Framing and Interpretation

In Michael Bird’s Four Views On The Apostle Paul, for my brief review see here, each of the authors was asked to give their thoughts on, “What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?” And in my opinion, one of the most interesting things about the book was examining how influential each author’s answer to this one question is on their overall reading of Paul.

Without going into detail, here is my view of their answers to the framework question:

1. Tom Schreiner – the now, not yet nature of Paul’s gospel (he also refers to as prophecy fulfilled (now), mystery revealed (not yet))

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – a balance of religious experience (Paul’s and his readers) and cultural heritage (Jewish and Greco-Roman)

3. Douglas Campbell –   revealed (revelation as the basis for Paul’s thinking on God), triune (the Trinity as the God who is revealed), missional (Paul is called to participate in the loving mission of God)…the primary focus is revelation (Greek apokalypto)

4. Mark Nanos –  Paul (who never left Judaism and continued to be Torah observant) wrote from the viewpoint that because the Messiah had come the new age had come (the addition of the non-Jews was the sign of the coming)

Now lets look at how two of authors perceives the overall objective of Paul (obviously grossly understated) and how I think the framework plays a major role in determining their perception:

1. Tom Schreiner – Christ-Centered and Cross-Focused: Schreiner starts with defining the problem – sin, judgment, wrath and beginning with grace shows how humanity’s salvation (reversal of the problem) is secured in cross. Schreiner’s account focuses on the what has been done and I believe this arises mainly from his now, not framework (must focus on the now, especially given the not yet is seen as mystery). I think this accounts for, what I would consider to be a weakness in Schreiner’s account, the lack of attention given to resurrection. It is not that the resurrection is completed neglected, but since it falls in the realm of not yet (at least for all except Jesus Christ) it gets treated as a secondary issue. I would not want to suggest that Schreiner actually believes the resurrection is a secondary issue, only if one decides to work within the now, not yet framework this is a natural (necessary?) result.

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – Rescue from Death: Johnson focuses on Christ’s rescuing humanity from alienation from God (death) and giving us a share in the life that is distinctive to God. While he agrees with Schreiner that there is now, not yet quality to this life, he believes Paul focuses on “in-between-time” of salvation where Christians are to conduct themselves in manner worthy of calling. This leads to an interesting distinction which I believe flows out of his framing of Paul’s thought. For the Johnson, the cross is crucial because there is tension between cross (history) and resurrection (experience) and in his account, the cross becomes the hermeneutical key to reinterpreting Torah, God’s gift, etc. While the cross is certainly hermeneutical, is it not also more than that? This is where the interaction between experience and heritage becomes the lens to understanding Paul, and reveals how his framing plays a crucial role in how he reads Paul.

Campbell’s revelatory and Nanos’ Jewish expectation viewpoints could be analyzed the same way, but for the sake of time (my time that is!) I think these two show how important framework is for interpretation. Framing is found in all interpretation, and I am not suggesting we need somehow to leave framework behind, just that we need to be conscious of how frameworks influence our readings.

That is why I found it so interesting in this book, the authors had to explicitly state their framework along with their interpretation. With the frameworks there for all to see, their influence became obvious. And it led me to think,

Am I aware of my own framework for interpreting Paul? Could I write it down for all to see and analyze?

Can I see the influence my framework is having on my interpretation (both good and bad)?

Does my framework so override my interpreting that the text is never allowed to question it?


Is Paul a Storyteller?

For once the answer seems obvious, of course not, Paul is a letter writer. But leave it to a scholar to cloudy up a clear sky, and in this case the scholar has a name, Richard B. Hays. His book The Faith of Jesus Christ (1983 and 2002), the publication of his dissertation,* brought the narrative approaches common in Gospels studies into Pauline studies.

I am not going to review the book in this post, but have attached a precis of the book on writings page if interested. Here it is suffice to say that Hays argues that the story of Jesus the Messiah generates and sustains Paul’s gospel. Underlying all of Paul’s letters is a fundamental narrative which Paul uses to speak into the contexts of his readers. This way of reading Paul has gained wide acceptance, not unanimous mind you, in the field of Pauline studies. For example, N.T. Wright, probably the most well known outside of the academy, also sees Paul’s thought as rooted in a a fundamental narrative, he just focuses on a different story, the story of Israel.

But we have to ask the all important question, “So what? What does it matter if Paul is narratively grounded?” As far as I am concerned, it matters a lot.

Paul’s letters, yes I think we can all agree he does write letters not stories, are full of commands or propositions. If one reads him as propositionally grounded then his letters can become a long list of rules and regulations for us to follow. The basic premise is I (Paul) have figured it out and now let me tell you (those who have not figured it out) what to do. In reading Paul this way we can fall into a trap harmful to our lives as Christians and harmful to the way we teach and preach Paul. Paul’s gospel starts with a list of rules and regulations for us to follow and impose on others; follow the rules and you will experience salvation. Paul’s gospel as however does not start with rules and regulations but freedom, deliverance, righteousness, and being “in Christ.” There is much to learn from him and yes we should seek his advice. But how ironic that Paul, who is fighting against those trying to impose rules and regulations upon those who have become “new creations” through the saving power of the gospel, is the one now imposing rules on us.

But when Paul is read as narratively grounded then the primacy turns from his propositions and commands to his gospel. All things flow out of and into the story of Jesus Christ, salvation is entering into (being folded into) the story of Christ. Being “in Christ” is not only the entry point into salvation but the story which we are called to constantly live into; being “in Christ” is the power to save and transform.

Hays and others like Wright, have done a tremendous service by returning the focus to the story, and for the most part I agree with them (more with Hays than Wright, will talk about that in another post). Paul is narratively minded, he writes out of a story and calls others into a story.

But being narratively minded is not the same thing as being a storyteller, that is distinction I will tackle later.

*Both encouraging and discouraging for those of us writing a dissertation. Encouraging because I cannot think of any other modern dissertation that has so impacted NT studies. Am I missing one? Can you think of another? So just go ahead and get this thing done, over with because it will most likely not change the world! Discouraging to think I will work for 3+ years to research and write this thing and it will be read from cover to cover by less than 5 people – counting family and friends!