Thanks to Jim for pointing me in the direction of Rowan Williams' recent lecture at the Birmingham Centre for Anglican Communion Studies. The lecture overall is a brilliant account of what constitutes theological education, and of what a theologically educated person should be able to do. As such, it may well become required reading for a new unit that we will be teaching next academic year. But the quotation I want to capture is about reading Paul and his letters. I once wrote an article about Romans 11.33-36 in which I think I said much the same thing, though not as well as this:
Frequently as I read Paul's epistles I read the impatient inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God's spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul's God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying "I don't know where this is going but …" as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9-11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, "O the depth and mystery of God". And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don't know where to go but God does.
I start to teach an online unit on Paul from next week. I think I will use this as an introduction.
Update: if you don't have time to read the whole article then Jason has a good summary here.