither that of the olam hazzeh nor that of the olam habba. It is, instead, the time between those two times, when time is divided by the messianic event – which is for Paul the Resurrection- Church 8-9 []
  4. 4. Paul comments on the gift of grace in Rom. 4 “Death through Adam, Life through Christ”: “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man , Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!…For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (15-17) []
  5. 5. Paul’s discrimination between appearance and inwardness is more an integral part of his minutely defined system of navigating towards the infinite than an indicator of Platonic thought: “A Jew is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outwardly and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”(Rom. 2: 28-9). As much as has been written about Platonic influences on Paul’s thought (F.F.Powell), appearance here is not opposed to essence, but part of the written code (the law) which comes into conflict with the Spirit (the grace of God). Paul remains a Jew, albeit an anti-traditional one, who tries to show that the resurrection of Jesus put an end to the rule of law. []
  6. 6. If release from the law is the foundation of the new subjectivity it is no wonder that Paul is so upset with the Galatians, who, following in the footsteps of Peter, have begun to let themselves be circumcised. The return to the Law, Paul is adamant on this issue, finally means alienation from Christ: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Gal. 5:3-4 []
  7. 7.  Because community is doubly instituted, first by the grace of God offered freely to everyone and then by the particular response of each human being, there is a tension in the apprehension of its meaning that has often led to misunderstandings on the part of Christians and non-Christians alike, who regard Christian communities as excluding non-believers. However, this is not Paul’s position: as a missionary, he regards non-believers as potential believers and never tries to exclude them. []
  8. 8. The whole quotation includes the different gifts that the members of a community should use for the common good: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (Romans 12: 6-8) []

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