Is There A Place for Medieval Exegesis in Evangelical Christianity?

by Frans van Liere.

When I tell people that I just finished writing an introduction to the medieval Bible, I usually receive varied reactions. The prevailing sentiment is that research on the medieval Bible is at best quaint, perhaps even interesting in an outlandish kind of way, but hardly relevant for modern believers. Does it matter what medieval people thought the Bible meant; shouldn’t we be more interested in what the Bible really says?

I want to challenge here the assumption behind this question: the assumption that our way of reading the Bible (which most often means an interpretation informed by modern historical biblical criticism), is the best way to find out what the Bible really says.

Medieval manuscript illustration depicting a naked Adam and Eve standing next to a tree with the serpent wrapped around its trunk.
The Fall, The Rohan Master, 15th Century

The study of the medieval tradition of interpretation should make us aware that this way of reading the Bible has its limitations. What is more, many Bible texts may lose their meaning for us if we read them strictly in their own historical and cultural context. Medieval exegetes encountered the same problem. In Genesis 3, for instance, Adam and Eve eat of a forbidden fruit, seduced by a snake, and they lose their innocence. Is this just an old near-eastern tale, or is there more to it? The interpretation developed in the first centuries of the Christian era, and most fully by Saint Augustine, tells us that this is where sin and mortality entered into God’s good creation, and explains why it was in need of redemption. But is this really what the author of Genesis had in mind? And how does God want us to understand this story; the way it was intended by its original author, or the way it was read in the tradition of the Church?

The continuous tradition of interpretation gave these texts their meaning, and we are heirs to that tradition. This is what makes the Bible into the text of a living faith community. To think that there’s only the text and us when we read the Bible is a fallacy. When we interpret the Bible, there is a chorus of voices in the background that all play their role in determining the meaning of the text. Studying medieval exegesis makes us aware of that.

I know that this may sound very catholic, to say that the meaning of the text is shaped by its interpretive tradition. Protestants at this point have a doctrine, called the “sufficiency of Scripture,” which holds that “whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught” in Scripture (Belgic Confession, art. 7). In the sixteenth century, reformers such as Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Church to interpret the Bible, and claimed that it spoke to the believer without an intermediate authoritative tradition of interpretation. The Calvinist Belgic Confession likewise warns not to “consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees and statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God” (ibidem.). I certainly agree with that, but as a Reformed Christian and a medievalist, I find myself sometimes caught between Scylla and Charibdis. For sure, the text of the Bible takes precedence over the tradition of its interpretation. But that does not mean we should pretend that that tradition does not exist, or has nothing to tell us. Knowledge of the tradition can not only enrich our reading of the text, but also help us avoid the trap of considering our own interpretation as timeless and absolute, and the only right one.

But, you’ll ask, weren’t all medieval interpretations of the Bible allegorical and rather far-fetched? Indeed, some were. The Protestant tradition has often been eager to dismiss, even ridicule the medieval tradition of allegorical interpretation. There are two points I want to object here. First of all, not all medieval interpretation was allegorical. Literal/historical interpretation was taken very seriously by medieval exegetes, and seen as a necessary first step before any kind of allegorization should be attempted. And, secondly, there are times that allegorical interpretation makes perfect sense.

For many bible books, the literal meaning of the text has a quite limited application for our Christian faith. One modern strategy is simply to ignore these texts, and not read them at all. Many modern preachers simply avoid difficult texts like the Song of Songs. Medieval Christians were not as ready as we are to dismiss or ignore some books in the Bible. All of Scripture, for them, was a way for God to tell us something.

And perhaps that can encourage us to read Scripture in a similar way. Do we have to limit the meaning of Scripture to what textual critics tell us its intended meaning was? Or are we allowed to be sometimes more creative in interpreting the biblical text, believing that God can speak to us in this way, too?

Medieval authors distinguished several levels of interpretation. The Dominican Aage of Denmark (d. 1282), or, as he was called in Latin, Augustine of Dacia, summed it up in the oft-quoted jingle:

Littera gesta docet, quod credas allegoria;
moralia quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.

[The letter (i.e. literal sense of the text) teaches the facts; allegory what you should believe. / The moral sense what you should do, and anagogy what you should hope for.]

Not all verses of Scripture necessarily contain all three or four meanings all at once. What level of interpretation was appropriate for what situation depended in part on the psychology of the reader. According to Augustine, for instance, whether a word is more useful in its literal or mystical sense depends on the spiritual development of the reader. God has adapted scripture to the different spiritual levels of the reader. This means that scripture is always full of meaning, on a variety of levels, literal, moral, and spiritual.

Without denying the importance of literal/historical Bible interpretation (something that most medieval writers would not deny either!), a model where we have different “levels” of interpretations might invite creativity and flexibility in our dealing with the Biblical text, and engage us in a way that is not just rational and cerebral, but also imaginative and creative. This does not mean that everything can mean anything, of course. Even medieval exegesis, for all its creative allegory, was defined by the boundaries of the Christian creeds and tradition. You don’t make up your own interpretation; you read the Fathers on this.

A cloth with a labyrinth outline on the ground, lit by candles along the edges
Prayer labyrinth at Calvin College, March 2013.

I have witnessed some creative adaptations and re-inventions of medieval traditions within evangelical Christianity. I’ve seen students at Calvin College use prayer labyrinths as meditative devices during Lent, and I’ve attended “lectio divina” services in the chapel. It is perhaps time for medieval biblical interpretation to make a comeback, too? The first step we should take is making the history of biblical reception a normal part of the academic study of the Bible. I see hopeful signs for this, but we may still have a long way to go.

This post was originally published in March 2014 on The Bible and Interpretation website.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

3 thoughts on “Is There A Place for Medieval Exegesis in Evangelical Christianity?

  1. Pingback: Historical Horizons: 2014 in Blog Posts | Historical Horizons

  2. Mark Mak

    Thanks for your post. William Wordsworth said in ‘The Tables Turned’ that “we murder to dissect”. I cannot help but think that that’s what historical criticism has done to exegesis. I’m no medievalist, but for whatever tendencies to exaggeration their might have been (similar to those countries where the cult of Mary – in honouring her as Christ’s mother – risks obscuring the primacy of her Son), I imagine Scriptural exegesis as enjoying a wonderfully vital and fruitful era.


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