Last Fall, InterVarsity Press launched its new Reformation Commentary on Scripture (RCS) as a follow-up to the landmark Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. They selected historical theologian and Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George to serve as general editor. Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff interviewed George, who also serves as a columnist and theological adviser to CT, about the Reformers' continuing relevance.
In your introductory volume to the RCS, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, you talk about the superiority of pre-critical exegesis. What really makes that better than how we interpret the Bible today?
Much good can be gleaned from a critical study of the Bible, but sometimes it comes with blinders. When we study the ancients, the Medievals, and the Reformers, it lifts off the blinders and puts us in touch with a wider community of discourse.
When we today think about reading the Bible contextually, we want to hear from different communities: from women, from different ethnic groups, from global voices. That gives us a wide range. Pre-critical exegesis brings in the wider community that we need chronologically in order to get a balanced understanding of Scripture.
Unlike post-critical exegesis, pre-critical exegesis is done in the context of and for the sake of the community of faith. It's churchly exegesis that puts us in touch with the life of prayer, the great doctrines of the faith, the catechetical tradition of the church, and the liturgy of the church, and it helps us to see Scripture as part of that whole.
There are obviously still people trying to do that, but the discourse that informs biblical studies at most modern academic conferences cares very little about this.
The magisterial Reformers both taught the faith and preached it.
Exactly. There was a symbiotic relationship between what they preached and what they wrote in their commentaries. The Reformation was a preaching movement. They did what they did to advance the proclamation of the Word of God. Their commentaries on Scripture were not simply to be read for personal edification or even for the sake of knowledge. It was so the gospel of Christ would be proclaimed to all of God's people.
Some say the Reformation as a historical movement is not as relevant to us as it once was. You yourself have been deeply involved in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote Is the Reformation Over? Just what is over, and what is the unfinished business?
In endorsing Noll's book, I said that the Reformation is over only to the extent that it has succeeded. And it has succeeded in bringing change to both sides of that 16th-century divide. Back in the 16th century, the two sides shared in common the written Word of God. They had different interpretive patterns. We shouldn't minimize that. But in that pre-critical world, what they shared, often as unspoken assumptions, was far greater than the issues that divided them. So in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, we include Catholic authors from before the Council of Trent.
We have too much material for the RCS. So we had to draw the line. We're not getting into the exegetical controversies during and after the Council of Trent. But we do include the early Catholic reformers, many of whom were commentators on Scripture. People like Cajetan, for example, whom Luther opposed at Augsburg. After that encounter, the great Thomist theologian gave the rest of his life to writing biblical commentaries. Many of his commentaries even show a similar perspective on some of the doctrinal matters to what was promoted in Wittenberg, Strasburg, and Zurich. The lines aren't neat and tidy when you read the Reformation through the lens of Scripture commentaries. That's one of the benefits of this study for ecumenism.
In your book The Theology of the Reformers, you gave an almost equal treatment to the Anabaptist and spiritual reformers as you did to Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Does the new RCS offer a similar breadth?
That's our intention. We wish we had far more material to work from. The radical reformers were so busy being hunted down and killed that they didn't have much time to write commentaries. A few, however, like Hans Denck, did write commentaries. But we're going to other Anabaptist sources as well—court depositions, for example. You might think that's a strange place to find biblical exegesis, but in fact, many of the Anabaptists answered their inquisitors by means of scriptural exegesis.
You will see the Anabaptist influence especially in areas like the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount was really important to the Anabaptists. Our commentary on Matthew will have a lot more of their material than some of the other volumes.
Many postmodern evangelicals seem hostile to the Reformation. What do you think this commentary can do for them?
In Reading Scripture with the Reformers, I talk about the Reformers as "proto-postmoderns." There's a great deal about postmodernism that we orthodox, Bible-believing, gospel-honoring Christians have to question, such as relativism. But when we've given that its full due, we have to acknowledge that there's also a lot that we have to learn from the postmodern world—for example, the relational and correlative nature of knowledge. It's wrong to think of the Reformers as early Enlightenment figures. Calvin was not Descartes. They were very aware of the communitarian context in which knowledge, exegesis, and comment are made. That's a very postmodern point made specifically by the Reformers.
Then there's the hermeneutics of the Cross—interpretation not just from a position of privilege and power but from the position of having no privilege or power. Luther's theology of the Cross anticipates certain postmodern themes. I would encourage our postmodern evangelicals to look at the Reformers and see if indeed they don't resonate with some of their own deepest concerns.
Has the recent emphasis of ancient-future evangelicals on the church fathers inadvertently undermined the importance of the 16th-century heritage?
There's a lot of continuity from the apostolic witness of the early church to the Medieval period and the Reformation. We can't leapfrog over the Reformation back to the ancient church, because if you ignore the 16th century, you'll lack a sense of the development of doctrine. The Reformation is a development of early patristic theology—Trinitarian, Christological dogma as it is applied to the question of the church and salvation. That's how the Reformers saw what they were doing. So I would beseech you and other advocates of the ancient-future way of thinking about the church to extend your definition of ancient to include the 16th century.
