Reading Paul matters

Prof. Craig Koester. Photo: LWF/I. Benesch
Prof. Craig Koester. Photo: LWF/I. Benesch

Sharing a journey-- that is my most vivid impression of the current LWF consultation on hermeneutics. Our point of departure has been the letters of Paul, which are among the most stimulating writings in the Bible. And my companions are theologians, scholars and pastors from seventeen countries around the world.

Here it is clear that reading Paul matters because the community of faith matters. That essential point fits Paul’s own perspective. When participants referred to 1 Corinthians, they often noted how Paul understood that the Spirit gives people in the church diverse gifts, yet each gift is designed to build up the community as a whole. In the same way, each participant contributes ideas that can and do differ from those of others. But the commitment to building up the church has been a constant.

Participants have approached hermeneutics as a process. We have seen the dynamic quality in the writings of Paul himself. He had the Jewish Scriptures and traditions of Jesus, but he constantly faced new situations in which the implications had to be worked out for the sake of the community. That process now continues in the churches we serve.

Paul had to address the situation at Corinth, where speaking in tongues was prominent. Our group was invited to ask how that might be similar to and different from current contexts in Latin America and Africa, where the Pentecostal movement is strong. Paul had to think about Christian faith in a pluralistic society, about roles of men and women, social class and forms of sexual expression. To read Paul is to engage the questions in new contexts for the sake of the church.

Where is the Lutheran element in this? I would say it is in reading Paul’s letters in light of their center, which is the gospel. Paul called the gospel “the power of God for salvation.” Luther urged people to read Scripture in light of that center and to understand other issues in relation to it. He understood that the church is God’s creation, and through the gospel God renews it time and again. That is certainly the promise I see here.

(Prof. Craig Koester is Academic Dean and Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota, USA.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.