Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism, by Craig A. Carter

I think Carter’s second step in hermeneutics, after exegesis contemplation, is the one that we are not trained for. That’s when most read commentaries, isn’t it? We have been told to avoid things like allegory and sensus plenior, and Carter’s argument is that by doing so we forfeit the inheritance of theological interpretation. The problem with that is that we erode the inherited theology that rests on the hermeneutics of theological interpretation. I can tell you his argument is right having lived it.

The argument Craig Carter makes is that interpretation must be wiser than simply to function on the basis of modern prejudices, that you need to learn to meditate. And this is a skill that Carter is urging on us, in one way, by consulting the more ancient commentaries.

Because that is what they did.

The problem is that in order to meditate, you need a grasp of metaphysics, because that is the realm of meditation, and you need the guidelines of theological formulation because there is a cumulative reserve of correct interpretation. It is a problem because metaphysics are nowadays considered irrelevant, and we are trained to approach the text without that cumulative reserve of correct interpretation.

He further believes the problem is a problem with our whole civilization and traces it back to nominalism and voluntarism, and he believes these bring on the anti-metaphysical posture of the Enlightenment, which leads to an inadvertent recovery of the mythological pagan cosmology, which, as theologians adapt to that attitude, leads to theistic personalism and theistic mutualism, which is being taught in Evangelical seminaries such as the ones I have attended. (In the first seminary I attended, we were required to read both Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and told that God might actually be in time. Fortunately, though I resisted him early, Richard Weaver won out. I must say that in that unexpectedly compendious place I was encouraged, with the aid of A. W. Tozer, into the reading many works of mystical devotion, which opened for me a more contemplative approach. In the second seminary I attended, in some ways less compendious, they used God with Us as a textbook till, I understand, they more recently were buying up the remaining copies to pulp it due to the ecclesiastical controversies it caused.)

Modern exegesis is about letting the meaning arise naturally from the text, rather than using the text as an entrance to a higher reality, as it was for Origen of old. The problem that Carter sees is that meaning does not arise. It is more accurate to say that we need to ascend through the text to a meaning to be found above. Or we supply it from dubious sources, smuggled in.

Modern exegesis foregrounds the mind of man, and Craig Carter argues that hermeneutics should be about understanding the mind of God, contemplating God. Not just the mind of God as a man of the 6th century BC understood it (although that may be better than the mind of God as a man of the 21st century AD understands it) but the mind of God as God reveals it beyond the temporal and cultural limitations of each writer’s circumstances, beyond any devising that from man arises.

I think he is strongest on his sections on Isaiah, and I think, while I don’t too much disagree with him, that he is weakest in his broad descriptions of the history of Western Civilization. He quotes the great Christopher Dawson, a man who was a great historian because he read and thoroughly digested exhaustively the primary sources for the history he was doing. Craig Carter has not done quite the same. But he has done a great deal, and there is a great deal of good in this book. I wonder if he isn’t doing something similar to but deeper than what David Wells was doing way back in his trilogy from the 90s. I look forward to the final volume.

Reflections of the Unexamined Life

I think the woke moment has peaked. I really think it has reached the point where its enormity is obvious and more importantly, understood, expected, no longer puzzling or novel; I think it is palpably tarnishing. I conclude, therefore, that its appeal begins to diminish.

And so . . . what’s the next thing?

* * *
Craig Carter fumbled his way into Twitter and soon mastered it. He’s not yet broken 1K followers, but he does the most interesting things. His book seeks to explain and to a certain extent popularize what you can get in an essay by Steinmetz from a while back. This last, has apparently been percolating through circles in which the procedure and method of the reformers exerts a gravitational pull.

He’s right on hermeneutics, you know. Premodern metaphysics calls for premodern approaches, and the issue of metaphysics is anterior to most other issues, as I was clearly taught at Central Seminary.

I’m, by the way, so glad I attended there. You come out with baggage anywhere you go, in the case of Central, curiously, dispensational. But I’d rather not be ignorant of issues anterior to others than otherwise. I’ve talked to people who can cross and recross Scripture and have mastered all the minutiae of Covenant Theology but are flaccid on their metaphysics and you can tell what is anterior. We either interpret with the tradition of the church through the ages, or we interpret with the tradition of our age.

You need to hammer out your epistemology.

* * *
As anybody who pays attention knows, my attitude toward the USA is that it is grand in its enormities, and I find that grand. I’m not particularly pious when it comes to patriotism, perhaps because I grew up in another country. So I have enjoyed the Trump candidacy and presidency. A lot. And I look forward to more.

I will say, if Tulsi prevails in the Democratic field, I’m going to feel a conflict. Not because I think our president should be presidential. I think the president of the United States of America should be American, and there are few that do American the way el Trump does. The puzzling thing about the whole show is how few of the candidates have any strong appeal. I think it will be sane and interesting if she makes it, and the way these things go, you never know. But then, if she makes it, a lot of people are going to be feeling conflicted, won’t they?

You know what I don’t understand? People who get so worked up about it they can’t listen to the other side, or hear about things they don’t like in politics. Perhaps that is something that has always been the case, but it puzzles and intrigues me. Is there more of it these days?

* * *
The whole thing with AI, space, China, the possibility of Interwebs . . . this decade is shaping up to be a good one. I enjoy Niall Ferguson on the present moment. All kinds of things are going to keep shaking out. Do we at last, for example, have a compelling reason to colonize the moon? That possibility grips me.

And just look at how the world has changed in past decades.

I got a smartphone for the first time last April, and then Google sent me an email showing me all the places I’d taken it to. I was actually told by someone that you can turn that off and if you do they won’t track you. Please! I’ve worked in a fraud department. The point of networking stuff is to have it available to you. The point of a cellphone is that it is always with you, with all its connections, both the ones you desire and the ones that are the price you pay for the things you desire. The way forward is not backward, it is not to treat cars like carriages or to ban the printing press.

* * *
Things are also left behind. All are lamenting the death of Roger Scruton, who shall not be alive for this decade. He was a bit of an enigma, but a good enigma and a very helpful person. I went to events with him twice, thanks to living near Princeton and Villanova. Had him in my sights at Princeton, but couldn’t think of anything to say, so I didn’t approach him. As a result I also have my own gentle regrets.

He has become, like the England for which he wrote an elegy, another of our ideals. And in that sense he will outlast many others.

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.

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.