One of the besetting sins of the modern era is “presentism,” by which I refer not only to an unreflective devotion to present-day sensibilities but especially to the troubled assumption that present-day sensibilities are distinct from and self-evidently better than past ones. Carl E. Schorske has observed how many in the modern West have learned to think “without history.” “The very word ‘modernism’ has come to distinguish our lives and times from what had gone before, from history as a whole, as such. Modern architecture, modern music, modern science — all these have defined themselves not so much out of the past, indeed scarcely against the past, but detached from it in a new, autonomous cultural space” (Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism [Princeton University Press, 1998], 3-4). To modern architecture, music, and science, we may add “modern interpretation of the Bible,” which has tended to treat premodern readings as little more than curiosities or as portraits in a hall of infamy.
Happily, in some corners at least, recent years have witnessed a new appreciation for the way our forebears have read the Bible. One thinks of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic), the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic), and the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (Wiley-Blackwell). Undoubtedly, motivations for this renaissance are many, including not only scholarly interest in the effects of biblical materials on culture and the uses to which people have put the Bible (i.e., “reception history”), but also a recognition that historical-critical approaches to the biblical materials over the past 250 years have often led to a theological desert. Study of premodern interpretation, then, is less an attempt to turn the clock back, as though, like changing clothes, we could cast off our late-modern (or postmodern) condition in order to adorn ourselves as premoderns, and more an effort to sit at the feet of those for whom theological interpretation of Scripture was as natural as it is for most of us foreign.
For Clifton Black, premodern exegesis is “a strange and thrilling world that offers important matters for postmodern consideration” (Reading Scripture with the Saints [Cascade, 2014], xv). He likens his book to a small museum, with himself part curator and part docent. Accordingly, the book is a guided tour of a series of accomplished readers of Scripture – including some of the usual suspects (Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther, for example) and two or three potential surprises (Benedict of Nursia and George Washington, for example). Black is a NT professor by training and trade, but here he demonstrates his wide interests and acumen not only as a biblical scholar but also as a historian, theologian, and churchman.
Black’s approach to his exegetical specimens is varied, but always interested and respectful, even when pulling back the shrubbery to show interpretive paths he advises against. Perhaps more than anything else, his vignettes highlight ways in which the interpreters he has chosen are concerned with careful and close readings of Scripture (even when their protocols for doing so are not ours) and with what it might mean to live Scripture-shaped lives. If reading the Bible today is often so much about garnering information, our museum guide demonstrates repeatedly among these saints the formative power of Scripture. He underscores, too, how most of these readers have honed their interpretive practices within the church.
In his concluding remarks, Black articulates a key question: “What’s missing in contemporary biblical interpretation that an awareness of premodern exegesis might complete?” He responds in three ways:
- “First, without short-changing precision, the premodern readings we have studied are impressively comprehensive and coherent. They attempt to embrace and coordinate Scripture’s multiple meanings, its ecclesial context, and its importance for individuals and for the world.”
- “Neither Augustine nor Shakespeare nor Myles Smith nor George Washington addressed academicians: they placed the cookies on a shelf all could reach.” “Even this book’s most recondite thinkers wrote or lectured for popular audiences.”
- Finally, common to all the specimens of biblical interpretation displayed here is a quality diminished in twenty-first-century scholarship: they’ve got heart, miles ‘n’ miles ‘n’ miles o’ heart.” “When we read Scripture with the saints as companions, God exercises power to get under our skins and to enlarge our hearts” (pp. 198-99).
If Black is the tour guide, it is also true that, here and there, he moves the tour into a side room where he provides more lengthy commentary. His most sustained aside – Chapter 2 “Trinity and Exegesis” – is really the sort of lecture one might expect such a museum as this one to host on some weekday night, followed by a reception and book-signing. Those of us wishing to hear more of Black’s own voice, and even expecting, hoping, that his book would reach its crescendo with a magisterial commentary on where this consideration of premodern interpretation might take us, will find it here, almost hidden in a section on “Patristic Stirrings.” “What difference does assent to the Christian confession of God’s triune identity make for the practice of biblical interpretation in the twenty-first century,” he asks (p. 10). Having urged that this question is not an imposition on Scripture but actually arises from its pages, Black goes on to identify and develop a series of claims that he can summarize with these words:
For those who return with me to a more classical approach, unafraid of bringing scriptural interpretation into focus by means of that lens with which the church has traditionally concentrated its worship, then the task of exegesis will look very different. No longer will the expositor be the clinical observer of an ancient artifact. Instead the interpreter will engage both text and its audiences with the kind of love instantiated by Christ; the art and craft of interpretation, as of every human activity put to good use, will be enlivened by the Holy Spirit to praise their creator. (p. 34)
Reading Scripture with the Saints is a much-needed antidote to presentism in our approaches to reading Scripture. Those of us who hear the Spirit’s voice nudging us to take and read Scripture, then, would do well to enlist Clifton Black as our companion and guide, for he will surely help us learn to read well.