How much did the magisterial Reformers rely on the ancient fathers?
They were intentional about doing theology in continuity and conversation with the great heritage of Christian wisdom represented by the early church. Alongside their work in translating Scripture and editing critical editions of the Greek and Hebrew texts, they produced critical editions of the early church fathers and gave them a lot of time in their commentaries. The Reformers also published digests of patristic writings for students and pastors who could not afford the full critical editions in mammoth folio volumes.
The Reformers liked some fathers better than others, of course. Augustine above all, for the magisterial Reformers. I read somewhere that Calvin quoted Augustine more than 2,000 times in The Institutes. But he also quoted Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Jerome, the great linguist—even, you might be surprised, Origen. They were patristic scholars.
The Reformers had good intentions when they gave the Bible to the common people. But did it backfire?
Of course, it backfired. When you let the Bible loose, and you let common people—plowboys and milkmaids at their pail—begin to read and study Scripture, all hell does break loose. This was certainly true in the context of the English revolution of the 1640s.
There is a risk involved. 2 Timothy 2:9 says, "The word of God is not bound" (ESV). The unfettered character of Scripture makes it a loose canon. We can't control it. The Protestant Reformation illustrates this fact. We may no longer have an infallible Magisterium to tell us how to interpret Scripture, but in reality, neither do Catholics. Just look at the diversity of interpretation among Catholic scholars. We have to be open for the Spirit to speak to the churches through the Word of God as he wills.
Luther has been both credited and blamed for inventing the individual conscience that led to extreme individualism, secularization, the breakdown of community, and some of the worst excesses of capitalism. How fair is this?
Luther has been both praised and damned for being the champion of individualism. The modern individual comes on stage. The shackles fall. Hegel saw Luther as the all-illuminating sun that rises at the end of the dark Middle Ages. On the other hand, you have a more traditional Catholic, negative view of Luther. You are now an individual. This is horrible. You no longer have the monolithic Magisterium. I think both views are wrong.
What Luther said at the Diet of Worms was, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God." It wasn't a conscience that was unfettered from the Word of God, free and individual and sole and autonomous. Modern rugged individualism is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, and in some ways a post-American Revolution phenomenon. The Reformers did not champion conscience over against the church or the written Word of God. Conscience was, in fact, activated in that context. They were reformers of the church, scraping the barnacles off the boat and letting it sail again.
Before the Reformation, a lot of forces were at work, breaking down that earlier unified culture. If you want to talk about schism, about paradigms being shattered, go back to 1054 and the great divide between the Eastern and Western churches. Then look at what happened in the later Middle Ages, the rise of the Mendicant orders where you no longer have stability as the highest ideal of the Christian life. That was the Benedictine way. Instead you have mobility into the world, into the marketplace, into the universities. You have the development of the via moderna in late Medieval theology. You had the Hussites and Lollards, radical developments going on even before Luther drew his first breath. It's a big mistake to think that Luther and the Reformers shattered a unified world.
It is, however, fair to ask how we got where we are. To answer that question, you have to go a long way before the Reformation, and you have to see the decisive break 200 years after the Reformation, when reason became autonomous.
There's been a tremendous revival of interest in John Calvin among some younger pastors and leaders. This has provoked some key scholars to take periodic swipes at Calvinists. Will this commentary serve to reduce that polarization?
We're working against isolating Calvin, Luther, and these great figures from the wider context in which they lived and wrote, which involves other voices—the Anglicans, the Anabaptists, the Zwinglians—and also the much wider context of the Christian family through the centuries. They are part of a conversation that extends back to the Scriptures, to the apostolic witness, to the early church. Putting it in that framework has a moderating effect. I hope that this commentary series will be a great encouragement to those who love Reformation theology, but that they will see this in a broader biblical and patristic framework.
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Timothy George has written many articles for Christianity Today, including:
Real Happiness: Colson and George Bemoan Our National Virtue Deficit | Where a people abandons virtue, government steps in. (August 16, 2011)
Civility Under Fire: Chuck Colson & Timothy George Revive MLK's Legacy | Dr. King's response to critical clergy is full of lessons for today. (June 23, 2011)
John Calvin: Comeback Kid | Why the 500-year-old Reformer retains an enthusiastic following today. (Septem-ber 8, 2009)
The Radical Conservative | Richard John Neuhaus helped inspire a generation of evangelicals to participate boldly in the public square. (March 11, 2009)
Other CT articles about the Reformation's impact today include:
Piper, Warren, and the Perils of Movement Building | Why the debate over separatism still matters. (April 19, 2010)
Young, Restless, Reformed | Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church. (September 22, 2006)
Do We Still Need the Reformation? Part 1 | Part 2 (December 12, 1994)
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