Bible Christology

Is Christian Platonism the Fix for Failed Hermeneutics?

Craig A. Carter’s 2018 book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis was recently recommended to me. I suppose one could call this a review, but I think of it more as a “book dialogue.”

I wonder if I, as an evangelical on the conservative end, am the target audience for the book, because at many points as I read, I found myself saying “of course, who would think otherwise?” But, as I found, many do think otherwise. In particular, those within academia, both seminaries and universities, have taken an approach since the Enlightenment that guts the Scriptures of their christological significance. (To say nothing of their inherent truth.) This has come about due to the advent of “historical-critical” hermeneutics, which includes the insistence that a given text only has a single meaning. Thus prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that have for centuries been read as messianic, cannot be, for the original author did not mean them as such. This is a complicated way of saying such interpreters are liberal (they do not hold that Scripture is inspired as this is usually understood) or they are simply unbelievers.

Carter spends a good bit of time reviewing how we got where we are today, and tracing the history of interpretation; who the significant figures were, and where they went off track. This material is very good and valuable. Any reader will benefit from it. But Carter acknowledges, there is and has been a gap between academia and the church. Local churches have been preaching the Hebrew Bible as foreshadowing Messiah for a very long time. They continue to do so. My early Christian years were spent among those who treated Scripture largely as Carter insists we must: It is completely true, it is God’s word, it speaks to us of Christ and his work—in both Testaments.

What Carter terms “Christian Platonism” could also be called a Christian worldview. How we discuss and think about this Christian understanding of reality is with metaphysics, and theological metaphysics is “the account of the ontological nature of reality that emerges from the theological descriptions of God and the world found in the Bible.”[1]

This is important because Carter insists that to engage the topic sufficiently, and in such a way that we are prepared to counter Enlightenment errors, we need Christian Platonism and the pro-Nicene creedal foundations that the 4th century theological discussions provide. He is rather insistent that less than this will leave one still unprepared. For example, he notes that in the prior century Gerhardus Vos did a great service to the church with his biblical theology. But Vos was deficient in that he did not go far enough in tying his theology to the Great Tradition. “Because Vosian biblical theology often lacks the philosophical sophistication to perceive its own affinity to the Christian Platonism of the Great Tradition, it is not able to critique Enlightenment philosophy in the light of that Great Tradition.” [2]

But I am confident that many Reformed theologians who highly esteem Vos would say that what he is providing is indeed biblical theology, and to filter it through Christian Platonism is unnecessary. Vos affirmed God as transcendent, trinitarian and held to orthodox christology. Carter may say that the 4th century provided an apex in theological metaphysics, but the danger is always present of elevating a conclusion over a source, and the Scriptures remain our source.

The literal and spiritual sense

As the antidote to so much modern hermeneutical malfeasance, the book sets forth a return to the way the early church fathers read Scripture, aka the Great Tradition. This includes their metaphysical assumptions. God is transcendent, he is other than creation, and the Bible is a spiritual book. We should be unsurprised to find spiritual, christological meaning in all of its books. The book contains many examples of such readings, but Carter admits history at times has been suspicious of readings that veer too far off the plain sense of Scripture.

Carter is keen for readers to understand that the spiritual sense must emerge from the literal sense, and be anchored in it. To this end, he also offers the corrective that past assessments of the difference between allegorical and literal interpretation (or between Alexandria and Antioch) are overblown. Antiochenes did their fair share of spiritual exegesis and Alexandrians did not summarily ignore the literal. Yet the reactions of the day (Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrus) demonstrate there was a concern. Frances Young notes this about John Chrysostom: “Like others in the Antiochene tradition of exegesis, Chrysostom repudiates allegorical flights of fancy and treats the text as straightforwardly as possible. He does not shrink from accepting that much of the Old Testament refers to mundane and even immoral matters and is to be taken as history, not symbol, as literal (though interim) commandments, not spiritual directives in veiled form; indeed he regards it as a universal law of scripture that it supplies the interpretation if an allegory is intended, so as to prevent the uncontrolled passion of those bent on allegorizing from penetrating everywhere without system or principle.”[3]

