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Pollock, Darren M.
Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics. Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans.
Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2017. 351 S. Geb. EUR 100,00. ISBN 978-3-525-57053-1.
Darren Pollock’s very able addition to the complex historiography of early modern religious culture is a significant work on an understudied seventeenth-century theologian and controversialist. Andrew Willet is best known for his anti-Catholic Synopsis Papismi (1594) and as a Calvinist textual scholar and polymath, one known to his contemporaries as a ›walking library.‹ His less well-known 1611 Hexapla on Romans and its program of hermeneutical po-lemics is the subject of P.’s well-argued and learned study. The exegesis and exposition of Romans is of course centrally important in the Reformation, and P.’s scholarship – a revision of his doctoral dissertation completed under Richard Muller – admirably fills a notable gap by considering not just what Willet does with his text, but how, and why. Thus it makes an important contribution to the historical study of the interplay between hermeneutics and polemical theological argumentation.
The scholarly question P. addresses is whether or not, in his later biblical commentary work, Willet in some manner retreated from his earlier focus on anti-Catholic polemic. P. argues that Willet’s polemical focus is not abandoned but rather re-oriented to invigorate a new genre (expositional commentary), in which polemic functions as an organizing principle for Reformed hermeneutics. P. further asserts that this polemical hermeneutic not only does not corrupt Willet’s exegesis but instead frames it with more fidelity to a Reformed reading of the scriptural text.
The book is helpfully organized into eight chapters with four to six subdivisions and a good number of smaller subsections. The reader can easily follow the flow of the entire argument, or quickly find precise areas for examination. Chapter 1 introduces the subject and historical context. P. ably surveys the current scholarship on religious polemic and exegesis from the period and situates his argument as a moderate corrective to the conception that polem-ical biases necessarily distort any reading of the scriptural text. Chapter 2 works through textual and translation issues as Willet the linguist critiques the Vulgate and deftly handles the complex problems of Pauline citations of Septuagint variations from the Hebrew original. Chapter 3 (perhaps P.’s strongest essay) considers nuances of Grammar and Rhetoric, while Chapters 4 and 5 handle the labyrinthine problematics seen in various rhetorics of cause and effect and how these are often confused by polemicizing interp reters. Chapter 6 examines the polemical use of heresies, parti-cularly the use of Pelagianism as the go-to argument against Catholic soteriology, though the later Lutherans take some heat as well. P. is especially insightful in his critique of scholar Anthony Milton, who he argues misreads Willet’s later work as moving away from his earlier published arguments against universal grace (215). Chapter 7 explores the question of Catholicity and the use of the Fathers of the church in polemical arguments – a delicate balance for Willet, as the Reformers often desire to appeal to the early church as support for their position, while yet declaiming against the Roman equating of scripture with ancient tradition. Chapter 8 presents P.’s conclu-sions, by and large persuasively. The three sections of the bibliography provide a full list of Willet’s editions, as well as other primary and secondary sources.
The primary strength of the book is its thoughtful focus on the relationship between polemics and hermeneutics. P.’s through-line demonstration of this mutually-informing relationship, a kind of interpretive feedback loop, is carefully brought to bear across a number of textual questions in the 1611 Hexapla. P. appeals to a wide variety of early modern sources and secondary material, but his focus is on Willet’s handling of the text of Romans as a linguistic artefact, as seen through the prism of six different translations. P. examines Willet’s humanistic method of (pre-critical) textual criticism in terms of historical theology and carefully contextualizes his polemical approach to interpretation.
P.’s carefully organized structure enables the reader – even one uninitiated into the complexities of early modern theologies – to negotiate the landscape with confidence. Explanations are brief but clear, terms are defined precisely but not laboriously, and P.’s arguments are consistently logical, ordered, and persuasive. He is particularly effective when discussing rhetoric (131–146) and election and foreknowledge (188–195). P. engages thoughtfully with a wide variety of current scholars of historical theology. The bibliography is thus solid, with a few minor gaps. The presence of Nicholas Tyacke’s groundbreaking work on anti-Calvinism (from 1990 on) does raise the question of the absence of Stephen Hampton’s rejoinder in Anti-Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (2008, OUP), since both are major works of scholarship dealing with seventeenth-century religious polemic in England.
P. persuasively maintains that (at least in Willet’s case) polemics need not necessarily have a negative impact on exegesis – that polemic can »focus – interpretation without compromising« exegesis. This point, though rightly charitable, is of course itself polemical; Catholics might well look at Willet’s Hexapla and argue quite the opposite. Nonetheless, P.’s handling of Willet’s careful textualism is quite well-argued, and again reminds the reader that hermeneutics is everything.
P.’s work is in fact like Willet’s – carefully organized, well ground-ed in critical attention to the text at hand (in the best humanist fashion), linguistically and theologically sophisticated, and clearly focused ultimately on serving the church with careful scholarship. He has done much to open up the possibilities of further study of this largely unknown English divine and has set a fine example of how to proceed on that project.