Review: Stephen J. Chester, Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives (Eerdmans. Pp. 500. $60).
Review by David Ney
Stephen J. Chester’s Reading Paul with the Reformers does three important things. First, it engages the Protestant Reformers not just as theologians but as serious interpreters of Pauline texts. Second, it engages prominent contemporary interpreters of Pauline texts in the same way, as both interpreters and theologians. Third, and most pointedly, it brings both groups of interpreters into conversation as members of a single interpretive and theological tradition.
Chester’s engagement with the exegesis of Reformers in Parts I, II, and III makes up the bulk of the book. Chester, professor of New Testament at North Park University in Chicago, brings his well-honed skills of textual analysis to bear on 16th-century biblical scholarship. Chester insists that the purpose of his work is not to defend everything the Reformers said, but to argue that “the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century have insights into the interpretation of the Pauline letters that can assist us as we attempt to interpret the same texts in and for contemporary society” (p. 1).
In Part I, Chester invites the reader into the world of Reformed Pauline exegesis by discussing the heated exchange between Luther and Erasmus concerning original sin and justification. This discussion provides Chester with the opportunity to divulge how he plans to evaluate the different Pauline readings he brings under the microscope. Chester endorses the value of the historical-critical method, yet he also insists that the ultimate end of textual study is not to enter into Paul’s mind. Having read Paul, interpreters often “claim to have revealed Paul’s gospel and seek to reshape the life and witness of the church on that authoritative basis.” To the contrary, “What we actually have is less sweeping, but for all that still potentially precious: a discernment, to be offered to the church for prayerful evaluation, of what the Spirit is saying to us through Paul’s texts” (p. 43).
In Part II, Chester brings Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin into conversation to articulate their shared “exegetical grammar” about original sin and justification. Chester finds that the Reformers go beyond Augustine by insisting that the human problem is not merely that we do not desire the good, but, to make matters worse, lack the ability even to identify it (p. 135). For the Reformers, justification by faith means that humans are not capable of even post-baptismal meritorious works. Faith justifies not because it is the basis of good works but because it is a disposition of trust in God and his promises (p. 170).
In Part III, Chester continues to unpack the Pauline readings of the Reformers, and he does so by devoting individual studies to Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. Of particular interest is Chester’s appeal to Tuomo Mannermaa and the Finnish School to discredit facile misrepresentations of the Reformers’ notion of imputed righteousness. Chester insists that union with Christ is the basis of justification and sanctification for both Luther and Calvin (pp. 193, 267). This argument has important implications for the debate about the meaning of tou Christou. For Chester, the Reformers are part of a tradition that goes back to Augustine, which emphasizes that renewal comes by embracing the righteousness of Christ (p. 114).
Part IV is a dialogue between the Reformers and advocates of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Here, Chester is at pains to demonstrate that the relationship between these two groups cannot simply be defined as oppositional. Whether the New Perspective contradicts the Reformed perspective depends on the issue at hand.
Chester’s approach runs counter to prevailing assumptions that govern many theology and biblical studies departments. Roman Catholic theologian Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) provided the necessary categories to understand this conflict in his History and Dogma (1903). According to Blondel, modern Christian thinkers easily slip into one of two traps. They stumble into the notion that the meaning that can be drawn out of historical objects and ideas must be entirely historical in import. He calls this historicism. Or they refashion historical objects and ideas as intellectual abstractions and thus fall prey to what Blondel calls extrincism.
It is plausible to suggest that theology departments that have reinvented themselves as social justice training grounds are historicist in orientation, and departments that have failed to come to grips with the historical embeddedness of doctrine are soundly extrincisist. It is equally plausible to suggest that historicism and extrinsicism are often found in contemporary biblical studies. The application of the historical-critical method can easily trap the meaning of biblical texts within a historicist frame and thus inoculate readers from having to confront biblical texts as divine address. Yet this same method can simultaneously regard its performance as somehow extrinsic to history and therefore immune from history’s complicating and presumed devolutionary force.
Chester presents the 16th-century Reformers as readers of biblical texts, and in this he challenges both historians who have co-opted the Reformers for their secularist genealogies and theologians who see the Reformers merely as the harbingers of extrinsic gospel principles. But today the Bible is being taken seriously in a new way in many theology departments. Theologians are increasingly engaging theology as it is, as the history of biblical interpretation. This makes theology departments fertile ground for Chester’s contributions.
There is a greater likelihood that Chester’s book will be regarded as subversive within biblical studies departments. Biblical scholars often dismiss the Reformers as something other than readers of texts. They continue to tell students that they shouldn’t bother with Luther, but should just read Paul, and their students happily oblige.
Contemporary biblical scholars obviously read Paul. But then again, Chester’s argument says, so did the Reformers. What is more, neither group just reads Paul. Contemporary interpreters inevitably do so, as the Reformers did, as members of an interpretive tradition, grounded in particular philosophical, theological, and methodological assumptions as all interpretive traditions are.
In particular, contemporary readers interpret Pauline texts as they inevitably must, as theologians. At the very least, they are theologians because, as we have known since at least the Council of Nicaea, interpreters must use non-biblical words whenever they venture to interpret Scripture.The question thus becomes one of authority: Who should Pauline interpreters enlist as guides? Chester does not definitively answer this question. He establishes terms of engagement: If we are to choose between the Reformers and NPP, or some combination of them both, we must first read them both.
Chester sends the Reformers into the ring as the sparring partners of today’s brightest lights: The textual interpretations of the Reformers, which are dealt with in Parts I, II, and III, stand next to some of the most celebrated NPP interpretations in Part IV. In this contest, the Reformers regularly (though not always) manage to hold their own, not because their foibles are ignored but because Chester is consistent in his historicism. In other words, he presents contemporary interpreters not as purveyors of extrinsic truths but as members of a tradition of biblical interpretation, which includes, yet ultimately predates, the Reformers. Thus, for example, Chester argues that “[N.T.] Wright is in fundamental continuity with Calvin not only in asserting that justification is forensic but also that it is received through faithful union with Christ” (p. 340).
Chester’s book is sprawling in its presentation, but his various representations of Pauline interpreters find coherence in the hermeneutic he endorses in Part I. He introduces this hermeneutic by reflecting upon Erasmus’s suggestion that while the meaning of all texts is not equally clear, the tradition of biblical interpretation, particularly as it is expressed in the Church Fathers, is at the interpreter’s disposal (p. 25). Chester concludes that while Luther condemns Erasmus for slavish reliance upon tradition, “Luther will not be bound by previous interpretations, but nor will he simply ignore them” (p. 58). Chester thus endorses Bernhard Lohse’s suggestion that despite his rejection of the medieval tradition of biblical interpretation, “Luther was also aware that the tradition has been preserved in the Roman church, from which evangelicals have received the true tradition” (p. 58).
There is more work for Chester to do as he probes into the nature and significance of the embeddedness of biblical interpretation. Chester appeals to the notion that shared exegetical grammars bind interpreters to one another. A consistent use of this concept would have unified his presentation of the vast materials he engages. The idea of exegetical grammar invites serious engagement with George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic paradigm, and with tradition as a broader exegetical category, which is where Blondel ends his study of historicism and extrinsicism.
Tradition — and in Blondel’s case this means the lived theological, liturgical, and embodied tradition of the Church — is where historicism and extrinsicism find their union and thus their obliteration: The living tradition of the Church is intractably historical, and yet it is simultaneously pregnant with not merely divine truth, but with the Divine Life. Blondel invites Christians to linger a while as they consider what it means to interpret Scripture as members of this living Church. This, I believe, is where Chester’s work invites us to linger as well.
I was a reviewer for Christianity Today for their annual prize in 2018 and gave this book first-place. John Barclay wrote a strong foreword, as well. New Perspectives can be dismissive of the reformers (esp. NT Wright) and this book shows how wrong-footed that instinct can be. A rare example of biblical scholar and keen historical theologian.