What does it mean to do specifically ecumenical New Testament scholarship? As someone who has spent the better part of my scholarly career so far immersed in Pauline studies, I think about that question a lot.
Reading Paul has often been one of the least dialogical, unifying practices Christians have undertaken over the years. It was a rediscovery of Paul, of course, that led to Luther’s break with Rome, and, much later, it was Paul again who led a young Karl Barth to turn his back on the venerable liberal Christian tradition he’d been raised in. In short, Paul divides. I recall a conversation in which an accomplished New Testament scholar told me, “I’ve never cared for Luther’s all-or-nothing approach to theology and his anathematizing alternative viewpoints. But it’s a method came by honestly: he learned it from Paul himself.” And therein lies the rub: How might one read Paul — and, by implication, the wider New Testament — in a way that furthers the cause of visible Christian unity rather than leads to greater fracturing?
There are three ways to jump, I think, each of which may have relevance beyond the immediate sphere of biblical scholarship. In the first place, we might decide that Luther (or Calvin, or medieval Rome, or whoever) “got it right,” and the goal of our reading of Paul is to insist ever more firmly and uncompromisingly on his rightness. “The Reformation’s reading of Romans 3:21-26, that justification is a forensic declaration acknowledged by faith alone, is the only legitimate way to understand that Pauline passage,” we may say, and the ecumenical task then becomes simply one of persuading as many churches as possible that a Reformation view is correct.
I think, for example, of the evangelical scholar D.A. Carson’s comment about the Catholic interpreter Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary on Romans: “In many of the crucial passages this work sounds far more Reformed than Catholic.” For Carson, of course, that’s a good thing — and it goes to show that if one follows the Pauline text where it leads, then one will have to eventually acknowledge, whether grudgingly or not, that the Reformation was right after all. It’s an ecumenism by Protestant assimilation, you might say.
A second option for an ecumenical approach to New Testament studies would be to say that progress will only be made when Christians are willing to give up traditional readings of Paul altogether, whether Protestant or Catholic. This is the approach exemplified by one of the first works of New Testament scholarship I read as an undergraduate, What Saint Paul Really Said by N.T. Wright.
In my adolescent abandonment of the fundamentalism of my childhood and my quest for a more catholic, ecumenical expression, I was delighted to read Wright’s argument that both Rome and Wittenberg had been reading Paul wrongly for centuries. If only we could now recognize that the decrees of Trent and the solemn certainties of the Augsburg Confession were equally in need of revision, ecumenical progress could be made! Wright’s claim was that justification in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans is neither about an infusion of moral righteousness in the believer (the Tridentine view) nor about a legal crediting of righteousness to the believer’s account (the Protestant view) but rather about God’s eschatological recognition of Gentiles’ entry into the Abrahamic covenant:
The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.
In this view, reading Paul in an ecumenical way is the task of peeling back both Catholic and Protestant misreadings and uncovering what Saint Paul really said — which we now can all embrace as one church, please God.
A third option — and the one that I favor, perhaps unsurprisingly, Anglican that I am — is this: Rather than insisting that the 16th-century Protestant (or Roman Catholic) formularies settled all questions of Pauline theology (option number one) and rather than placing all hope in the power of historical-critical study to reconstruct a putatively “real” Paul who can critique both Catholic and Protestant misappropriations of him (option two), it may be possible to see the task of reading Paul from within our divided churches and their respective traditions as itself a crucial piece of the ecumenical task. The Barthian theologian George Hunsinger once wrote that
[t]he best hopes for ecumenical rapprochement [between Catholics and Protestants], it seems to me, lie not in minimizing intractable differences, nor in one side capitulating to the other, but rather in pushing forward to more complex and multidimensional soteriologies (and ecclesiologies) that can critically appropriate what is valid in opposing views.
Hunsinger originally offered that judgment with respect to the differing theologies of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthsar and their promise for ecumenical dialogue, but I think what he says is relevant for us New Testament scholars as well. Perhaps the way to read Paul, and the wider New Testament, ecumenically is to read through our traditions, rather than around them. In other words, reading Paul ecumenically may begin, for a Protestant, not by repudiating Luther and Calvin’s insights (as Wright suggests) nor in valorizing their invincibility (as the quote from Carson above would suggest) but rather in seeking to maintain what they ultimately wished to maintain while at the same time seeking to learn from and incorporate what the Catholic tradition has seen in Paul as well.
What would it mean to see Luther’s sola in his reading of Romans 3 as an essential theological breakthrough while, at the same time, maintaining a “strong” Catholic reading of Romans 6 in which baptism is efficacious and essential? Asking that sort of question, and arguing with one another about it, in the effort to read Paul afresh today seems to me to be a way forward in the midst of our ongoing church divisions.
I don’t pretend that any of this is straightforward or attainable in the short run, though I do see signs of hope. The movement of “theological interpretation” and books like our own Garwood Anderson’s forthcoming one on Paul — in which theological traditions are treated not as liabilities but as vital pieces of the exegetical puzzle and in which rival traditions are made to query and appreciate one another — incline me to think that Pauline scholars, among other Scripture-readers, are discovering a hopeful way of approaching Paul for the sake of Christian unity.
May their tribe increase.
Dr. Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015). His other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image of the statue of Paul at Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome, was uploaded to Flickr by kajojak. It is licensed under Creative Commons.