The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture

Iain Provan. The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017. xii + 712 pages.

What shall we say of the legacy of the Reformation? How will we relate to the project of modernity? These two questions are interwoven and much valued in recent years. Some have answered them by celebrating the reformational movement as a treasure (see Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea), while others have lamented the tragedy of Protestant division and disenchantment (see Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation). Iain Provan, the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, has written The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture to offer a defense of the Reformation, yes, but also of modernity.

The book ranges widely over the doctrine of Scripture. Its 700 pages address issues of canon, of translation and linguistics, of interpretation, and of interpretative history. It is organized in three parts: part one turns to issues identified herein as “long-standing questions” as they were answered by patristic and medieval figures prior to Reformation-era approaches arising; part two examines the legacy of the Reformation itself, especially as it pertains to the perspicuity and authority of Scripture and as it has been affirmed (perhaps, it is claimed, incorrectly) by the “Chicago School” of evangelicals or as it has been lamented by those who call for a recovery of “counter-reformation Protestantism” (Provan’s preferred term); the third part finally turns to the modern era and examines a host of hermeneutical approaches that might further the Reformation-era commitment to study of the Bible’s literal meaning.

Provan’s argument most firmly pushes back on two competitors (especially in part two, entitled “Now There Are Protestants: Scripture in a Changing World”): against the counter-reformation proposal of his colleague Hans Boersma and of Craig Allert and then against the Chicago School approach which he identifies specifically with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics and a commentary on that text by Norman Geisler. He does well in pushing back against some extreme denials of the value of the Reformation on the one hand or of the modern world on the other hand. It is not clear, however, that he has dealt thoroughly with the relevant sources at every point. While referring to the “Chicago School,” he fixes on one statement (on hermeneutics) as opposed to its more famous precursor (on Scripture itself) and privileges one, admittedly fundamentalist-tilting commentator (Norman Geisler) as opposed to others who would address such issues with richer nuance and a bit more moderate tone (e.g. D. A. Carson’s edited volume, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures). It is not that the extremism which Provan chides does not exist, but it is not clear that such radicalism pervades all those who speak with reference to the Chicago statements. Similarly, Boersma does offer some rather stark statements protesting supposed failures of the Reformation, but they are contextualized within a corpus that also addresses metaphysical questions regarding Scripture at a level which remains rather underexplored herein. I doubt that either Boersma on the one hand or many Chicago-style evangelicals on the other hand will feel themselves represented fairly herein.

A somewhat regular feature of the book is terminological ambiguity, perhaps three examples of which are worthy of mention. First, Provan repeatedly mentions the value of studying biblical languages (e.g., 449) as a hallmark of the Reformation. True enough, and I happen to agree (historically and likely also pedagogically). Oddly, he never works to define what constitutes a high or a low value on learning biblical languages: just what is he celebrating? More interestingly, just how did Reformers develop intellectual mechanisms (through media and degree programs) to deepen such literary engagement with Scripture in its original languages? And in what ways might modern approaches to language study be of renewed benefit? Dare I suggest that the survey of source and form criticism (ch. 17), redaction and rhetorical criticism (ch. 18), structuralism and post-structuralism (ch. 19), narrative criticism (ch. 20), social-scientific and feminist criticism (ch. 21), and canonical reading of Scripture (ch. 22) is less significant to his main argument than what he does not take the time to argue: just what does it mean to take seriously the original languages of Holy Scripture? Perhaps this, far more than hermeneutical philosophies, deserves some extended care for it to have any bite. This pushback is not a random preference for a different book either, for it is Provan who has made this emphasis on original languages a regular, prioritized, and yet thoroughly ambiguous feature of his main argument. That ambiguity must be probed lest the threads of his argument fall apart.

Another example of ambiguity appears with regard to references to Greek influence broadly and Plato in particular (e.g. 438). Pushing back against Boersma’s call for a renewed “Christian Platonist synthesis,” Provan claims that “Plato does not help” (417). How? Why? In what way? Given that Greek and even Platonic language seeps into the New Testament (e.g. the logos, the pleroma), one cannot simply treat such categories as homogenous or fully alien to nascent Christianity, as if it were an extraneous threat that eventually creeps into and modifies the Christian faith. No, Jews had begun mixing with Greeks long before the time of Christ (see Martin Hengel’s still classic two volumes on Judaism and Hellenism), and the critical appropriation of Greek intellectual life has already occurred within the apostolic writings themselves. To Boersma’s widespread affirmation (at least in his small book, Heavenly Participation, albeit less so in his larger, more technical works), Provan offers a rather blanket denunciation, but neither posture will be fully sufficient for an ongoing theological program.

