Tom Schreiner on the “first task” of interpreting Paul

I doubt that I will write a full-length review of Michael Bird’s edited volume Four Views on the Apostle Paul, but I will make some remarks on it here and there as I read through it. In the book, the first “view” on Paul is the “reformed reading” by Tom Schreiner. In commenting on Paul’s view of salvation, Schreiner says this:

How can God command people to keep his law and to repent and believe when they are utterly unable to do so? Our first task is to explain Paul, even if his worldview is foreign to ours. We must beware of conforming him to our worldview and of only accepting what seems civilized and sensible to us. Paul teaches that people should refrain from sin even if they are unable to do so as sons and daughters of Adam. According to Paul, moral responsibility must not be tied to moral inability. This too is part of the scandal of the gospel (p. 31, underline mine).

Schreiner is making an anthropological point in this passage, but I want to highlight his view of scripture which no doubt informs his interpretation. Schreiner’s method of reading Paul on this point has wider implications for how we read scripture as a whole. Schreiner argues that the goal of interpretation is to hear Paul’s voice, even when his voice grates against what we think he ought to be saying. We may have certain assumptions about fairness, justice, and human responsibility. But we cannot let those presumptions trump the very words of scripture as we read them on the page. In the end, our own notions must give way to the authority of scripture, even if it means surrendering something we have held as axiomatic up to that point.

This is very difficult for all of us, but it is nevertheless the task of biblical interpretation. The Bible must have its say, and we cannot shirk the conflict by creatively bending the author’s words to confirm what we already believe. This is a common temptation, but we must pray against it and flee from it at all costs.

I believe there is a great divide that separates biblical interpreters. And the divide is not between Calvinsts/Arminians, Dispensationalists/Covenantalists, or premillenialists/amillenialists. The watershed is between those who are willing to let the text have its say and those who are not. In other words, the real divide is between those who view God’s word as the ultimate authority—with every other opinion (including our own) being subject to it—and those who do not.

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3 Responses to Tom Schreiner on the “first task” of interpreting Paul

  1. Don Johnson August 4, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    My take is the greatest divide is between those who read Scripture as a Greek thinker and those who read Scripture as a Hebrew thinker.

    A Greek thinker will quote a verse as if it was some kind of axiomatic truth statement as found in Euclid’s Elements (a geometry text with proofs). They will then form doctrinal statements from selected verses of Scripture, for example, attempting to show some doctrinal claim is correct with a reference like (1 Cor 6:11). Such as approach can atomize Scripture and easily leads to taking verses out of context at least some of the time. A typical goal of a Greek thinker is to form a comprehensive systematic theology. To a Greek thinker it is simply impossible to accept that Scripture might contain contradictions or what would now appear to be false statements, and so there is a continual quest to resolve all of the apparent axioms into a (constructed) edifice of “Biblical truth”.

    A Hebrew thinker does not approach Scripture in that way, rather Scripture is a collection of stories and other genres of literature. Scripture points to a relationship with God and shows many various ways people have done that and some are very messy, not given to making axioms (isolated truth statements) out of them at all.

    A Greek thinker thinks there is a corect answer to life questions and the goal is to find that answer and get everyone else to agree with it. A Hebrew thinker realizes people are various and what is important is relationship.

    I myself am a complex mix of both types of thinking, but I keep trying to repent of my Greek thinking when I approach the Bible, as it was written by Hebrews and Luke, a disciple of Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews.

  2. Josh Brown August 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    The Greek/Hebrew dichotomy seems too simplistic to do justice to the nature of Scripture, as Scripture itself defines it, and how later writers thought of earlier parts of Scripture. I think a more balanced and biblical view is not an either/or dichotomy, but a both/and understanding, I.e., Scripture both contains true propositions and is aiming at reconciliation between God and men.

  3. Don Johnson August 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    On the question of what is the “first task” in interpreting Paul, I think it is realizing that according to Acts Paul is a Torah-observant Jew who believes in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That fundamental understanding must influence all interpretations of what Paul wrote and if somethings he wrote seems to contradict that fundamental, then it means that that interpretation of what he wrote is missing something. That is, Act is not a complex theological text and so should be read in a straightforward way for what it claims, and this contrasts greatly with the letters of Paul, which are complex.

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