What did Paul really say?

Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives
Author: Stephen J. Chester
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (www.eerdmans.com)
Pages: 478

What drew me to Reading Paul with the Reformers by Stephen J. Chester was its selection as winner of the 2018 CT Book Awards in the Biblical Studies Category. Another factor was an ongoing difference of opinion with my mother over how a small segment of Christians interpret the writings of Paul. Critics term the movement ultra- or hyper-dispensationalism, labels rejected by those immersed in these teachings.

I proposed that my mom and I read this book at the same time to better understand Paul. I naively hoped that it might shed some light on the doctrines of this movement.

Though my mom faithfully reads and studies the Bible daily, she would not have the patience to wade through these 478 pages of technical analysis. This is most accessible to the scholar and academic. I felt a little like Billy Graham when he mentioned his difficulty in understanding Karl Barth. Even though I enjoy reading books on doctrine, theology and even bible commentaries, this is challenging.

Also, I should have known better; this book does not begin to address those who believe that only the words of Paul are formative for Christians. That subject lies outside the scope of this book, which does not detract from its relevance to a much larger debate.

The books succeeds admirably in making clear what reformers like Luther, Melancthon and Calvin taught about justification, sanctification and righteousness. It’s a masterful synthesis of thought that serves as the foundation for interaction with the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), which isn’t addressed directly until page 321. It shows how much background the author brings to bear on these issues. It’s scholarly exegesis of the highest order.

For those not familiar with the NPP, biblical scholars like like N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell believe that the reformers were too narrow in their interpretations of Paul. As Alan Van Wyk, a reviewer of Wright’s new biography of Paul puts it, the NPP “is itself a desire for a more authentic Paul. Resisting 19th and 20th century interpretations that distanced him from his Jewish background, these new readings of Paul place him firmly in his late second temple Jewish milieu. N. T. Wright has been an important contributor to this new reading of Paul, and his forthcoming biography, simply titled Paul: A Biography, functions as a comprehensive popular introduction to this work. As Wright insists in the introduction, this biography and the broader body of work of which it is a part reflect Wright’s attempts to figure out what the first-century Paul was actually talking about, what he ‘really said.’”

This book is worth reading just to get Chester’s critique of Wright and those who are similar-minded. Wright is such a brilliant theologian that it’s easy to agree with his reasoning when you haven’t read any differing opinions.

The NPP see the reformers as narrowing salvation truths to something contractual that focuses on the forgiveness of sins and one’s standing; whereas Wright is more concerned with the community aspects, one’s place in the family of Abraham. Wright has more of a covenant view.

The author acknowledges what the new perspective adds but he is not afraid to point out where they detract. He admits that the reformers may have neglected some of the broader aspects but throughout the volume convincingly defends their views against misrepresentation.

What it comes down to is that both old and new perspectives deserve a seat at the table. Their different emphases do not have to be taken as mutually exclusive. Both sides bring needed correction to the other.

The book includes a glossary of medieval and reformation figures, a bibliography, and indexes of authors, subjects, and scripture and other ancient texts.

I do not want to discourage non-academics from giving this a try. Reading scholarly material can increase the capacity for understanding and provide wisdom. The fine points matter.

This is essential for those who wrestle with the seemingly opposing views of these two perspectives. It’s an excellent resource.

I will have to wait for a scholarly analysis of hyper-dispensationalism. It has not received the attention given the NPP. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to someone like the author about this extreme form of dispensationalism. Did Paul preach a different gospel than the other disciples? Are his teachings different from those of Jesus? How do we reconcile apparent discrepancies? Were the teachings of Jesus for the lost sheep of the house of Israel; whereas Paul was entrusted with the revelation of the gospel of grace, making his teachings the new standard for all those who believe by faith?

It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of doctrinal differences. We can succumb to weariness and think why bother? As in the case of hyper-dispensationalists, who tend to be divisive, incorrect teaching is misleading and produces bad fruit.

So I appreciate books like this. The author is extremely knowledgeable, balanced and charitable in his assessments. Even for those who might disagree with some of the conclusions, it’s worth joining the conversation.

Michael Dalton