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The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture
by iain provan
baylor, 724 pages, $49.95

As Iain Provan observes in his recent book The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, the Protestant reading of Scripture lies “in some disarray.” Historical-critical readers, intent on recovering original texts and authorial meanings, have undermined the ability of Scripture to address the contemporary Church and world. Postmodern readers, championing nondogmatic and perspectival approaches to the Bible, have ­discarded theological and ethical positions central to traditional Protestant faith. Chicago constituency readers—named for The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982)—have invoked the “complete inerrancy” of Scripture in a way that sets them against contemporary biblical interpretations as well as the findings of modern science. Finally, catholic-minded Protestant readers, lamenting the Reformation’s break with Christianity’s past and questioning the sharp distinction between ­Scripture and tradition, have advocated the recovery of a “participatory or sacramental ontology” and the retrieval of a “spiritual” reading of Scripture. 

Out of this morass, Provan proposes a fifth way. He argues for the possibility of standing in continuity with much of the pre-Reformation heritage, while simultaneously deploying “the Reformation affirmation of the centrality of the literal sense of the text in right-minded biblical interpretation” to engage positively with modern and postmodern ­hermeneutics. 

There is much to admire in Provan’s survey of pre-Reformation biblical interpretation, Protestant hermeneutics, and modern and postmodern criticism. His call to study the Bible in its original ­languages—evocatively expressed in Martin Bucer’s inspiring, if overly optimistic, notion that Hebrew would be universally spoken in Christian cities—must be heeded by all Christians wanting to deepen their understanding of Scripture. Likewise, his account of what the reformers did and did not mean by sola scriptura and by the authority and inspiration of Scripture provides a valuable corrective to those who have championed these terms while misunderstanding them. Lastly, his portrayal of the “eclipse of biblical narrative”—a phrase borrowed from Hans Frei and used to express how in the modern era Christianity came to be seen as incapable of embracing recently discovered scientific and historical truths while concurrently ­becoming associated with intolerance and violence—will likely resonate with believers across the theological ­spectrum.

Despite its many attractive qualities, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture oversimplifies the history of biblical interpretation. This is clearest in Provan’s treatment of the biblical canon’s formation. He states that the inclusion of more books in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles need not be a matter for concern, at least as long as readers do not “hang anything of doctrinal or ethical importance upon them.” But the problem of canon cannot be waved away so easily, especially since Church Fathers such as Augustine and Origen cite 2 Maccabees as the scriptural basis for the doctrines of prayer for the dead and creation “out of nothing.” If one is proposing a “right reading of scripture,” rooted in the Reformation’s principle of sola scriptura, one must be able to demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the smaller Old Testament canon of the reformers was the canon of the early Church. 

Central to Provan’s proposal is the claim that reformers were not only justified in the sharp distinction that they drew between the Hebrew Bible and what they called the Apocrypha, but also that “they can be said to have had a majority of the early Christian tradition behind them in drawing such a distinction.” However, the picture that emerges from patristic citations, extant codices, and surviving canon lists is of a Church divided over the contents of the Old Testament. Even the most conservative approach, based upon canon lists alone, reveals two camps. Evidence from the Byrennios list, Melito of Sardis, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius of Alexandria, Jerome of Stridon, the synod of Laodicea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Amphilochius of Iconium, and Rufinus of Aquileia (Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea are often added to this number, but the evidence that they offer is considerably more equivocal) reveals more or less the Hebrew canon—although, as Lee Martin McDonald points out, no patristic Old Testament canon is identical. Testimony from the Muratorian Fragment, Codex Claromontanus, the Cheltenham List, the Apostolic Canons, the synod of Hippo, the synod of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Innocent I, as well as the St. Catherine’s Monastery Syriac List, shows the acceptance of a wider canon, including books like Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, and the Books of Maccabees. 

Some early Christian writers address this canonical disagreement directly. Hilary of Poitiers remarks that Tobit and Judith were accepted by some. Epiphanius of Salamis, likely reflecting Christian debate, (incorrectly) asserts that Sirach and Wisdom were disputed among the Jews. Jerome comments that Judith, which he believed to be noncanonical, was accepted as Scripture by the council of Nicaea. The tension between these camps is alive and well in Eastern Orthodoxy to this day. 

To downplay the disagreement over the canon, Provan must explain away perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence for a wider scriptural corpus: A­ugustine’s list of the canonical books in his On Christian Doctrine. To do this, he rehearses the argument of the ­Elizabethan churchman William Whitaker that there was, in fact, no variance between Augustine and ­Jerome on the canon since they use the word “canonical” in two different ways. Jerome uses the term precisely to mean the books that the Church has always held to be canonical and from which Christian doctrine may be adduced. Augustine employs the word inexactly to mean those texts of lesser authority that are read in the Church only for edification. This argument is quite ingenious. Not only does it postulate a way to harmonize Augustine with other Church Fathers like Jerome, ­Athanasius, and ­Rufinus who ­accepted “canonical” and “­ecclesiastical” books, but also it uses an argument by Luther’s ­Catholic opponent at Augsburg (1518), Cardinal Cajetan, against Catholic polemicists. 

