Transforming Texts: Review of Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition

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Transforming Texts: Review of Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition
Transforming Texts: Review of Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition

Carter, Craig A.  Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis. Baker Academic 2018

What has the Academy to do with the local Church? Have you ever tried to read an “academic commentary” in preparation to teach a Sunday school class, or for your personal benefit, or for family devotions? What was that experience like? For many (including seminary graduates, or those who have done academic study of the Scriptures), there is a disconnect between what the academy (or commentary) teaches, and what the church believes and practices. Why is this so? Does the Church need to catch up to the times? Is there a problem in the academic tradition? What can, or should we do?

I have read substantially on hermeneutics,  and on interpreting Scripture, as well as on interpreting legal texts, contracts, and cases. This is a field of study I enjoy. But I have not been so stimulated, challenged, and affirmed in my faith reading a book on Interpreting Scripture before.

Why You Should Read Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition.

Carter seeks a solution for this disconnect between the academic and lived (preached/devotional) reading of Scripture in his latest book. He tells us that this is the first in a planned two-part study hoping to bring today’s church answers coming from the proven wisdom of the ages. For Carter, the church today has a glaring blind spot, and he uses strong language and pointed illustrations to demonstrate this point. In one of his more famous quotes calling modern readers to consult old books, C.S. Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” Lewis’ wisdom should be heeded as a reader approached Carter’s book.

Carter writes as part of “the ressourcement movement,” which seeks to “return to the sources” of the Great Tradition (or heritage) of Christianity.  The theme of this book, however, is one specific area of ressourcement: “The present book is an exercise in ressourcement that attempts to recover classical theological interpretation of Scripture for the church’s benefit today.” (preface)

Carter spends the first half of the book unpacking the problem, and the second half providing tools of ressourcement. What is the problem? Well, according to Carter, the academic study of Scripture (explicitly, or implicitly and not always consciously) has bought into the naturalistic assumptions of the Enlightenment. He gets the heart of the issue, “What I am attempting to call attention to here, which may be new for some, is the interconnection between metaphysics, method, social location, and doctrine. (p. 15).

For Carter, this means that the reader of Scripture must “restore the delicate balance between biblical exegesis, trinitarian dogma, and theological metaphysics that was upset by the heretical, one-sided, narrow-minded movement that is misnamed “the Enlightenment.” (p. 26).

Carter’s Point and a Summary of Part One: Theological Hermeneutics

The Enlightenment was not, according to Carter, a natural, neutral advance in general knowledge. Instead, it was a deliberate intellectual program aimed at replacing the Christian way of viewing the world that gave birth to the Great Tradition, modern science, and Western Civilization:

Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes were convinced that the political power of the church could be broken and peace ensured in civil society only if a new method of interpretation could be devised that would make the Bible the symbol of the new religion of reason, although, of course, they would not have put it that way. (p. 13).

This new method of interpretation (the historical-critical method) has won the day. It is the only pathway open in most University religious studies programs. It is also at the heart of many conservative teaching institutions. As Christian scholars rightly responded to the new method, they made a mistake, according to Carter. The mistake was battling on the grounds chosen by the opponent. Because the new methods starting point is not neutral, it presupposes its endpoint, “Naturalism is the key methodological presupposition of the historical-critical method of biblical study; it is what makes the various historical-critical methods different from other methods of biblical interpretation. (p. 16).

The Troubles of Historical-Critical Exegesis

Carter’s book is filled with practical illustrations of the difficulties this causes. How do we read the Old Testament? Can we apply Isaiah 53 to Jesus? How can we account for miracles in a naturalistic worldview that rules them out of bounds?

Carter demonstrates that the historical-critical tradition has run its course and is characterized by four problems (p. 22-23):

  • First, it is characterized by chronic instability.
  • Second, we see methodological fragmentation.
  • Third, there is increasing relativism as to the results of the investigation of the biblical text.
  • Fourth, higher criticism causes the Bible to go silent in the churches.

In the end, this results in a disastrous situation in which, “Laypeople are told that they cannot interpret the Bible correctly without advanced degrees, and so they do not read it very much. Who can blame them? There is a famine of the Word of God in liberal Protestantism (p. 23).

Carter’s Solution and a summary of Part Two: Recovering Premodern Exegesis

Fortunately, Carter provides a way forward. Though he will urge us to advance, by having us go backward. Carter presents a positive case for moving forward that deserves our careful consideration. The first step is to get our metaphysics re-established on a Christian foundation, “The Great Tradition was a three-legged stool made up of spiritual exegesis, Nicene dogma, and Christian Platonist metaphysics.” (p. 111).

