The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture

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Iain Provan
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     724 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, Iain Provan examines four ways in which heirs of the Reformation interpret Scripture, and then attempts to provide a fifth. According to Provan, the first way is through historical criticism. Here, the interpreter is less concerned with “whole sections of biblical text, or of the biblical cannon” (13), and more so with establishing the texts original meaning. The second manner of interpretation is described as a postmodern reading. For Provan, the emphasis here “lies on an undogmatic, perspectival approach to theology,” and a certain “independence of texts from their authors” (14). The third way is described as the “Chicago constituency.” The natural habitat of these interpreters are the conservative churches and seminaries. Similar to a historically critical view, these interpreters are looking for a single, fixed meaning. However, they reject certain forms of criticism and take the Bible at face value—as infallible and inerrant. According to Provan, fourth way interpreters are the “counter-reformational Protestantism.” Although this way of reading is a little more variegated, mainly it contends that the “church existed before the Bible” (16), and that everything must be read according to the rule of faith. In this fourth way, the reader must avoid relying on linear-historical interpretations and seek to learn from participatory exegesis. With these views in mind, Provan seeks then to provide a fifth way: “seriously literal” (20). This does not mean, as the reader might imagine, that one shall read the text in a wooden fashion, but she takes context, and the nature of Scriptural writings, in its proper form. 

Over the course of the first few chapters, Provan attempts to show how the nature of Scripture relates to a proper method of interpretation. From initial discussions over how Scripture actually precedes the church, to the formation of the canon, to literal reading, Provan seeks to establish connections between authorial intent, genre, communicative intents, and other points. In chapters 7 and 8, he turns his attention to early church Fathers. Provan demonstrates how a literal sense is foundational to “defend the unity of Scripture” (171). Though at times vacillating in their attentiveness to the literal meaning, authors such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Augustine do not fall into the same trap as Origen. For Provan, Origen is the villain to be defeated; and by buying into an ambiguous mix of Christian doctrine and paganism, Origen stands outside of the course of faithful Christian interpreters. 

In chapter 9, Provan attempts to develop a consistent reformed reading. Using examples, he illustrates that the Reformers were attempting to correct the medieval and pre-medieval senses of interpretation. In doing so, the Reformers were in no way stepping out of tradition, as there was precedence of literal interpretation in Augustine and other traditional figures. Provan returns to this thesis in part 2, chapter 12 by arguing that “the Reformers had ample warrant in both Scripture and tradition for their position” (286). Provan achieves this by appealing to a certain perspicuity in Scripture which avoids ultimate interpretative pluralism. Part 3 of the book address recent challenges that can be answered with Provan’s “serious literal” interpretation. Issues raised here include redaction and rhetorical criticism, source criticism, structuralism and poststructuralism, and so forth. 

This work deserves serious engagement and it is helpful for those wishing to examine the specifics of Provan’s method. His book is not only descriptive, but it is also prescriptive. In several instances he demonstrates how one who takes the label of reformed should read particular texts. Having my own leanings towards the fourth way of interpreting the Bible, I found Provan’s characterizations fair and challenging. However, it is not so much with how he characterizes the fourth way that I quibble but rather, with his own lack of imagination. I do not say this in any pejorative way, but are we to take communicative intent of the human author at face value? I found that the book rarely addressed the Spirit’s renewal of the believer’s mind in order to understand and perform a text. At times, it appears that Provan’s book is so concerned with right reading, that there may be no differentiation between how a believer should interpret the text, and how an unbeliever should. This is a serious concern, given that Scriptures are provided to renew and shape our minds. I left this book grateful for Provan’s scholarship and challenge, however, I wonder if there was a desire to master the biblical texts rather than to be a student of them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rafael Bello is Professor of Theology at Martin Bucer Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard professor of biblical studies, Regent College. He lives in the Vancouver, Canada area.


Iain Provan


Hi Rafael,

Many thanks for this thoughtful and positive review.  May I respond briefly on the last few sentences, as much by way of reassurance than anything else?  I am absolutely not interested in “mastering” the text in the sense that you mean it – Scripture is given to us so that we may live it, and so I strive to do.  However, right reading and right living are obviously connected to each other, so the former is really important.  As to belief and unbelief: it seems to me that the unbeliever SHOULD read Scripture in the right way just as the believer should – Scripture is designed to “renew and shape” that the former’s mind as well.  So no, I don’t think that there is any “differentiation between how a believer should interpret the text, and how an unbeliever should.”  It would be a rather odd proposition, don’t you think, that God intends the Christian to read Scripture differently from anyone else?  I don’t believe that this is true.



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