“Christian Platonism” and Christological Interpretation: A Response to Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition

Daniel J. Treier
Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Theology
Wheaton College

Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition has deservedly garnered significant attention due to its learned and passionate call for Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (in the words of the subtitle).[1] With appreciation for Carter’s directness, in response I will “think out loud” here, exploring a conceptual disagreement rather than our common ground and the book’s considerable virtues.

Two years earlier, I responded to Ephraim Radner’s book on a similar subject, which led to a case study involving James Scott’s edited volume on Scripture and exile. Prompted by N. T. Wright’s work, that volume contained blunt exchanges between biblical scholars such as Wright and theologians such as Radner and Hans Boersma. Uncomfortably, I found myself sympathizing with both sides.[2]

In the present situation, similarly, I sympathize with both Carter’s retrieval effort and Iain Provan’s manifesto for “seriously literal” interpretation.[3] Since both also generate concerns, though, I have been forced to contemplate whether my hermeneutical thinking is incoherent or indecisive. Is it possible to maintain both the Protestant primacy of the literal sense and the hermeneutical pertinence of a classically Christian theological ontology? Answering that question requires assessing Carter’s advocacy of “Christian Platonism” (hereafter the scare quotes are usually assumed).

This assessment will take four steps. First, representative aspects of my intellectual journey suggest that evangelical ontology is philosophically underdeveloped, prone to particular overreactions. Second, biblical teaching is underdetermined regarding a particular theoretical system of ontology, so that Christian Platonism is not necessary for faithful interpretation of Scripture. Third, however, Christian Platonism has been providentially inherited by churchly interpreters of Scripture, so that it cannot be flatly rejected as unbiblical; indeed, within the sphere of Trinitarian and Christological dogma, this heritage should have some privileged influence. Fourth and finally, an alternative biblical theme has been neglected in recent debates over Christian Platonism: a “doxological” rather than “sacramental” ontology.

Evangelical Ontology: Philosophically Underdeveloped

Like many biblical and theological scholars, I received meager philosophical training—essentially none, until an introductory course in seminary. This training assumed classical definitions of philosophical disciplines, making no clear distinction between metaphysics and ontology but simply assuming that an ontological claim inevitably involved metaphysical thought. For those of us who were trained in this way, to encounter Heideggerian or “postmodern” critiques of “metaphysics” as “ontotheology” was initially bewildering. It was tempting either to hunker down and insist that doctrines of God are inevitably metaphysical, or to cave in and insist that doctrines of God should henceforth become biblical by replacing metaphysics with narrative. Theologically speaking, this dilemma juxtaposed Thomas Aquinas with Jürgen Moltmann. Or perhaps Karl Barth would provide a dialectical middle ground? But not for long.

By the late 1990s, Colin Gunton and Bruce McCormack were presenting critiques of the classical tradition that, in different ways, seemed more theologically learned and biblically viable than Moltmann’s thought.[4] In conversation just after the turn of the century, my former colleague Henri Blocher championed John Calvin’s supplanting of a nature-and-grace metaphysical scheme with a creation-fall-redemption historical framework from biblical theology. To my knowledge, Blocher has never published this claim in detail, and of course precursors like Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til prompted it. In any case, during early years of teaching I encountered seriously Protestant reasons for demurring from a full-scale, classically Christian ontology. But, again, not for long.

A renaissance—if that is the right word—surfaced in patristics scholarship, demonstrating that the church fathers were not hidebound in Hellenistic categories but often used such concepts carefully in order to counter the heretics who were truly captive to Hellenism. A related renaissance surfaced in Thomistic scholarship, demonstrating that Thomas was first and foremost a biblical thinker who was far more Augustinian than Aristotelian. Eventual reforms also surfaced regarding Gunton’s attacks on Augustine.[5] If contrasts between Eastern and Western Trinitarianism were overdrawn, and Gunton’s social Trinitarianism was overeager, then his narrative of Augustine’s malign classical influence upon Western theology was overdramatized. Then McCormack’s emerging version of Barth required my generation to swallow hard if we chose to head in that direction. McCormack’s Barth was going to take us pretty close to Robert Jenson and Moltmann, because they were all drinking deeply from wells of Germany’s anti-Hellenization thesis.

