New Perspective on Paul

This is the “whimsical introduction” to Stephen Westerholm’s book Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics, pages xiii-xvi. Enjoy.

A friend and I were perusing the literature on Paul in the World’s Biggest Bookstore when we were joined, rather unexpectedly, by Martin Luther himself. Surprised and flustered, I started to greet him but was cut off by the Reformer, who clearly did not want to be known. “What’s new on Paul?” he asked.

I began a frantic search to see if a reprint of Ridderbos’s Paul might still be on the shelf. My friend, however, sizing up our guest as one who could use a good introduction, seized upon the Oxford Past masters volume on Paul, written by E.P. Sanders. My attempts at distraction were futile.

“Here’s just the thing,” my well-meaning friend explained. “A great scholar, Ed Sanders. The most influential scholar on Paul in the last quarter-century. And he sums it all up in this little book. You’ve got to read it.”

Luther started leafing through its pages. Not surprisingly, his eyes fell first on a reference to himself: “Martin Luther, whose influence on subsequent interpreters has been enormous, made Paul’s statements central to his own quite different theology.” “Hmm,” hummed the Reformer. “I wonder what he means by that?”

He turned a couple pages and read some more. “Luther, plagued by guilt, read Paul’s passages on ‘righteousness by faith’ as meaning that God reckoned a Christian to be righteous even though he or she was a sinner….Luther’s emphasis on fictional, imputed righteousness, though it has often been shown to be an incorrect interpretation of Paul, has bee influential…Luther sought and found relief from guilt. But Luther’s problems were not Paul’s, and we misunderstand him if we see him through Luther’s eyes.”

At this point I fully expected to hear a few samples drawn from Luther’s extensive vocabulary of vituperative epithets. He said nothing, however; apparently half a millennium spent where conflicts are no more had mollified even Brother Martin. He read on, though rather subdued.

“The subject-matter [in Gal. 2-4 and Rom. 3-4] is not ‘how can the individual be righteous in God’s sight?’ but rather, ‘on what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days?’”

“Paul fully espoused and observed a ‘work-ethic,’ as long as the goal was the right one. His opposition to ‘works of the law’ was not motivated by dislike of effort…He did not…regard effort in doing good as being in any way opposed to membership in the body of Christ.”

Luther looked puzzled. My friend hastened to explain: “You see, Luther thought Paul though you shouldn’t do any work to become a Christian; you just had to trust Christ.”

Luther looked as though he wanted to speak. He didn’t however, so my friend went on. “Sanders shows that wasn’t at all what Paul meant. Look, he says so over here.” My friend took the book, found a favorite passage, and handed it back to the Reformer to read: “The problem in these chapters is the concrete one of Israel’s refusal to accept the grace of God as recently revealed, not the individual’s effort or lack of it. The Jews have one fault, but only one: rejecting Jesus as the Christ.”

Again Luther looked as though he had something to say. Perhaps realizing, however, that his time for doing so had long passed, he turned back to the book.

“Guided by Luther, many scholars overlook Paul’s perfectionism, but this partial list of passages shows that it was an appreciable aspect of his preaching…Christians should live morally blameless lives. The idea of fictional, imputed righteousness had not occurred to [Paul], but had it done so he would have raged against it.”

“What does he mean: Paul would have raged against imputed righteousness?” wondered Martin Luther.

My friend chuckled. “Sanders is from Texas, you know. They’re not known for understatement down there.”

The concept of understatement seemed completely foreign to the Reformer. As an alternative to what he had just read from Sanders, however, it held some promise. “Are there any books here on Paul by people who are known for their understatement?” he asked.

I began a frenzied search for F.F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Alas, without any frenzy, my friend was again faster.

“On, that would be the British,” he replied. “Now Jimmy Dunn-he’s British, you know. He’s got a nice little book on justification you might like.” He handed Luther a book by Dunn and Alan M. Suggate: The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith.

I bit my tongue.

Luther started to read. He found that he had been wrong in thinking that Paul had suffered “the same agonies of conscience about his sinfulness and inability to satisfy God” that he himself had known. He had been wrong in thinking first-century Jews were like Catholics of medieval times who counted up their good works to secure salvation. He found that the real point of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was that “the unconditional grace of God had Gentiles in view as much as Jews”; Jewish “exclusivism,” not “legalism,” was the target. Paul was “not hitting at people who thought they could earn God’s goodwill by their achievements, or merit God’s final acquittal on the basis of all their good deeds. That theological insight is true and of lasting importance. But it is not quite what Paul was saying.”

“What does he mean, ‘Not quite what Paul was saying’?” wondered Martin Luther.

My friend chuckled. “Oh, that’s British understatement for you. Dunn just means that’s not what Paul had in mind.”

Apparently understatement was not the answer. Luther tried once more. “Do you have anything here on Paul by a…a preacher of the Word?” he inquired.

This sounded promising, but it stumped me for a moment. It didn’t stump my well-meaning friend.

“Tom Wright’s your man. Dean of a famous cathedral in England. Good scholar too. You’d enjoy his What Saint Paul Really Said.” He handed the Reformer a copy.

I conceded defeat. Luther started reading.

“’Justification by works’ has nothing to do with individual Jews attempting a kind of proto-Pelagian pulling themselves up by their moral bootstraps, and everything to do with the definition of the true Israel…The problem Paul addresses in Galatians…is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? Circumcision is not a ‘moral’ issues; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds…Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences…Paul has no thought in this passage of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case his contemporaries were not guilty. He is here, as in Galatians and Philippians, declaring that there is no road into covenant membership on the grounds of Jewish racial privilege.”

Luther looked around in despair. As he did so, his eyes fell on another section of the bookstore, labeled “Self-Help.” “I think I’ll check out those books over there,” he said, leaving us to browse the literature on Paul.