Reading Paul with the Reformers

From Stephen J. Chester, “Reading Paul with the Reformers” :

How should we think about the Reformers as interpreters of Paul at the 500th anniversary of their transformation of church and society? Should our interest be antiquarian only, their interpretation of the Pauline letters of value for how we understand the sixteenth century and its conflicts but of little direct interest for our own task of interpreting the New Testament in and for the twenty-first century? Or, at the opposite extreme, do the Reformers provide for us exegetical and theological touchstones, departures from which must be resisted as a falling away from the truth of the gospel? ? In the aftermath of rise of the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New Testament scholars largely adopted the first of these approaches… In contrast, some in the church and a minority the academy simply sought to refute the NPP and reassert traditional perspectives. In my view, neither of these responses is helpful. Whether acknowledged or not, the history of reception exercises influence over contemporary interpreters


At the heart of their [the Reformer’s] achievement lies the formation of a new paradigm for Pauline interpretation. Early Lutheran and early Reformed interpreters together founded a new tradition of reading Paul that transformed the legacy of Pauline interpretation they inherited from the patristic and medieval eras. One way in which to picture this new tradition is through the analogy of language and grammar. The Reformers’ language of Pauline theology is a new language, radically different from the language of Pauline theology spoken by their predecessors and sometimes unfathomable to those for whom that earlier language was native.


In relation to key issues in Paul’s description of the human plight apart from Christ (e.g., the nature of sin, the law, and the conscience) and in relation to his description of salvation in Christ (e.g., the works of the law, grace, and faith), the Reformers developed a powerful new consensus that set limits within their communities of interpretation as to what could plausibly be proposed.


Nevertheless, the NPP represents a significant and salutary advance in turning Pauline scholarship away from sweeping negative characterizations of Judaism and towards engagement with the realities of Jewish practice. Here we should remember that the Reformers were not historical-critical scholars nor did they have access to the range of sources that allow contemporary scholarship to present more nuanced accounts of Second Temple Judaism. Yet if our question is how the exegetical legacy of the Reformers relates to our own contemporary task of interpretation, it is indisputable that the Reformers do not pay sufficient attention to these realities of Jewish practice.


The relationship between the Reformers’ Pauline exegetical grammar and contemporary Pauline scholarship is thus more complex than might be imagined. As well as genuine disagreement over the meaning of the phrase the “works of the law” and the nature of Judaism, there is also unacknowledged dependence, rejection based upon simple misunderstanding, and intensification of some elements at the expense of others.

Read the full article here.

View Dr. Chester’s lecture, “Reading the Bible with Luther 500 Years Later,” here.

Stephen Chester