How to Read Paul with the Reformers: an Interview with Stephen Chester

I had the great honor of interviewing Stephen Chester, Professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, about his new book, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2017). In the interview, Stephen talks about his reasons for writing this game-changing monograph, the differences between various Reformed viewpoints, and where we go from here in Pauline studies. 

Hi Stephen, and thank you very much for taking the time to discuss your new book with us, Reading Paul with the Reformers (RPWR). I have to say from the start that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your work. It was a stimulating read, a refreshingly new take on the Reformers and their understanding of Paul. I found myself falling in love again with Luther and Calvin (and for the first time, Melanchthon), but in another sense felt like I was meeting them for the first time. You manage to recast these central characters from the Reformation in new garb, or, rather, to tailor their shirts to fit them better, more in line with the actual shape of their own individual perspectives.

Although Sanders may have changed the field of Pauline studies forever after with Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), I believe that your book has the potential to realign the subsequent mischaracterization of the Reformers, and to place them back on the stage as equally valid and useful voices in future work on Paul. So let me ask you a few questions so that our readers can understand some of what you are doing in this book and why it is so important.

TB: What was the impetus behind writing RPWR? Aren’t you just rehashing the same, tired traditional view that has been levelled against the New Perspective on Paul for many years now?

SC: Since the emergence of the NPP just over forty years ago, the debate has often been framed in unhelpfully simplistic terms as if Pauline interpreters must choose between two contrasting sets of convictions. That’s a little odd, because most sensitive interpreters recognize that reality is more complicated, but nevertheless the rhetoric of debate remains polarized. Some opposition to the NPP has been tired and traditional and, in contrast, I want to give NPP scholarship credit where credit is due. We owe a huge debt to Sanders, Dunn, Wright etc. They both gave us more accurate and less prejudicial accounts of Second Temple Judaism and reminded us of the degree to which Paul is focused on the communal identity and practices of the church. It matters profoundly to him that Jews and Gentiles live together as a single worldwide family of God in Christ: children of Abraham together through faith.

In the process of making such helpful advances, however, NPP scholarship often caricatured the Reformers and their exegetical convictions in a manner that was rhetorically convenient but historically unsubstantiated. I do want to offer a corrective and make available a more nuanced and accurate account. For example, despite the often-repeated suggestion that the Reformers misrepresent Paul the Pharisee as struggling with an introspective conscience and his inability to obey the law, in fact the Reformers typically interpret the conscience of Paul the Pharisee as robust and falsely convinced of his own righteousness before God. Yet it matters to do more than offer a corrective, for such misunderstandings of the Reformers have also prevented contemporary scholarship from finding in their exegesis a resource for our own attempts to interpret Paul in and for contemporary contexts. Far from discovering in the exegesis of Luther and Calvin, for example, only accounts of justification by faith as a legal fiction, I find striking and provocative juxtapositions of insistence upon the alien nature of the righteousness received by believers with insistence on the central significance of union with Christ. They helpfully hold together two things that more recent interpretations usually hear as conflicting and opposite. I believe that the Reformers can really help us here, not in the sense that we will simply repeat sixteenth century interpretations, but rather because that they can be stimulating dialog partners, bringing us fresh perspectives on familiar texts and helping us to frame our own research.

TB: One piece of insight that I found particularly helpful is your claim that Pauline theology has supplanted the texts themselves in contemporary scholarship (pp. 33-34). You state that the goal of the Reformers, on the contrary, was not to construct Paul’s theology, “but to understand what the Holy Spirit has said through Paul in his texts.” Why has this shift occurred, and how does recognizing it help us to be better exegetes today, faced with the quite divergent interpretive options at hand when reading Paul?

SC: I think the shift has happened as the result of confusion between the aims of historical interpretation (historians perfectly reasonably want to explore Paul’s theology as they might wish to explore Plato’s philosophy) and the aims of theological interpretation undertaken to resource the ministry and mission of the church. The former attempts to understand an important historical figure, the latter to interpret a set of canonical texts. Theological interpretation is interested in what the Spirit has said in and through Paul’s texts, not in getting behind the texts to discover what is characteristic of Paul’s personal theology.

