The Interpretation of Paul's Letters Over the Years
by Bobby Bruno 5/04/2014 / Bible Studies
How did each of the following eras interpret the letters of Paul?
The early church Gnostics argued with Paul relentlessly about the fact that they believed that Jesus "was not a man, bodily existence is evil, and salvation comes by renewing the mind" (p. 295). A man named Irenaeus used to use Paul's own arguments against him. Along with the Gospel of John, to prove that he was right in his thinking that Christ was just a man. A man named Origen believed that God would redeem Satan and his angels along with everyone who ever lived through Christ's redemptive work on the cross. Then along came Augustine, the man who first put forth the concept of original sin from Paul's writings. Because Augustine and Origen used Paul's writings as much as they did, the writings of Paul began to be used widely.
The Scholastics and Reformers Thomas Aquinas came along in this era and taught that everything about God can be discovered by observing creation, and that even the invisible qualities of God could be seen through the things He has made (Rom 1:20). Next there was Martin Luther and John Calvin. Martin Luther used the writings of Paul to show the Catholic Church that salvation was through faith only and not by works. John Calvin identified Paul's theology of election and predestination. He wanted to prove how "grace operates to justify sinners" (p. 298).
Pietism and the modern missionary movement In this era, Paul's teaching from Romans 10:14-15 was used to show that missionaries needed to be sent out into the world to find those places where the Gospel has not yet been sent. William Carey was one of the first missionaries to go and preach the Gospel in other lands which inspired many other churched to follow in his footsteps. At this time, John Wesley took Paul's letters upon himself and preached them almost exclusively. He came to believe that Christians should be perfect, but admitted that they can fall from Grace, a theory he had not once believed as he had believed that a saved person could never fall from his stature of righteousness.
Modernity In this era many scholars tried to show that Paul was not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but was in fact making up his own religion because he was preaching to the Gentiles and not to the Jews. This was the age of Barth and Bultmann. Karl Barth presupposed that Christianity was connected by history through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann put forth that theology was not dependent on history. Though both believed in Paul's theology and grace through faith, both believed that faith comes through hearing.
Postmodernity Postmodernists today, inside of the classroom, want to know why the letters of Paul should matter to them. They want more interpretation than they do explanation. They want to see behind the words to the real meaning of those words as a whole. "How can Paul help me" they want to know. They are saying "Don't tell me why I should believe in what Paul wrote; show me why I should believe in his words. Help me to understand how Paul's words truly affect my life?"
What do you think the interpretation of Paul's letters might be in 20 years?
I think that, today, with hermeneutics we have a good way of interpreting scripture. Today, we a looking for the exact meaning the words of scripture and what they meant to the people who had heard them first. I pray that in twenty years, we will still be looking for the exact meanings. Of course I pray that Jesus returns before then, but if not, I believe we will still be searching for the exact truth of scripture. The better we known what the words of the Holy Spirit means, the better we can live for Christ, and the more people will want to know that we have in Him.
Capes, D., Reeves, R., Richards, E. (2007) Rediscovering paul. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Bobby Bruno was saved 15 years ago in a way that left him no doubt that Jesus wanted him to reach others with His great and abounding love. He started writing at the age of 12 and hasn't stopped since. He achieved Associates Degree in Biblical Studies from Ohio Christian University in early 2014.