In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright captures how a change in perspective can come about in reading Paul. His discussion resonated with my experience. When I was in seminary, I participated in a study of Romans that read the letter from the perspective of a Law-Gospel contrast. I could trace the moves they were making and how in some sense they tracked with what Paul was saying. But they needed to blow past a phrase here or a passage there that didn’t quite fit the paradigm.
Over the next few years, I came to realize that what Paul was talking about was not a Western, individualized narrative of how a person can move from “sinner” to “saint.” He was concerned about something larger, a concern that actually resonated with (rather than ran against the grain of, or departed from) the narrative of Israel’s Scriptures.
My change in perspective came over time, however, after reading and re-reading Paul and his use of terms like “salvation” within the interpretive field of the Scriptures.
Here’s how Wright describes this:
As C. S. Lewis pointed out about words, when we read old books we go to the dictionaries to look up the hard words, the ones we don’t know at all. The apparently easy words, the ones we use every day, pass by us without our realizing the very different meaning they may have carried five centuries ago. So it is with texts in general. If we do not make the effort to check out the underlying worldview, we will all too easily assume that the writer shared, on this or that point, a worldview (including an implicit narrative) we ourselves know well. The writer must really have been talking ‘about’ what we assume he was talking about, and we ignore the hints within the text of a different worldview, a different underlying narrative. Paul ‘must really’ have been talking about ‘how I can find a gracious God’, and the turns and twists of his argument must then be explained as his use of this pre-Pauline tradition, that hellenistic topos, these themes his opponents introduced into the argument – anything rather than a narrative about the larger purposes of the God of Israel.
What alerts us, often enough, to the fact that there is ‘something else going on’, something we had not bargained for, is the casual remark, the throw-away line on the edge of something else, which stands as a signpost down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. So it is, often enough, with Paul. When he says that God promised Abraham that he would inherit ‘the world’; when he says that those who receive God’s gift of dikaiosyn will ‘reign’; when he says that the result of the Messiah’s curse-bearing death is that ‘the blessing of Abraham might come upon the gentiles’ – in these and many other places he is, quite simply, not saying what any of the major western theological traditions might have expected him to say. At such points, we either conclude that he has expressed himself imprecisely, or inaccurately – presuming, in the so-called method of Sachkritik, to know better than Paul did what he ‘really’ intended to say – or we stop in our tracks and re-examine our hypotheses about what he was in fact thinking and talking about (466-7).
These last few lines capture for me what it means to be a faithful Bible reader. Getting to grips with what the text is actually saying (at its several levels) and then letting that revise our assumptions and refine our thinking.