Wednesday, November 15, 2006

History of Biblical Interpretation: Post-Reformation Blues

The history of biblical interpretation is generally speaking an underdeveloped field of research. Over fifty years ago, the infamous Basil Hall drew attention to the widespread neglect of the history of exegesis:

The history of biblical exegesis is one of the most neglected fields in the history of the Church and its doctrine when compared with the attention given to person, institutions, confessions, liturgies, and apologetics...With the renewal of biblical theology (and with the study of the history of exegesis which is being renewed in our time) the opportunity has come for a fresh reading of Christian thought and life not only in the Reformation age, but also in the Patristic age and in the high Middle Ages. This work, when accomplished, will change for the better some fixed patterns of interpretation (Cambridge History of the Bible, 3:76).

Since Hall, some improvement has been made, especially in the area of Reformation exegesis. But the era the of post-Reformation still remains mostly uncharted territory. For example, nearly ten years ago, Carl Trueman states, "As yet there are no significant studies of the exegetical and interpretative strategies of the Reformed Orthodox of the seventeenth century" (Interpreting the Bible, 160-161). More recently, Richard Muller made a similar observation,

The history of biblical interpretation is, moreover, a comparatively new field: it is really only in the last twenty years that we have seen examinations of the biblical interpretation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that do justice, historically and contextually, to the exegesis of the era - and the study of the seventeenth century still lags behind (After Calvin, 41).

Now, the million dollar question is why? My initial reaction is at least three-fold:

  • Since the Restoration, Nonconformity has suffered the fate of many who never claimed the victor's prize - marginalization. While sympathizers of the theological tradition of the Puritans have continued to uphold their legacy, the academic world has paid them little respect.

  • With the rise of the Enlightenment, the premodern questions, systems, and commentaries of the Puritans are often seen at best as provincial and at worst irrelevant.

  • While there has been a resurgence of research on the post-Reformation, much of the scholarship has been busy seeking to demonstrate with various amounts of academic dexterity Calvin's alleged agreement or disagreement with the Reformed orthodox and paying little attention to more constructive matters. Although this is changing - thankfully!

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