Interview with Gerald Bray
Interview by Matthew Barrett
I had the pleasure of asking Gerald Bray to answer a handful of questions about his new book, Galatians, Ephesians, in the new Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series, edited by Timothy George. Gerald Bray (M.Litt., D.Litt., University of Paris-Sorbonne) taught full-time at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology, and Latin from 1993 to 2006. In 2006, he was named research professor, and is currently engaged in writing and speaking on a variety of theological issues. A prolific author, Bray has published many scholarly articles and books, including The Doctrine of God in the Contours of Christian Theology series (of which he is also the general editor) and Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. We are grateful to have Gerald Bray with us once again to bring us into the world of the Reformation.
When did you first become interested in the sixteenth-century reformers and why?
As a Protestant from birth I have always had some interest in the Reformers, but this became serious when I was asked to teach theology in a church training college and I had to bone up on what they had taught that made them so important historically.
What is the structure and aim of your new book, Galatians, Ephesians in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series?
The book goes through the epistles verse by verse, selecting comments made by the Reformers about them. The aim is to present Reformation teaching fairly but also in a way that is relevant to modern preachers and teachers. My hope is that the book will be used as a resource for pastors in preparing their sermons and Bible lessons.
What reformers have you chosen to represent the Reformation (and post-Reformation) and out of these which ones do you think readers will be less familiar with?
The great Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin chose themselves. Beyond that, I tried to find writers who represented the main teachings of the Reformation and who had a practical application for them. It is hard to know which of them will be more or less familiar to modern readers, but even if some names may mean something (like Martin Bucer, for example) hardly anybody today will have read their commentaries on Galatians or Ephesians. Most of them are available only in Latin and have not been reprinted in modern editions. I think it is safe to say that almost everything in my commentary, apart from extracts from Luther and Calvin, will be unknown to almost everybody today.
You mention in your Introduction that the early church fathers seem to have read the New Testament through the lens of the gospel of John. But for the reformers Pauline theology takes center stage. Can you explain why there became such a focus on the Pauline epistles, especially Galatians and Ephesians? And what historical-theological debates in the sixteenth-century made Paul’s epistles so relevant?
I think there were two main reasons for the concentration on Paul in the sixteenth century. One of them is that he comes across as an individual to whom we can relate. He speaks about himself, his personal struggles and his hopes for his own mission, all things that sixteenth-century people warmed to, thanks to the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, and so on. The second reason is that Paul’s epistles deal with the church and its problems, which were acute in the sixteenth century. There is no doubt that Luther saw Galatia as the prototype of Germany as it was in his day. Ephesus, too, was a centre of idolatry, which was one of the main accusations leveled against the Roman Catholic Church of his time.
The reformers liked the book of Ephesians for many reasons but one of them being Paul’s emphasis on predestination. Would you explain why the doctrine of predestination, which eliminated human works in salvation, was so crucial to the reformers, especially in light of their debates with the Roman Catholic Church?
Predestination was important because it took salvation out of the hands of man and put it firmly where it belongs – in the hand of God. If someone was predestined, he could not be kept out of heaven by a powerful church, nor did it matter if he was of low social standing. To people who lived in a stratified society where upward mobility was virtually unknown, predestination was a very liberating doctrine, because a child of God could defy the forces of this world and prevail against them. Such a child of God was also in no danger of losing his salvation, because it was guaranteed in heaven. This gave him an assurance that, whatever might happen to him on earth, he was safe in the arms of Jesus. That is a powerful reassurance to people who are lost in an uncertain world.
Sometimes it is thought that since the reformers rejected the view of Tradition held by the Roman Catholic Church that the reformers rejected tradition altogether. However, you make it clear in your book that the reformers valued the church fathers and early church councils enormously and did affirm a tradition that they saw as imperative to theological interpretation. Can you explain the difference between the Roman Catholic view of tradition and that of the reformers? What church fathers did the reformers appeal to the most and why?
