Saturday, November 14, 2015

Westerholm and Wright on Martin Luther and Pauline Exegesis

In a recent blog post, Scot McKnight quotes approvingly N.T. Wright's judgement on "Lutheran" N.T. scholars:
"[A]nyone trying to be a Pauline exegete while still in thrall to Luther should consider a career as a taxidermist. Heroes are to be engaged with, not stuffed and mounted and allowed to dominate the room." - N.T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 126.

Wright's comment is meant as a rejoinder to Stephen Westerholm's statement about the enduring value of engaging Luther:
"Students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.

Leaving to one side Wright's unfair and muddled dismissal of Westerholm's own exegesis of Paul, I note here that both statements are correct: In the first place, heroes are of course "to be engaged with." What enlightened scholar would want to be "in thrall" to anyone? But Westerholm is not alone in thinking that something may still be learned from Luther's reading of Paul. Consider C.K. Barrett, one of the 20th century's finest exegetes:
"In the summer of 1953, in the University Library at Göttingen, I read through Luther's Scholia on Romans...with a sustained enthusiasm and even excitement which I never thought 400 large pages of medieval Latin could evoke. Less sound in detail than Calvin, Luther wrestles at perhaps even greater depth with sin and righteousness, grace and predestination, and rarely fails to reach the heart of the matter, and to take his reader with him. To have sat at the feet of these three interpreters of Paul [Luther, Calvin and Barth] is one of the greatest of privileges." - C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1971), vi.
Those who actually read Westerholm will know that his is no uncritical dismissal of the "new perspective", and no uncritical adoption of the old "Lutheran" view either. Here is the context of the passage I quoted above:
"There is more of Paul in Luther than many twentieth-century scholars are inclined to allow. But the insights of the 'new perspective' must not be lost to view. Paul's convictions need to be identified; they must also be recognized as Christian theology. When Paul's conclusion that the path of the law is dependent on human works is used to posit a rabbinic doctrine of salvation by works, and when his claim that God's grace in Christ excludes human boasting is used to portray rabbinic Jews as self-righteous boasters, the results (in Johnsonian terms) are 'pernicious as well as false.' When, moreover, the doctrine of merit perceived by Luther in the Catholicism of his day is read into the Judaism of the first Christian centuries, the results are worthless for historical study. Students who want to know how a rabbinic Jew perceived humanity's place in God's world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Westerholm, Israel's Law, 173.


Eric said...

I worked through Luther's commentary on Galatians a while back. It left me glad it's not the only commentary on the book we have, but it's also superb. There's a lot in Galatians that Luther won't touch on, but I never read the book the same way. (After reading it, a lot of comments about Luther from biblical scholars sounded like they came from people who hadn't read Luther.) What I'm trying to say is: I appreciate the balance in this post.

Also: is there *no* overlap between the kind of Catholicism Luther was rebelling against and Paul's Jewish context? I read some things in the Mishnah and the DSS that do emphasize grace and mercy, but human merit also seems to be part of the equation as well.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Eric. Here is my belated attempt at a reply.

I take Westerholm to be saying at least that Luther was a reader of Paul, not Judaism, and that whatever we think of Luther's views of Judaism, he still has value as a reader of Paul.

While there were no doubt self-righteous boasters among ancient Jews, just as there are among contemporary Christians, I don't think it is fair to think of Paul's contemporaries as generally legalistic in the pejorative sense.

To be sure there is a contrast between Paul's view of grace and mercy and that of many of his contemporaries. But to construe rabbinic judaism as primarily concerned with final salvation, like Luther's Catholic contemporaries were, is already to impose a distorting Christian lens on the evidence.

With Westerholm, I take Paul's negative evaluation of the possibility of human obedience as a new and unusual conclusion derived from reflection on the radical nature of the divine solution to the human plight. I don't blame Paul's contemporaries for reading Deut 30 and concluding that the law could be obeyed.

Elaine Ball said...

I appreciate your blog; and while I know this question is "off topic", but "on" only because of the inclusion of Martin Luther.......I have recently discovered that Martin Luther - whom I greatly respected in my youth (being raised Lutheran & even attending Lutheran school from 1-8 grades) - became very hostile to the Jews before his death - even stating that they should be murdered......because (as I was told) they did not accept his (Luther's) offered salvation to them (through Christ, of course). Perhaps I have phrased this all wrong - hoping you get the "gist" and, wondering if you can confirm what I read in "The Four Blood Moons" - and/or refute it, based on....?

Thank you!