Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern ExegesisCraig Carter’s argument in this book is that modernity has changed our attitude toward Biblical interpretation, and if we wish to interpret as the church whose doctrine and practice we inherit interpreted, we need to recover the premodern attitude toward biblical interpretation. He explains that originally he set out to write a book on the classic theism of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine; but then he found that before he could do so, a preliminary volume on the interpretive practices that gave rise to that theology was required.

I think his argument is sound. Carter begins with Isaiah 53, posing the interpretive problem of whether we can legitimately see Christ in that text. He points out that modern hermeneutical procedure goes against it. He also points out that Christian homiletics nevertheless harvest Christ from that classic text, having the example of Scripture to guide them. What he wants to show is the inconsistency between our actual practices on the one hand and the hermeneutical approach we get from the academy on the other.

What Carter wants is a way to bring theory and practice together. He does this first by setting up the theoretical framework and second by vindicating his framework in historical examples. The theoretical framework, he argues, must be premodern. Modernity evacuates the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions without which Scripture cannot be interpreted coherently. He defines Christian Platonism as an adaptation of Platonism which took place in the early centuries of the church. Any historian reading this section is going to feel that the historiography is a bit thin. There is plenty of room for work to be done that will make a more solid case for the adaptation of ancient philosophy to Christian purposes. But we must remember that Carter is writing a preliminary book to deal with another concern. He cannot get lost in the endless regression that is the historian’s constant temptation.

Carter sticks to Lloyd Gerson’s analysis of Platonism (Gerson who argues that Aristotle was for all practical purposes a Platonist) and defines it as: antimaterialist, antimechanist, antinominalist, antirelativist and antiskepticist (79-81, for more detail). It is not a bad definition of Platonism, but it is hardly the most satisfying one. One of the weaknesses of the book is that since Carter is trying to make a case without provoking unnecessary fights about it, he thins Platonism out so much that he has no trouble calling Calvin a Christian Platonist, nor including Vanhoozer and Carson in his Great Tradition (Great Tradition = Christian Platonism). There is a good point to be made by this, but he is opening his thesis to criticism which will destabilize, I am afraid, some of what he achieves. Still, if he is read in the spirit of his argument, it is not altogether implausible.

Carter not only sets up a theoretical framework to explain his proposal, he then goes on to defend it from history, making a series of points about how his Great Tradition is a demonstrable tradition of interpreting Scripture Christologically, responsibly controlled by the literal meaning, though not limited to it, and rather than implementing typology—which he dismisses as a modern strategy and not a premodern one—is allegorical and prosopological. Prosopological exegesis, to risk being reductive, is finding the face of Christ in Scripture by hearing his voice in the Old Testament specially.

Carter’s explanation of prosopological exegesis demonstrates one of the strengths of this book: Carter is able to synthesize and assimilate diverse and large quantities very recent scholarship. It is a great shift in biblical interpretation, or perhaps the most unanticipated aspect of what is shifting (back—as Carter would remind us). It may be bewildering, but the bibliography is generous and more than competent. Skeptics should inquire before dismissing, because Carter gives every evidence of knowing what he is doing, for all that he does seem sometimes to be rushing ahead too fast. His bibliographical support ought to be considered carefully.

Carter concludes the book demonstrating from Isaiah 53 how the Great Tradition operates, using as his chief example Alec Motyer. It is a good strategy, calculated to allay suspicions. I think Carter knows that the terminology of Christian Platonism and of an exegesis continuous with the practice of Origen and Agustine is not calculated to allay suspicion, and so his exposition and argument endeavor to do so, though sometimes with perhaps too much zeal.

Carter is right. What is happening in this book is part of the ongoing recovery of a catholic approach to Scripture and a general attitude of ressourcement in protestant theology. He very helpfully lays out the cards of his influences and where his sympathies lie in the first chapter. We need books like this because we are finding that our doctrinal formulation has no stable meaning unless it is in the context of a theological culture. That means that a bare subscription to a confession without a culture of interpretation is not enough. A theological culture is a theological tradition, and if theology is Scriptural, then it is an interpretive tradition. Carter has opened a way, and much remains to be done and to follow. Christian Platonism requires better exposition, better understanding, better definition, and it deserves much more attention. But Craig Carter is opening the way. This book is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, no doubt about it.

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