Thus, Boersma’s embrace of sacramental ontology is understandable in reaction to, among other things, evangelical faddishness and the decline of the Hellenization thesis. Accordingly, Boersma’s and Carter’s alliance with Matthew Levering’s participatory metaphysics is understandable—as a hermeneutical retrieval of Scripture’s ontological divinity alongside its historical humanity. With others like Radner and Stephen Fowl, these thinkers suspect that modern biblical scholarship—even among evangelicals—undermines robustly Trinitarian and Christological reading of Scripture.[6] They recognize that methods of “modern” biblical scholarship were fundamentally entangled with certain “historical” habits of mind—formally, rejection of “metaphysics;” materially, rejection of what eventually became known as “ontotheology;” consequently, rejection of Scripture’s unified witness to the classical Christian account of the Triune God. By contrast, such modern habits of mind champion “dynamic” theologies and “diverse” biblical hermeneutics—the latter even among evangelicals who champion single meaning, because now the locus of the single meaning is the (pluralizing) mind of the human author in original context. Hence Christian Platonism appeals to contemporary evangelical theologians who have recognized our philosophical vulnerability to modern plausibility structures. If the rise of “critical” methods was entangled with the rejection of basic biblical commitments (which Carter rightly decries), then it is understandable to suppose that the (“metaphysical”) form of classic Christian “ontology” is indispensable to its subject matter.

Biblical Ontology: Systemically Underdetermined

Yet this understandable supposition regarding metaphysics must be handled with care. Underdeveloped engagement with philosophical ontology can leave evangelicals unaware of subtleties afoot in the definitions of metaphysics, ontology, Platonism, and the like. Perhaps the Bible is underdetermined concerning these subtleties—setting certain parameters within which theologians should address ontological systems, but not requiring a particular theoretical account or tradition. Here are three reasons for thinking so.

First, in a specific sense, the figures in the preceding narrative make little reference to exegesis of biblical texts when they make claims about ontological systems. To be sure, underlying issues are affected by biblical exegesis—for instance, the divine name and divine impassibility. Even so, these issues remain deeply integrated with hermeneutical commitments and historical constructs such as the Hellenization thesis. If we exclude verbal systems and the name Yhwh, the Bible does not use the language of “being” in frequent, sustained, theoretical ways. Attempts at integrating ontological systems with Scripture will be inferential and thus indirect; ontological norms will likely stem from what the Bible precludes more than what the Bible requires. Now minimalism could become misleading, since modern scholars commonly dismiss assertions about “ontological” abstractions arising from biblical texts. Despite the need for caution, though, we must preserve the freedom of the biblical gospel. Even sympathetic works of theological retrieval concede that Scripture’s interpreters deal with ontological “implications” rather than straightforward claims or concepts.[7] Such reserve is appropriate in light of the classic doctrine of analogical language in the first place. Materially confessing a traditional doctrine of God due to implications of numerous scriptural texts is different than claiming that substance metaphysics and a sacramental version of Platonic forms are mandated as biblical teaching.

Second, the biblically underdetermined character of ontological systems is consistent with the context-specific aspect of theology. Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako, among others, have treated the Hellenistic influence upon early Christian doctrines a classic case of contextualization.[8] Likewise, contemporary debates over theological ontology are obviously contextual, preoccupied with early modern German figures and their squabbling heirs. Simply insisting upon Christian Platonism in return risks colonizing all subsequent cultures for an alternative philosophical system, the Greeks instead of the Germans. Both forms of philosophical colonization diminish the freedom of God’s Spirit to foster new hearing and teaching of God’s Word.

Third, Carter’s case for the necessity of Christian Platonism depends on debatable definitions of “metaphysics” and “modernity” that the Bible does not require. Admittedly, the Bible does require vigilance about taking every thought captive to Christ rather than alien philosophies (e.g., 1 Cor 1:18–2:5; 2 Cor 10:4–5; Colossians 2). Yet the environment for those exhortations was far more “Platonized” than modern. It seems odd to universalize concepts from the very philosophical environment about which Paul warned, even if those concepts were carefully appropriated and helpfully reformed by the early Christians. So why should we insist with Carter on a particularly positive definition of metaphysics and a particularly negative definition of modernity?

