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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Hermeneutics

The present debates about the doctrine of God are, of course, not limited to that doctrine. There are several areas in play. One of those is obviously theological method, and another related one is the role of philosophy in competent theology. Not unexpectedly, because theology that is Scriptural is interpretation, a third is hermeneutics. That is why Craig Carter set out to write a book about classic theism in Nicene Trinitarian formulation and instead found he had to write about hermeneutics first.

The ground that is shifting in hermeneutics is moving away from an approach that controls for objectivity, reducing the interpretation to a single authorial intent, smuggling the rest that Christians have in the past retrieved in terms of meaning into the various applications. It is, of course, an epistemological shift as well. What can we know, you might ask, when we interpret? What are the objects of knowledge Scripture presents us with? The mind of God, is the answer.

That last is Christian Platonism. I am afraid that is how people with whom I talk think, and it is largely due to ignorance of John Eriugena who would have told you that the objects of knowledge are not in the mind of God, they are in the image of God. How long before Eriugena appears on people’s radars? I have read a description of him as the greatest Christian metaphysician ever, you know. Will Christian Platonism mean that you should know your Eriugena? That would be a pleasant expansion on the Carolingean pause in Medieval Church on the way to the tenth century and Anselm.

Anyway, the answer that I now see being provided, curiously enough, is a return to the quadriga: the literal, the allegorical, the analogical, and the tropological. The hermeneutics of redemptive-historical preaching are allegorical hermeneutics, the difference is that since people today think allegory means irresponsibly imaginative interpretation, the term is avoided and Origen smeared. Which is silly. Origen was often incorrect, but he was seldom irresponsible. (That is a failure of church historians. I think a recovery of the Great Traditions, as Carter advocates, is going to involve speaking more accurately, more honestly in terms of how we present the past.) The Analogical is when we ask how does this passage help me orient my Christian life in terms of the life to come. Hardly something we can afford to suppress (2 Pet 3:11). And the tropological meaning is when you ask about present conduct: Christian morality, ethics, and such matters, which Scripture clearly addresses.

The return to a fourfold interpretation is first to recognize at least a twofold: human and divine. Can God have meant more than the human author intended? That is a question getting an affirmative. Is Scripture a book like other books? Negative. And the whole thing is not really that controversial, if what has been developing can be connected to the right terminology.

On the surface at least, much of what creates the confusion and controversy is a combination of bad historiography and careless terminology. Below the surface has been a whig approach to history (or a protestant triumphalist narrative) in which what we have gained is so prized that we are not reluctant to sever our connections altogether or dangle by the thinnest of implausible threads.

Premature Exultations

I’ve seen my twitter infoscope lighting up recently with comments on Craig Carter’s hot-off-the-press book on the interpretation of Scripture. I don’t actually often buy books, I hate to order from Amazon for several excellent reasons I shall not here go into, and I prefer to make sure of what I’m getting by looking at it in a library first. But I ordered Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition in violation of all the above strictures.

Then I saw the blurbs, three of which mention Christian Platonism. Then I started reading, and there is a whole chapter, apparently, making the case that the Great Tradition is Christian Platonism!

I am a little bit enthusiastic about that!

I should forebear till I see what he says. I should wait till this evening when I’ve actually got the argument of the book in hand, but who can do so?

The debate which simmered into a full boil in the summer of 2016, the Trinity debate, which James Dolezal then drove further in and further up with his challenge to Calvinist Theistic Mutualism, and the resulting confrontation over Classic Theism that is lighting up the radars everywhere has perhaps glimpsed a logical conclusion. It is, as was pointed out back in 2016, a problem of theological method, and that is a problem of hermeneutics, and Craig Carter, it seems to me, has put his finger on what needs to be addressed for everything else to be resolved. This is the heart of the issue, I think.

In the first five centuries of the church creeds were elaborated. Today, you cannot retain a healthy Christianity without acknowledging the authority of those creeds. They interpret Scripture accurately, and because of that have a very high authority derived from the absolute authority of Scripture. In the Reformation confessions were elaborated. To fail to acknowledge the authority of those confessions—within the ecclesial structures of Protestant Christianity—is to expose yourself to a diminished Christianity. So you need the creeds and you need a confession. But four hundred years on, we find that the confessions are being handled in the context of an alien theological and metaphysical culture, one that degrades and reinterprets them. So what is the next step?

That’s why I plan to devour Carter’s book. The Great Tradition may just be the thing. We need a premodern, hermeneutically continuous tradition. We need to be connected back to Origen folks! We need to examine the what and also the why of the philosophical assumptions of the church in its first 1500 years in order to make sure we are handing on what has been handed on to us.

Can you believe it? Hard for me to, but hence the enthusiasm. Creedal, confessional, and now Christian Platonical churches.

