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Wesley, the Lutheran?

January 4, 2010

Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul is a fascinating exposition of Pauline interpreters from Augustine to N. T. Wright.  It’s a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the new perspective on Paul. 

Westerholm gathers the Pauline interpretations of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley under the heading “Portraits of the Lutheran Paul.”  Including Wesley with Augustine, Luther, and Calvin surprised me.  Often, historical theologians emphasize the differences between Wesleyan and Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist thought. 

Westerholm’s work refreshingly underscores the continuity in these thinkers.  While he is careful to avoid conflating their distinctive views, Westerholm offers five theses to which these four historical Christian figures would agree.

Thesis 1:  Human nature, created good, has been so corrupted by sin that human beings are incapable of God-pleasing action.  They are rightly subject to God’s condemnation.

Thesis 2:  Human beings must be justified by divine grace, responded to in faith, and not by any works of their own.

Thesis 3:  Justification by grace through faith leaves human beings with nothing of which they may boast in God’s presence.  The (false) notion that human beings can contribute to their justification opens the door to a presumption that ill suits creatures in the presence of their Creator.

Thesis 4:  Those justified by faith apart from works must nonetheless do good works as believers.

Thesis 5:  The Mosaic law was given, in part, to awaken in human beings an awareness of their need of divine grace.  Believers are delivered from its condemnation and need not observe its ceremonial prescriptions.  The gift of God’s Spirit enables them (in some measure) to fulfill its moral demands.

Westerholm notes the presence of disagreement among these thinkers regarding the presence of sin in justified believers and the irresistibility of grace.  Even in the midst of the five theses, disagreements emerge.  For example, Wesley and Calvin (contra Augustine, Luther) viewed the Sabbath command of the law as part of the moral law which abides, rather than the ceremonial law that has passed away.

 The lens of controversy can significantly affect historical perspective.  When compared to new perspective thinkers, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley share much common theological ground.  Have we allowed the Pelagian and related controversies to exert too much influence on our historical conclusions?

 The question is neither posed nor answered by Westerholm.  Perspectives Old and New on Paul is a quality work, which will continue to stimulate these kinds of questions.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Winters permalink
    January 4, 2010 11:56 am

    Westerholm’s introduction about what Luther might experience if he walked into a modern scholarly Christian book store made me “Roll On The Floor Laughing.”

    • January 4, 2010 12:06 pm

      Definitely made me ROTFL, as well. Maybe you could use that bit for our next Reformation Day party.

  2. January 4, 2010 2:14 pm

    “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, page 66 in John Welsey, ed. Albert C. Outler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

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