Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig Carter. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2018. 304pp. $29.
Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism by Craig Carter. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2021. 353pp. $32.99.
“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” When I first encountered Tertullian’s famous question in a seminary class, I regarded it as a curiosity. The relation between philosophy, exegesis, and doctrine seemed an interesting question, but not a pressing issue—certainly not for ministry. To rephrase the question: What hath such a question to do with sermons and lessons, counseling and evangelism?
Everything, it turns out.
I had been a pastor for almost two years when Craig Carter’s book Interpreting Scripture With the Great Tradition was published. I read the book shortly after, on a week of vacation. When I finished, I felt like Immanuel Kant after reading David Hume: awoken from a “dogmatic slumber.” But my slumber and waking were the opposite of Kant’s. He awoke from the slumber of classical metaphysics to the supposed brightness of Hume’s radical skepticism; I awoke from a vague appreciation of Enlightenment philosophies like those of Kant and Hume, and came to cherish the Christian Platonism of the Great Tradition. My excitement had barely waned two years later when Carter published his next book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, which further deepened my appreciation for his basic argument.
Carter started out writing on the doctrine of God with the intention to contribute another revisionist critique of classical theism. Reading the primary sources, however, he realized that classical theism was indeed faithful to Scripture, and so he set about on a new argument to that effect. The tangle of hermeneutical questions involved prompted him to start with a book on the doctrine of Scripture.
Both books challenge the conventional wisdom of modern biblical and theological scholarship. Interpreting Scripture opposes the claim that the meaning of any biblical text is strictly delimited by the intention of its human author, narrowly considered within the natural horizons of the author’s historical situation. Against this view, Carter argues that, because God is the primary author of Scripture by divine inspiration, his intended meaning, revealed across the canon, is the decisive limitation. Contemplating God opposes the claim that the “philosophical God” of classical theism is incompatible with the “biblical God” who relates to creatures in history. Carter argues that God’s transcendence is clearly taught in Scripture and actually makes it possible for him to relate to his creatures.
Both books offer a brief dogmatic treatise on their respective themes, along with detailed historical discussions of the development of orthodoxy. It is not possible to adequately summarize two large books in a brief paragraph, but let me mention a few highlights. Carter’s unconventional portrayal of John Calvin in Interpreting Scripture as the heir of patristic and medieval exegesis is both provocative and, as far as this reviewer is concerned, correct. His 25 theses on classical theism in Chapter 2 of Contemplating God would make an excellent syllabus for a course on the doctrine of God. His treatment of the Arian crisis in that book is the best brief guide to the subject currently in print. Throughout the two books, Carter models exegesis in the mode of the Great Tradition, especially in Interpreting Scripture‘s discussion of Augustine’s exegesis of the Psalms, and in his own radiant exposition of Isaiah 40-48 in the central chapters of Contemplating God.
Carter’s key terms require explanation. “The Great Tradition” is his preferred way of referring to the orthodoxy that predates any regional or denominational divisions in the worldwide Church. “Catholic orthodoxy” is a synonym, but “the Great Tradition” has the advantage of describing orthodoxy as something alive, transcending and uniting the Church’s various institutional structures.
Carter also frequently speaks of “Christian Platonism.” In this phrase, “Platonism” refers (somewhat unconventionally) to the best of ancient philosophy, most influentially expounded by Plato. Drawing on the research of Lloyd Gerson, Carter conceives of Platonism as a broad tradition of thought encapsulated and transmitted by Plato. It is not just the opposite of “Aristotelianism,” either; Aristotle’s differences with Plato should be considered a debate within the Platonic tradition.
The simplest definition of Platonism, as Carter uses the term, is that it is the opposite of naturalism. Platonism is hierarchical in nature, always explaining things in terms of higher realities; naturalism is reductive, always “explaining things away” in terms of lower realities. Following Gerson, Carter lists five main tenets of naturalism, all antithetical to Platonism: it acknowledges only 1) material reality and 2) mechanical causation, and therefore it denies 3) the real existence of universals, 4) absolute standards of truth or morality, and 5) ultimately the possibility of knowledge itself. The ancient alternatives to Platonism included the more-or-less naturalist philosophies of Epicureanism, atomism, and stoicism; the modern alternative to the Platonist tradition is the naturalist philosophy of the Enlightenment.