The positive definition of metaphysics involves inevitable beliefs: Humans always enact beliefs, at least implicitly, about the realities behind or beyond or within the physical entities with which they are dealing. True enough—such ontological beliefs inevitably affect biblical interpretation. But this concept of metaphysics is one-sided. Steven J. Duby’s new book shows that classic Christian theology sometimes excluded the doctrine of God the Creator from “metaphysical” inquiry, which pertains to creatures—physical entities beyond which we seek understanding of their essences.[9] We may not have to include God within the domain of metaphysics. And we may not want to do so, either. Kevin Hector has offered plausible reasons for avoiding some versions of “metaphysical” inquiry, without thereby becoming relativistic.[10]

Meanwhile, the negative definition of modernity involves pagan unbelief: We are downstream from “the Enlightenment” as a cipher for major thinkers who sought to reject or substantially revise late medieval Christian religion. Again, true enough—such pagan unbelief inevitably affects biblical interpretation through the naturalistic historical habits mentioned above. But this concept of modernity is also one-sided. Oliver O’Donovan’s work suggests that the Enlightenment bit the Christian hands that fed it—and they really fed it.[11] If there is a risk that Carter’s focus on modernity’s pagan unbelief and secularized Christian eschatology is one-sided, then the other side contains classical Christian weaknesses that may have fostered particular forms of unbelief. Was Christian Platonism so compelling that late medieval lapses and early modern rejections were simply functions of pagan stubbornness?

Given the preceding three factors — (1) indirect derivation from biblical exegesis; (2) the relation between philosophical systems and various contexts of Christian mission; (3) helpfully diverse definitions of metaphysics and modernity — I suggest that biblical teaching is underdetermined regarding the contemporary debates over ontological systems, and therefore Christian Platonism is not necessary for faithful interpretation of Scripture.

Christian Platonism: Providentially Inherited

Assessing Christian Platonism requires careful definitions and discerning appreciation for divine providence. Anti-nominalism narratives from the likes of John Milbank, Brad Gregory, and Michael Gillespie (whom Carter approvingly cites) minimize the internal problems that fostered Christian Platonism’s late medieval decline.[12] Conversely, anti-metaphysical narratives from the likes of McCormack minimize divine providence in the early Christian period. They almost imply that Christian Platonism is so unbiblical as to render the Incarnation’s timing unwise. Of course, Gal 4:4 need not imply a comprehensive embrace of Graeco-Roman culture. But, on some “Barthian” accounts, biblical narrative requires an “actualistic” ontology that would have been very difficult to develop in a Hellenistic cultural context.

Even Richard Bauckham, however — who, influenced by Moltmann, is no friend of divine impassibility — now highlights the appearance of “Hellenistic true-god language” in the New Testament itself.[13] Subsequently, if thinkers such as Walls and Bediako are correct, then Hellenistic contextualization precludes both the comprehensive normativity and the complete rejection of Christian Platonism. At least to the degree that its substance metaphysics came to expression in conciliar Christology, Christian Platonism comprises not just one contextual effort among others, but the initial divine provision for identifying the church’s most foundational teaching about her Lord. Christian Platonist concepts should not be magisterial for any and every context, but they should be ecumenically and pedagogically ministerial for perpetuating biblical judgments about the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ. They can be a privileged, analogical impetus for contextualization.