The Pseudo Dionysius

One of the ancient influences on Christian theology is a collection of books claiming to be epistles from Dionysius the Aeropagite to Timothy. The name is taken from a convert of Paul’s preaching in Athens mentioned by Luke. The correspondence purports to explain the things known and taught by the Apostle Paul. Timothy, the conceit goes, has had some difficulty understanding the more recondite matters Paul at one or another time touched on, and wishes further elaboration. Happily for him, Dionysius, being a trained thinker gloriously converted, is in a position to oblige.

With the exception of some pockets of Eastern Orthodoxy, I understand, most people today recognize that the writing is pseudonymous, and that its provenance is probably from Syria in the 5th century. This date is given because it is mentioned in another letter early in the 6th century and because its thought bears an uncanny resemblance to the thought of the pagan philosopher Proclus, who was delivered from his material body in the year 485. As to the location, when the thinking going on in these short books is studied and compared with records of what other Christians were thinking, Syria seems to be the most likely location for these interests and pursuits.

This pseudonymous correspondence was an ingenious ruse, and I think so for at least four reasons. (1) The most obvious is that it really seems to have taken almost everybody in for a very long time. There was some dubiety expressed as to the genuineness of the works early on, but that soon vanished. They entered the canon of serious theology, dangerous interpretations were eliminated by none less than Maximus Confessor, the thought was assimilated, and today it is impossible to understand the history of Christian theology without some acquaintance with these curious writings. The ruse worked amazingly well! It is hard for us to take something pseudonymous seriously, but the fact is we have to.

(2) The ruse was also ingenious because the figure himself, Dionysius the Aeropagite, serves as a symbol for what the author wanted to accomplish. He appears to me to have wanted to smuggle a philosophical approach which already informed Christian thought further in. He did it at a time when philosophy was increasingly viewed with suspicion. So he got a trained philosopher who had been converted and put in his mouth the theological insights he had achieved. I think he got the most qualified person you could desire. A less ingenious person might have picked Apollos, or Titus, or even Mary Magdalene—persons with higher profile, having perhaps more described abilities, or enjoying corresponding holy auras. That is not what our subtle Syrian did, and he did well.

What he accomplished was to Christianize the later insights of a philosophical approach already assimilated to Christianity, and in this way he made sure it was fruitful. Christians have always had an uneasy relationship with philosophy. We seem to be more skeptical of its influence than we are of any other activity we share with unbelievers. By the fifth century when philosophy—an ancient critic of pagan religion—was being degraded into a kind of pagan theology, the attitude was understandable. But if you think of it, philosophy had no way forward in paganism, it did have a way forward in Christianity (and later in Islam). Thanks to our ingenious author, that which could be harvested even from late neo-Platonism was stored in the Christian barn.

(3) The Pseudo Dionysius, as he is known, coined a very important word: hierarchy. That, one may say, was one of his main contributions. We moderns are trained and even brainwashed against the concept of hierarchy. What the Pseudo Dionysius did was to employ it for theology. Without hierarchy, there can be no order; there can be no order of all-pervading equality. There was hierarchy before, but the actual word that we use comes from the Pseudo Dionysius, and coining a word that actually stays is an ingenious thing to do. Had he not done so, who would have? Credit to whom credit is due.

(4) Apophatic theology is probably the main contribution of the Pseudo Dionysius. It is theology by negation. If the Pseudo Dionysius did not originate the approach, he certainly brought it into focus. When we speak about God we neither speak univocally or equivocally. When we say that God sees, we know it is a metaphor; when we say that God knows, we understand that it is analogical: there is some way in which it is similar, but not altogether. If it were altogether similar, we would speak univocally and reduce God. If it were altogether dissimilar, we would speak equivocally and say nothing or just nonsense. Both must be avoided. Apophatic theology is a way of approaching this which emphasizes the difference: it wants to proceed with the constant reminder that God is not like us and always hold before us his strangeness. God is so not like us, the Pseudo Dionysius says, that we cannot univocally ascribe any category we know to him, not even being. Bearing in mind this is not all there is to say, that there is a kataphatic approach (which pulls us away from the equivocal error because it is theology by affirmation) and even a hyperphatic (theology by denial and affirmation, by way of eminence), apophatic theology is a useful and necessary part of theology. It keeps theologians on the knife edge of analogical language. As long as it isn’t used to make our language about God merely equivocal, as long as it pulls us away from merely univocal language, it serves to keep reverence in our theological discourse.

Doing theology with reverence is something our age could use more of. Which is why I think the Pseudo Dionysius is worth getting to know. However strange, he has been very influential. If you like savoring the writings of the early church (you should learn to do that), he’s another one you can read through with deliberation and attention.

the unattainable divine What

Dealing with the great problem at the heart of his proposed solution, Karl Barth speaks of the reception of divine revelation as the How. “This How is the attainable human reflection of the unattainable divine What. Our concern here must be with this reflection.”

