St. Paul, Bible Butcher?

Originally published on the Trinity and Humanity blog

ImageI used to think Saint Paul was a really bad interpreter of the Old Testament.  Because whenever he uses Old Testament passages to make a point in his writings, he totally butchers it.  He does everything we’re taught NOT to do.

Let’s take Romans 15 as one example, where Paul is making an argument that Papa cares about Gentiles (non-Jews).  He supports this with some Old Testament passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name” (Romans 15.8-9, quoting Psalm 18.49).

Paul is implying here that these Old Testament texts support his idea that Papa is on everybody’s side, not just Jews.  The problem is, these texts really seem to be saying something different.  Notice what Paul leaves OUT of his quotes.  Psalm 18 is about God killing Gentiles, not saving them.  The psalmist is singing about “crushing” Gentiles (v.38), “beating them into dust,” “trampling them like mud” (v.42), and “destroying” them (v.40).  Basically, because the psalmists feels secure in God’s ability to kill Gentiles, he is able to praise God even in their midst (v.49).

What are we to make of this and the many other examples of Paul’s “bad exegesis” of the Old Testament?  I asked my Hermeneutics professor about this, and he replied: “Paul is an apostle, so he can get away with it.  You’re not, so you can’t.”

I’m no Saint Paul.  Granted.  But is it possible that Paul is using a hermeneutic better than the one I was taught in seminary?  I am beginning to think the answer might be Yes.

Quite simply, Paul knows Papa better than the Old Testament writers did.  The Old Testament seems to be of two minds about how God feels about non-Jews.  There seems to be a long tug-of-war between different visions of God—the tribal Proprietary God Who Will Crush Israel’s Enemies versus the Universal Papa Who Saves the Whole World.  Paul, as a disciple of Jesus, seems to think this tug-of-war has ended decisively in favor of the latter.  And he has no qualms about reinterpreting the old texts in that light, even to the point of flatly contradicting the intent of the original authors.

What does this mean for my understanding of what I’m doing when I study the Scriptures?  Is my goal to be faithful to the original biblical authors?  Or is my goal to be faithful to Papa?

~ John Stonecypher (a.k.a., ShackBibleGuy)


[By the way, much thanks to Derek Flood and his recent article that prompted me to start thinking in this direction]

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