Reflections on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: A Response from Dr Craig Carter.

A few days ago, St Helen’s Bishopsgate posted a talk by Gwilym Davies entitled ‘Reflections on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture’ which was primarily an engagement with two books, Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis and Keith Stanglin’s The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice. Having read Dr Carter’s book ( Stanglin sits unread on my shelf), and met him during his recent trip to London, I was interested to know how Dr Carter would respond. He was kind enough to listen to Gwilym’s talk and write a substantial response and allow me to post it on this blog. He tells me, 

“I think that it is important that Evangelicals try to understand each other on such issues because we have much in common. I only want to support and encourage ministries like St. Helen’s Bishopsgate to continue their evangelistic work. I really admire any church that gets people reading Scripture actively and successfully. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to sit down and chat with Mr. Davies and/or William Taylor sometime. I’d love to do that. “

Whether or not that meeting happens, I hope that this exchange prompts a gracious and honest discussion about what I think is a crucial question for British evangelicals. Anyone who wants to understand Dr Carter’s position further can listen to the talks he gave on the topic at London Seminary in October or, better still, read his book. Dr Carter’s words are below:

A Response to Gwilym Davies

Craig A. Carter

Dec. 2, 2019

In this talk, Mr. Davies is primarily concerned about two issues: the single meaning theory of Scripture and the abuse of the rule of faith. Let me say a brief word about each one by way of reply. I am concerned that my book may be lumped in with other books about the issue of how to interpret Scripture in such a way as to attribute to me certain ideas that I reject decisively. Those who wish to pursue this issue further should read my book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) before assuming that the portrait of me painted by Davies is accurate.

  1. The Single Meaning Theory and the Human Author

I am sure that the motivation for being so dogmatic about the single meaning of Scripture and the anxiety about admitting any distinction between the human authorial intent (HAI) and the divine authorial intent (DAI) is that this serves as his security blanket. It wards off the horror of uncontrolled interpretation, individualism and subjectivism. Reading into the text is always a danger. Now, when one is actually teaching lay people to read the Bible for themselves it is entirely appropriate – indeed imperative – to be concerned about these dangers. No one should dismiss such concerns as unimportant. The question is whether or not the proposed solution makes the problem better or worse.

I think that if the lay person taught this bible study method goes on to Bible college or university and starts to read theology books and encounters liberal higher criticism, it is easy to see how his or her faith could be shaken by certain questions concerning authorship and editorship of the biblical books. HAI and single meaning sounds comforting and clear as long as you have an identifiable author like Paul or John or Moses but it gets a little fuzzy when you think about the original sitz im leben of a psalm in, say, the Davidic court and then the placement of that psalm in the post-exilic situation of Books 4 or 5 of the Psalter by the exilic editor of the Paslter.  Then we have to ask, “which author/editor?” What if the intentions are distinguishable? What if they are incompatible? What happens to inspiration? Form criticism and redaction criticism are often taken to an excess, but they cannot be dismissed completely.  If HAI were so important, one would think that every single book of the canon would name its author explicitly as Isaiah or Romans does. The Holy Spirit apparently thought this was unnecessary.

Now, I think such questions are fairly easy to handle and need not undermine confidence in the inspiration and authority of the biblical text, but they are more potentially disturbing if one insists on the original human author’s conscious intention as the only possible meaning of the text. Now, I doubt that Mr. Davies actually does this in practice. Even in the lecture I heard him refer to “what the Scripture says” in places and presumably that is necessary because we often do not know who the author(s)/editor(s) were and it does not matter because we are trying to hear God’s voice in Scripture anyway.

The locating of inspiration in the human author, rather than in the text itself is a problematic move. It is, itself, partially a concession to modernity, which regards the Bible as a human book rather than a divinely-inspired one. If you read pre-modern commentaries and compare how they talk about the meaning of the text to modern commentaries (both liberal and conservative), what you will notice is that pre-moderns tend to talk more about the meaning of the text as what God is saying through it.  Calvin, for example, is always talking about what God or the Holy Spirit is teaching us through this text. It is not that pre-moderns never speak about the human author; they take it for granted that inspiration comes through the prophets and apostles and that the Holy Spirit was able to speak through them without reducing them to mere dictation machines.  Nevertheless, they would never have dreamed of reducing the meaning of the text to only and nothing more than what the human author of Scripture consciously intended to say.

This is particularly the case with Old Testament prophets, through whom God spoke in ways that the prophets themselves only vaguely comprehended, a point which is explicitly stated in 1 Peter 1:10-12. Peter there says that the Old Testament prophets “searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” Note the distinction between HAI and DAI in this verse. We must remember that a distinction is not necessarily a contradiction and we must never pit DAI against HAI as if the two were in conflict; that would be a denial of inspiration. When the Second London Confession speaks of the meaning of Scripture as “not manifold but one” (Ch. 1, Par. 9), we must understand the one meaning as the DAI, which includes the HAI within itself.

I believe that we need to say that the texts, rather than the prophets and apostles, are inspired. The Second London Confession is typical of all Reformation confessions in stating that “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (Ch. 1, Par. 1). It does not say that “The human authors of Scripture” but “Holy Scripture.” The text is that to which we have access and the text functions as the Word of God in the church; the author recedes into the background and is important but not all-important. Knowing something about the author may help us interpret the text, but the text itself is the locus of meaning. This is why the church can regard the entire Psalter as inspired and not merely the psalms authored by David.

The DAI includes within itself the HAI. Davies is so determined to identify the DAI with the HAI because of his fear of drifting off into subjectivist readings that he comes to see it as a zero sum game in which the more of one you have the less you have of the other. He is afraid that if we admit that there could be a DAI above and beyond the HAI in an Old Testament (OT) text, there is no way to restrict what meaning could then be read into the OT text. But it is not all or nothing: either single HAI or else reader response theory. The same checks are in place on identifying the “surplus” DAI in a text as are in place for any other interpretation. Scripture must not contradict Scripture. Texts must be interpreted in their contexts. The DAI must never be allowed to come untethered from or contradict the HAI.

Both of us would say that the HAI is included in the DAI because of inspiration, but I would wish to say that the DAI contains more meaning than the human author and his initial readers understood in the original situation. It seems to me that this sort of idea is necessary if Scripture is to speak to every generation and not become obsolete. It also seems to be required by the way that New Testament (NT) apostles interpret OT texts (eg. Matt. 2:15 and Hos. 11:1). One can argue that Hosea must have consciously understood that he was not only talking about the historical Exodus but also giving a prophecy of the coming Messiah if one thinks that is what the text means to say. But I would say that even if Hosea was not consciously making a messianic prediction, the prediction could still be in the text because of inspiration and Matthew could have seen that meaning in Hosea 11:1 and seen the fulfillment of it in the flight of the holy family to Egypt. And Matthew would not have been reading something into the Hosea text precisely because he was discerning a DAI that goes beyond, but is typologically related to, the HAI of Hosea. This seems to me to allow us to read the OT text in its own context as saying something and then to read it in the light of the NT and to see more meaning in it. This preserves the difference between the testaments, while also preserving an organic connection between them at the same time. We need a hermeneutical theory that makes sense of the way the apostles interpreted the OT as not subjective and arbitrary, but as sound exegesis.

The idea that Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) makes the OT obsolete may be true of some types of TIS, but it is a misunderstanding of the main motivation of my book. I agree that the NT should not be read into the OT to the extent that the OT loses its distinctive voice. It must be seen as “Promise” if the NT is to be understood as “Fulfillment.”  But the OT also should not be read in such a way as to make it self-contained and independent of the NT, in such a way as Rabbinic Judaism might read it. (Much of modernist higher criticism is actually scholars siding with the Rabbinic (not-believing-in-Jesus as Messiah) Jews over against the NT (believing-in-Jesus as Messiah) Jews and the church fathers.  This is why dismissing all patristic exegesis as tainted is so bad; our faith is based on the messianic interpretation of the OT and Jesus as Messiah. The NT writers and the church fathers used Christological literalism or the extended literal sense to do this and so should we.

  1. The Rule of Faith

The basic misunderstanding here is that Mr. Davies does not understand that the Rule of Faith is itself a summary of the skopos of the Bible. It is not all the accumulated traditional doctrine of the church over all the centuries of church history. Some widely-held doctrines contradict the Rule of Faith and are ruled out for that reason (eg. that matter is evil). But we should remember that the reason the Rule of Faith can function this way is only because it is a convincing summary of biblical theology in the first place. It is not a replacement for the Bible and it is not derived from any non-biblical source. The Apostles’ Creed was designed to assist novices and masters alike in reading the Bible well. It distills the apostolic interpretation of the OT into the simplest and shortest format possible.

The Protestant Reformers did not protest the Apostles’ Creed. They protested transubstantiation, Mariolatry, the doctrine of the papacy, etc. These were traditions in the sense that they had been widely held by large sections of the church. But these doctrines were never part of the Rule of Faith.  It is a basic misunderstanding of the Protestant Reformation to think that the Reformation’s Scripture Principle renders all the creeds unnecessary. This is part of liberalism, not part of confessional Protestantism, and it should not be read back into the sixteenth century as if the Reformers were merely forerunners of Schleiermacher and Harnack.

When Davies talks about intertextuality and the NT interpretation of the OT, he uses the loosest possible construction of such work “reading OT texts as saying the same as whatever NT text reminds you of something in that OT text.” This is a caricature, not a serious attempt to describe what I do. The first step and a very important one is to observe how the later biblical writers make use of earlier texts and to contemplate what is going on there very seriously. When we actually do that, we find them using the OT text to say more than the original writers meant to say, but not anything that goes against what they meant. And the meaning proposed by the NT writer is an extension of the original literal sense. Explaining how this works in a given text is the task of exegesis.

The issue of the meaning of the “literal sense” is crucial. I think that all attempts to define the meaning of the literal sense without taking DAI into consideration will ultimately be reductionist. Perhaps the St. Helen’s people would not actually reduce the meaning of texts like Isa.  53 or Hos. 11:1, but they will avoid doing so only by not implementing their theory consistently if they insist on all meaning being contained in the conscious intention of the human author speaking to the original audience in the original situation. What I want is a theory we can actually use in good exegesis and not have to abandon it when the result of following it would be detrimental.

To sum up: Mr. Davies and others like him are alert to the danger of reading too much meaning into the text of Scripture and thus unleashing interpretive anarchy. I am concerned about that, but also about the opposite danger: that of reading too little meaning into the text of Scripture and letting naturalistic reductionism prevent God from saying all that He wants to say in the text. What we need is a balanced theory of hermeneutics that helps us avoid both of these dangers.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Graham Miller says:

    Grateful for this godly discussion


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