Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premoden Exegesis

Craig A. Carter. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. Pp. xxiv + 279. $27.99 paperback.

Craig Carter boldly claims that God wrote the Bible. Further, God wrote it so that both the original and modern readers who are “spiritually receptive” would be brought “into a direct relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who is not only seen in the text but also speaks in and through it” (p. 192). This assertion about seeing Christ in the biblical text is not simply related to the New Testament but is also true of the Old Testament. Hence, any hermeneutical method that denies that Christ is properly “in” the Old Testament or denies that Christ speaks today to readers of the Old Testament is significantly flawed.

Given the above, Carter sees the vast majority of critical/liberal biblical scholarship in the academy as a disaster, which he attributes to Enlightenment metaphysics and unbelieving hearts. In addition, he is concerned that evangelical biblical scholarship has unwittingly adopted Enlightenment assumptions. As evidence, he notes that many evangelical biblical scholars claim that (1) the Bible should be interpreted like any other book; (2) a biblical text has only one meaning that is tied to the original human author’s intention relative to the original historical audience and situation; (3) it is not the responsibility of the scholar to determine the meaning of the text for today, that is “application,” not meaning (p. ix); and (4) the allegorical method of the church fathers is “childishly inept” and neither we nor the church fathers should see the Old Testament texts as having “multiple levels of meaning,” i.e., sensus plenior (p. xvi).

Carter, who is a Professor of Theology at the evangelical Tyndale University College and Seminary, mentions two burdens that he has related to this book. One is that his seminary training left him bereft of tools to preach Christ from the Old Testament. He wants to rectify this and he uses texts in Isaiah as examples. The second is that Carter wants to promote a robust Nicene Trinitarian theology, which he terms, the “Great Tradition.” However, he notes that the church fathers justified their Nicene theology at least partially by reading Christ out of (not into) the Old Testament using a sensus plenior hermeneutic, a hermeneutic that many evangelicals reject. Will not this rejection ultimately lead to a denial of the Trinity?

Carter defines the Great Tradition as “Christian orthodoxy [that] begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century Trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology” (p. xi). Here Carter is emphasizing that the above groups have the same doctrine of God, that is, “classical theism.” Why the emphasis on the doctrine of God in a hermeneutics book? If God really wrote the Bible, it is good to know about the author when one interprets his book! (Carter does briefly mention that he is Reformed Baptist, committed to the Second London Confession [1689], and is “not in communion with Rome for doctrinal reasons other than the doctrine of God itself” [p. 52]).

For Carter, the Great Tradition is a “three-legged stool made up of spiritual exegesis, Nicene dogma, and Christian Platonist metaphysics” (p. 111). That is, there is a strong relationship between (1) one’s hermeneutics that must incorporate both a “literal” and “spiritual” method (sensus plenior), (2) classical Trinitarian theology, and (3) a metaphysics that has a strong doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the reality of the spiritual realm, and the reality of universals (anti-nominalism). Carter admits that the term “Christian Platonism” and his use of the terms “sacramental ontology” and “participatory” universalism may be off-putting to some, but he primarily justifies this with an appeal to Augustine. Here he also notes his indebtedness to Milbank, Levering, and Boersma.

Concerning hermeneutics of the Old Testament more directly, Carter believes that we should follow the same hermeneutic as the Bible. His two key verses are Luke 24:25–27 (Christ is “in” the Old Testament) and 1 Corinthians 2:14 (must have spiritual discernment to understand the things of God). However, he spends minimal time on actual biblical texts. Instead the majority of emphasis relates to how “pre-modern” Christians handle the “literal” and “spiritual” (allegorical/typological/sensus plenior) aspects of exegesis. He complains that many critical scholars dismiss any aspect of “spiritual” exegesis and exaggerate the dichotomy between “literal” and “spiritual” in pre-modern exegesis. Carter, following scholars in the vein of Steinmetz, emphasizes instead that much, although not all, of pre-modern exegesis reasonably matches what the New Testament authors were doing with Old Testament texts. He especially emphasizes Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. Concerning Calvin, he notes that although the Reformers were explicitly against the traditional medieval four-fold hermeneutical method, they matched the best of the medieval hermeneutics in that they had an expanded sense of the meaning of the text that organically connected the “literal” sense to the “spiritual.” Here Carter relies on Richard Muller to show aspects of continuity between medieval exegesis and the Reformers.

Concerning modern theological trends, Carter sees much promise in Reformed scholars who advocate a redemptive-historical approach influenced by Vos and explicitly mentions Beale, Hamilton, and Schreiner. However, he respectfully notes two flaws: (1) they “fail to perceive clearly enough the nature of its own kinship to the Great Tradition and to writers like Irenaeus and Augustine,” and (2) “Vosian biblical theology often lacks the philosophical sophistication to perceive its own affinity to the Christian Platonism . . . [and] is not able to critique Enlightenment philosophy in light of that Christian Platonism” (p. 156).

There is definitely a close kinship between Carter and me. We significantly agree that the Bible’s own hermeneutic is an infallible guide to hermeneutics. Hence, it is a hermeneutical problem to restrict meaning to the human biblical author, because ultimate meaning is in the divine author. Since ultimate meaning is in the divine author, having an adequate understanding of this ultimate author is essential for hermeneutics.

As to the supposed “literal” and “spiritual” dichotomy, I like to use the metaphors of a “dot” and a “circle.” Literal-only (i.e., human-author-only) meaning is a dot. I see the worst of the medieval four-fold exegesis as four unrelated dots. To match the Bible’s hermeneutic, the appropriate organic connections between the literal and spiritual is one broad meaning represented by a circle. Hence, using different terms, Carter and I wholeheartedly agree. As a New Testament professor, I would have preferred that he give more time to examples and patterns found in the Bible itself to illuminate proper organic connections between the literal and spiritual, but his discussions of numerous pre-modern authors were illuminating.

Concerning his use of “Christian Platonism,” I am not a fan. As my colleague James Anderson remarked to me the other day, “You don’t need Plato to get to universals.” A robust distinction between the triune-creator and his creation adequately grounds a biblical metaphysic. Although, I am guessing that much of my complaint here is semantic.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte