Interpreting the Pauline Epistles -- By: Thomas R. Schreiner
SBJT 3:3 (Fall 1999) p. 4
Interpreting the Pauline Epistles1
Thomas R. Schreiner is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a position he accepted after a decade of teaching at Bethel Theological Seminary. He is the author of Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law, the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Romans, and several other scholarly publications.
The Pauline letters have played a decisive role in the formation of Christian theology over the centuries. Paul’s influence was primary in the theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth. The theological impact of Paul may blind us to the most striking feature of his writings. He never wrote a systematic theology in which all the elements of his thought are related together and presented in a coherent and logical fashion. Instead he wrote letters to churches (or individuals), and these letters were addressed to the particular circumstances faced by the churches. The Pauline letters are not theological treatises in which a fullfledged theological system is elaborated. They are addressed to specific situations and problems in various churches. If Paul’s goal were simply to compose a systematic theology, responses to individual churches would be superfluous. Paul could have simply sent the same magnum opus to all the churches once it was completed. No need would exist to write one letter to the Galatians and a very different letter to the Colossians. The Pauline letters, as J. C. Beker reminds us, are contingent, written to particular locales and addressing specific circumstances.2
Emphasizing the occasional nature of the Pauline letters does not cancel out their theological contribution. Borrowing from Beker again, the letters may be directed to particular situations but they also flow from a coherent Pauline gospel.3
The contingency of the letters does not cancel out a theological worldview. We must mine Paul’s theology from the letters addressed to the various churches. When interpreting the Pauline letters, we must grasp both the contingency and the coherence of the Pauline gospel. If the contingency of the letters is ignored, Paul’s letters become timeless treatises, severed from the historical circumstances in which they were birthed. If the coherence of Paul’s gospel is forgotten, the letters become isolated snippets of Paul’s thought, divorced from a larger world view.
The Occasional Nature of the Letters
If what I have said abo...
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