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  • The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture by Iain Provan
  • Martin J. Lohrmann
The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture. By Iain Provan. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 712 pp.

As a source for learning about the history of biblical interpretation, this book covers an impressive amount of material. Ten chapters examine interpretive issues addressed by Christians in the early [End Page 224] church and the Middle Ages, five chapters cover the interpretive goals and methods of the reformers and early modern Protestants, and six chapters evaluate contemporary movements in biblical hermeneutics such as form criticism, narrative criticism, and the canonical reading of scripture. Although these are several major themes to study in a single volume, Provan frequently weaves them together in compelling ways.

Embracing its ambitious title, however, this book not only wants to describe biblical interpretation across the centuries but also to judge past and present interpretive methods according to a single right way. As Provan writes in the introductory chapter, "My aim in this book, then, is not primarily to describe, but to prescribe—not merely to inform the reader about how people have read the Bible in the past, but also to make a proposal about how best we should read it now" (22).

Provan describes his "right reading" as a "reformed reading" and a "seriously literal interpretation" of scripture. The "reformed" aspect (intentionally not capitalized) claims the evangelical witness of the Reformation without committing itself to sixteenth-century conclusions. The "seriously literal" dimension stands as Provan's alternative to the allegorical readings of the early and medieval church and to four insufficient current approaches to biblical interpretation: historical criticism, postmodern readings, contemporary fundamentalism (represented by the 1982 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics), and a "Counter-Reformational Protestantism" in which contemporary Evangelicals claim for themselves a pre-Reformation authority based on the "rule of faith."

Among these many ways of reading the Bible, Lutheran Quarterly readers will notice the absence of typical themes in Lutheran biblical interpretation, for instance, the law and gospel dialectic or an understanding of scripture as a living Word that creates faith through the power of the Spirit. Applauding Luther's frequently strong emphasis on the priority of literal interpretation, Provan accuses Luther of inconsistency on this point:

The precise way in which this played out in Luther's interpretation of Scripture, however, inevitably created problems for his insistence on reading Scripture literally, since he wanted to say that Christ "was himself present everywhere" [End Page 225] in the OT in its literal sense, imparting himself to his OT people wherever his promise was believed.


This passage shows that Provan has not understood Luther, because Luther believed—based on scripture—that Christ has been and will be literally present throughout the entire Bible because he is the eternal Word of God and creation's Alpha and Omega.

Beyond a review of the many topics discussed (including discussion of interpreters from Origen and Jerome to Brevard Childs and Mary Daly), a larger question presents itself: why must there be a single right way to read the Bible rather than multiple ways to read the Bible well? To give this question a specific reference point: if a "seriously literal interpretation" is always to be preferred, then why have those who have historically valued a "reformed reading" tended to interpret "this is my body" (Matt. 26:26) as symbolic or figurative speech? Despite its detailed analysis, this book cannot provide a "right reading" of a historically contested passage like Matthew 26:26 in a way that might resolve longstanding challenges in ecumenical biblical interpretation.

Such questions show that Provan's target audience is a contemporary Evangelicalism that longs for biblical certainty even as it reluctantly recognizes the dangers of fundamentalism and populism. While this book speaks to general issues and themes in biblical interpretation that many people today are eager to explore and learn about, Lutherans have a different interpretive tradition. Rather than a long book on how to read the Bible, Luther put it this way in his What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels: "There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ...


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pp. 224-226
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