Nevertheless, on closer examination, this explanation is unconvincing. First, Augustine accepted a broader Old Testament canon because this was what was received by North African synods, first in Hippo (393) and later in Carthage (397 and 419), and probably also in Rome where these synodal canons were sent. Second, his acceptance of the wider canon reflects his conviction, contrary to Jerome’s, that both the Septuagint and the Hebrew texts were inspired. Third, elsewhere he expresses his opinion that the Books of Maccabees were part of the Christian canon, though not the Jewish one. Fourth, and perhaps most conclusively, Augustine employs 2 Maccabees to prove that prayers for the dead, like those he requests for his deceased parents in the Confessions, are beneficial. 

Though it may seem like an esoteric point, Augustine’s acceptance and usage of the wider canon is of great import to Reformation debates. Provan highlights Luther’s response to Johann Eck during their Leipzig Debate (1519) that he would not accept the latter’s evidence for purgatory since 2 Maccabees was outside the canon, promoting it as an indication of continuing doubts about the wider canon in the West throughout the Middle Ages. However, it is notable that Eck’s claim, just as much as Luther’s rebuttal, followed a line of argument that could be traced back to the Fathers and the Scriptures of the early Church. 

By presenting reformers like ­Luther as merely returning to the consensus patrum regarding the shorter canon, Provan argues that they “provoked the Counter-­Reformational Council of Trent (1546) to produce a list of Scriptures that removed any distinction between these two groups of texts,” namely, the deuterocanonical books and the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the fourth session of the council simply reaffirmed the wider canon ratified at the Council of ­Florence (1442).

This is significant for at least two reasons. First, the canon affirmed at Trent was not, in the first instance, a broadside against Protestants, but rather part of an ecumenical overture toward the Orthodox. Second, in accepting a wider canon, Trent did not remove “any distinction” between the Hebrew Bible and the deuterocanonical books; it only embraced as authoritative the broader, undifferentiated lists of figures like Augustine and Pope Innocent I, sources that, unsurprisingly, held great weight within the Roman Church. Luther had sided with the opposing patristic camp a decade earlier (1534) when he followed ­Jerome in consigning what he called the Apocrypha to an appendix of books “not of equal value to the Holy Scriptures,” but “still useful and good to read.” Reflecting on this situation, the Protestant scholars Edmon Gallagher and John Meade have recently commented that both Luther and Trent could claim patristic precedent for their decisions. 

Given that there were historical and scriptural foundations to both sides of the Reformation debate over the canon, it is unclear why the reformers’ understanding of Scripture provides a better source for the “literal” and “canonical” reading that Provan proposes. Luther’s interpretation of the Bible, for example, hardly seems to support this goal. Not only did he place the Apocrypha in an appendix, but he wanted to excise Esther altogether. Nor was his heavy-handed approach confined to the Old Testament. He famously complained that James was an “epistle of straw” and banished this book, along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, to the back of the New Testament. He also chose favorites. John was “the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them,” and Romans was “the true, main piece of the New Testament.” 

The fundamental problem with this approach is not so much the preference for certain parts of Scripture over others or even the denigrating of books universally received into the canon, but rather the effort to wrangle the canon of Scripture to fit an understanding of its central message. Recalling Luther’s insight in the first and second of his Ninety-Five Theses that Christ’s command to “Repent” in Matthew 4:17 involved “the entire life of believers” and “cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance,” Provan reflects that the Reformation began “with a reference to the proper meaning of a biblical word.” ­However, Luther’s interpretive heritage might just as accurately be summed up by his interpolation of the German word “allein” into Romans 3:28, rendering the passage, “So we now maintain, that man becomes justified without the work of the Law, through faith alone.” Given his propensity to play fast and loose with the canon as well as with particular texts of Scripture, why recover a biblical hermeneutic ultimately based on Luther and those who followed him? Why not choose Erasmus, whose Novum Instrumentum made possible the textual insight at the outset of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses? Or better yet, why not seek to recover Christian humanism across the party lines of the Reformation? 

The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture is a laudable attempt to reform and revive Protestant hermeneutics by bringing contemporary biblical interpretation into conversation with the core convictions of both the reformers and their medieval and patristic antecedents. However, a truly literal and canonical reading of Scripture cuts against many early Protestant interpretations. This is why, for example, the “New Perspective on Paul” has largely displaced the older Reformation framework. What Provan calls “seriously literal interpretation” demands equally rigorous history.

Jonathan Reimer is a lecturer in history and religious studies at Corpus Christi College and St Mark’s College in Vancouver, Canada.

Photo by Jebulon via Creative Commons