Some readers will be taken aback by Carter’s unmitigated hostility towards the Enlightenment. Most people associate the Enlightenment with good things like natural science and political liberty. Those who dislike the Enlightenment’s anti-supernaturalist rationalism usually still prefer that rationalism to postmodern irrationalism. Carter argues that the two are actually episodes in a long historical movement away from Christian Platonism and toward naturalism.
This historical movement involves all five tenets of naturalism mentioned above. The medieval philosopher William of Occam espoused 3), nominalism. Descartes and Bacon developed 2), mechanism. Enlightenment philosophes embraced 1), materialism “with a quasi-religious fervor to complete the destruction of realism, the supernatural, God, creation, and providence.” David Hume advocated 5), skepticism, eliciting Immanuel Kant’s constructivist response, which precipitated a “rapid descent” into 4), relativism, including “epistemological relativism in Nietzsche and the postmodernists and ethical relativism in the sexual revolution of the twentieth century.”
In Carter’s analysis, naturalism is the essence of the Enlightenment, and the benefits of modernity are only incidentally connected to modern philosophy. He puts it memorably:
What was good in the Enlightenment was not new, and what was new was not good. The Enlightenment did not invent textual criticism; Origen did that. The Enlightenment did not invent history; Augustine wrote a great philosophy of history. The Enlightenment did not invent reason; Thomas Aquinas wrote possibly the most rationally beautiful work in history.
Identifying the Enlightenment as the root of our problems is provocative, but Carter’s proposed solution has generated even more controversy. In Interpreting Scripture, he called for the Church to return to the pre-modern metaphysics of “Christian Platonism.” Two years later, in Contemplating God, he made the same point, but in more varied and more familiar terms: the theological metaphysics of the Great Tradition, the metaphysics of Nicaea, Reformed Thomism. This shift seems to have been caused by controversy around the term “Christian Platonism.”
The idea of recovering Platonism certainly contradicts the seeming Christian common sense that we should base all of our thought on Scripture. Carter affirms this goal, but he insists that we must be practical. We always will have some philosophical beliefs that function as premises for our reading of Scripture. Without any philosophical reflection, these will be a hidden patchwork of premises borrowed from the thought of our culture, which are likely antithetical to Scripture. Preferring Platonism to Enlightenment naturalism is actually an act of counter-cultural faithfulness to Scripture, says Carter.
It is not just Platonism in general that Carter advocates, either, but “Christian Platonism.” He explains what this means by pointing out that many great Christian teachers like Justin Martyr and Augustine converted to Christianity only after learning from the Platonists. Upon their conversion, these men neither scorned Platonism nor uncritically affirmed it. In light of Scripture, they affirmed the truths of Platonism, supplemented its inadequacies, and corrected its errors. Augustine’s conversion, narrated in Book VII of his Confessions, is a good example. He said that Platonism prepared him for the opening of John: “In the beginning was the logos,” but not for the startling claim that “the logos became flesh and dwelled among us.”
There is a great irony in all this, which Carter notes with relish. The modern impulse to purge Greek thought traces back to Adolf von Harnack’s “Hellenization Thesis,” which stated that Christian doctrine is an intrusion of Greek thought into biblical teaching. What is often missed is that Harnack’s goal in advancing this thesis was not to be more faithful to Scripture, but rather to adapt Christianity to the Enlightenment’s naturalist philosophy. Carter “lays the ax to the root,” so to speak, with his comment that the Hellenization Thesis is “a kind of projection” because it accuses “the church fathers of doing in their historical context exactly the sort of thing the modern liberal Protestants were doing in their historical context.” But, in fact, the Fathers largely succeeded in submitting the philosophies of their day to Scripture, whereas Protestant liberalism sold out entirely to the Enlightenment.
The Church Fathers
Carter’s two books also serve as a good introduction to historical theology, especially for Protestants wondering what to make of the pre-Reformation period. Carter’s discussions of patristic exegesis in Interpreting Scripture provide an excellent summary of the best recent patristics scholarship—especially on the Fathers’ prosopological (or “person-centered) reading of the Old Testament (i.e. reading certain biblical texts, such as the Psalms, as “intra-trinitarian” conversations between the Father, Son, and Spirit). Throughout, he provides stimulating treatments of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Irenaeus, and others.