I grant that it is inherently likely that Paul’s letters do indeed often express his own most central convictions, but it remains important to keep the two different aims distinct. We have a problematic tendency to confuse the two by seeking the historical Paul and identifying the authority of Paul’s texts with our historical reconstructions of his theology. Yet the letters themselves provide us with limited data on which to base such reconstructions. Usually such reconstructions involve radically prioritizing some theological themes in Paul’s letters over others for what purport to be historical reasons but are often actually our own theological preferences.

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I have in mind here, for example, recent arguments that prioritize Romans 6-8 over Romans 1-5 by arguing that only Romans 6-8 truly represent Paul’s personal theology. There is insufficient data within Romans to enable us to determine this and, even if we could demonstrate it historically, Paul’s personal theology is not the word of God. When we place priority on certain themes or units of text over others we are making theological decisions for which we may have good reasons, but which nevertheless are our decisions. The same is also true when we bring coherence and unity to our Pauline interpretation by positing underlying motivations and convictions that are not actually directly expressed in the texts, e.g. that Paul is anti-imperial. As a historian I am interested in such arguments and open to them, but in the ministry of the church I would rather preach and teach about empire from the book of Revelation where anti-imperial themes are repeated and explicit.

Thus, I want to recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks in all the words of Paul and no less so when Paul expresses thoughts that may have been uncharacteristic of him or may have been subject to later evolution in his personal theological understanding. Our interpretation needs the essential discipline of careful historical study, but with the goal of interpreting what the Spirit has said by means of Paul’s texts not of reconstructing his theology. It may be impossible to interpret Paul’s statements without offering to some extent a reconstruction of his theology, but to make such reconstruction the goal of our interpretative activity is problematic. I am not sure that the distinction I am drawing here directly helps exegetes struggling with divergent opinions to decide between them, but it does serve the cause of exegetical humility and it does help us to be more rigorous in distinguishing what Scripture says from our opinions about it.

TB: You mention early on in the book that the Reformers differed from their forebears (Augustine, Aquinas, the entire Medieval interpretive tradition) due to a modified “exegetical grammar(s)” (pp. 63-69). Could you define for us what that actually means, and why is it so important to identify in the Reformers?

SC: In the medieval church, the influence of Augustine was endemic. His work was appropriated in different ways, and there could be very significant disagreements between interpreters, but these arguments took place within an Augustinian framework of shared assumptions.

P. Melanchthon

The Reformers are so revolutionary because they develop a radically new framework within which they and their communities interpret Paul’s letters. Whether we look at the human plight apart from Christ (for example, what they hear Paul saying about sin, the law, and the human conscience) or at salvation in Christ (for example, what they hear Paul saying about the works of the law, grace, and faith) they embrace shared exegetical commitments where, with minor variations, they all agree with each other and stand together against their Roman opponents. These agreements are so extensive that I describe them using a linguistic analogy. Just as the rules of grammar structure how a language is used, i.e. provide a framework that makes it possible for members of the same language community to communicate with each other, so the Reformers’ shared exegetical convictions structure their discussion of Paul’s letters. They achieved a “new exegetical grammar” that established very long-term trajectories in Pauline interpretation quite different from those that were previously dominant in the medieval church.

TB: There seems to be a recurring trend by some modern interpreters to refer to the Reformed or traditional perspective, as though it were a singular, coherent interpretive stream. But you don’t present things that way. Could you explain how the Reformers had a shared exegetical grammar, and yet different in their interpretations of key Pauline themes such as the righteousness of God, participation in / union with Christ, and even grace and faith?

SC: The existence of a shared exegetical grammar provides a shared set of assumptions and ensures that subsequent disagreements take place within a certain framework, but it certainly does not eliminate the existence of different perspectives or judgments. When interpreters today refer to “the Reformed or traditional perspective” this designation usually obscures decisions already taken in which the work of one Reformer is preferred over others, or positions that were originally distinct and drawn from the exegesis of more than one of the Reformers have been blended together. Such decisions may have their own rationale and validity, but they are theological judgments and they need to be evaluated.

