The Bible and History

I recently got a copy of Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians in the newly developing Zondervan Exegetical Commentary set and he start out the commentary with a quote from Martin Luther and then writes the following:

Here is the Martin Luther Quote:

Therefore, God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise fools.  In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace.  Therefore, no proud saint, no wise or just person, can become God’s material, and God’s purpose cannot be fulfilled in him.  He remains in his own work and makes a factitious, pretended, false, and painted saint of himself, that is, a hypocrite.

then Schreiner goes on….

Amazingly, Gordon Fee writes from quite a different perspective, saying that his goal is to help people read Galatians “as if the Reformation never happened.” (cited from his Galatians commentary in the Pentecostal Commentary set). On the one hand, Fee’s goal is laudable.  He wants to read the text on its own terms.  On the other hand, it is remarkably naive and ahistorical, for he pretends that he can read Galatians as a neutral observer of the text apart from the history of the church.  I am not suggesting that we mist read Galatians in defense of the Reformation, no am I denying that the Reformation may be askew in some of its emphasis.  But it must be acknowledged that none of us can read Galatians as if the Reformation never occurred.  Such a reading is five hundred years too late.  Nor can we read Galatians as if the twentieth century never happened or apart from the works of Ignatius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and the like.  We can consider whether Reformation emphasis were wrong (I will argue that they were not), but what we cannot do is read Galatians as if we were the first readers (21).

As I ponder this more I wonder because how are some who may not be well read on the Reformation know what happend?  and what of the supposed lay person who may not have access to those kinds of resources?  Why can’t a person just come to the Bible as it is and glean from it, its message (and for Galatians, the message of freedom in Christ; freedom from feeling as if we have to somehow earn or work for our salvation)?

To really understand this ever and always pertinent letter, must we read it as the reformers did, or in conversation with the church fathers?

What say you?

Just how important is reception history in the reading and study if the Bible?


6 responses to “The Bible and History

  1. I think the Reformation’s influence extends well beyond the writings of the Reformers. In other words, Western culture has been influenced to some degree or another by the Reformation and whether the person who studies the Bible knows it or not, their reading has probably been influenced by it as well. I’m sure that most laymen who have never studied the Bible or theology formally have still heard preaching on things like grace and law from their pastors or ministers on TV. And if those preachers were Protestant then it’s very likely they’ve been influenced by Reformation theology. So they bring what they’ve heard or have been taught to the text. Maybe not intentionally like Schreiner is saying, but they bring it nonetheless. See what I’m saying?

  2. I can see that. I see both Fee and Schreiner’s points. I guess it think it is one thing to be influenced by reception history and another to think we can or cannot read Galatians as if the Reformation never happened but then I guess we can’t really do that.

  3. We all read within our personal history, but we cannot understand or be transformed except by the Holy Spirit. There are many things preached today by many different men and women all with widely varying backgrounds, assumptions, and baggage. Though I have been teaching scripture since 1974, I still start each study and every time I read scripture with the increasingly fervent prayer. “Holy Spirit, feed me with your word today. Explain to me what you meant when it was written. protect me from human interpretations…” and more like that. The longer I walk with the Lord the more convinced I am that the anointing of the spirit is essential.

  4. I think Fee is being taken out of context. Fee continually makes the point that we should read a bible that has no chapter headings and verse numbers and just get into the word.
    First read it and make notes without the aid of commentaries and then you can engage with what others have written…

  5. i would say just as important as reading what you posted, i would agree with tom on that point for there is one truth that we are called to defend according to Jude, so seeing how people have interpreted it through history is keen, plus these men are family to us, brothers and sisters, so the Holy Spirit communicates truth, but i also agree with what you said you can read the letter and you should come to the same conclusion that Christ is the end of the law.

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