When I look back over forty years of teaching, I sometimes think I must be the most inarticulate writer and speaker in the history of the world. I wonder about that when I read interpretations of my teaching from the pens of other people, particularly from those who are hostile to what I declare. Frequently the distortions are so great that I cannot recognize my own position in the criticism. It may be helpful in trying to interpret mine or any other teacher’s declarations by looking at their geographical backgrounds. I grew up in the city of Pittsburgh, in a blue-collar environment, yet in a white-collar home, and so one can see that the perspective I have on life will differ from those people who grew up in southern California or Alabama. Nevertheless, to interpret my teachings simply on the basis of my Pittsburgh background would be utter nonsense. My perspective is not identical to every person who ever grew up in Pittsburgh. In like manner, one could examine my educational background and look at the viewpoints of my main mentors. As a student of G.C. Berkouwer in the Netherlands, one can certainly see dimensions of influence on my thought from that theologian. But to identify my general approach in theology to Berkouwer’s would be to distort my own views. It would even be incorrect to identify my theology totally with that of my main mentor, the late John H. Gerstner. The reason for this is that I have had many mentors in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, and also, through my own studies of the Bible and of church history, I have developed some positions that one cannot find in these other people. Still, it may be valuable from time to time to examine the background and education of theologians to get a deeper understanding of their teachings. Such investigation indeed may be beneficial while at the same time perilous.
I mentioned my own experience simply to call attention to a much greater issue, one that far transcends how people interpret or misinterpret me, namely, how we go about seeking a correct understanding of the biblical writers in general and for the benefit of this issue of Tabletalk, the teaching of the apostle Paul in particular. In the New Testament, Paul himself indicates in one of his defenses that he was from Tarsus, which he describes as no mean city. Tarsus was a city that was cosmopolitan in antiquity, and, as a melting pot, it became a place where the exchange of many diverse ideas com-monly took place. That Paul was exposed to views that arose beyond the borders of his own home town is something we can take virtually for granted. Paul goes on to cite his background as a student at the feet of the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. It is without doubt that Paul’s thinking was shaped to some degree by his great mentor Gamaliel. We know that Paul was immersed academically in the content of the Old Testament as well as in the writings of the rabbinic scholars of his day. But to interpret Paul solely on the grounds of the teachings of the rabbinic scholars of antiquity would be to negate critical factors of influence in the development of Paul’s thought.
In our day, two very significant movements have occurred in biblical scholarship that have brought with it deleterious effects on biblical doctrine. The first such development is what is called “atomistic” exegesis or interpretation. This approach to the Scriptures sees the individual books and individual passages of those books, the “atom bits of teaching,” as ideas that must be interpreted only in their immediate contexts and not in the context of the whole scope of Scripture, or even of the whole scope of a particular writer’s expressions. For example, one scholar may say he will interpret Paul’s teaching of justification as set forth in Ephesians without any consideration of what Paul said of the doctrine in Galatians or in Romans. Each passage is treated as an atom of insight, and whether that atom coheres with bits of teaching found elsewhere in the author’s writing or in the whole of Scripture is irrelevant. The Reformation rule of interpreting the Bible — that the Bible is its own interpreter and that we are not to set one portion of Scripture against another — is thrown to the winds in this approach. Indeed, even among professing evangelicals, to insist on coherency in the Word of God is to offend them. They have bought into the notion of relativism, that even the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, can at times be contradictory and incoherent, because coherency and consistency are virtues that theologians impose upon our doctrine of God and are not to be found in the Scriptures themselves. This approach to biblical interpretation and to the doctrine of God is utterly fatal.
But beyond the epidemic influence of atomistic exegesis is the current vogue of interpreting New Testament writers in terms of rabbinic Judaism, particularly with respect to Paul. Since Paul himself was an expert in rabbinic thought, the conclusion is reached (by a gratuitous leap) that all Paul’s teaching can be made clear by looking at the background of rabbinic teaching that formed Paul’s perspective. Indeed, even the so-called “new perspective” on Paul involves an attempt to reconstruct the old perspective that Paul himself brought to the doctrines of the New Testament, which perspective was basically shaped by rabbinic views.
This approach to Pauline interpretation involves two crucial errors. The first is that it assumes no room for the supreme influence on Paul of his right theological expressions, namely, the superintendence of the Holy Ghost, while the apostle, acting as an agent of revelation, set forth his doctrine. Equally important is the ignoring of the radical transformation that occurred to Paul by his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul himself claims Jesus as the supreme influence in shaping his thought, not Gamaliel or the rabbinic scholars of antiquity. We notice that when Paul writes his letters, he does not identify himself by saying, “Paul, a bond servant or slave of Gamaliel.” No, he says, “Paul, a bond slave of Jesus Christ.” It is the teaching of Christ, who revealed His perspective and His own mind to Paul, that stands as the supreme foundation for Pauline theology. To ignore that is to assume no real conversion, no real changing of Paul’s mind, no real transformation of Paul’s thinking. To gain insight into Paul, it may help to study his background, but when we look at that background as a control for Paul’s expression, we fall into the trap of the worst kind of deconstruction.