Perhaps, therefore, Protestant hermeneutics cannot be disentangled from classic ontological commitments as readily as many biblical scholars believe. In this regard, Provan’s recent book seriously engages Luther’s and Calvin’s hermeneutical texts to make several contributions such as: its definition of seriously literal interpretation, its defense of the Protestant canon, its delineation of an unfashionable but still meaningful distinction between typology and allegory, its discussion of the Septuagint’s authority, and its sensible depictions of various critical methods. But Michael Allen’s review highlights some legitimate concerns.[14] First, are interlocutors represented fairly—notably, the “Chicago” way being represented by Norman Geisler’s commentary on a secondary document rather than, say, J. I. Packer and the initial document? Second, are important ambiguities lingering—notably, regarding the theological import of learning the biblical languages and canonical aspects of literal interpretation? Third, and most to the point here, are objections to Christian Platonism carefully clarified—notably, in relation to Luther’s and Calvin’s own views and practices, not to mention scholarly literature about them? Sometimes the book conveniently champions their advocacy of seriously literal interpretation while relatively sidelining their actual practice or critiquing them for not corresponding to a more modern reconstruction. Granted the gaucheness of asking for more from such a large book, theologians still have to wonder how its approach relates the Bible to the classical doctrine of the Triune God.

Scholars like Richard Muller, for example, find Calvin interpreting analogously to the fourfold sense.[15] This continuity with the prior tradition raises questions about how inextricable hermeneutics and ontology actually are. In raising this concern, we need not join Carter in claiming Calvin for Christian Platonism, and we can acknowledge—which might please Provan—that Luther was affected by nominalism. So the concern here is that biblical scholars’ narrations of the Reformers’ literal hermeneutics—even when they are as learned as Provan’s—may gloss over certain complexities in theory and practice. Often the arc of these narratives is quite critical of early Christian Platonists’ cultural captivity; however, should we not also highlight the dramatic challenge faced by modern evangelicals in sifting the wheat of critical methods from the chaff of post-Kantian anti-metaphysics? It would be helpful, then, to go farther than the sample reading of Jonah to see more specifically how Provan relates seriously literal interpretation of the canon of Scripture to a classically Trinitarian doctrine of God. Otherwise some theologians may join him in celebrating modernity’s manifest strengths yet wonder about lingering spiritual, canonical, and definitional challenges.

By now, reasons have emerged for supporting some form of seriously literal interpretation, suspecting that Carter’s Christian Platonism overreaches somewhat, and thus sustaining a meaningful distinction between typology or Protestant forms of figural reading and much earlier Christian allegorizing. Yet we can sympathize with Carter’s cri di coeur, even if it is imprecise, regarding the tendency of evangelical biblical scholars to identify literal interpretation with a kind of historical preoccupation that overreacts against earlier “Platonist” thought. Carter is not the only person in these debates who speaks quite broadly of Platonism! For contemporary biblical interpreters, furthermore, it is easy to understand “history” in a modern way that unintentionally treats divine inspiration and canonical unity as more notional than hermeneutically operational commitments.[16] If Carter’s own example from Isaiah is interesting for what is missing—with early Christian sources and allegorizing absent from its exegetical discussion—still his manifesto confronts us with the necessary challenge of recovering robust Christological literalism.

As for allergies to anything that even smacks of Platonism, they are all the more obvious in N. T. Wright’s comments from the exile book referenced earlier. Michael Allen’s recent book[17] suggests one way in which these allergies affect church health: overreacting against earlier “gnosticism” by characterizing biblical eschatology in excessively earthy, inadequately God-centered, terms. Admittedly, if allergies to Platonism distort biblical scholars’ reception of the Protestant Reformation, then theologians’ alternative allergies to “historical criticism” can be just as unhealthy. Our mutually assured discomfort may be a necessary stimulus for confronting our respective pathologies. Evangelicals in both disciplines risk appropriating the Reformers too selectively, grappling inadequately with Christian Platonism as both a providential inheritance and a contextual, partly flawed project.

Doxological Ontology: Biblically Suggested

Contested attempts to retrieve Christian Platonism signal an enduring need to account for creaturely being in a biblical way. Despite ontology being systemically underdetermined by the Bible, a thematic tendency in Scripture may have ontological implications. This tendency, emphasizing praise in relation to creaturely being, I will call “doxological” ontology. Highlighting this emphasis is the work of G. K. Beale, among others, regarding the themes of temple and royal priesthood in biblical theology.[18] The relevant evidence, which can scarcely even be surveyed here, includes verbal connections between the Genesis creation narrative and the rest of the canon, Psalms such as 19, and the implications of Rom 1:18–32.

