This post is the first of four brief posts that will address the book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, by Craig A. Carter. In this post, I would like to address first a troublesome concept found in the title of the book, namely the Great Tradition. The blog’s readers will recall that I have already warned about the danger of this term in a recent post entitled Scripture IS the Great Tradition. I’m sure just the title of that post will give some indication as to my own point of view.
Today, however, I would like to expand a bit on what I said there, and I would like to begin with a reminder to my Reformed Baptist brethren, in particular, about a distinctive feature of our theology, namely our commitment to Sola Scriptura. This commitment is, in fact, foremost in our own commonly accepted confession, the Second London Baptist Confession (also often known as the Baptist Confession of 1689; hereafter BC1689). As the first paragraph of the first chapter states:
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience,1 although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will which is necessary unto salvation.2 Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in diversified manners to reveal Himself, and to declare (that) His will unto His church;3 and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now completed.4
1 2 Tim. 3:15–17; Is. 8:20; Luke 16:29,31; Eph. 2:20
2 Rom. 1:19-21, 2:14–15; Psalm 19:1-3
3 Heb. 1:1
4 Prov. 22:19-21; Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 1:19–20
Notice that the confession is clear on the matter. “Holy Scripture,” it says, “is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” It also gives excellent Scripture proofs for that assertion as well, such Paul’s reminder to Timothy that:
… from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17 NKJ)
That is a clear and concise description of the absolute sufficiency of Scripture for all matters of faith and practice. We are not surprised, then, that the confession goes on to assert in paragraph 9 that:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which are not many, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.20
20 2 Pet. 1:20–21; Acts 15:15–16
In other words, there is no tradition or confession or system of theology, however much it is thought to depend upon Scripture, that may serve as an “infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture,” but only “Scripture itself.” As the old saying goes, “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” The first chapter of the confession thus appropriately ends with the following paragraph (¶10):
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.21
21 Matt. 22:29, 31, 32; Eph. 2:20; Acts 28:23
Thus, the BC1689 contains the idea that even this confession itself is never to be seen as the ultimate authority for the church or for the interpretation of Scripture. To be sure, a confession can be a useful tool, as my own citation of the BC1689 here suggests, but it should never be allowed to usurp the authority of Scripture in its usage by the Church. The use of a confession can be a very good and helpful thing, but confessionalism is to be avoided. Traditions can be very good as well, but traditionalism is a very dangerous thing indeed. This is why so many Reformed Baptists not only consistently stress sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), but also semper reformanda (always reforming). And this is why I have consistently reminded those I have taught over the years that Reformed Baptist theology, reflected in the BC1689, isn’t perfect; it is simply the best we can do at this point in Church history. We must always be subjecting our theology, together with any confessions or creeds it may produce, to the authority of Scripture. Of course, we will discover that most, if not all, of what we find in the BC1689, for example, passes the test of Scripture. And we will also discover that it is in keeping with many orthodox doctrinal statements that have gone before. We will, in fact, discover that we stand on the shoulders of many faithful generations of Christians that have gone before. But each generation is faithful only insofar as it never places its own confessions or traditions in the honored place that Scripture alone is intended to occupy.
Within such a biblical perspective, then, I find myself deeply concerned when I hear of a Great Tradition that is essentially touted as the lens through which we must interpret Scripture (as has already been stressed in my previous post). But what, exactly, is this Great Tradition? I must admit that I am not altogether certain, but here are a few quotes from Carter’s book which offer a basic description or definition.
The Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology. The locus classicus of the Christian doctrine of God is qq. 1–43 of part I of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which sums up and carefully sets forth in a clear and coherent form the wisdom of Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, and Augustine—that is, the trinitarian classical theism that is expressed in the Nicene Creed. (p. xi).
