A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Kenny Silva
In this work, Craig Carter—Professor of Theology at Tyndale University College and Seminary—takes aim at the current state of biblical interpretation in the academy. Biblical scholarship, he argues, has been held captive by a modernist philosophical worldview which leaves no room for a properly theological understanding of Scripture and its reading. Consequently, pastors leave seminary with all the best tools in historical-critical exegesis, yet very little preparation to minister Christ in and through the text. Carter knows this from his personal experience as a pastor. His goal, then, is to reacquaint his readers with the ‘strange new world of the Bible’ by way of the strange old world of premodern exegesis (i.e., the Great Tradition). Carter sees this not as a repudiation of scientific exegesis but its recovery. How? If a truly scientific method is that which demonstrates fidelity to the matter under investigation, he contends, then “the historic approach to exegesis will be found to be the truly scientific and rational method of exegesis, and the historical-critical method will be judged to have been ideologically driven and philosophically deficient” (xviii).
In his introductory chapter, Carter briefly recounts the widening of the post-Enlightenment gulf between academic and ecclesial interpretation. On one end lies naturalism—a philosophical commitment which demands the reading of Scripture as though it were ‘any other book.’ On the other lies “a Christian Platonist metaphysic” in which inspiration, providence, and illumination feature, not as psychological flights of fancy or doctrinal tools of sociological oppression, but ontological realities which necessarily impinge upon our reading of the text (16). Carter’s burden is to call readers of Scripture to acknowledge their place within that metaphysical reality and to interpret its words accordingly. His plan unfolds in two parts. The first (Chapters 2-4), provides a theological ontology of Scripture and its readers, as well as an account of that ontology’s demise at the hands of modernity. The second (Chapters 5-7) constitutes Carter’s efforts to retrieve patristic, medieval, and Reformation exegesis for the sake of the contemporary Church.
In Chapter 2, Carter sets out to ground the doctrine of Scripture in the classical doctrine of God. If hermeneutics is to be repaired, then theology (not philosophy) is the tool for the job. Here, Carter follows John Webster in seeking to develop a theological account of the biblical text and its readers. In pursuing this account, Carter acknowledges here and at several points in the book his fundamental agreement with the “sacramental ontology” of Hans Boersma and the nouvelle theologie (34). Insofar as the written word of Scripture participates in the divine Word, its reading constitutes a sacramental encounter with the transcendent, personal God who inspired it then and illumines it still (58).
As the Word of God speaks through the human words of Scripture, so the words of Scripture participate in the Word of God and thus mediate him to us creatures sacramentally. The scriptural words mediate the reality of the Second Person of the Trinity to us as creaturely realities taken up into God and sanctified for this purpose (59).
Having thus far made his case on biblical and theological grounds, Carter devotes Chapter 3 to detailing the metaphysical foundations of the Great Tradition. Here, he surveys the complicated relationship between Christianity and Platonism, showing how the Fathers found it useful in explicating a Christian theological worldview—especially over against the metaphysics of Epicurus, Zeno, and Democritus. As one would expect, Augustine features prominently in the discussion. Helpfully, Carter appeals to Lloyd Gerson’s model of “Ur-Platonism” to show how the anti-materialist, anti-mechanist, anti-nominalist, anti-relativist, and anti-skeptical elements of Platonism made it a serviceable ally in Christian theologizing. A clear point of divergence arose, however, in the realm of history. According to Carter, “what makes Christian Platonism uniquely ‘Christian’ is a cluster of doctrines centered on creation and the incarnation… Christianity is thus also a matter of horizontal relationships as well as vertical ones” (84).
Carter wraps up Chapter 3 by showing how modernity has amounted to a “point-by-point rejection” of Christian Platonism (85). This sets him up nicely for Chapter 4, in which he reconsiders the history of biblical interpretation in light of modernity’s revolt against metaphysics. After spending considerable time, with the help of Brevard Childs, on the interpretive implications of the Great Tradition’s metaphysical position, Carter turns to the “Great Disruption” which biblical exegesis encountered in modernity (123). The myth of progress is much to blame. The story of interpretation, as told by historical critics, is one of triumph: science over superstition, rationalism over fideism, empiricism over dogmatism. Carter pushes back, calling for an abandonment of the liberal project and a rejection of the modern historical-critical method (126). Lest we misread him, Carter is not rejecting the tools of modernity so much as the (anti)metaphysical environment in which they were crafted. Indeed, he affirms textual criticism, the study of history, and the right use of reason. Only, we should understand these tools as products of the tradition, not modernity: “what was good in the Enlightenment was not new, and what was new was not good” (126).
In Chapter 5, Carter sets out to answer Part 1’s concluding call for ressourcement. He does so by arguing that we consider the Christocentric reading of Scripture as, first and foremost, a spiritual practice. Carter goes on to develop 3 points with the help of Ambrose, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. First, to perceive the unity of the Bible, we need the illumination of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). This is what makes interpretation a spiritual practice (131). Second, the prophecy-and-fulfillment approach to linking Jesus and the Old Testament arises out of Jesus’ own teaching (Luke 24:25-27), as well as the apostolic preaching (139). Third, the rule of faith understood as the skopos of the entire Bible, “helps to ensure that the interpretation of a given text does not contradict the Bible as a whole” (149). All of this assumes a metaphysic in which God can and does speak by way of His one, unified Word. The Fathers were consciously aware of this ontological state of affairs and interpreted the Bible accordingly. Thus, the Christocentric unity of Scripture was not a reading-in of later historical events and dogmas, but the reading-out of the Word behind the word. Historical critics see this as an imposition of foreign theological constructs. The Great Tradition, on the other hand, regards it as a faithful reading of Scripture according to its divine subject matter.
