Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis

By East, Brad | The Christian Century, February 13, 2019 | Go to article overview

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis


East, Brad, The Christian Century


Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis By Craig A. Carter Baker Academic, 304 pp., $27.99

Christian polemic is a worthy endeavor. Done well, it imitates the fighting words of the prophets, saints, and Jesus himself through confident, courageous exposure of wickedness and error, whether moral, political, or intellectual. Done poorly, it uses the excuse of imminent danger (real or imagined) to justify point scoring, name calling, and scapegoating, all of which are vices and shortcuts in the life of the mind, and nowhere more damaging than in theological argument.

Craig Carter's book is an exercise in Christian polemic. Many of the objects of his critique or praise are deserving of it. But the book's alarmist framing and scorched-earth prose undercut its nobler goals and arguments. For the sake of orientation into Carter's world, consider two sets of claims.

The first: the Bible of Old and New Testaments is the sacred book of the Christian church. As holy scripture, it is the inspired word of God for the people of God. Christians go to it for divine instruction; they expect to hear from it the speech of the living Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It judges, rules, and guides believers as they seek to follow Jesus, and it is the material norm for all sound doctrine. To approach this book as if it were merely, or primarily, of historical interest makes no sense for Christians, whether laypersons, clergy, or scholars. Christian engagement with the Bible, rather, ought to be characterized by a combination of theological convictions and spiritual dispositions, not least regarding scripture's divine authorship and unity in Christ and the accompanying posture of believers' humble trust in the Spirit's illuminating aid in reading it.

Such claims are a mainstay in the Christian tradition. In recent decades they have returned to the fore, in the form of a loose constellation of academic writings on the Bible broadly categorized as "theological interpretation of scripture." Despite its diversity, this semi-movement has proven enormously productive and influential, most of all in questioning the validity of historical criticism's 200-year hegemony in academic biblical interpretation in the West.

Now consider a second set of claims. Any interpretation of the Bible that is not theological interpretation is eo ipso not interpretation at all. The only theological interpretation worthy of the name, moreover, is underwritten by and committed to a metaphysics aptly termed Christian Platonism. Indeed, more or less every orthodox Christian thinker until the 18th century was a Christian Platonist, including Luther, Calvin, and the movements bearing their names. Alas, Christian Platonism was undone by the Enlightenment--a singular, monolithically bad event for which the Protestant Reformation bears no guilt--all of whose heirs in the realm of biblical scholarship exchanged their birthright for pottage, principally in the form of accepting methodological naturalism as the frame for their work. Worst of all, some Christian critics of historical criticism's reign have found refuge in postmodern hermeneutics, a dead end that fails to secure a stable meaning in texts apart from and prior to communal practices of reading.

Such claims lie at the heart of Carter's book. He believes they are a necessary complement to the first set of claims; without them, the latter lack grounding and direction. The resulting polemic is full of harsh language and partisan battle lines. For example:

   Secularists accuse Christians of not
   being able to put empirical history
   and God's action together, but it was
   the secularists who separated them in
   the first place. … 

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