Friday, July 23, 2021

Paul and the Practice of Laying on of Hands

In the undisputed letters1 Paul does not use the expression "Laying hands on…" In fact, he does not even use the word "laying on" (epitithÄ“mi). It is doubtful that he even shared Luke's view of the Holy Spirit: that the Holy Spirit was a gift that could be passed on by the laying on of  hands and that resulted in "signs and wonders by the hands of the apostles" (Acts 5:12). I assume that in Acts these signs and wonders would be considered dramatic displays of divine power, such as, for example, the wonder-working hands of spirit filled apostles (Acts 28:8-9), the appearance of tongues as of fire and speaking in other tongues (Acts 2:3-4), sudden death to those who "agree together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord" (Acts 5:9-10), the healing of the sick and demon-possessed people by Peter's shadow (Acts 5:12-16), and the like.

            In the undisputed letters Paul seems to associate the presence of God's spirit/Holy Spirit within one as initiating with faith in Jesus (1 Cor 3:16; Rom 8;9-11). One receives the Spirit by hearing with faith (Gal 3:2-5). In fact, no one can say "Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3). There is no human intermediary through whom God's spirit comes; rather the spirit comes from God (1 Thess 4:8; 2 Cor 1:22). "Things from God are freely given" (1 Cor 2:12; Rom 3:24). Paul does write about "spiritual gifts" but speaks of these gifts as given by God through, and inspired by, the spirit (1 Cor 12:4-26). "You are Christ's body," Paul writes, and God "appoints" functionaries for the gatherings of the body (1 Cor 12:27-31).

God as spirit is described by Paul in various ways: "the spirit" and "his spirit" (Rom 8:11), "the spirit of God" (Rom 8:9), "the spirit of holiness" (Rom 1:4), "the spirit of the living God" (2 Cor 3:3), "his holy spirit" (1 Thess 4:8), the "holy spirit" (Rom 5:5).  Spirit and holy spirit are used interchangeably in 1 Cor 12:3. He even uses the expression "spirit of Christ" interchangeably with the "spirit of God" (Rom 8:9-11; Gal 4:6-7).2

How then should one explain 2 Cor 12:12 and Romans 15:18-19? (which sound very Lucan and in the spirit of Luke/Acts)? Paul writes to the Corinthians: "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." How might Paul have understood this kind of language (1 Cor 4:20), when he gives the reader no examples of such dramatic displays of divine power as are found in Acts?

            One possibility is that he uses these power expressions to describe his personal interactions with people and to enhance the power of God's spirit in human relationships.

When I came to you brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:3-5).

In other words, Paul is claiming that whatever successes he may have had in advancing the gospel enterprise is due to the power of God's spirit working in and through him, in spite of his many weaknesses (1 Cor 4:8-21; 2 Cor 13:3-4). He did not correct his critics, the "superlative apostles" (2 Cor 11:5), when they claimed that his "bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account" (2 Cor 10:9-11), and he admitted that he was unskilled in public speaking (2 Cor 11:6). The only thing he could brag about were his many weaknesses (2 Cor 11:16-33; 12:6-10). His claim is that the power of God works through him, so that when he is weak, then he is strong (2 Cor 12:7-10). What he preaches comes not only in word but also "in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thess 1:5; 2 Rom 15:18-21), so that through the power of God's holy Spirit, the Corinthians may abound in hope (Rom 15:13). The signs of a true apostle are the building up of the gathering of saints, the tearing down of every stronghold blocking the Gospel of Christ, and his strong successes among the Gentiles, and the like.

            One overlap with displays of spiritual power as found in Acts is speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:1-40; Acts 2:1-13), which is described by Paul as "uttering mysteries in the spirit."3 Speaking in tongues is a personal experience. The one who speaks in tongues "edifies himself" (1 Cor 14:4), but prophecy "edifies the church" (1 Cor 14:4). Paul claims that he "speaks in tongues" more than the rest of the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18), which for Paul seems to be a kind of personal prayer language that only benefits the one praying (1 Cor 14:14). He considers the gift of tongues a lesser gift because it requires an interpreter (1 Cor 14:27-28). In church, Paul would rather speak five words of prophecy than 10,000 words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:19), because of the obvious benefits of prophecy to the church (1 Cor 14:2-254). In this section it appears that Paul is attempting to lessen the high value that the Corinthians presumably place on speaking in tongues and to advance the value of prophecy for the church.

Paul's critics, whom he snidely called "superlative apostles," were in Paul's view false apostles, deceitful workmen (2 Cor 11:13-15), and peddlers of God's word (2:17). They accused him, among other things, of "not being an apostle at all, for his ministry among the Corinthians had not been marked by signs and wonders and mighty works (12:1-12)."4 Paul, however, insisted that that he was an apostle and had performed the signs of a true apostle among the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:11-12) in the sense that I have argued above, but specifically not in the sense that Luke portrayed in Acts.

Should it matter to readers of the New Testament that Luke and Paul do not agree on the character of God's holy spirit?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Thessalonians.

2Hedrick, "Is the Holy Spirit part of a Trinity," pp. 177-179 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 177.

3Tongues in Acts are different from tongues in 1 Corinthians. In Acts the "gift" of tongues seems to be that the speaker speaks in his native language while others hear in their own native languages. It is not as in Paul a personal prayer language.

4S. M. Gilmour, "Corinthians, Second Letter to The," pp. 692-98 in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962), 696.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Should the difference between Paul and Luke matter? Absolutely!

Paul's description of being full of the Holy Spirit seems to me to be the equivalent of in our own time being full of "genuineness" which the research of Carl Rogers, a founder of psychology (1940's) and practitioner of client-centered therapy, found to be an essential ingredient, along with empathy (and others), for successful psychotherapy communication.

When still practicing, the biggest compliment I could receive from a client was a positive remark about being genuine.

Away from the vocational setting, I guarantee that one knows the experience of becoming a better person after he/she meets a genuine person. I've certainly met more than one such person who enriched my life.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
Could you define genuineness?

Anonymous said...

I don’t see the Paul of the letters supporting any touching of another’s flesh, so if there was a “gift of cures” the mechanism probably wouldn’t have been “laying on hands.” As far as the differences, reading the New Testament, it is important to realize that different writers’ voices were controlled by different minds, at probably different times, places and circumstances, so there are differences in the primary characters of the compilation. Different Jesus’s, different Pauls and different Peters. I think most tend to conflate each into an image that best suits the reader.

I think it is also important to realize that speaking about personal foibles (weaknesses, past “evils”) was a way for an ancient letter writer to actually promote oneself over one’s “opponents.” In the case of the Paulines, “poor pitiful” Paul or Paul’s “former life” helps present a picture of himself as superior to the other “apostles.” He may have been a persecutor, but he was uniquely chosen by God. He had “weaknesses,” but he was the one with “the spirit and power.” It is a persuasive technique, a way to make himself “uniquely chosen,” thus superior to the “super-apostles.”

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

This site appears to have a good summary of what I'm trying to say about contemporary holy spirit.

"Rogers maintains that therapists must have three attributes to create a growth-promoting climate in which individuals can move forward and become capable of becoming their true self:

Congruence refers to the therapist being real, authentic, and genuine with their clients. It’s called congruence because their inner experience and outward expression match. In being authentic, the therapist shows they are trustworthy, which helps in building a good therapeutic relationship with the client. It also serves as a model for clients, encouraging them to be their true selves, expressing their thoughts and feelings, without any sort of false front.

Unconditional positive regard means the therapist genuinely cares for their clients and does not evaluate or judge their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as good or bad. Each client is accepted and valued for who they are, as they are, without stipulation. Clients need not fear judgment or rejection from the therapist.

Accurate empathic understanding means that the therapist understands their client’s experience and feelings in an accurate and compassionate way.

If you’ve ever had an experience where you felt like someone just really got you…they completely understood where you were coming from, or could truly relate to the way you felt – that’s accurate empathic understanding."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.