Written by R.C. Sproul |
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
Since Paul himself was an expert in rabbinic thought, the conclusion is reached (by a gratuitous leap) that all Paul’s teaching can be made clear by looking at the background of rabbinic teaching that formed Paul’s perspective. Indeed, even the so-called “new perspective” on Paul involves an attempt to reconstruct the old perspective that Paul himself brought to the doctrines of the New Testament, which perspective was basically shaped by rabbinic views. This approach to Pauline interpretation involves two crucial errors.
When I look back over forty years of teaching, I sometimes think I must be the most inarticulate writer and speaker in the history of the world. I wonder about that when I read interpretations of my teaching from the pens of other people, particularly from those who are hostile to what I declare. Frequently the distortions are so great that I cannot recognize my own position in the criticism. It may be helpful in trying to interpret mine or any other teacher’s declarations by looking at their geographical backgrounds. I grew up in the city of Pittsburgh, in a blue-collar environment, yet in a white-collar home, and so one can see that the perspective I have on life will differ from those people who grew up in southern California or Alabama. Nevertheless, to interpret my teachings simply on the basis of my Pittsburgh background would be utter nonsense. My perspective is not identical to every person who ever grew up in Pittsburgh. In like manner, one could examine my educational background and look at the viewpoints of my main mentors. As a student of G.C. Berkouwer in the Netherlands, one can certainly see dimensions of influence on my thought from that theologian. But to identify my general approach in theology to Berkouwer’s would be to distort my own views. It would even be incorrect to identify my theology totally with that of my main mentor, the late John H. Gerstner. The reason for this is that I have had many mentors in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, and also, through my own studies of the Bible and of church history, I have developed some positions that one cannot find in these other people. Still, it may be valuable from time to time to examine the background and education of theologians to get a deeper understanding of their teachings. Such investigation indeed may be beneficial while at the same time perilous.
I mentioned my own experience simply to call attention to a much greater issue, one that far transcends how people interpret or misinterpret me, namely, how we go about seeking a correct understanding of the biblical writers in general and for the benefit of this issue of Tabletalk, the teaching of the Apostle Paul in particular. In the New Testament, Paul himself indicates in one of his defenses that he was from Tarsus, which he describes as no mean city. Tarsus was a city that was cosmopolitan in antiquity, and, as a melting pot, it became a place where the exchange of many diverse ideas com-monly took place.