Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.

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