For the last three centuries, conservative Christians have attempted to defend traditional Christianity against the rising trend of biblical criticism. Biblical critics argued that Christian theology was layered on top of the Bible. So they wanted to get what the Bible meant before Christians added their theological biases to the text.
But does classical Christianity actually add a layer of meaning to the text that is not there? Does the Old Testament truly speak of Christ, or do we see Christ in the Old Testament by reading him into it? Should we read the Old Testament as part of a unified and inspired message about God, or is this an imposition upon the text?
These are the sorts of questions that Craig Carter attempts to answer in Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. His basic argument is that we need to return to a uniquely Christian way of reading the Bible, which has been replaced (especially in the academy) by a naturalistic way of reading the Bible.
The Rise of Naturalism
During the Enlightenment, the West broke free from the past, from tradition. The rule of reason and evidence came into effect. Even religious Europeans studied nature according to naturalistic historical evidence, namely, evidence that does not allow God to control history.
To enlightenment Europeans, God also became a being who lives above the universe. God set creation in motion but rarely imposes his will by miracles. He was viewed as pure will (God can do what he wants without regard to any standard). And so the idea of the “will to power” became prevalent.
The world no longer was understood to be the visible reality of the invisible God’s creation that he providentially governs. Nothing ultimate stood behind things in the world. The world is all there was, is, and ever will be. Materialism reigned.
All of this directly challenged the central metaphysical commitments of Christianity. During the first centuries of the Christian faith, believers studied the Bible and listened to the Spirit to create something called Christian Platonism. “Christian Platonism,” writes Carter, “was carefully and painstakingly crafted over centuries to serve as a context for reflection on Scripture that leads to true knowledge of the living God and enables true doctrinal statements about him” (xv).
In so doing, they created a specifically Christian culture. This culture centred around God’s existence, creation, providence, and inspiration of Scripture. But Carter uses the phrase Christian Platonism to show how Christians used some platonic thought to create distinctively Christian theological metaphysics.
Now, Christian Platonism should not be confused with Platonism as if Christians just added their name before Platonism. Christian Platonism refers to biblical commitments about God and the world that enable Christians to read the Bible fruitfully. Those commitments include the reality of God and his meticulous providence. It includes the reality that God inspired the Bible so that it is a unity. It means that we study what God the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible to say.
The Problem of Naturalism
Carter, therefore, advocates that we retrieve the past to provide health for the church today. So why ought we to retrieve Christian Platonism? The answer is because naturalistic metaphysics has displaced Christian Platonism in the minds of Western people.
According to Carter, “A naturalistic metaphysics produces a method that leads to a heretical form of Christianity (or perhaps a whole new religion?) that the church must reject” (16). And since a naturalistic view of the world is the default today, we must reject it for a consistently Christian view of metaphysics.
This naturalistic approach means that people study the Bible as a historical document apart from the inspiring and providential work of God. So historical-criticism, a method that studies the Bible like any other book, becomes the method by which Christians ought to read Scripture.
But according to Carter, this is part of a liberal endeavour that results in a denial of the faith:
The liberal project seeks to convince the members of Christian churches that they can accept the metaphysical beliefs of modernity while remaining Christians in some meaningful sense by reinterpreting the doctrines of the Bible in the context of modern metaphysics. (124-125)
He continues, “Modern historical-critical study of the Bible is based on a false conception of created reality, a false conception of history, and a false conception of the Bible” (126). Strong words, and yet they have a ring of truth to them. Historical-critical study looks at the Bible like any other book and aims to produce research that any person can see a verify.
Modernity with its inherent naturalism challenges Christian metaphysical conclusions. Carter polemically defines modernity to make the point: “Modernity is a cultural pathology caused by the breakdown of the Great Tradition and the rise of neopaganism in Western civilization” (85).
But Christians cannot affirm that the Bible is just like any other book. It’s special because God breathed it out through the inspiration of his Holy Spirit. Christians must approach the Bible, therefore, with a method that matches the object of the study. And this means adopting theological metaphysics.
Defining his terms, Carter says, “By ‘theological metaphysics’ I mean the account of the ontological nature of reality that emerges from the theological descriptions of God and the world found in the Bible” (63). So lest readers think that Carter’s program is something other than biblical, he has shown convincingly that he aims to draw his conclusions from the Bible. (Whether or not he is correct is another matter).
If we are to believe Carter, the Western world committed itself to naturalism and neopaganism because the Great Tradition—that built Christian Platonism on the basis of the Bible—has been toppled by the mainstream.
The Retrieval of Christian Platonism
So what should we do? According to Carter, we need to retrieve the theological metaphysics of the past to read the Bible well today. And this ultimately means that we can read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, to see Christ. Christ is the centre and meaning of the whole Bible because he is really there.
The Bible makes Christ present to us. We don’t read Christ into the Old Testament; we read him out of the Old Testament. This is why Carter does not argue for a kind of typology that reads Christological connections from the New Testament into the Old Testament. Typology, where it exists, is true because Christian Platonism is true. God has created the world after divine patterns, which we can discern because God inspired the Bible.
If not typology, then what? Carter advocates for something called prosopology. Prosopology defines who the speakers are in the Bible. In short, it’s a way of hearing Christ speak in the Old Testament. (To learn more, read my article here).
And by hearing the word of God, readers receive the Word of God. Carter writes, “Biblical exegesis is a spiritual discipline by which we are gradually made into the kind of readers who can receive with gladness the Word of God” (x).
In short, Carter’s vision of retrieval involves reading the Bible as part of God’s inspired word, to hear the voice of Christ (or simply to see Christ as the centre of Scripture) to transform readers.
Carter’s book covers a wide breadth of topics. It broadly brushes over history, polemically challenges historical-criticism, and retrieves a distinctively Christian approach to Scripture. So much good is mixed with so much that gives me pause.
Don’t get me wrong. Carter needed to write this book. We need bold, clear, polemics as well as clear proposals for reading Scripture. Carter has done so.
Yet readers will not be satisfied with his treatment of history. It is too simplistic, although Carter admits that he paints the Enlightenment with a broad brush (250). He is trying to make a larger point, namely, that the Enlightenment with its naturalism has replaced the tradition of Christian Platonism.
As far as that goes, he’s right. But should we reclaim Christian Platonism? Defined as Carter defines it, yes. But I do think the term Christian Platonism will be a stumbling block for many. It sounds too much like a philosophical system imposed on Scripture rather than a metaphysic that rises out of a study of Scripture.
Much more could be said. But this review cannot possibly cover everything Carter has to say. Still, I hope it gives readers a taste of the book’s argument. I know that I will need to digest it further and think through its implications for some time.
Do I recommend it? Yes, read it. Even if you disagree with Carter’s claims, it will challenge you to be more critical of how you approach the Bible. And I think that’s something that Christian academics, pastors, and leaders (and really anyone) should embrace.
Disclaimer: Parasource Marketing & Distribution provided me a review copy of Interperting Scripture with the Great Tradition, although I was under no obligation to give it a positive review.