The Roman Catholic view of tradition was that it was an additional body of authority, added to the Bible and independent of it, which was nevertheless of equal importance because it was the lens through which Scripture was refracted and interpreted. The Reformers lived at a time when new discoveries were being made (like ancient manuscripts of the Bible which contained a more accurate text than the one previously used) and they could not accept that traditions based on faulty information had any real authority. They wanted to go back to the sources, which in their view were the only reliable authorities. At the same time, they knew that they were part of an ongoing Christian community and they valued those who had interpreted the Scriptures before their time. They were not uncritical of them and were prepared to correct their mistakes when they became apparent, but they also recognized that God had preserved his church through the generations and they affirmed their own solidarity with the pattern of truth that they discerned in the classical spiritual writers of antiquity.
You mention how the reformers did not typically appeal to Origen, due to the fact that he was condemned for heresy and because of his allegorical hermeneutic. How did the hermeneutical method of the reformers differ from those fathers who used an allegorical method? What church father did the reformers find themselves in most continuity with when it came to hermeneutics?
On the whole, the Reformers preferred the literal sense of the Scriptures and resisted the temptation to read hidden meanings into the text when they were not there. Their favourite ancient commentator was John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople for a few years in the early fifth century. Chrysostom left a large number of sermons in which he applied the literal sense of the Biblical text to practical affairs. He also worked his way systematically through the books of the New Testament, which appealed to the Reformers.
How instrumental was Ephesians and Galatians to Martin Luther in his conversion experience and in his understanding of justification by faith alone as a leader of the Protestant Reformation?
Luther said little about Ephesians, but Galatians was central to his conversion experience. It is an epistle that deals with the relationship between external religious rites and internal spiritual experience. Like Paul, Luther felt that an emphasis on external things like circumcision (or in his case, devotional exercises like fasting) distracted people from the heart of the matter, which was their sinful state before God, and persuaded them that as long as they did the right things they had nothing to worry about. Luther discovered from his own experience that sin could not be eradicated so easily, and Paul’s insistence in Galatians that a believer must be crucified with Christ in order to live in him was fundamental to his spiritual understanding.
How did the reformers define the gospel and what passages in Galatians and Ephesians were essential proof-texts in their defense of the gospel?
The Gospel was the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had paid the price for human sin, broken the bonds of hell and raised up a new people who would live with him for ever. Key verses in Galatians were 2:20 (I have been crucified with Christ) and 3:26 (In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith). In Ephesians, 2:8 (by grace you have been saved through faith) and 3:14-19 were especially significant. But it is important to remember that the Reformers did not break the epistles down into verses in the way that we do (verses were not invented until about 1550, after Luther’s death!) and were struck by the force of their overall argument more than perhaps we tend to be. To appreciate them it is useful to read the epistles straight through, without paying too much attention to the internal divisions, and feel the impact.
How can we learn from the reformers’ exposition of Galatians and Ephesians today, especially in light of twenty-first century debates?
Times and circumstances change, but the essential message of the Gospel stays the same because it is a message about what God has done for us in Christ that is of eternal validity. The Reformers knew that there were historical circumstances that had led Paul to write to the churches in the way that he did, but they also knew that those circumstances were the occasion for him to expound eternal truth. Perhaps this is the single most important lesson we can learn from them today. Modern Biblical study tends to be preoccupied with historical details, not all of which can be known with any degree of certainty, and assumes that these details (‘context’) ought to determine the way we interpret them now. The Reformers, on the other hand, saw beyond the details to the underlying principles, which they understood to be valid for all time. It is this sense of enduring permanence that we need to recover, and the Reformers, who lived in an age almost as distant from that of Paul as our own is, can point us in the right direction here.
Gerald Bray (M.Litt., D.Litt., University of Paris-Sorbonne) taught full-time at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology, and Latin from 1993 to 2006. In 2006, he was named research professor, and is currently engaged in writing and speaking on a variety of theological issues. A prolific author, Bray has published many scholarly articles and books, including The Doctrine of God in the Contours of Christian Theology series (of which he is also the general editor) and Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. He served as editor for The Anglican Canons 1529–1947 and Tudor Church Reform, which contains the Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, and for three volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series. His most recent book, Translating the Bible, was published by the Latimer Trust in July 2010. Bray is a minister in the Church of England.
Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals and he also writes at Blogmatics. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.