After reading the first 60 pages of Clayton Croy’s latest book, Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation, you will be far more educated on the inroads critical literary theory have made into biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, as well as how, even unrecognized we become users of these tools to read the text then you would in most introduction to the New Testament classes. From Deridder to Hirsh to a few more important names in the current struggle between structuralists and post-structuralists, Croy truly introduces his readers to interpreting the New Testament.
It is a classroom book, of that there is no doubt. Each chapter ends with a few serious questions, some of which tempted me to answer and ask Croy to grade. However, do not mistake my words here. This work is every bit a theologian’s, a layperson’s, and a perpetual student’s book as well. It is not simply a way to interpret the New Testament, but provides the reasoning behind certain levels of interpretation as well as the logic behind why we should separate exegesis from hermeneutics. We do not often do that and I would wager that most seminarians, if queried, would not find in their experience the right answer. The differences aren’t taught so easily, nor applied in a manner to respect those differences. However, Croy, in the introduction (alone worth the book) lays out these concepts, explores their differences, and begins to draw out the methodology to insure that these concepts will remain demarcated. But, this is not all in the introduction.
The introduction begins by rendering our understanding of meaning as an introspective exercise. What is meant, or rather, how do we mean to imply the meaning of the word meaning so that our audience will understand what we mean and not what others meant? This leads us to examine not just the words on the paper, but so too the historical context, including the author, of the word as they would appear to the audience. Not everyone is convinced the author matters when we explore the meaning of texts. Croy defends against this and wages a fine battle against the creeping of the modernist post-structuralist’s murder of the author. Granted, Croy does not give us license to treat the author as a ventriloquist dummy either. He demands, rather, that the interpreter understand the limitations of our position in time to establish certain interpretative boundaries, thus avoiding the pitfalls of relativity so often producing the rather disastrous post-modern interpretations.
Croy is unafraid to explore the inherent biases presumed in interpretative contexts as well. Drawing on Ben Myers and N.T. Wright considerably here, the author walks a fine line between out-right subjectivity and blinding objectivity. Citing recent scholars who have alerted their reader to their only empathetic ear to the text, Croy determines that we are not completely free on presuppositions in reading Scripture. To this, for the most part, I would agree. He quotes Samuel Sandmel in suggesting we strive for objectivity with the fully understanding of our subjectivity. This is where Croy will run afoul of the Van Till types who rely on absolute surrender to presuppositions in reading the text. Unfortunately, if anyone discounts Croy — if anyone fails to read him closely here — they will lose invaluable insight into themselves as biblical interpreters. This insight will come more fully from the discussion of the hermeneutic of suspicion Croy presents to his readers.
In the very brief first chapter, Croy leads us into examining the most crucial and hidden aspect of the interpretation process — the interpreter. This allows us to place the text down and attempt to identify who we are before we read the text. Are we a Baptist minister in a small town in southern Mississippi who waffles between self-confidence and over-compensation so that we must read the text as we have been taught in order to not either be wrong or be challenged? Are we in Africa, West Virginia, or some place else? Are these “bad places” from which to read the text? Croy says no. The only “bad” thing we can do is to ignore the very real idea that everything we are and have done before approaching the text will affect how we read the text. We cannot simply wash away our prejudices like we wash away the dirt before we eat dinner. No, we must take these things — the sum total of our parts — and understand that they may sway us.
In all of this, as a Wesleyan, Croy is able to present Scripture as the ideal, prima and not sola. In truth, not only does Croy follow Wesleyan tradition, but he follows what the Reformers actually believed and taught. While professing a sola view, their view is more along the lines of prima. Perhaps a book needed written before this one to explain the nuances; however, this should not limit the reader from taking hold of this book. Indeed, once you read Croy, you will understand that his attempts are to always place Scripture first; even if that means understanding how far in front of Scripture we really are.