This is a pretty mixed bag, isn’t it? It includes Protestant Reformers along with Thomas Aquinas, for example, and it speaks of “contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology” (whatever that means). But the focus clearly seems to be on the doctrine of God, since Carter speaks of the “fourth-century trinitarian debates” and then of the “the trinitarian classical theism that is expressed in the Nicene Creed.” And he clearly sees Thomas Aquinas as the preeminent theologian of this doctrine, since he says that “the locus classicus of the Christian doctrine of God is qq. 1–43 of part I of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.” But, one may legitimately wonder, why focus only on the doctrine of God? Is it because that is the only doctrine about which Carter believes all these disparate theologians and groups agree? If so, one might also legitimately wonder if that assumption itself is an accurate one. Am I to believe that Martin Luther, for example, would have understood the doctrine of God in precisely the same way that Thomas Aquinas did? That he would have agreed with Thomas’ expression of the doctrine? That he would have used the same categories? That he would have described Divine simplicity, for example, in precisely the same way? Somehow I doubt it. But, more important to me is this question: Does Carter assume that a Reformed Baptist such as myself must agree with Thomas’ expression of the doctrine in order to be orthodox, to be a part of what he rather arbitrarily terms “the Great Tradition”? In the larger context of his book, does Carter really think we cannot properly interpret Scripture—or at least not have a proper foundation for the interpretation of Scripture—without accepting Thomistic categories and arguments? This is certainly what he implies.
Later in the book, however, Carter seems to imply that “the Great tradition” might also include Chalcedonian Christology, when he writes:
The early church unified around the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian doctrine of the two natures of Christ and enshrined this unity in the ecumenical creeds of the undivided church of the first five centuries. The degree to which this consensus has endured as the common ground of the church, despite all the divisions and disagreements over other doctrines, is truly astonishing. (p. 97).
Carter clearly wishes to find a doctrine (or doctrines) around which all forms of professing Christians (whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, as we have already seen) may unite and which may form the basis of an exegetical tradition common to them all. It is a worthy goal, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem possible. After all, these various streams of professing Christianity are divided largely due to their exegesis of Scripture, despite whatever they might share in common, even on a few really important doctrines. But I question how close they really are, even when considering just the aforementioned doctrines. For example, it seems to me that John Calvin’s objections to the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper depended largely on the fact that he saw it as a fundamental rejection of Chalcedonian Christology (a point I made here). At any rate, through most of the book Carter seems to see a Nicene doctrine of God as the real core of “the Great Tradition,” such as when he argued that:
The recovery of the genius of premodern exegesis involves the recovery and rebalancing of three pillars of scientific exegesis: the Nicene doctrine of God, the theological metaphysics that flows from that doctrine, and the christological literalism of patristic exegesis. (pp. 228–229).
These “three pillars” were described by Carter earlier in the book as a “three-legged stool,” when he wrote that “The Great Tradition was a three-legged stool made up of spiritual exegesis, Nicene dogma, and Christian Platonist metaphysics.” (p. 111). I will briefly focus on the other two legs of this stool in the coming weeks. Today I will simply observe that the so-called “Great Tradition” appears to me to be an arbitrarily defined one that not only highlights certain doctrines rather than other (equally important) ones, but which also expects that those doctrines be held and discussed in a very specific way, a way which he thinks is best delineated by Thomas Aquinas. As for me, I have no problem with the Nicene Creed, although I would definitely not hold to all the canons set forth at Nicaea (see here). However, I do take issue with assuming that Thomas Aquinas’ treatment ought to be seen as the definitive explanation of the doctrine of God contained in that creed, and I cannot in good conscience recommend any book that thinks it ought to be.