In chapter 6, Carter asks how we can allow the literal sense to control meaning without confining it to the narrow parameters set by naturalism. Carter wants the literal sense to control all meaning, but not in a manner that rules out “a spiritual meaning that can be described as sensus plenior or the spiritual or christological sense of the text” (164). This, over against historical criticism, is the truly “scientific” reading of the text because it adequately reckons with what the text is and to what it refers. History, he avers, is not the issue here: Christianity is a historical religion and, thus, history matters immensely. What Carter opposes, however, is a definition of history in which the literal sense is swallowed up by naturalism.
According to Great Tradition, says Carter, “the ‘literal sense’ refers to the meaning of the biblical text, whether that meaning is conveyed through literal statements or through some sort of figural language and whether that meaning is what the human author consciously intended or is an extension of the human author’s intention implanted in the text by the Holy Spirit through inspiration” (167). The spiritual sense grows out of and remains consistent with the literal sense (170, cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12). Together, they constitute Calvin’s “plain sense”: “a combination of the literal and spiritual senses, which are unified by Jesus Christ as the great theme and center of the Old and New Testaments understood as one book (Luke 24:27)” (176). This, of course, is not all that different from Aquinas’ version of the fourfold sense (181). Thus, “the Reformers are better understood as refiners of the Great Tradition of Christian exegesis than as founders of an alternative tradition” (182).
In chapter 7, Carter seeks to recover the Fathers’ christological reading of the Old Testament. This, he says, is the climax of the book, for it brings together his theological, hermeneutical, and methodological arguments to “discover a way of interpreting the Old Testament that brings the spiritually receptive reader into a direct relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who is not only seen in the text but also speaks in and through it” (192). He does this, first, through a recovery of the early Church practice of prosopological exegesis. His prime biblical example is Heb 10:5-7, in which the author presents the words of Ps 40:6-8 as though spoken by Christ. This reading strategy features heavily in the pro-Nicenes and is “crucial to the emergence of patristic trinitarian theology” (200). The justification for it lies, once again, in the Great Tradition’s metaphysical convictions: “the Scriptures speak of the being of the one true God and that this One speaks through the text as a living presence in the text” (215). The story’s main character is its author, and He does not cease to speak in and through His word.
In the conclusion, Carter returns to the dilemma which marked his early pastoral career: how can we minister Christ in and through a text like Isaiah 53? In what amounts to a recapitulation of the preceding chapters, Carter goes on to paint the opposition between premodern and modern exegesis, not as two stages in the development of biblical interpretation, but two rival traditions locked in an ongoing conflict. Historical critics focus on the historical situation behind the text; the Great Tradition cares about the text itself (232). The former tends toward destructive analysis; the latter aims for constructive synthesis (233). Critical scholars cede interpretive authority to historical reconstruction; premoderns defer to the canon (234). Critics want to know what the text meant; the Tradition wants to know what it means (237).
For evangelical readers who’ve not yet waded into the swirling waters of theological interpretation and ressourcement, Carter’s frequent interaction with Catholic voices may present something of a concern. Moreover, for those of us who’ve come to regard “tradition” as a four-letter word, Carter’s titular and ongoing appeal to the “Great Tradition” is likely to raise a red flag as well. Thankfully, Carter allays many of our concerns in due course. He has no interest in jettisoning sola Scriptura, only in helping his readers better understand what constitutes a right reading of the authoritative Word of God.
In many respects, Carter’s book represents a helpful perspective on how to read Scripture “after” modernity. The (anti)metaphysical conditions set by the Enlightenment have indeed hampered the work of biblical interpretation in the academy. Many would argue that, even amongst evangelical scholars, modern presuppositions have crept into the work of biblical interpretation and erected an unhealthy wall of partition between the text’s meaning to its original audience and its significance for the church today. In this respect, Carter’s is a clarion call to evangelicals who wish to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches today in a way that does not impose our own ideas onto the text.
Carter is right to reject Enlightenment-inspired naturalism and to retrieve a theological hermeneutic more serviceable to the Bible’s own view of the Creator, His creatures, and the textual means He uses to communicate Himself to us. One might ask, however, whether Platonism—even “Christian” Platonism—best accomplishes that task. Does a sacramental ontology appropriately describe the God-world relationship we encounter in Scripture? Does a Christianized version of Platonic idealism best convey the manner in which we participate in the heavenly realities, or might we find a more suitable alternative in the biblical concepts of covenant and union with Christ? How one answers these questions will invariably influence his or her evaluation of Carter’s proposal. Even so, what he offers is far closer to the biblical mark than the naturalism to which it is opposed.
It’s not always clear who Carter is talking to. While the book is not overly technical in nature, it does lend itself more readily to those interpreters who regularly interact with the academy (i.e., scholars, seminary-trained pastors, and highly informed laypeople). Rhetorically, Carter’s strong words often betray more of a “preaching to the choir” than a winsome word to the academy. Especially in his treatment of modernity, Carter offers a fairly sweeping historical overview of the decline of biblical interpretation. For those already convinced, his narrative represents a helpful summary. For those who don’t buy into the story as he tells it, however, Carter has not done much to win them over to his side.
In all, this book is worthy of serious consideration by pastors and academics alike. For biblical scholars who’ve been trained to look on premodern exegesis with suspicion or contempt, Carter offers a much more salient and helpful account of the theological hermeneutic that undergirds the Great Tradition. More importantly, from Carter’s perspective, this book gives pastors a robust theological standpoint from which to preach Christ as the true source, center, and end of all Scripture.
Kenny Silva is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis