Thank you for your warm welcome and generous hospitality. It is an enormous pleasure for Maggie and myself to be here in Monroe for the first time. I am particularly grateful to those who have worked very hard to set this conference up and make it all happen.
I want in this opening session to set some parameters for our subsequent discussion, and in particular to put some cards firmly and clearly on the table about my starting points, my fixed points in reading Paul, and my aims in expounding his theology. I am aware – and it is a matter of some irony in my mind – that my own views on Paul have been the subject of far more interest and debate in America, and within churches other than my own, than they have in England, or within worldwide Anglicanism. I do sometimes catch myself wondering, ‘Why should I worry if one branch of American Presbyterianism wants to fight another branch about whether I’m a good thing or a bad thing?’; rather as though two baseball fans were to argue about the respective merits of a cricket player. One answer is, I guess, that since I think my own reading of Paul represents a historically grounded and theologically accurate and sensitive understanding I naturally hope that other Christians of whatever tradition will find what I say fruitful, and I grieve that anyone should get into trouble in their own denomination, whatever that may be, for embracing a viewpoint which ought at the very least to be within anybody’s limits of orthodoxy. I suppose, though, that part at least of the reason I am concerned about all this is that within my own church I have engaged in a lifelong struggle to get Paul back on to the agenda, and to allow his vision of God in Christ, of the cross and resurrection, and justification by faith, to become once more part of the bloodstream of a church that was founded on them but has done its best to forget the fact. My church grew directly out of the sixteenth-century Reformation, and even where I have disagreed with some of the Reformers’ particular proposals I believe I have remained true to their foundational principles. And, indeed, I want now to begin the first section of this lecture with a quote from the first and perhaps the greatest of the English reformers, the one from whom I most securely learnt the formal principle which underlies all my reading not only of Paul but of the whole of scripture.
1. No Syllable Altered
That formal principle is, of course, a total commitment to scripture itself, over against all human traditions, all structures created by human reason, all abstractions from the actual text. Of course, I read scripture within various traditions, I use reason in thinking about it, I make my own abstractions from the text as I go along. I am not a naive positivist, as some appear to think. But at every point one must come back to the text itself, the whole text, and in the last analysis nothing but the text. I have in mind in particular at this point a saying which has accompanied me through my whole adult life, a line from the early English reformer William Tyndale. The first research project I undertook as a postgraduate was a edition – the first one since the 1570s – of the work of Tyndale’s friend and colleague John Frith, a cheerful young scholar and devout Protestant Christian who was burnt at the stake two years before Tyndale, in 1533. As Frith lay in prison awaiting his fate, Tyndale, in exile in Belgium, wrote him two letters. The concern both men had shared, working at full stretch against all the odds, had been to get the Bible in English into the common life of the church and people. Many were suspicious of this attempt, preferring to control what people thought scripture contained rather than to allow it free rein and full force, an attitude some of you here know only too well. Tyndale rejects such suspicions. In his first letter to Frith, dated probably in January 1533, he writes this memorable sentence, which was etched upon my mind and heart long before I became a Bible translator myself. ‘I call God to record,’ he writes, ‘against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honour, pleasure or riches, might be given me.’ I think of that sentence when I read and preach from scripture. I recalled it as I stood before Tyndale’s statue on the Thames Embankment before I went into No. 10 Downing Street to accept a senior appointment in the Church of England. I have recalled it a thousand times as I have struggled in my own work to express in clear, crisp contemporary English as close as I can get to the Greek of Paul, Mark, Luke and the rest. As far as I’m concerned, Tyndale’s principle is exactly right – even if he did not always, in our judgment today, live up to it himself. It’s not easy; it is again and again a matter of close judgment. But it is judgment informed not only by scholarship but also by conscience. Not one syllable must be changed. That is what it means to speak of ‘sola scriptura’ and to mean it.
It is for that reason that I begin my reflections with a single syllable at the heart of Romans 3. Indeed, in this case it is a single letter in Greek, the letter e, eta. In 3.29–30 Paul writes e Ioudaion ho theos monon? ouchi kai ethnon? nai kai ethnon, eiper heis ho theos hos dikaiosei peritomen ek pisteos kai akrobustian dia tes pisteos. That opening single letter, e, translates into a single syllable in English, this time with two letters: Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one, and will justify circumcision on the ground of faith and uncircumcision through faith. It would be interesting to study the various translations and commentaries and see what different traditions have done with that opening e, that connecting ‘or’. Sadly, Tyndale himself, followed by the King James version, omits it altogether. Several of the classic commentaries find it very puzzling. Paul has been talking about how sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law; why does he suddenly shift here to an apparently different topic, that of the equality before God of Jews and Gentiles? Some, indeed, have expounded the passage as though verses 29–30 did not exist, as though the paragraph stopped with verse 28. But Paul has written e; the Holy Spirit has inspired that single syllable, that single letter; and are we going to ignore it?
The answer, of course, is that for Paul there is an intimate connection between God’s free justification of sinners through the death of Jesus and on the basis of faith, on the one hand, and God’s creation, on the other hand, of a new family composed of Jews and Gentiles alike. We can well understand that the Reformers themselves, faced with the urgent challenge of a deeply corrupt Roman Catholicism, rightly wanted to emphasize the first rather than the second. But in sharing their formal principle of sola scriptura we are bound to highlight what is there in the text, syllable by syllable, even if they did not. And for Paul that little e is a crucial, tell-tale indication of where his actual argument is going. Its point is simply this: that if God were to justify people on any other ground than faith, then he would after all be God of the Jews only, and not of Gentiles also. And unless we are prepared to think through why that is so, and to grasp the fact that this is where the whole paragraph is going – in other words, unless we see that Romans 3.21–31 as it stands, syllable by syllable, in the text of inspired scripture, is driving towards this point, which is then massively supported by the whole of chapter 4, and that this point is not a side-issue, an ‘extra implication’ of a gospel which is about something quite different – then the formal principle of all reformation-inspired theology has been sacrificed on the altar of our own traditions….
…I thus discover that my call, my Reformational call, to be a faithful reader and interpreter of scripture impels me to take seriously the fact, to which many writers in the last two hundred years have called attention, that whenever Paul is talking about justification by faith he is also talking about the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the single people of God. I did not make this up; it is there in the God-given texts. I do not draw from this observation the conclusion that some have done (I think particularly of Wrede and Schweitzer), namely that justification is itself a mere secondary doctrine, called upon for particular polemical purposes but not at the very centre of Paul’s thought. On the contrary: since the creation, through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, of this single multi-ethnic family, the family God promised to Abraham, the family justified, declared to be in the right, declared to be God’s people, on the basis of faith alone, the family whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Messiah in their place and on their behalf, the family who constitute the first-fruits of the new creation that began with the bodily resurrection of Jesus – since the creation of this family was the aim and goal of all Paul’s work, and since this work was by its very nature polemical, granted the deeply suspicious pagan world on the one hand and the deeply Law-based Jewish world on the other, it was natural and inevitable that Paul’s apostolic work would itself involve polemical exposition of the results of the gospel, and that justification by faith, as itself a key polemical doctrine, would find itself at the centre when he did so. That which God has joined, joined not least through the single little syllables which serve as the tiny rudders for the large ship of his holy word, let us not put asunder. And since these little words join together whole arguments, let us pay attention to the actual arguments Paul mounts, not to three or four verses snatched out of their real-life, God-given contexts. This is my first appeal to you, an appeal which is for the Reformation principle of sola scriptura to have its way again over against all our human traditions. [Read the rest]