Before I finish this post, though, I would just point out that we may discern whether a particular tradition is becoming too authoritative for a person not only when that person consistently speaks of it with a definite article and capital letters as the Great Tradition, and not only when that tradition appears to provide the lens through which we must interpret Scripture, but also when that tradition is referred to at points where one would expect a reference to Scripture. Sadly, examples of the latter may be found in Carter’s book, or at least it seems so to me. Consider, for instance, the following passage:
Classical theism has been the mainstream view of the Great Tradition from the fourth century, when many of its distinctive points were decisively clarified, through Augustine to the scholastic tradition culminating in Thomas Aquinas. The locus classicus of the classical theist view of God is found in the first forty-three questions of the first part of the Summa Theologica. This understanding of God (which I usually refer to as trinitarian classical theism) was never challenged by the Reformers and passed into Protestant scholasticism, becoming the basis of Protestant reform movements such as Pietism, Puritanism, and, from the 1730s onward, evangelicalism. This view of God is taught by all the major Protestant confessions of faith, including the Augsburg Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and the Westminster Confession. The lightly edited Baptist version of the Westminster Confession, known as the Second London Confession of 1689, is the confession under which I work as a theologian; it is the basis of various reformed Baptist confessions that form the doctrinal basis of my denomination. Trinitarian classical theism is also embedded solidly in the twentieth-century catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. As a confessional Protestant, I stand within the Great Tradition of the church, at the heart of which stands the conception of God known as trinitarian classical theism; that makes me catholic, though not in communion with Rome for doctrinal reasons other than the doctrine of God itself. I say this to make the point that the teachings of classical theism described below are not mere philosophical opinions about which individual Christians are free to disagree. Many people do disagree with classical theistic teachings, but to the extent that they do so they place themselves outside the Great Tradition; the root of such disagreement is, in my view, exegetical. (p. 52, underline emphasis mine)
To be fair, Carter does end this passage by saying that “the root of such disagreement is, in my view, exegetical,” and, in context, he must be referring to the exegesis of Scripture. But notice, however, that Scripture isn’t really the standard by which he appears to be judging a proper approach. He doesn’t refer to the necessity to be biblical, but rather to the necessity to be inside rather than “outside the Great Tradition.” And, when he refers to “disagreement” that is “exegetical,” he appears to mean exegesis that comports not with his own understanding of Scripture, but with his own understanding of “the Great Tradition.” After all, this seems to be what the whole book is largely about. In fact, the title could easily have been Interpreting Scripture In Accordance With the Great Tradition, or Interpreting Scripture Through the Lens of the Great Tradition. That is how I see it, anyway, and it is just one reason that I cannot recommend the book.
Another example of referring to “the Great tradition” when one would expect a reference to Scripture would be the following passage in which Carter critiques Vosian biblical theology:
Instead of a historical-critical approach, the Vosian approach advocates a redemptive-historical approach. In many ways, it has been very successful, despite two significant, though not fatal, flaws. One problem is that it fails to perceive clearly enough the nature of its own kinship to the Great Tradition and to writers like Irenaeus and Augustine. The second flaw is the source of the first. 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 Christian Platonism. If practitioners of Vosian biblical theology could grasp the importance of recovering Christian Platonism and using it to critique modern philosophical errors, they could reestablish a link with the Great Tradition that would allow them to draw on the riches of the Christian intellectual past in the work of reconstructing Western civilization after the coming collapse of modernity. (pp. 156–157)
Notice that the first flaw that Carter sees in Vosian biblical theology is not that it failed to be biblical (which is what it was seeking to be), but rather that it failed “to perceive clearly enough the nature of its own kinship to the Great Tradition.” And, he says, “the second flaw is the source of the first,” namely that 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 Christian Platonism.” In other words, the problem with Vosian biblical theology appears to be that it was just, well, too biblical. It should have been much more focused instead on what Carter calls “the Great Tradition.” I guess old Gerrhardus Vos didn’t get the memo and mistakenly thought that the focus of biblical theology was to be just that, biblical. But Carter then goes on to add that “If practitioners of Vosian biblical theology could grasp the importance of recovering Christian Platonism and using it to critique modern philosophical errors, they could reestablish a link with the Great Tradition that would allow them to draw on the riches of the Christian intellectual past.” In my view, however, the link we should want there to be between past and present Christian theologians ought to be the Bible. Scripture is what we should have in common, and Carter may actually think so himself. Yet he speaks of “the Great Tradition” as though it were tantamount to Scripture and as though it were the utlimate authority by which one ought really to judge biblical theology. I hope the reader can see my concern. Frankly, I cannot imagine how anyone who says that “the Second London Confession of 1689 is the confession under which I work as a theologian” (p. 52) could speak the way he does of the so-called “Great Tradition.” After all, as I pointed out in the beginning of this post, Reformed Baptists are supposed to hold to sola Scriptura, and they are supposed to hold up any and every tradition to the light of Scripture, not the other way around.