It’s no secret that the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century had a particular interest in the apostle Paul. They shared full agreement with the church fathers in matters pertaining to the person and natures of Christ, for which, for example, the Gospel of John is of particular interest. But the issues in focus now were not Christ’s person and natures of Christ but his person and work, and while the Reformers argued that the whole Bible spoke with one voice on this matter also it was in the epistles of Paul that this came into particular focus. The Protestant Reformation was something of a revival of Pauline theology.
But did the Reformers understand Paul correctly? This of course is the question that has been under (sometimes heated) discussion in recent decades with the rise of the “new perspective(s)” on Paul. Has the church today been unduly influenced by Reformation-era misreadings of the apostle?In particular, was Martin Luther’s interpretation of the Pauline doctrine of justification mistaken? Did the Reformers understand Paul correctly? And for that matter, have we understood the Reformers correctly?
These are the questions that occupy the chapters of this book. Each essay seeks to provide a careful reading of the Reformers’ exegesis of Pauline texts. Each chapter pairs a Reformer with a Pauline letter and then brings together a historical theologian and a biblical scholar to examine these Reformation-era readings of Paul. In doing so, this volume seeks a better understanding of the Reformers and the true meaning of the biblical text.
Table of Contents
Jonathan A. Linebaugh
Galatians and Martin Luther
1 Martin Luther’s Reading of Galatians
David C. Fink
2 The Text of Galatians and the Theology of Luther
John M. G. Barclay
Romans and Philipp Melanchthon
3 Philipp Melanchthon’s Reading of Romans
4 The Text of Romans and the Theology of Melanchthon
Ephesians and Martin Bucer
5 Martin Bucer’s Reading of Ephesians
6 The Text of Ephesians and the Theology of Bucer
1 & 2 Corinthians and John Calvin
7 John Calvin’s Reading of the Corinthian Epistles
8 The Text of 1 & 2 Corinthians and the Theology of Calvin
Dane C. Ortlund
The Letters of Paul and Thomas Cranmer
9 Thomas Cranmer’s Reading of Paul’s Letters
10 The Texts of Paul and the Theology of Cranmer
Jonathan A. Linebaugh
In Conclusion: The Story of Reformation Readings
Gerald Bray concludes the book with a richly-informed chapter providing historical perspective on the Reformers and their work and on our own day and the “New Perspective on Paul.” Below are the closing paragraphs of Bray’s chapter.
Modern scholars are widely read in the literature of early and rabbinic Judaism and have discovered that it teaches a covenant of grace. But so what? It is possible to read the scholastic theologians of the late Middle Ages and find a doctrine of justification by faith in them just as much as in Luther. Modern ecumenical dialogues have pointed this out in joint statements on justification that both Protestants and Catholics have signed in good conscience. Does this mean that Paul was saying nothing particularly new and that belief in Christ was just a more efficient and universal form of the covenant faithfulness advocated by the Jews? Was Luther merely stating the obvious? If so, how do we account for the seismic impact that they had? There must be something more to what they said than this.
The problem with the reformers’ modern critics is that they downplay the spiritual dimension that makes sense of the teaching of both Paul and Luther. However much the two men lived in completely different worlds, and however little Luther and his contemporaries understood Paul’s historical situation, they were united at the spiritual level, which transcends the limits of time and space. The great questions of sin, death and redemption do not change from one age to another, and neither are they bound by context or culture. We know this because in the modern world, we see how culturally naive evangelists can preach the gospel to pagan tribes who are converted when they hear its message, even though they have never read the Old Testament, let alone the writings of Second Temple Judaism. How is that possible? What is it that makes headhunters in New Guinea turn to Christ when sophisticated professors at Oxford or Harvard turn up their noses at him? The latter have infinitely more access to the facts and have inherited a cultural tradition that has been shaped by them, but it is the illiterate tribesmen who hear the Word of the Lord and are converted. Why?
The answer is given by Paul himself in his first letter to the Corinthians. He tells them that the message he preached was a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks (Gentiles), but to those who were saved it was the power and wisdom of God. This power and wisdom was not the result of clever arguments. The men to whom Paul preached on the Areopagus in Athens were probably the most sophisticated group of people he ever spoke to, but they were also the ones most resistant to his message. The reason for this is that the people who had all the clever arguments and relied on them for their justification lacked the Spirit of God dwelling in their hearts. This is what Paul had, and what Luther and his fellow reformers also had. And it is this connection between Paul and reformers that so often seems to be missed, both by the Catholic apologists of the early sixteenth century and the modern critics of the reformers.
Modern scholars who immerse themselves in cultural contextualization theories and try to explain everything through that prism do not consider that there is a transcendent spiritual dimension that links people across such divides. This dimension is not necessarily Christian—the pagan classics can also move us in ways that go beyond our immediate context. If that were not the case, those classics would have died a long time ago because they would not speak to anyone. Homer and Plato understood the pains of the human heart, but they had no answer to them. Paul came along with a message that touched the same deep wounds but provided a way of healing them. Luther discovered the same thing when he read Paul, not because he related to Paul’s original context (of which he knew little or nothing) but because he was on the same spiritual wavelength as the apostle. That in turn was a work of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, as Paul said to the Romans.It was at that level that the reformers connected with Paul and understood what he was getting at. When the message sank in it changed their lives, and in changing their lives, it changed the church. Their modern critics are primarily interested in intellectual enlightenment, which they believe they have found and need to communicate to whoever will listen. The reformation followers of Paul and Luther, by contrast, were seeking spiritual transformation, which comes to those to whom God chooses to reveal himself. Those today who have had that experience understand both Luther and Paul and have no difficulty reconciling the two, even if they would not think of Luther’s Germans as distant cousins to the Galatians. They are one with both men in the Spirit, just as they are one with the saints of every age. They do not need a new perspective on Paul or on the reformers in order to get their message, but a new life in Christ, which Paul and the reformers both had. With the right hermeneutical key in place, they can make sense of both and reconcile them in the all-embracing power of the Spirit of God.
Allen and Linebaugh and their team have provided a valuable resource for this very contemporary, gospel-important topic.
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Reformation Readings of Paul