Concern indeed! Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology, because—I think—he wants a solution to the problem of liberalism’s contradictory anti-supernatural theology (and so whenever I read him protesting natural theology, I supply instead anti-supernatrual theology and what he means then makes sense to me), Barth’s rejection of any natural theology makes his reception of divine revelation problematic. And, I think, modern, as opposed to pre-modern.

I cannot read Barth and believe his god is anything but a god of becoming. It seems to me that that is the modern dilemma: there are no modern theologies in which there is an immutable God. The problem is not simply a denial of classic theism, it is a denial of the corresponding intellectualism. Intellectualism is only possible with language that is analogical or univocal. The anti-supernatural theology of liberalism with its immanent-but-not-transcendent god represented a univocal intellectualism, and Barth reacts to this. But if there is no analogy, which voluntarism essentially denies, then all you have is equivocation. And a god about which nothing can be asserted is conceptually no different from a god of becoming. For all practical theological purposes, all voluntarism, it seems to me, has to involve a god of becoming. Barth’s Trinitarian thought can be reduced to a serial, uninterrupted modalism, which is to say, he has a god of becoming. The stability of the unchanging God of such utter perfection that he is pure actuality is exchanged for the instability of the god of ineffable dynamism, a sheer untamed and indescribable power with no other dominant quality. The problem for Barth, then, is not simply that the Immutable is revealing himself in the realm of the mutable, it is that the unattainable divine What offers no point of reference himself. He has reacted to univocity by affirming equivocity, rather than reverting to analogy.

I am beginning to wonder whether the rejection of natural theology is a position incompatible with pre-modern assumptions. I wonder if you have to be modern or post to accept it. Is it, in short, an innovation subsequently read back into theology and Scripture?

Essentially, you can accept the analogical intellectualism of pre-modern theology, the theology of classic theism, or you can go with the theological manifestation of philosophical nominalism, which is voluntarism, a radical skepticism about our ability to know what is transcendent. You can either deny transcendence by only speaking in terms of exalted human experience, or you can effectively deny transcendence by denying any point of contact whatever. If you want to argue that it is not that simple, I am open to persuasion. At this point I just can’t see how an argument against what I’m saying can be made. The argument for what I’m saying is that of continuity with the assumptions on the basis of which theology was done, of the palpable affinity between nominalism and voluntarism, and of the trajectory we see devolving from both the philosophical and the theological assumptions that are nominalism and voluntarism.

In which Richard Muller Distinguishes Edwards from the Reformed Orthodox Tradition

If you want to understand the thinking of the fathers of the early church, you have to be conversant with the thinking of classical antiquity. One does not come up with sophisticated intellectual tools all by oneself. The Christian thinkers of the early church realized and appreciated this, if they did not always give credit where credit was due. If you want to understand the thinking of the theologians of the middle ages, you need to be familiar with the philosophy that was employed then. You have to understand the Christian Platonism that arose in the first few centuries and was dominant until the twelfth. You will have to understand this Christian Platonism as the context in which a more taxonomically versatile and methodologically explicit Christian Aristotelianism arose in the thirteenth century. If you want to understand the thinking of the Reformers and of Reformed Orthodoxy, you still need to be conversant with the philosophical commitments of medeival theologians because there are more continuities than discontinuities. Richard Muller is eminently conversant in the philosophical approaches and distinctions that inform the theology of the reformation.

This lecture is nothing new, but it was to me, and very interesting. Reformed Protestants with a strong commitment to the authority of confessions have been expressing disquiet about Jonathan Edwards, and this has puzzled me. It is no doubt part of the unease with American Evangelicalism, of which all American Reformed Protestants are in some way a category. They wish always to stress the differences. Jonathan Edwards’ star is bright in the firmament of American Evangelicalism.

Richard Muller argues that Edwards’ determinism is not that of the calvinism of the Reformed tradition. If I understood correctly, he claims that Edwards’ departure consists in claiming for causality a much reduced definition, one in which there is little more than an efficient causality and not the full range of causality the Christian Aristotelianism of Reformed Orthodoxy accepts. The result is that rather than having all the necessary distinctions to allow for free choice, fundamental indeterminacy of the will, and faculty psychology, Edwards develops in a more Amyraldian way, taking as his philosophical forebears Hobbes and Locke.

There is Q & A following, which is worth listening to also.