A Christian Theological Philosophy

The Philosophical System Carter calls Christian Platonism, is basically just Christian theology discussed within the framework of Platonic language that is found in all the great Creeds. Just as God’s providence provided the uniform language of Greek and the uniform politics and peace of Rome, it also provided a philosophical framework in which Christianity could express itself. It can be characterized by five summary points, “antimaterialism, antimechanism, antinominalism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism” (p. 90). These points stand in stark contrast to Enlightenment rationalism, which is material, mechanical, nominalistic, relativistic and skeptical.

Carter will argue throughout this work, and continue in his planned sequel:

Twentieth-century trinitarian theology is not even aware of how unorthodox it is because, in the poignant words of Lady Galadriel, “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Modern theology has forgotten that metaphysics cannot be ignored without exegesis and doctrine being negatively affected. And not just any metaphysics will do. Christian Platonism was carefully and painstakingly crafted over centuries to serve as a context for reflection on Scripture that leads to true knowledge of the living God and enables true doctrinal statements about him. (preface)

Carter does caveat that this plan for ressourcement is not merely a turning back of the clock. It is “not that we must slavishly copy and repeat the exact exegetical choices of the fathers in every respect but rather that their conviction that “Christ is the hidden treasure present in the visibilia of the Old Testament Scriptures” is as true today as it ever was. (p. 35).

A Christian Hermeneutic for Interpretation

The positive case for this renewed focus of classical interpretation is developed by a study of several great leaders of the early church, including Justin the Martyr, Ambrose of Milan and Irenaeus, followed by a more in-depth study of how Augustine and Calvin used the traditional approach which Carter classifies as “letting the literal sense control all meaning” (p. 161).

The shift occurs in our hermeneutical starting point, “we should consider moving the exclusive focus away from human authorial intention to the meaning of the text itself.” (p. 103).

Carter shows how the literal sense to Augustine and Calvin, treated on this basis contained a fuller sense than the historical-critical school dominant today would allow. He lays out his basic point: “In a nutshell, my argument shall be that the classical approach to interpretation has always allowed for a fuller meaning (sensus plenior) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit without opening the door to interpretive anarchy. Reading the text of Scripture under the guidance of the tradition of creedal orthodoxy allows for new light to break forth without that new light shattering the vessel that contains it (p.28).

This is illustrated in a really helpful section on Augustine’s prosopological interpretation of the Psalms. Having studied the psalms, preached on the psalms and read them devotionally for years, I feel able to give a fairly ‘expert’ affirmation to this section. Augustine views the Psalms the way the New Testament views them:

Jesus Christ is both the content of Scripture and the interpreter of Scripture; in his exposition of the “psalms of the crucified,” Augustine allows Jesus Christ to exercise his lordly prerogative to determine the meaning of his own Word. This is the highest and most profound implication of the early church’s use of prosopological exegesis, and it comes to its climax in Augustine’s sermons. (p. 215).

Conclusions: I recommend Interpreting Scripture With the Great Tradition.

There is much to commend in Carter’s book. Yes, there are some points on which people will quibble with his perspective. I would encourage thoughtful Pastors and Christian lay leaders to read this book for themselves and come to their own conclusions on the details.

It is important to note that Carter is not calling for us to give up on language and archeology studies and other modern discoveries. He wants us to continue to use the best tools. What he is calling for is a change in our hermeneutic, which will shift our methodology and reset the way we use and evaluate the tools at our disposal. Carter believes we will find, “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.” (preface).

Carter’s often repeated assertion that what he is arguing for is exactly what the best pulpits are now and have always been preaching really stood out to me:

the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy has an almost two-millennia tradition of consensus on Christian dogma— the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology— built on the foundation of a tradition of objective exegesis. Theologians keep coming to the same consensus about what the Bible means, and preachers keep proclaiming that message of salvation through Jesus Christ to the world; the result is growing, thriving churches that witness to Christ in various centuries and diverse cultures all over the world. In contrast, the historical-critical movement spawns atheists and heretics, is consistently rejected by the faithful when it tries to preach its message openly, and results in the numerical, doctrinal, moral, and spiritual decline of any denominations that make the mistake of allowing it unfettered control of its seminaries and pulpits. (p. 94).

This call to rethink our perspective in our study of Scripture may pull at some readers in the same way that ripping off a band-aide does. It may tear at some sensitive points and cause unpleasant short-term feelings. But, in my view, this discomfort leads to some satisfying long-term perspective. Find the book at Amazon.com; .ca; .co.uk .

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