Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Perspicuity of Pauline Scripture

I get the impression that for Protestant theology generally, the epistles of Paul come very close to functioning like a canon within the canon. The Protestant Reformation was built for a large part on a fresh understanding of Paul, and ever since then this understanding has functioned as the hermeneutical and theological grid through which we understand the rest of Scripture.

But I wonder if we have created problems for ourselves in this. For it seems to me that so often when we read Paul, we do so with Protestant tradition about what Paul is saying in mind more than the teaching of the rest of Scripture. We Protestants are so quick to criticize the Roman church for following the traditions of men rather than the teaching of Scripture, but how guilty are we of doing the same thing? How guilty are we of simply following the traditions of men when reading the Apostle Paul?

So often it seems to me that Paul has been understood in isolation from the rest of Scripture, and especially Old Testament theology and prophecy. I believe that this is dangerous (theologically speaking), because the epistles of Paul should not be the controlling grid through which we understand the rest of Scripture. The epistles of Paul should not be a canon within the canon. The whole counsel of God (including the Old Testament) is the canon, and every part must be allowed to speak.

Now I imagine that that last comment may upset those who regard Paul’s letters as being the place in the Scriptures where the gospel is most clearly presented. Our assumption in all of this has been that Paul speaks with a greater clarity and gets to the heart of the gospel in a way that other authors of Scripture do not.

It is not my intention to call into question the perspicuity of Pauline Scripture, but I would like to draw attention to the advice of Scripture itself regarding the clarity of some parts of Paul’s teaching. The following words come from the Apostle Peter:
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:14-18).
According to the Apostle Peter, as we wait for the unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth, we are to be diligent to pursue sanctification in our lives so as to be found by God on the day of judgment as people who are “without spot or blemish” (i.e., as people who have kept covenant with God). We may have to wait a while until the new creation begins in its fullness, but this time spent waiting is actually God’s patience towards those who are perishing. He is giving people time to repent (2 Pet 3:9). According to Peter, the Apostle Paul also wrote about these things. Paul did so with the wisdom that God had given him. But despite his wisdom (and the inspiration of the Spirit), “there are some things in [his letters] that are hard to understand” (v. 16)—and that’s the Apostle Peter speaking! Furthermore, because some aspects of Paul’s letters are difficult to understand, it is relatively easy for people to “twist” his teaching. Therefore, Peter says, knowing that Paul is difficult at times to understand, we need to be careful not to follow those who have distorted the true teaching of Paul. Peter’s mention of “the error of lawless people” in v. 17 strongly suggests that there were people in his day who had taken Paul’s teaching in an antinomian direction. Are you suggesting, Peter, that Paul’s teaching regarding the law is difficult to understand? Seems to me, that is exactly what he is suggesting; and perhaps we can take the last few decades of Protestant wrangling over the meaning of Galatians and Romans as confirmation of the veracity of Peter’s opinion.

But how does Peter’s warning fit with our Protestant methodology which is based so firmly upon the teaching of Paul as our hermeneutical foundation? To quote the Westminster Confession on the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of Scripture: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (WCF 1.9). If “difficult” Paul has become our canon within the canon, it seems to me that perhaps we have put the cart before the horse, and ignored the principle of the analogy of Scripture.

But for those of you who think you already understand Paul—and I’d like to include myself within that circle—please think seriously about the implications of Peter’s warning. There's a divine reason why 2 Pet 3:16-17 is part of Scripture. Perhaps Paul is not as easy to understand as some would lead you to believe!


John Thomson said...


My argument for NT interpreting the OT is less based on the relative perspecuity of the NT over the OT than on the principle that the OT is incomplete and not fully explained without the NT. It is progressive revelation rather than perspecuity itself that is the issue. This progressive revelation is necessary to properly interpret the OT. And so Christ explains to his disciples from the OT the things concerning himself. I think the NT has a priority in this sense over the OT.

Incidentally when you post a reply comment I notice it always appears twice in my mail box and your comment appeared twice on Euangelion???

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

Yes, I hold to progressive revelation as well, and acknowledge a theological priority of the New Testament over the Old. I don’t think this means, however, that the New Testament is necessary to interpret the Old Testament properly. The New Testament adds clarity, and therefore can definitely help us understand the Old Testament better (but, depending how it is used, it can also get in the way). The New Testament also identifies for us the One that was prophesied about, and perhaps introduces a few new ideas; but the Old Testament stood for a long time in and of itself as a sufficient witness to Israel about God and his purposes. In and of itself it is not that difficult to understand. Jews through the centuries haven’t had the New Testament to guide them, but I’d argue that their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible has generally been quite good! There’s a lot that we can learn from orthodox Jewish believers regarding how the Hebrew text should be understood.

I agree that Christ explained to his disciples from the Old Testament the things concerning himself, but he was talking about things that were already there in the text of the Old Testament, and bringing out the significance of those things in terms of their connection with himself. His text was actually the Old Testament!

“He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). According to Jesus, the suffering and glorification of the Messiah were clearly spoken about in the Old Testament, and in great detail.

In your view is there anything regarding the new covenant that hasn’t already been prophesied or foreshadowed in the Old Testament? In my experience, there’s not much.

John Thomson said...


I agree largely with what you say.
However, I do think the fulfilment of the OT both exceeds OT revelation and exegetes it in unexpected ways. Both of thes are involved in 'mystery'in the NT.

Rom 16:25-26 (ESV)
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-

The OT envisaged one eschatological end. The 'already' and 'not yet' is not clear in the OT viewed on its own terms.

The idea of Union with Christ and much implied in that is also either absent or 'hidden'. This includes the equality of Jew and Gentile as one new man or one body.

The fact that the gentile fullness happens before the Jewish fullness (Roms 9-11) is another example.

Christ not only revealed OT truth, he advanced truth. He in fact is 'the truth'. He promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into truth they were not yet ready to bear. This seems to be fresh revelation.

Having said this, as I say, I largely agree with your comments.