I am particularly interested in differences of perspective between the three most influential early Protestant interpreters of Paul (Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin) concerning justification. Each of the three emphasizes the extrinsic nature of justification and the alien nature of the righteousness received by the believer. However, Melanchthon typically describes justification by faith in relational terms. He will sometimes say that the righteousness received by the believer is the righteousness of Christ, but much more often that believers are justified “on account of Christ.” Melanchthon seems content simply to say that Christ is and remains the mediator whose death pleads the believer’s case before the Father. Faith places us in relationship with Christ, who advocates on our behalf. In contrast, both Luther and Calvin connect justification strongly to Paul’s vocabulary of being “in Christ.” Here faith unites the believer with Christ and the believer receives Christ’s righteousness as a principal component of this union of persons. The presence of Christ in faith is for Luther, like the divine presence in the cloud on Mt Sinai or in the Holy of Holies in the temple, mysterious and ultimately inexplicable, but also powerful and transforming. Similarly, Calvin will insist that salvation requires human beings to become through faith partakers of Christ, to receive him and in him have righteousness communicated to them.

There are thus here really significant differences (and this is just one example: there are others where we might find Luther and Melanchthon exegetically closer together in contrast to Calvin and yet others where we might find Melanchthon and Calvin closer together exegetically in contrast to Luther). Yet these differences exist within basic agreements about the extrinsic nature of justification and a shared rejection of what they regard as works-righteousness. Traditions in interpretation are real, but they are not necessarily monolithic. They serve not only to define what all who belong to particular traditions agree upon but also serve to facilitate and stimulate debate and disagreement within them.

TB: Lastly, you devote an entire chapter to an exhibition of various interpretations of Romans 4, a key chapter for understanding Paul and therefore hotly contested exegetical territory. Without giving too much away, could you tell us who you interact with and how your interpretation differs? How do you think we should be reading Romans 4?

SC: Here I engage with Tom Wright, with Douglas Campbell, and with Michael Gorman, bringing their more recent interpretations into dialog with those of the Reformers. Broadly speaking I agree with each of these contemporary exegetes that the different elements they want to emphasize are genuinely important in Romans 4. For Wright, it is the purpose of the promises that God made to Abraham, i.e. the patriarch’s fatherhood of a worldwide family composed of both Jews and Gentiles. For Campbell, it is the nature of justification as liberative, emphasizing the reality-defying nature of Abraham’s faith. For Gorman, it is the participatory nature of the justification by faith received by Abraham: he was granted new life out of “death” in the birth of a son just as believers in Christ receive new life through justification as co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Christ.

My difficulty with these contemporary readings is that each is explicitly or implicitly contrasted in different ways with “traditional” interpretations that prioritize 4:2-8 and major on Paul’s denial that justification is received in response to obedience to Torah (4:2-4), on the numbering of Abraham among the ungodly (4:5), and on the forgiveness of sin for Jew and Gentile alike through justification by faith (4:6-8). Each of these emphases are of course, vital in the interpretations of Romans 4 offered by the Reformers. Here, however, they do tend to dominate and exclude other elements. The polemical necessity in the sixteenth century context to demonstrate that justification is by faith rather than by any other means overrides all other concerns.

Yet the right way to correct the imbalance of “traditional” readings is not to leap into a different kind of one-sidedness. I find it far more exegetically convincing to bring all the different elements into relationship with each other. Paul really is concerned in 4:2-8 to deny that human obedience justifies and to contrast faith as gift with something earned and he really does strongly connect justification with forgiveness. This does not mean that the rest of the chapter simply repeats and elaborates these points. The argument continues to develop. The later correlation between justification and life out of death (4:17-19) and then explicitly resurrection (4:23-25) shows that forgiveness does not stand alone but instead alongside an emphasis on participation in Christ and on the granting of life. Similarly, Paul emphasizes the promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations (4:17-18) and that “he is the father of all of us” (4:16). Yet also the fact that the argument continues to develop does not marginalize or make less significant that main point made in 4:2-8. I want to avoid pulling apart theological insights that Paul holds together.

Get your copy of Reading Paul with the Reformers today, and see for yourself how the Reformers still contribute massively to Pauline studies going forward.

Stephen Chester was interviewed by Faithlife TV a few years ago, where he talked about Pauline Studies today. Check it out:

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger