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Chung-Kim, Esther and Todd R. Hains, editors. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 6. Downers Grover, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014.  430 pp. Hc; $40.00.  Link to IVP Academic

This is the latest installment in the Reformation Commentary Series (RCS). Following in the footsteps of the popular Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture from InterVarsity, this commentary collects key sections from Reformation commentators and presents them in an accessible format for the modern reader. Esther Chung-Kim is a professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College specializing in the History of World Christianity and Todd Hains is a PhD candidate in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity.

Timothy George’s General Introduction to the RCS is a good 23 page refresher on what constitutes the literature of the Reformation in terms of chronology and confession. There is far more to read from this period than just Luther and Calvin. This commentary therefore includes Erasmus as a biblical humanist as well as obvious examples from (Wittenberg, Luther; Strasbourg, Bucer; Zurich, Zwingli; Geneva, Calvin). There are also examples from the British reformation (including John Donne and William Perkins) and a few from the Anabaptist tradition.

RefCommentaryThe editors draw together a few key themes in their introduction to the commentary on Acts. First, the reformation commentators thought of themselves as “actors on the same stage” as the apostles in Acts. Acts was not history to a writer like John Donne, it is the story of what continues to happen in the present experience of the Church. In fact, Acts provided Reformation commentators an opportunity to discuss the “office of the Word,” or how one goes about preaching the Gospel. An additional interest of the Reformation commentators is baptism. This is not surprising given the variety of views sacrament during this period of history as well as the inconsistency of Acts in portraying the rite. In the body of this commentary, diverse opinions are included, so that from the text of Acts 2:42 Michael Sattler (a Swiss radical, 1490-1527) can argue circumcision is not a type of baptism, Peter Walpot (a Moravian radical, d. 1578) can dismiss infant baptism, and the Augsburg Confession (1530) argues in favor of efficacious infant baptism (p. 32-33). Luther can turn Paul’s baptism in Acts 9 into a defense of infant baptism, while Leonhard Schiemer (an Austrian martyr, d. 1528) uses the same text to argue for believer’s baptism (146-7).

Another interest of the Reformation commentaries on Acts is treatment of the poor. The church had to deal with the poor in a world that was rapidly changing. While Calvin and the Geneva reformers sought to create a kind of social welfare system to assist the poor, immigrants and others displaced by political turmoil, the radical reformers were abolishing personal property and living lives of voluntary poverty. Obviously the Munster radicals did not write commentaries on Acts, but the model of Acts 2:42-47 was taken seriously. Peter Walpot is included as a voice declaring personal property to be the source of all kinds of sin, while Calvin and others argue for the proper use of property from the same texts.

One of the most important themes of Acts which resonated with the Reformation commentators is suffering for the faith. As Chung-Kim and Hains state, the Reformation “caused a revolution in the Christian theology of suffering” (liv). Menno Simons, for example, describes Paul’s suffering at Lystra as an example of the “misery, tribulation, persecution, bonds, fear and death” that attests the Spirit of Liberty (198).

The body of the commentary begins with the ESV text of Acts followed by a brief overview of the pericope. The editors then collect brief extracts from Reformation commentaries in two columns, providing a short summarizing heading in bold type. The name of the writer appears first in small caps, followed by the extract. Latin is given in brackets when necessary. The entry concludes with the name of the work and a footnote provides the reader necessary bibliographic information on the entry. There are no sidebars or explanations of the details of the text of Acts (with the exception of a chart on the Herodian dynasty in Acts 12, p. 162). Since the purpose of the commentary is to report the interpretations of the Reformers, this is to be expected.

The book concludes with several appendices, including a map of Europe during the Reformation and a timeline for events in the Reformation countries for the years 1337-1691. There is a 23 page collection of biographical sketches of the Reformers collected in the commentary as well as short descriptions of key documents and confessions of the period. A bibliography of primary sources is included along with several indices. The bibliography lists online resources where available.

Conclusion. Like the Ancient Christian Commentary series, this book is not a commentary on the text Bible as much as a collection of observations Acts drawn from a narrow range of history. While some of these issues seem obtuse to the modern reader, many questions the Reformation raised when they read Acts are similar in nature to what Christians ask 500 years later. The editors of the volume are to be commended for culling through a massive literature in order to find salient points of contact over this long period of church history.