Understanding this bifurcation is important, and not new. During the Medieval church era, this idea also received attention. Heiko Oberman wrote of “two general notions about Tradition. In the first case the sole authority of Holy Scripture is upheld as canon, or standard, of revealed truth in such a way that Scripture is not contrasted with Tradition.”[4] Carter, and those who advocate this, would doubtless say this is just what the pro-Nicene Christian Platonism does. It understands Scripture within the context of the believing church, which Oberman also notes as a feature. “The history of obedient interpretation is the Tradition of the Church.”[5] But Oberman identifies a second view of Tradition, “a wider concept…in the second case Tradition was seen as the authoritative vehicle of divine truth, embedded in Scripture but overflowing in extrascriptural apostolic tradition handed down through episcopal succession.”[6]

This coalesces with what Young noted as Chrysostom’s concern—“the uncontrolled passion of those bent on allegorizing.” But how does one guard against it? For example, it is common in Roman Catholic understanding to see Ezekiel 44:2 as pointing toward the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the shutting of her womb. “And the LORD said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut.” The problem with such a view is, the interpretation offered is not supplied elsewhere in Scripture. Nothing in the New Testament speaks of Mary’s perpetual virginity, nor is there a New Testament link to Ezekiel 44 regarding this. It is the product of tradition, not revelation. Does it represent the Great Tradition? Ambrose and Augustine both affirmed this interpretation of the verse, but it is unnecessary for either theology proper or orthodox christology.

The lines are not always clear

Carter draws a rather tight circle around two major doctrines: Theology proper (i.e., the doctrine of God including trinitarianism) and christology. These two are certainly important, and it is these that biblical scholarship has gone off track the most since the Enlightenment. However, hermeneutics is important in every area, including ecclesiology, the sacraments and their meaning, and soteriology. Some would argue that infant baptism and much of the theology surrounding it is part of the Great Tradition. As an adherent to the 1689 London Baptist Confession, Carter affirms believer’s baptism. Similarly, many 1689 adherents (and this is an assumption on my part that this includes Carter) affirm limited atonement. The patristic witness on the extent of the atonement is that the fathers believed Christ’s death paid for the sins of every person.

The point in these two examples is that to affirm limited atonement and reject infant baptism is to differ with what the Great Tradition has handed down to us. In my view, such picking and choosing is unproblematic, and indeed, necessary. History is subject to correction by Scripture. I think any responsible exegete would affirm as much. As another example, Carter offers Augustine’s conception of the whole Christ, (totus Christus) head and body together, speaking in the Psalms.[7] But such a concept can run afoul of theology proper and form the ground for all manner of sacramentalism that does not have a basis in Scripture. Gregg Allison has pointed out how much of Roman Catholic ecclesiology has its foundation in the totus Christus view. It ends up putting the Church as an authority in place of Christ as the head.[8]

It seems an acknowledgement of the danger of untethered spiritualizing that Carter has an appendix titled “Criteria for limiting the spiritual sense.” Without such criteria, the Scriptures become a kind of hermeneutical Rorschach test where as long as the interpreters sees signs and symbols, they are there. In summarizing some of the choices, Carter notes one approach is to make the canon of Scripture the authoritative context for hermeneutics. The second is the Enlightenment approach of historical-critical hermeneutics he rightly rejects, and a third is “to see the reception history of the text, that is, the history of exegesis and dogma in the church as decisive. I contend that patristic exegesis and the Great Tradition culminating in Calvin would be variations on the first approach.”[9]

This is not always the case. I think it is altogether frequent that the Great Tradition exemplifies this third approach. Carter approvingly cites Andrew Louth, an orthodox priest and scholar, who asks, “The Fathers, and creeds, and Councils claim to be interpreting Scripture. How can one accept their results if one does not accept their methods?”[10] If we accept Nicene trinitarianism, does this entail accepting the veneration of icons? Louth would no doubt consider this part of the Great Tradition, and the result of patristic exegesis.

It is possible to have a robust doctrine of God as transcendent, trinitarian and an orthodox christology of Jesus as the incarnation of the God-Man and not accept everything that falls under the rubric of “the Great Tradition.” It always calls for discernment, and we should accept nothing if it contradicts Scripture. This is the best of the metaphysical tradition of how we evaluate truth claims, whether it satisfies all the points of Christian Platonism or not. Carter has raised important questions, and pointed out failures that need to be rectified. I share many of the concerns, but don’t see a full embrace of Christian Platonism as the only way forward.

[1] Craig A Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2018), 63.

[2] Carter, 156.

[3] Frances M. Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983), 156.

[4] Heiko A. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 54.

[5] Oberman, Loc. Cit.

[6] Oberman, 54-55.

[7] Carter, 207.

[8] See Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, Crossway, 2015), 63–65.

[9] Carter, 235.

[10] Carter, 200.

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