The word pair of “cultivate” and “keep” from Gen 2:15 applies later to the Israelites’ relationship with God’s Word and the priests’ ministry at the tabernacle. The human vocation of Gen 1:28 involves extending divine presence throughout the cosmos. The language of being fruitful and multiplying applies later to the spread of the gospel, notably in passages like Acts 6:7 and 9:31. The tending of Genesis 2 is an aspect of the ruling that Genesis 1 calls for. Yet the first humans failed to guard the garden temple against incursion. Instead of representing the gracious God in whose image they were installed, they fell prey to temptation. They were expelled from the sanctuary, required to reenter through divinely appointed ritual means of grace. The Adamic commission did not cease but was reiterated in God’s redemptive interaction with the patriarchs. In due course, Israel received sacred objects and rituals that would bear witness regarding God’s mighty acts.

Passages like Psalm 19 epitomize the celebration of creation’s ongoing witness: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (19:1–2). Of course, v. 3 acknowledges, the heavens do not literally utter words. Yet, according to v. 4, “their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” The focus of vv. 7–14 upon God’s law suggests continuity between the display of divine wisdom in the redeemed community and the proclamation of divine glory via the cosmos. As Lev 19:24 illustrates, the fruit of the earth epitomizes how non-human parts of creation can become offerings of praise. David’s recital in 1 Chronicles 16 urges not just Israel and all nations but even the very heavens and earth, the sea and the fields and the trees, to enjoy praising Yhwh (16:31–36). Of course, humans can uniquely—intentionally and verbally—praise God (e.g., Ps 30:9). Underlying this unique vocation is the very purpose of human being. For instance, God has prepared praise from infant mouths (Matt 21:16); they do not know what they are doing, but God is glorified even by the creation of what and who they are. As indicated in Eph 1:6, 12, and 14, the praise of God’s glory is history’s ultimate end.

In sum, to understand creaturely being “doxologically” is consistent with Scripture concerning humans’ distinctive vocation, nature’s speech, and history’s end. Romans 1:18–32, especially v. 20, is consistent with this inference. Creation reveals the invisible God but focuses this unveiling on God’s eternal power. Human hearts quickly idolize created things rather than the Creator. There is no suggestion here that creaturely things comprise a symbolic universe to interpret or transcend. Rather, human beings suppress what creation’s light makes visible, clinging instead to the darkness in their hearts. We need to know of God’s judgment and saving righteousness (3:21), not an ontological hierarchy of universals.

Turning to compare and contrast this doxological emphasis with sacramental ontology, it is important to pair the distinction between Creator and creation with God the Son’s integrative role in the cosmos. All things are somehow “in” Christ according to Col 1:17, suggesting the need for a grammar of creaturely “participation” in him. Similarly, Paul quotes a pagan poet in Acts 17:28, saying that in God we live and move and have our being. While the former text makes a very broad claim, the latter text focuses on human beings, arguing against idolatrous, impersonal representations of the Creator by identifying us as God’s offspring. Together the two passages gesture toward universal creaturely and universally human forms of participation in God via Christ. They resist any sacred/secular dichotomy or exclusive narrowing of participation to redeemed humans. Epistemologically, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3), further underscoring his comprehensive ontological reach.

Just as clearly, however, such creaturely participation in Christ has important limitations. Some of these may have surfaced along the way by implication, but they are worth summarizing here.

(1) Redemption: The reconciliation of human beings to God is its inaugurating reality and integral priority. Although redemption affects the entire cosmos, broader language of participation should not obscure biblical distinctions between redeemed humans and other humans as well as other creatures, especially since these distinctions have operative force for the church’s present mission in the world.

(2) Filial union: Believers’ adoption gives their “participation” in Christ a distinct relational character. Broader language of participation should not obscure the blessing of becoming a child of God by grace, sharing in Jesus’s communion with God that is unique by nature.

(3) Epistemological freedom: Avoiding modern errors does not require adopting Christian Platonism rather than other contextual possibilities. Equating Christian Platonism with biblical orthodoxy entails an exceedingly broad definition, arising largely from theological interests and sidestepping historical particularities. Here, as Carter follows Lloyd Gerson, “Platonism” basically means “not” a series of things—not materialism, not mechanism, not nominalism, not relativism, not skepticism. Now it may be laudable to avoid these modern tendencies, even nominalism (depending on what it means). Yet broader language of participation should not preclude the evangelical outworking of biblical epistemology in various contexts. To offer just one example, the Reformed framework of the Son’s “archetypal” and “ectypal” knowledge is a possible alternative to canonizing a Platonic theory of universals.

(4) Sacrament language: The risk here is confusion. For the sake of argument, let us assume that “mystery” and “participation” language in 1 Corinthians 10–11 provides indirect justification for applying “sacrament” to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Of course, biblical language and theological concepts cannot correspond absolutely; we are free to speak of sacramental ontology if the underlying ideas are true and the concept is clear. However, the participation language of 1 Corinthians 10–11 connotes worship and includes the possibility of false worship—participation with demons that arouses divine jealousy. Thus, referring to sacramental ontology risks obscuring both the distinctive character of the sacraments and the dangers of false worship. Although perhaps not all “participation” is ontological, here Paul confronts false worship because of ontically actual demonic relationships. If such “participation” is ontological but not always good, then “sacramental” language risks obscuring an important distinction.

As with the Incarnation, it is possible to argue that the sacraments reflect God’s affirmation of material goods—“the gifts of God for the people of God”—but again the significance of this argument must be qualified. It is wonderfully true that in Jesus Christ, God assumed our humanity, body and not just soul. Likewise, in raising him from the dead God included the material reality of this present cosmos in the promised future redemption. Yet the primary purpose of the sacraments is not to convey a principle about material goodness, but to celebrate twofold participation in Christ’s body: the grace of Jesus’s real presence as we proclaim his death, and the communion among churchly members of his body. Material things in general do not convey Christ’s gracious presence or enable churchly communion in this specific way.

If we spoke of sacramental ontology, how would concepts of mystery or an enchanted universe apply to the being of particular created things? Would their sacramental character consist in communicating grace—and, if so, redemptive or “common” grace? Would not either answer obscure the particular primacy of Word and sacrament? Alternatively, would the sacramental character of things consist in serving as signs—and, if so, as specific parts of a medieval symbolic universe or broader pointers to God’s existence as Creator? Indeed, would such sacramental language basically reduce to conveying God’s presence—and, if so, as a reality that is separable from or integral to the church’s ministry of Word and sacrament?

In contrast with the confusing expansion of sacramental language, the Bible’s treatment of Christ’s mediation leads some Reformed theologians to speak of a “covenantal” ontology.[19] For all its importance, however, covenant is a redemptive-historical category. Even when lurking within the creation narratives, this category helps us to understand relations and acts, not being as such. Applied to creation, covenant already anticipates the saving history of Israel. Even if the ethical focus of covenant should be anthropologically fundamental, the Bible still addresses the prior, ontological status of all creatures, tying their very existence to the Creator’s glory. Hence a doxological ontology undergirds properly covenantal distinction and continuity between humans and other creatures: People can intend and verbalize God’s praise, serving as priests for the rest of creation—even as human beings exist for God’s praise before they ever enact it. A doxological ontology also undergirds properly covenantal distinction and continuity between redeemed and unredeemed humans: Redeemed humans can begin to intend and verbalize God’s praise appropriately, even as unredeemed humans exist for God’s glory despite failing to represent God truly. Finally, a doxological ontology undergirds properly covenantal distinction and continuity between Christ as God’s true Image and other humans: Jesus represents God’s character and rule without fail, and in a sense without remainder, even as other humans shall be conformed to him (Rom 8:29) by redemption.

Covenantal theology prizes, but “covenantal ontology” does not fully articulate, the truth that all of reality holds together “in” Jesus Christ as the One “Mediator” between God and humanity. As highlighted by Colin Gunton, a Trinitarian account of mediation celebrates the personal action of the Son and the Holy Spirit in creation and providence because in this way God sustains the integrity of the cosmos and restores the genuine freedom of human beings to realize their priestly vocation in Christ.[20] So, as highlighted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all of the acts and relationships that comprise earthly history lack the creaturely immediacy that fallen humans tend to assume; actually, all creaturely interactions are linked with God’s Son, whether we know it or not.[21] This precious truth, though, has a larger context: Every human being must be adopted as a child of God by redeeming grace in order to gain a share in the filial relationship that the Son enjoys by nature. Thus, to uphold the truth of Col 1:15–17 without undermining the focus of Col 1:18–20, we should link an account of Christological mediation to a doxological, rather than sacramental or covenantal, ontology.

To what conclusion, then, have the preceding four steps led? Craig Carter’s book has the virtue of provoking better thinking about ontology. I hope that forging my own path, rather than focusing on points of agreement, does not obscure my appreciation for the reverent learning that the book displays. I particularly appreciate its emphasis on the task of preaching, along with its offer of an olive branch to folks like D. A. Carson and Kevin Vanhoozer, with whom I share “Chicago” as my hermeneutical home.

Ultimately, though, what about my initial query: Is it possible to maintain both the Protestant primacy of the literal sense and the hermeneutical pertinence of a classically Christian theological ontology? My answer is a hopeful yes, with the Bible loosely supporting a “doxological” ontology. Such an ontology can embrace aspects of Christian Platonism without insisting upon its general or comprehensive necessity. Such an ontology can also embrace seriously literal interpretation while insisting upon its robustly Trinitarian practice. In this respect, Carter’s book contributes a clarion call to recover the premodern pastoral tradition—and thus to remember the church’s task of proclamation whenever we talk about biblical hermeneutics.

[1] (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). The original occasion for this response was a panel at the 2019 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Thanks to Steven Duby for the invitation to participate; to fellow panelists Michael Allen, G. K. Beale, and Iain Provan for their insights; and especially to Craig Carter for stimulating, gracious engagement with this response.

[2] Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016); James M. Scott, ed., Exile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017). My response was published as “Keeping Time: Human Finitude and Figural Interpretation,” Pro Ecclesia 27, no. 3 (Summer 2018): 289–99. For an earlier, related response to Boersma, see Daniel J. Treier, “Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry—A Review Essay,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 67–71.

[3] Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017).

[4] See Gunton’s critiques of Augustine, e.g. in The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), and the firestorm surrounding McCormack’s essay “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110.

[5] E.g., regarding patristics, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); regarding Thomas, Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004); regarding Gunton’s Augustine, Bradley G. Green, Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: The Theology of Colin Gunton in Light of Augustine, Distinguished Dissertations in Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[6] For the most recent, accessible version of Fowl’s claims in this regard, see his Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Cascade Companions (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009).

[7] E.g., Andrea D. Saner, “Too Much to Grasp”: Exodus 3:13–15 and the Reality of God, Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplement Series (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015).

[8] E.g., Andrew F. Walls, The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002); Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock 2011).

[9] God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).

[10] Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language, and the Spirit of Recognition, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[11] See especially the final chapters of The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[12] See Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2015); and the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement spawned by John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

[13] “The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed. Richard Bauckham, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 15–36, especially p. 29.

[14] Review of The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture by Iain Provan, Reformed Faith & Practice 3, no. 2 (September 2018): 72–76 (accessed on September 11, 2020 at https://journal.rts.edu/review/the-reformation-and-the-right-reading-of-scripture/).

[15] See, e.g., Muller and John L. Thompson, “The Significance of Precritical Exegesis: Retrospect and Prospect,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

[16] A significant study of this Kant-inflected contrast is Mark Alan Bowald, Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007).

[17] Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[18] See, e.g., The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), from which the following brief survey summarizes some evidence.

[19] E.g., Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002); idem, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured,” Modern Theology 28, no. 4 (2012): 781–803.

[20] See, e.g., The Triune Creator.

[21] See his concept of die Mitte, notably in certain essays within Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).