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. Continue Reading

The Reformers & Scripture’s Clarity

From G. Sujin Pak, “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers”:

Martin Luther Translating the Bible, Wartburg Castle, 1521

Among several legacies that could be identified, three rise to prominence in my own reflections: the Protestant Reformers’ assertions of the prime authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and the perspicuity of Scripture… They function as natural corollaries to one another and together embody the theological core of the Reformers’ message, particularly that of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

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First, the Reformers’ affirmation of the perspicuity of Scripture was a crucial tenet of their assertion of Scripture’s prime authority and their challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Reformers grounded Scripture’s authority and clarity on the biblical principle of justification by faith alone as the very perspicuous heart of Scripture and as a principle that reinforces Scripture as self-authenticating and self-interpreting. We might more accurately understand the Protestant Reformers’ teachings on the perspicuity of Scripture if we understand its deep foundations in the principle of justification by faith alone. Yet even as the Protestant Reformers displaced church authority in favor of the prime authority of Scripture, this did not mean that they stripped the church of all authority concerning matters of Scripture’s interpretation. Rather they strongly affirmed the authority of the church insofar as it acts under the guiding rule of Scripture.

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In this way, Luther argued that God’s Word is prior to the church—prior in both existence and authority. Accordingly, it cannot be the case that the authority of Scripture relies in any way on the consent and authority of the church. Rather, the church is brought into being by the Word of God; the church is built on the very foundation of Scripture as God’s ordained and sufficient revelation. Indeed, Luther defined the church precisely by its relationship to this authoritative Word of God: the church is the community that hears and obeys the Word of God revealed in Scripture.

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[The Reformers’] point was not that any person, even any Christian, has what they need to interpret Scripture in and of their own ability. More specifically, the Reformers’ point was not that by the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit one’s own abilities were purified and empowered. Rather, their very point was that Scripture is clear and accessible not by virtue of any human efforts or abilities, even sanctified abilities, but solely by virtue of the gift of faith through the work of the Spirit—precisely the gift of faith given when one is justified by faith alone. Just as the Protestant Reformers affirmed that only God can initiate faith and do the work of salvation in a person, so also they insisted that only God is the actor in any true interpretation of Scripture. Just as the human must despair of making any contribution to her salvation, so Luther insisted that to interpret Scripture rightly one must despair completely of one’s own intelligence and ability.

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Luther thereby connected the principle of justification by faith alone directly with the prime authority of Scripture and the assertion of God’s Word as the only actor that can accomplish the true applications and fruits of God’s Word. He clarified that though any Christian has the right to proclaim God’s Word (i.e., the priesthood of all believers), God alone has the power to accomplish what God intends in and through its proclamation. These fruits belong solely and ultimately in the hands of God. This, in essence, disciplines all human attempts to interpret Scripture, so that one must wait and see whether and how God acts in and through a proposed interpretation to accomplish God’s purposes.

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To put it another way, in the view of the Reformers, the primary goal of Scripture is to reveal Christ. Luther and Calvin affirmed that all of Scripture points to Christ. This goal of revealing Christ connects directly to Scripture’s soteriological telos: to reveal Christ is to reveal God’s ordained path of salvation (i.e., justification by faith alone). For the Protestant Reformers, the true act of reading Scripture is a moment of transformative encounter with God… In this way, reading Scripture creates a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit illuminates the words of Scripture so that one may be transformed into greater conformity to Christ and glimpse the very heart of God.

 

Read the full article here.

Sneak Peek: CQ 75:2

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which set into motion the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. This Covenant Quarterly issue commemorates this watershed movement. 

Sujin Pak, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, discusses what the Reformers intended in their affirmation of Scripture’s perspecuity, how this affirmation was rooted in the concept of justification by faith alone, and how it impacted their understanding of the church’s role in the task of interpretation.

“[The Reformers’] point was not that any person, or even any Christian, has what they need to interpret Scripture in and of their own ability. More specifically, the Reformers’ point was not that by the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit one’s own abilities were purified and empowered. Rather, their very point was that Scripture is clear and accessible not by virtue of any human efforts or abilities, even sanctified abilities, but solely by virtue of the gift of faith through the work of the Spirit – precisely the gift of faith given when one is justified by faith alone. Just as the Protestant Reformers affirmed that only God can initiate faith and do the work of salvation in a person, so also they insisted that only God is the actor in any true interpretation of Scripture.”

From “The Perspicuity of Scripture, Justification by Faith Alone, and the Role of the Church in Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers”


Professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, Stephen J. Chester, engages with the Reformers’ “new Pauline exegetical grammar” and its relevance for contemporary Pauline interpretation.

“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 my view, neither of these responses is helpful.”

From “Reading Paul with the Reformers”


Read the complete issue here.