When Paul visited the city of Thessalonica, he was accused of turning the world upside down by fomenting sedition against the authority of Rome, Acts 17. 6-7. In effect, his detractors were suggesting, judgementally, that he was a bad person!1 Some fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther also turned his world upside down by challenging the authority of Papal Rome when he attacked the sale of indulgences by fastening his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenburg. What began with Luther as an internal matter subsequently led to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and changed forever the course of church history. What is surprising, though, about Luther is that he did not, in fact, seek for new truth, but felt that he had been put into the position of defending and recovering truth from an institution that had lost its way.
For almost three hundred years, Luther’s interpretation of Paul stood relatively unchallenged, although, in Germany, critics were beginning to sharpen their knives. A more sceptical approach to biblical authority during the nineteenth century brought about a challenge to received tradition, setting the agenda for future Pauline studies by specifically identifying a number of issues that would be debated by later theologians. One such issue was whether justification by faith alone was the central theme of Paul’s theology as advocated by Luther. The concentration of terms relating to justification found almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians suggested to some, including Albert Schweitzer, that it was not a central Pauline theme. It was merely a polemic device to an otherwise peaceable doctrine, used by Paul in his disagreement with Judaism. For Schweitzer et al, the real centre of Paul’s gravity was found in Romans chapters 5 to 8, which focused on union with Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. This approach intentionally undermined, and attempted to displace, the centrality of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It also opened up the floodgates for more diverse views being later formulated in the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NPP). The NPP has gained considerable momentum during the 20th century particularly in the writings of individuals such as Ed Sanders, James Dunn and N. T. (Tom) Wright. Dunn is an influential writer and, as Simon Gathercole observes, ‘Dunn’s (commentary on) Romans has exercised particular influence’.2 Tom Wright is also highly influential, not only in the academic world, but as a writer of popular Christian material such as ‘The New Testament for Everyone’.3
The main thrust of both Dunn’s and Wright’s arguments are that Luther allowed his own particular conversion experience to influence his understanding and reading of Paul’s theology. In short, Luther got Paul wrong in maintaining the contrast between justification by faith and justification by works, and, thus, turned ‘Paul’s letter to the Romans into personal introspective, and, to an extent, gloom-laden autobiography’.4 Secondly, because Luther’s theology was shaped in this way, it is claimed that he misread Paul in terms of salvation by an individualistic approach to the doctrine of justification.
One might stand back from this somewhat academic debate and ask what this has to do with believers in assembly fellowship. How could they be affected by such views? The simple answer to this is that the influence of the NPP is so widespread throughout Pauline studies that it has caused scholars such as Don Carson to state that this new perspective is now so strong, especially in the world of English-language biblical scholarship, that only the rare major work on Paul does not interact with it, whether primarily by agreement, qualification, or disagreement. In short, if the views of Dunn and Wright are held to be the new orthodoxy then it poses ‘a serious and potentially damaging challenge to a hallmark of Reformation theology: justification before God by faith alone, by grace alone’.6
While we do not see Luther as an infallible guide to Paul’s theology, for us he captures its essence, even if occasionally he allows his own personal circumstances to direct his exegesis. We conclude that Luther did get Paul right in many important ways, not least, on his interpretation of the ‘righteousness of God’. Here we stand, we can do no other!
The verb ‘to stir up sedition’ or ‘upset’ is rarely used in the New Testament, but is found in the famous letter from the bad boy Theon to his father (P.Oxy.i.119: 10).
Cit., op, pg. 17.
For a succinct and useful insight into Wright’s theology see stepHenkurHt’s book ‘Tom Wright for Everyone’ published by SPCK In 2011.
‘A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship’ pg. 3, CArlr. trueMAnTyndale Fellowship: Cambridge, 1-15
An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 379, D A CArsonand DouglAs J Moo. Earlier, it was indicated that the terms relating to justification occur in a small number of Paul’s letters, hence critics argue that it was not a central Pauline theme. It is certainly true that Paul uses the verb ‘to justify’ and the noun ‘righteousness’ almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians. But the presence or absence of phrases or words in particular Pauline letters is not the only determining factor in establishing Paul’s thought world. The purpose of the letter would undoubtedly order the subject matter. And if the letter to the Romans, for instance, is a treatise in which Paul carefully sets out his doctrinal position regarding the gospel of Christ, why should it surprise us to find that the theme of justification is central to his theology? The letter covers a wide range of theological issues, but what, in our view, acts as the single most important Mitte or the coherent forceis Paul’s unqualified commitment to forensic justification.