Reading Scripture Today: An Interview with Sujin Pak

Sujin Pak is assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Her article, “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers,” is published in our most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. In this interview she addresses the pastoral implications of her article. (Read Pak’s full article here.)

G. Sujin Pak

How has your research impacted your own reading of Scripture? 

I teach a class on the “History of Biblical Interpretation” that spans from early church to contemporary interpreters. This course has not only enriched my own thinking about and engagement with Scripture but also helped me locate the Protestant Reformers within this larger history. One of the things that strikes me most about pre-modern readings of Scripture is that they steadfastly keep before them a sense of the purposes for which Scripture (as a text of a faithful community) is given—namely, that Scripture is a gift of God to God’s people to reveal God’s saving purposes centered in Jesus Christ. This, therefore, refocuses one’s purposes for reading: it is not so much for the exact knowledge one can obtain or about employing the exactly right method of reading (though, it certainly secondarily could be some of these things); it is first and foremost an opportunity to encounter God in Christ through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. And, as pre-moderns describe this, this encounter promises to be transformative: to call one out of one’s own self-absorbed ways and perspectives to a journey toward holiness and wisdom—toward Christ, the very Wisdom of God.

Thus, the journey of reading Scripture is not really about finding that right method. Pre-modern theologians employed a large variety of methods, methods often clearly shaped by the available tools of their contexts and specific situations they were addressing. Moreover, pre-modern readers of Scripture affirmed that there can be multiple faithful readings of a text; there is not just a singular correct reading. For me personally, this allows for a freedom, beauty, and creativity in my encounter of the Triune God through Scripture and casts off the shackles of my anxiety to “find that one right meaning.” This is not to say, though, that faithful reading is boundless (with no limits, as if anything goes). Rather, pre-modern readers of Scripture paint a picture of a beautiful playground for biblical interpretation that is bounded by the convictions that constitute the core of Christian identity—convictions such as Trinity, centrality of Christ, christology (two natures of Christ), incarnation, belief in the Holy Spirit, and commitment to the church in which many pre-modern theologians point to the Apostle’s Creed as a guide to these core convictions of Christian identity about which Scripture testifies.

In your article, you make the point that the Reformers’ affirmation of Scripture’s clarity “could never entail a larger array of persons claiming to have the singular, authoritative reading of Scripture” but that “this may very well be the reality in many Protestant churches today.” How have you seen this play out practically in the church?

Truly grasping the implications of Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of justification by faith alone as it shapes their views of Scripture’s clarity has proven incredibly slippery in subsequent generations. First, I should clarify that there are other ways to hold to a doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity beyond what Luther and Calvin asserted, but it seems that many claim Luther and Calvin (for their views of Scripture’s clarity) without recognizing how profoundly Luther and Calvin built this claim upon a doctrine of justification by faith alone. I think for Luther and Calvin the convictions of Scripture’s clarity and accessibility were not meant to promote multiple claims to an authoritative reading; they were meant to open up a space for the Spirit’s working in the church, an opportunity for a profound submission (and discovery) of the Spirit’s work of illuminating Scripture, in which they believed the Spirit would always be consistent with itself. Luther and Calvin recognized in this the need for a communal process of discernment. Hence, they often pointed to the pattern of 1 Corinthians 14 in which two or three provide an interpretation and “the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29). Though, when this increasingly lead to what they viewed as “disorderly” practices, Luther and Calvin emphasized the need for ordained ministerial leaders to provide leadership and counsel for the public ministry of God’s Word, which ultimately ended up placing the proclamation and interpretation of Scripture soundly within the preacher/pastor’s hands and downplayed their earlier emphases upon the priesthood of all believers.

It is no surprise, then, that we have confusing results of the Protestant reformers’ assertions of Scripture’s clarity! I tend to see two extremes in Protestant churches: on the one hand, I see an anxiety among many lay Christians about getting at that one right meaning of Scripture (which can be a logical result of the Reformers’ teachings when they point to a meaning guided by the Spirit that must always be consistent with itself). On the other hand, there is the other tendency to just go with a very personal, individualistic reading of how this text speaks to me or provides guidance specifically for my own life that risks shaping (even confining) the text just to answer the questions I want answered. The difference is between shaping Scripture to meet my questions and needs and being shaped and transformed by Scripture. Concerning this distinction, Luther’s wise counsel in his first commentary on the Psalms comes immediately to mind: “And note that the strength of Scripture is this, that it is not changed into the one who studies it, but that it transforms its lover into itself and its strengths” (LW 10:332).

Are there ways pastors facilitate this misunderstanding, wittingly or unwittingly? How can pastors correct these misunderstandings?

In my opinion, the Protestant Reformers are very helpful in some matters and less helpful in others concerning views of Scripture and practices of reading Scripture. They helpfully call us to seek a transformative encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in Scripture. Less helpfully, they tended effectively to promote a narrowed sense of the possible meanings of Scripture, often through their emphasis on the “literal” or “plain” sense of Scripture so that one increasingly gets the sense that there really is only one right meaning of Scripture. I actually think it was much more complicated than this for the Protestant Reformers, for Luther in particular was a situational thinker and recognized that often the Spirit says different things to the church at different points in its history to address the specific needs of the time. Hence, to “hear what the Spirit says to the church” through Scripture can have difference valences and nuances across time. Yet, this easily gets eclipsed by the Reformers’ emphasis upon a clear, literal sense of Scripture.

Thus, I would encourage pastors to cultivate an expectation of an encounter with God in Scripture, an openness to the Spirit’s working, and practices of communal reading and communal discernment guided and delineated by the convictions that define that community as distinctly “Christian.” That is, I encourage pastors to create a space for the beautiful, creative, liberating journey of reading Scripture that occurs within the boundaries of convictions of Christian identity and that fosters readings that journey toward a specific destination: toward Christ, toward greater holiness, toward bearing fruits of righteousness.

If you could recommend only one Reformation text to pastors, which would you choose?

That’s a tough question! I guess concerning the Protestant Reformers’ views of Scripture, I would recommend Calvin’s dedication/preface to his commentary on Romans (written to his friend Simon Grynaeus) and Luther’s preface to the Wittenberg edition of his German writings (LW 34:283–88), the latter of which gives a succinct account of Luther’s three rules for reading Scripture and a humorous taste of his wit!