2017 was a year full of new books assessing the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and its implications for today. Most of these volumes, understandably, were written by historians. However, this volume, penned by a biblical scholar, deserves to be counted among the more substantial contributions regarding the ongoing hermeneutical and exegetical significance of the Reformation.
In this voluminous work, Iain Provan, a well-respected Old Testament scholar and professor at Regent College, has offered us something of an extended manifesto for recovering the properly conceived of “literal sense” of Scripture as the correct focus of biblical exegesis. Broadly then, this is a book about hermeneutics (especially Old Testament hermeneutics), while in particular it is a response to the hermeneutical confusion that Provan finds rife in Protestantism. Provan classifies this confusion into four contemporary “ways” of reading Scripture that he each finds somewhat deficient, and the book is his attempt to chart a fifth way forward. Provan’s “ways” are as follows (pp. 13–21):
- The First Way: “Historical Criticism” (e.g., James Barr)
The Second Way: “Postmodern Reading” (e.g., John Caputo, the emergent church)
The Third Way: “The Chicago Constituency” (defined by adherence to The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics)
The Fourth Way: “Counter-Reformational Protestantism” (e.g., Hans Boersma)
Provan’s own fifth way advocates for what he calls the “seriously literal interpretation” of Scripture (p. 20). This involves appreciating the principles of the Reformers’ hermeneutics (primarily those of Luther and Calvin), above all in their commitment to the literal sense, though it does not thereby entail always following the Reformers in their precise conclusions. Moreover, Provan’s fifth way also includes incorporating the best insights of modern biblical criticism while rejecting its excesses. This allows us both to stand in continuity with the church’s history of interpretation, while also recognizing that contemporary interpreters “must inevitably add to the reading tradition that precedes them” (p. 24).
To this end, Provan’s work proceeds in three wide-ranging parts. Part I, “Before There Were Protestants,” covers a vast array of pre-Reformation issues relating to biblical interpretation. These issues range from the relationship of the canon to the church (which came first?), to the meaning of the “literal” sense, to a wide-ranging survey attempting to prove the centrality of the literal interpretation of Scripture in the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and in the Reformers themselves. Part II, “Now There Are Protestants,” covers the views of the magisterial Reformation on the perspicuity and authority of Scripture, both of which Provan views favorably, before turning to several extended chapters detailing the “eclipse of biblical narrative” (à la Hans Frei) in the modern period. Part III concludes the work by surveying and assessing a host of contemporary methods of biblical criticism (e.g., form criticism, rhetorical criticism, canonical criticism, etc.) and noting what is useful and what ought to be rejected in each.
On the whole, Provan’s work is an admirably broad and serious attempt to define and recover the literal interpretation of Scripture. He displays a wide-ranging and impressive knowledge of the history of biblical interpretation that one wishes were found among more biblical scholars. Indeed, Part I of Provan’s book could easily be required reading in a graduate-level course on hermeneutics or the history of exegesis. The only area lacking here is an unfortunate glossing over of most medieval exegesis, whether for reasons of space or lack of expertise.
Of greatest interest to readers of Themelios will be Provan’s extended critique of “third way Chicago” readers in chapters 14 and 16 of the book, particularly for what he perceives as their “warfare model” of the relationship between Christianity and science. This, he believes, has fostered both exegetical problems in the interpretation of some biblical texts (notably Gen 1–11), while also creating a “credibility gap” in the wider public mind between faith and science. While Provan certainly points to weaknesses in third way readings, this aspect of the book does seem hampered by an uncharitable interpretation of the Chicago Statement. Most telling in this regard is a brief comment in which Provan recognizes that many adherents of the Chicago Statement do not in fact approach biblical exegesis in the way he characterizes third way practitioners, though he offers no answers as to why or how this is the case (p. 427, n. 44).
Nevertheless, Provan’s work offers much food for thought. Not least, he presents a stirring call for deepened Christian education both in our churches and in Christian colleges and seminaries. Our laxity in this regard, Provan believes, represents nothing less than “a betrayal of the Reformation” (p. 449). As a reader, I had hoped for more concrete suggestions as to how to make this vision a reality, but the vision is nevertheless apropos. Indeed, Provan’s work offers much that should provoke critical reflection on the part of all biblical interpreters, particularly regarding the ways in which God continues to speak to his church through the properly understood literal sense of Scripture.
Looking back over a year that has seen a spate of literature on the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Provan’s work stands out as one of the most substantial contributions by an individual scholar. While readers will likely not agree with all aspects of Provan’s program, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture nevertheless is a book that deserves a broad readership and thoughtful engagement.