Among these many strengths, one notable weakness is Carter’s failure to thoroughly reject the “two schools” interpretation of patristic exegesis. This framework was developed by—you guessed it—Adolf von Harnack, and persists in theology textbooks to this day. The idea is that the “Alexandrians” practiced allegorical exegesis and the “Antiochenes” practiced literal exegesis, with the implication that the Antiochenes understood the Bible better—nearly as well, perhaps, as we do today.
Carter does mention some of the problems with this framework. For instance, he points out that it overstates the difference between the two schools, neither of which were “literalist” in the modern sense. However, he misses the deeper issue. The “two schools” framework suggests that there were two major regional streams marked by relatively minor differences of method. But the “Antiochenes” of the fifth century were only a few: Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius. These three are not distinguished because of their exegetical method, but because of their condemnation by an ecumenical council for Christological heresy. Harnack’s framework relativized this theological condemnation—conveniently for him, since his own Protestant liberalism had some affinities with the heretical “Antiochene” christology.
A detailed critique of the “two schools” historiography is the almost exclusive preserve of specialists in patristics (my brief summary relies heavily on the analysis of Donald Fairbairn). So it is hardly a major fault for Carter to have missed this. Still, his moderate use of the framework leads in some wrong directions. Thinking of Antioch and Alexandria as two sides of a polarity leads Carter to the strange proposal that Theodoret of Cyrus should be taken as representative of the patristic mainstream. Theodoret was certainly a major exegete, but his primary credential to represent the mainstream is his mediating position in the fifth-century dispute between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria. But it is hardly commendable to hold a middle position between heresy and orthodoxy! A better way to recover the mainstream of patristic exegesis is to forget the “two schools” entirely and focus on the figures that the Church itself identified as its best representatives, which includes both “Antiochenes” (e.g. John Chrysostom) and “Alexandrians” (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria).
Ultimately, historical analysis must give way to scriptural interpretation, which is the heart of these books. Carter imparts a profound sense that exegesis is not child’s play, but serious work demanding deep thought, much effort, and fervent prayer. His lengthy exposition of Isaiah 40-48 in Contemplating God shows how exegesis, philosophy, and doctrine go together. Here is a compelling alternative to historical criticism.
Carter shows that not much has changed since the prophets wrote. Isaiah opposed the idolatrous mythology of the Ancient Near East, which viewed the world as uncreated matter barely domesticated by various gods. In their own way, the Platonist philosophers also opposed this worldview. This was one reason why the Fathers appreciated them, though Augustine criticized them in the City of God for hypocritically participating in polytheistic worship. But the world did not gain a full vision of God as the transcendent creator from the Platonists, but from the revelation of the New Testament, proclaimed by the apostles, formulated by the fathers, and refined beautifully by medieval doctors like Aquinas.
On this side of the Enlightenment, Carter sees a revival of the ancient pagan worldview, essentially mythological and pantheistic in character. For this reason, he urges us to take care in exploring the interface between Christianity and science. In principle, integrating these is a worthy goal, just as it was worthwhile for the Fathers to identify connections between Christianity and Platonism. Still, we must be careful lest scriptural teaching be harmonized not merely with scientific data, but also with the naturalistic philosophy that dominates modern scientific research. The chapter in Contemplating God on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo should be required reading for anyone engaged in this area of theology.
Carter’s argument could be summarized in the parting words of the aged apostle John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). Christian Platonism is worth recovering because it is a proven way to avoid idolatry. For the same reason, Christian Platonism is important for ministry, which aims to turn people from idols to the true God (1 Thess. 1:9). This is no easy task in a society that has been hardening in its idolatry over many years. Pastors should ponder Carter’s description of our cultural moment:
All is in flux and supposedly “progressing,” although one struggles to understand how “progress” is the best description of a culture that is failing to reproduce itself and is characterized by the breakdown of the family, the devaluing of human life in abortion and euthanasia, skyrocketing suicide rates, an epidemic of drug abuse, and rapidly increasing rates of mental illness.
All this is part of what it means to worship idols.
This grim analysis yields a hopeful note: “Standing firm while the surrounding culture self-destructs was how the early church conquered the Roman Empire, and all we need to do is imitate that example.” At the very end of Contemplating God, Carter leaves us with an admonition much like that of John: “We need to be less interested in passing fads in a decadent and declining culture and much more concerned with the permanent things.” In this way, we will keep ourselves from idols and continue the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy.
Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC Sunnyvale in Sunnyvale, California.
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