Perhaps one final ambiguity deserves our attention. Provan’s definition of literal reading runs as such: ‘to read Scripture ‘literally,’ in line with Reformation perspectives on this topic, means to read it in accordance with its various, apparent communicative intentions as a collection of texts from the past now integrated into one Great Story, doing justice to such realities as literary convention, idiom, metaphor, and typology or figuration” (85-86, repeated on 105). He does survey patristic and medieval use of the language of “literal” but actually offers a very underdetermined to incredibly ambiguous constructive use of it. While typology and figuration receive a favorable nod (as possibilities within a “literalism at the level of the whole biblical story,” quoted from Hans Frei on 100), allegory does not (although precisely what constitutes allegory versus figuration/typology is not entirely clear, nor is what is accomplished by appending the phrase “at the level of the whole biblical story” to the moniker literal). I suggest this is ambiguous and not outright wrong, because there are places where Provan does seem to suggest that the phrase “at the level of the whole biblical story” really does legitimate work (for instance in his response to R. T. France and Richard Hays on “reading backwards” and the NT use of the OT on 122). Similarly, Provan also offers strong arguments in favor of the need for a legitimate two testament canon (riffing on the work of Chris Seitz) and not transfiguring the OT such that it ceases to bear its own integrity (74 and throughout). Without more concrete examples and comparative work, however, it is hard to know just where to plot this “literal” reading of the Old Testament as bearing integrity and yet functioning “at the level of the whole biblical story.” For a book bent on commending “literal” reading as the thread that commends the Reformation doctrine of Scripture and connects it to the best of the fathers before and of modernity after, this is no small thing.

This book offers an apologetic for the Reformation that should be taken literally in its tone even if it may read ambiguously in some of its key claims. Yet we do well to ask further of his argument: these limitations notwithstanding, does Provan succeed in commending the Reformation and/or the modern world? The book is strongest in engaging Walter Sundberg’s approach (and those influenced by it) and relaying more productive approaches to canon formation in a host of chapters (chs. 2-3), in offering a renewed defense of sola Scriptura (ch. 13), in examining the validity and appropriate location of certain modern hermeneutical trends (especially of form and genre criticism, 455-486), and in pushing back against those who have lamented the Reformation as tearing at the tapestry of a theological holism (416-417), and perhaps especially in commending the importance of a theology and a practiced commitment to the task of biblical education in a distinctly Protestant key (446-451). These are not small benefits.

And yet these strengths do not discount serious weaknesses. We do not herein have a sufficient analysis of Reformation and post-Reformation hermeneutics, perhaps largely because the question of “communicative intentionality” (present in his definition of literality on 85-86) goes mostly unexamined: whose intention? Further, we have rather little by way of engagement with Reformation exegesis itself; the reformers’ polemical comments are less helpful perhaps than their practiced routines in giving us a sense for how they really related to earlier biblical interpretation. Scholars such as Irena Backus, David Steinmetz and a host of Steinmetz’s doctoral students, perhaps especially Susan Schreiner, John Thompson, and Richard Muller, have done significant work in the last 40 years to plot Reformation and post-Reformation exegesis in a moving map that begins long before 1517 and continues well after 1521 (or even 1559); for introduction, see especially Richard Muller’s “Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: the View from the Middle Ages,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: Essays Presented to David C. Steinmetz in Honor of His Sixtieth Birthday [ed. Richard Muller and John Thompson]). Yet such work is almost entirely absent from this book, and Provan’s engagement of just how the Reformation marks notable changes within a long-developing pathway of Christian exegesis is the worse for that absence. Alternatively, further primary source examination of texts in the post-Reformation era (e.g. William Whitaker’s Disputations on Holy Scripture) might also prove essential to seeing a far less disjunctive approach regarding how the Reformers related to earlier Christian exegesis. While there are some notable and worthy arguments made in Provan’s book, it won’t satisfy as a map for how the Reformation recast the task of literal reading of Holy Scripture.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando