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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture” by Iain Provan

Published Tuesday, October 29, 2019 By Harrison Perkins

“Viciously learned” is the only adequate way to begin describing Iain Provan’s massive tome on biblical interpretation, as Provan shows himself incredibly well read, thoughtfully clear, and immensely thorough. Some books are not easily categorized by discipline because they confuse their own aims, but this book is intentionally cross-disciplinary in the best way. Further, many books that near the seven-hundred-page mark tediously belabor the point far beyond necessary, but this work remains captivating until the end—even though it does focus on one stated thesis, it changes direction about how to consider that thesis several times, which renews and enlivens the argument. One struggles to decide if the genre is history, biblical studies, theology, or hermeneutics, but Provan keeps his eye attuned to each discipline and integrates insights from all four into a comprehensive treatise on what it means to work for the “seriously literal interpretation” of Scripture.  His argument is a robust defense of the literal meaning of Scripture, informed not simply by grammatical-historical exegesis, but also by the real canonical context, various tools of hermeneutics, and supremely the “communicative intent” of the biblical authors.

The book is divided into three parts, and part one takes up largely historically oriented questions about the development of the canon and biblical interpretation in the early church. These issues are of course perennially important for defending a Protestant view of Scripture, and Provan did a masterful job at addressing them in fresh, informed, and thorough ways. He easily and clearly shifts between historical analysis and theological prescription, which in this case is a real strength.  Far from claiming to be dispassionate historiography, this work is intended to be a historically-informed theological treatise. Provan’s discussions are well balanced between historical examination, examples of interpreting biblical texts, and new exegetical argumentation. There are several striking portions that stand out—Provan makes a really convincing case that not only should we prefer Scripture’s literal sense over a form of allegory, but also that this has been a preference among biblical interpreters since the church’s early centuries. There are clear uses of the Old Testament in the New, and Provan shows how none of these can properly be called allegory, in the sense that none of them ignore the original author’s intended meaning as it comes within the canonical context in favor of finding some hidden meaning in the text that original authors and compilers could not have known. Provan’s chapters about the translation of the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate make arresting contributions to this case, in ways that this reviewer is not sure have been adequately considered at a major level like Provan has done. These chapters argue that what we do know about these translations shows that the translators, who should be models for us as well, did not negate the use of original languages by providing translations but were thoroughly committed to them, and the conveyance of Scripture’s literal meaning through translation.

Part two considers Reformation era doctrines about Scripture, and argues that we should place ourselves in hermeneutical continuity with the Reformers about biblical interpretation.  One of the more helpful contributions this section makes is to outline the development of academic biblical studies that turned the interpretation of Scripture away from theological reflection towards historical reconstruction.  Provan shows how features of modernity affected biblical studies to dilute Scripture’s place as the world’s Grand Narrative and replace it with a tale of unencumbered human reason.  The development of a naturalistic world view was a predominant factor in eclipsing the Bible as a commonly-assumed starting point, but the surprise is that even conservative biblical scholars have (unconsciously) bought into this premise.  When even those who believe in inerrancy focus their exegesis solely on the reconstruction of historical contexts and original forms of the text to the neglect of a passage’s theological import, they have played by the rules of the naturalist narrative that Scripture is not a unified canon about God and his works, but is a collection of texts gathered simply within a specific culture.  Further, some modern conservative invectives against science do not seem to match the concerns of earlier biblical interpreters from the Reformation era, and Provan critiques this approach for contributing to the demise of Scripture’s public repute.  This claim deserves nuanced consideration—Provan rightly pointed out that people across the centuries have often erroneously claimed that the Bible taught more about what we call science than it actually intended to teach.  His warnings against proud refusals not to hear modern science about what we assume the Scripture teaches should be heard, and we should learn to pay closer attention to that communicative intent of the biblical authors rather than trying to mine the Scripture to answer every single question we might have about the universe.  The authority of Scripture, to which we ought to submit, entails that the Bible gets to determine not only the answers we have from God, but also the questions we might even get to ask of him.  On the other hand, readers may find themselves not wanting to grant quite the free range to science as Provan sometimes seems to do.  He never implies that the biblical authors advocated a premodern scientific worldview that was mistaken and should be rejected, but one does receive the impression that he may have had this in mind.  I don’t think that we should jettison anything that the biblical authors actually defended, but we should be careful not to attribute too much to what we think may be argued from the Scriptures they wrote.  Provan is not explicit on this point, so this is more an issue to note than a criticism of particular claims he makes.

Part three is an overview of several modern hermeneutical approaches.  He walks through the major critical and interpretive approaches developed in the modern period, and provides incredibly helpful critiques that note not only the major problems involved in some of these methods, but also the ways that we might benefit from them even if we essentially demur from their conclusions and reading strategies. This balanced analysis alone should help every reader gain a new sense of how to draw on various tactics for interpreting Scripture as we try to communicate it within the church. As informative as this section is concerning important things to know about modern hermeneutics, it does run the risk of losing the book’s main argument, as it focuses on what others have done rather than what we should do.

Provan most thoroughly advocated a canonical approach to hermeneutics, and his view is helpful. Readers may be more or less approving of his varying degree of sympathy to source criticism and later editorial contributions to the biblical text, but his overall method is useful, helpful, and clear.  The major question might be how this book relates to the burgeoning field of “theological interpretation of Scripture,” and I  think it’s helpful contribution.  It is certainly a conservative stance that rejects the allegorizing of biblical texts that some have used to make room for things the Bible explicitly rejects, as well as a helpful counterbalance to works that argue we need to renew Christian Platonism in order to have a robust theological metaphysic. Provan criticizes Platonism thoughtfully, but still argues that we need a real understanding of God’s authorship in Scripture and how that affects our scriptural ontology. While massive, it’s a profitable, edifying book that’s well worth reading.

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church (Free Church of Scotland) and a lecturer in Christian Doctrine at Cornhill Belfast. He is author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  • Harrison Perkins

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