Day Two of the AARSBL

To read the round-up of day one, click here. Today was my Luther Day. Ever […]

Todd Brewer / 11.21.17

To read the round-up of day one, click here.

Today was my Luther Day. Ever since the schedule was released I had the “Luther and Justification” section circled on my calendar. This enthusiasm derives not so much because it’s Luther but because it was being conducted by Bible scholars. For the longest time, Luther has been an easy target for Pauline students. Having “Lutheran spectacles” or a “Reformational bias” is an insult of the highest degree. For many it seems as though Luther’s reading of Paul was the original sin of Pauline scholarship—the place it all went so terribly wrong. Go ahead and cite the church fathers, but Luther is one step too far. Luther was no saint, but the many caricatures of him are unfair. And so the ground of New Testament scholarship is shifting as more positive evaluations of Luther’s use of scripture are now being proposed. I attended whether Luther would be burned at the stake or passed a beer and invited to sit down.

A little bit of both occurred.

Speaking from a self-consciously Eastern Orthodox perspective, Edith Humphreys gave a paper that was not primarily about Luther (the topic of the session), but John Chrysostom. The exact purpose of the paper was difficult to discern, but it had the effect of “vindicating” a good deal of the New Perspective on Paul through Chrysostom and mildly critiquing some of her fellow orthodox theologians who deny a judicial aspect of justification. Turning to Luther occasionally, she commented that he would “not be happy” with much of Chrysostom’s reading of Paul.

Judith Stack-Nelson’s paper on “The Spirit and Justification” had only a little more to say about Luther. Beginning by noting the parallel between Luther and Paul on the close connection between the Spirit, hearing the gospels, and faith. From there, she moved on to Paul to argue that the ongoing gifting of the Spirit by God is meant to bring one into righteousness and the future, eschatological declaration of righteousness. In other words, it seems that Paul does believe that one will be justified by works of the law done in faith through the Spirit. She then concluded her paper by shifting her attention back to Luther and his emphasis on love of neighbor, a love that cannot be precisely defined in advance. This wrongly implied that Stack’s reading of Paul accords with Luther himself.

Stephen Chester’s paper sought to address the opposing exaggerations of Luther as father of Protestant subjectivism and an impersonal objectivism. Examining Luther’s doctrine of justification, both accusations are baseless. For Luther, justification is both a personal experience of Christ and an anti-experience that undermines the value of one’s experience in the world. For Luther, justification is not on the basis of works, performed before or after baptism. It is alien righteousness given. Full assurance of salvation depends not on one’s works, but Christ. Faith unites believer with Christ and the reception of righteousness. Paul lives an alien life that belongs to the Christ-life granted to Paul in faith. The old person under sin is opposite to the life in Christ. The Christian life becomes torn between two modes of existence lived within the same body, life in the self vs. life in Christ.

According to Chester, Luther’s doctrine of justification is then an anti-experience against the life of self, contrasted with the experience of life in Christ. Conversion is a subjective experience that is a gift of the Holy Spirit—this gives certainty of salvation. Yet looking inwardly we are riddled with doubt, a tiny faith, a failing conscience, and groans of frustration. It is fundamentally important to not turn to one’s subjective experience as decisive for one’s self-understanding. The experience of turning outwards to the objectivity of Christ is the decisive experience of assurance. The only human experience in this life is the one that points outside of that life toward Christ and the eschatological future. All other worldly sublime experiences appear vile in light of Christ. This leads to a thorough certain about salvation and an equally thorough skeptical about almost anything else. I would have appreciated more engagement with Paul on this topic, yet the careful scope of paper could not address everything.

So it seems that old habits die hard in New Testament scholarship. Not all is lost, of course, as indicated by Chester’s paper. And one can hope that Chester’s most recent book on the Reformation and Paul will continue to dispel misunderstandings of Luther and the Reformers.

Finally, I attended a section on “The Bible and Emotion”. David Fredrickson gave a paper “‘Become as I am for I also have become as you are (Gal. 4:12)’: Mimesis and Paul’s Non-theory of Emotions related to Compassion, Forgiveness, and Regret.” This paper was deeply disappointing in its handling of Paul, failing to interact with the most recent interpretation of Paul. Fredrickson aimed to vindicate Paul from Caupto’s criticism of Christianity and its making forgiveness a business transaction between the remorseful sinner and the forgiving injured person. The details of his reading of Paul were unfortunately lacking. I highlight this paper not so much because of its merits, but because the response by Susan Grove Eastman were characteristically incisive. She provocatively argued that there is no concept of self-punishment or self-condemnation in Paul. There is no self-recrimination. Paul does not judge himself; Christ does. For Paul, the problem of human life is not strictly misdeeds, but bondage, and the response to this situation is liberation.

More to come on day three tomorrow!

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3 responses to “Day Two of the AARSBL”

  1. Adam Morton says:

    Thanks. I didn’t make it up this time (had something arranged, fell through late, blah blah blah), but glad to get field reports from the SBL side. Chester book looks like fun!

  2. Sean says:


    Im following this.

  3. cal says:

    Eastman’s point: Does self-accusation/recrimination necessarily mean self-judgement? Leithart has pointed out, among others surely, that the logic of imputation requires a distinction between guilt and action. A defendant might confess the accusation that he killed x, but that the guilt lies elsewhere (say, a poor road design that made vehicular homicide inevitable). I think there’s room to say that Paul accuses himself for his own sins, but turns the judgement over to Christ. This might broach a more interesting discussion of psychology, especially as understood in the earliest years of the Church, especially among the Desert monks.

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