One contribution of the series is to provide English translations for some Reformers who have yet to be translated. By arranging these readings in a semi-topical fashion, the editors make it quite easy for the non-expert to read what might be an overwhelming and bewildering commentary. A good introduction to reading Reformation writers for those interested is Reading Scripture with the Reformers by the Reformed Commentary series editor Timothy George.

 

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Before examining the challenge of the new Perspective on Paul, it is important to have some understanding of what the traditional on Paul view is. At the foundation of Sanders’ critique of the standard view of Paul is that Luther read Paul through the lens of his own struggle with sin and his battle with the Pelagian / semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic Church which claimed one could earn merit before God by preforming good deeds.

Luther Nailing ThesesI will start with the observation that I find much of what is written on the traditional view is more or less Systematic Theology with respect to method. This is not necessarily a bad; Luther and Calvin simply did not “do biblical theology” quite the same way it is done today. They were simply unable to examine the historical and cultural background to Pauline literature. They did in fact return to the text of Scripture, but they did so in order to serve a developing theological reformation. In addition, they were waging a theological (and political) battle. For two centuries following the Reformation, church scholars were busy shoring up the theological edifice of the Reformation and not particularly interested in “what Paul really meant.”

DSSAnother factor is the vast wealth of material modern scholarship has available for study as compared to even the last century. A great deal of literary evidence from the Second Temple Period has been published in the last fifty that was unknown to the Reformers or anyone studying Paul prior to E. P. Sanders. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an obvious example, but the publication of Charlesworth’s two volumes on the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha have allowed students of Paul to read Jewish texts that were popular when Paul wrote his letters. All of that literary evidence needs to be read and evaluated as potential background to Paul’s letters.

With this in mind, I want to use Stephen Westerholm seven-point summary of what he calls the “Lutheran” Paul. He arrives at these points after examining the Pauline theology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. I summarize his points here and offer some commentary.

  1. Human nature was created good, but has become corrupted by sin and is unable to please the Creator. This entails the idea that all those who are in Adam are also in his sin. As Romans 5 clearly indicates, Adam’s sin is somehow imputed to his descendants so that all humans have a sinful nature which separates them from a holy God.
  2. Humans must therefore be “justified by divine grace” through faith, apart from works. This is the cornerstone of the Reformation: since humans do not merit salvation, they can only be saved by a sovereign act of a gracious God.
  3. This justification by faith leaves humans with nothing to boast before God. A text like Eph 2:8-9 shows that Paul’s view was that no person could stand before God as their judge and claim to have done anything to merit salvation, either before or after they were justified.
  4. Even though humans are justified by God’s grace, they are still expected to do good works. There is an unfortunate misunderstanding that some theologians in the reformed tradition think that after justification, a believer may sin all they want. It is clear from Paul’s letters that he expects believers to behave in a certain way, but does he ever threaten them with the loss of salvation?
  5. The Law was given to awaken the awareness of sin in humans. The role of the Jewish law is the burden of Galatians. Paul argues there that the believer is not required to keep the Law since it only functioned as a guide until God acted decisively in Jesus.
  6. Sin is still a reality in the life of the believer. Westerholm comments that there is a different in the way Wesley or Luther deal with the problem of sin, nevertheless they recognize that humans still sin even after they are justified before God.
  7. Divine grace may or may not be irresistible. Again, this varies between Luther / Calvin and Wesley. The very act of having faith may constitute a “work” which can be seen as a human contribution to salvation.

For the most part, I read this list and want to shout “Amen!” after the first five points, and I have some strong opinions on the last two where there is divergence in the various streams of the Reformation. These theological points, when properly defined, are a solid theological response to the growing influence of Pelagianism in the church in the sixteenth century (or the early twenty-first century for that matter). With respect to the first five points, I believe I could support each statement with enough proof-texts in Paul to show that this general outline is “Pauline.”

The challenge of the New Perspective is to start with the text in the proper historical climate. Is it possible that this tight outline of systematic theology is not what Paul intended at all?

Bibliography: Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his Critics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 88-97.

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