 

Not Enough Virtue Signaling

You know you’re a theistic mutualist when you write a review of James Dolezal’s book that cracks down on him for not having sufficient theistic mutualism. You know you are a theistic mutualist when you think it is balanced to include some theistic mutualism to the doctrine of God as a concession to modern theologians, since so many of them are. Dolezal’s excellent book argues that theistic mutualism is wrong, and he shows that it is far more pervasive than we might think. This book review inadvertently demonstrates both things.

What is theistic mutualism? It is the confused assertion that God really changes in response to us.

One form of theistic mutualism is process thought and open theism. In open theism God responds to us because, like us, he is not altogether sure what is going to happen and his being is dynamic. That is one way of accounting for what Scripture teaches, but it is not a Christian way of doing so. And yet it is more consistent, alas, than the second form of theistic mutualism, which is Dolezal’s target.

The newer kind of theistic mutualism affirms that the immutable God changes in response to us. The mechanism here is sovereignty. Sovereignty, for Calvinist theistic mutualists, is God deciding he can behave in a way that really contradicts what he actually is; God gets to do so. And it is explained as if this is in some way mysterious and not simply irrational. Not only is God unchanging, they might say, he also can at the same time decide to change . . . somehow. That, they say, is what Scripture plainly teaches.

From Dolezal: “Let us again consider Bruce Ware’s doctrine of God’s relational mutability in chapter 2. Ware writes, ‘God changes from anger to mercy, from blessing to cursing, from rejection to acceptance. Each of these changes is real in God, though no such change affects in the slightest the unchangeable supremacy of his intrinsic nature.’” I know it sounds arrogant to theistic mutualists for me to say that this is nonsense, so I won’t. I’ll go with what Dolezal says, who goes on to argue that if you posit real changes that are not part of God’s nature, then you no longer affirm simplicity in any meaningful way. You can affirm the words, but divine simplicity is an idea incompatible with any divine change, and what divine reality is not . . . all that is in God? Call the change real, unreal, or whatever category you please. Be honest, then, and just say you deny divine simplicity.

At least Andrew Moody is honest: he plainly denies it. “Dolezal’s refusal to allow any complexity in God’s inner life creates some other peculiarities in his theology of creation too.” What is baffling is that he commends Dolezal for affirming it. “As Dolezal rightly points out, if it isn’t a real unity of essence it isn’t monotheism.”

Theistic mutualism can be charitably described as full of paradox, and it can only arise in a theological climate in which the reliable philosophical insights (clear thinking about difficult things) are ignored, distorted, despised, or repudiated altogether. The result is what Dolezal describes in his book. Exhibit A could be the book review.

“Dolezal is right to insist that humans can’t affect who God is in himself. Yet Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that there is a sense in which we can increase God’s glory—in the sense of his renown—by declaring his praises. In fact this is the very reason we exist.”

What is the word ‘yet’ doing there? What exactly is it Moody affirms? That we somehow enhance what God is in himself by bringing him glory?

I love how he makes it sound as if Dolezal has denied the very reason for our existence! What enormity will Dolezal commit next? Here’s my absolute favorite thing Moody says: “Unhappily, however, there is not a single reference to the cross in this book.”

What would a reference to the cross add to the argument of this book? It amounts to a statement about not understanding what is being argued. The book needs a reference to the cross like it needs a reference to Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty or Baptist ecclesiology. It has nothing to do with what he’s arguing, it just sounds pious.

Who would have thought there are so many things you can say about God that you can write a whole book on the doctrine of God and not mention the cross? Could it be that Dolezal talks about it when he’s dealing with Christology, or even Soteriology or writing on the doctrine of God exhaustively rather than just refuting theistic mutualism?

I wonder, is it that it is reviewed by the Gospel Coalition? Is that why the cross comes up? If you add things that do not have to do with the argument but push buttons for certain people you know what you’re doing? Virtue signaling.

And that is the real problem with Dolezal’s book, isn’t it? There is not enough Gospel virtue signaling.  The problem is that virtue signaling is not sound judgment or a persuasive argument, which is what Dolezal’s book actually contains.

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Note: David Bentley Hart calls theistic mutualism monopolytheism, and if that terms works for you (it is my favorite) then it explains a lot. Hart’s argument is that when you deviate from classical theism what you get is a lesser god, a god of the realm of the pretty amazing gods of polytheism but not the utterly transcendent God of classical theism. What sets the God of classical theism apart? Incomprehensibility, immutability, impassibility, infinity, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and above all, simplicity; he is God without potency because he is pure act, altogether perfect and in no way potentially so; there is in God no distinguishing being and existence, for his being is absolute—there cannot not be God. If you deny that which makes him wholly other, even if you nitwittedly first affirm his wholly-otherness, because you don’t understand what can and has to be understood about his transcendence you have put him in the realm of the gods, which is the inferior realm of polytheism. So when you diminish the one true God but still claim only one, Hart calls you a monopolytheist.