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.)
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. Continue Reading