Reading Scripture like you're medieval

August 18th, 2014

David Steinmetz joked that the group of scholars who assembled to write The Art of Reading Scripture – an interdisciplinary group of specialists including biblical scholars, historians, and systematic theologians – could all together amount to a single pre-modern theologian.

A little while before this past Lent, I began a series here at Ministry Matters called New Medieval Bible Meditations. I had the energy and time to keep it going through Palm Sunday – the beginning of the end of the semester spelled the end of the beginning of nMbM. My goal had been to contribute “to the renewal of the church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible.” The church more or less always needs renewal at this. I wanted to contribute to renewal by interpreting passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary according to the four senses of Scripture, as they were enumerated by medieval Latin Christians. (More on these four senses below.)

One strong reason bringing back medieval exegesis is a good idea is that, as per Steinmetz’ aforementioned remark, it combats the disintegration of theology into sub-disciplines which, in modernity, often seemed to produce incommensurable results. This resulted in theologically schizophrenic pastors and confused, disenfranchised Christians.

(Some of these confused children by modern theology's disintegration are even today still lost, perusing, wandering the aisles at our fabulous Historical Jesus Clearance Sale.)

In contrast, the medievals could find history, Christological allegory, ethical teaching, and a glimpse of the Trinity all in the same Old Testament passage. The Bible was a unified text authored by God (with and through many humans) that had various layers of meaning, all objectively present on the sacred page, none exclusive of the others.

Further, a recovery of this way of reading the Scriptures – which can account for God including in the Bible multiple and complex layers of non-contradictory meaning through one act of inspiration — recovers something theologically true which was often obscured in liberal versus conservative fights about the (single unitary “original”) meaning of a Bible passage.

Four senses of Scripture

There are of course exciting and invigorating complexities and quandaries that open up when one embraces a ‘new medieval’ method of reading Scripture. But, basically, here’s the four levels of meaning or ‘senses’ enumerated by the Western scholastic theologians.

1. Literal or historical sense. This is the ‘plain sense’ of a Biblical text. It is whatever the text says, whatever it literally describes, whatever the nouns and verbs add up to most directly. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the literal sense is the foundation of the other three senses, which can be called ‘mystical’ senses. In my experience, many of the interesting questions sometimes arise as we try to get a handle on the literal sense. More on this in future posts.

2. Allegorical or typological sense. St. Bonaventure (in his Breviloquium) says, “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. Most normatively, this will often be the way in which something in the OT points forward to Jesus Christ as a sign. (Augustine’s doctrine of things and signs enjoyed a lively existence in the middle ages.) St. Thomas Aquinas: “so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense” (1a q 1 a 10) – and so we see that the allegorical sense often deals with the way the Old Law, or Old Testament, points forward to the New Law, the New Testament.

3. Moral or tropological sense. St. Bonaventure: “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. St. Thomas Aquinas adds more specificity: “so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense.” Lots to ponder and unpack there.

4. Anagogical sense. The anagogical sense, which sounds most mysterious, sees in a passage something that gives us a glimpse of the glory of the Triune God. St. Thomas Aquinas says the anagogical sense is insofar as things “signify what relates to eternal glory.” The anagogical sense takes us, through a material analogy, to the immaterial God. So St. Bonaventure says: “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed.” Through the anagogical sense, we see a faint outline of the beatific vision of God we hope to enjoy in heaven.

Happy adventures in biblical exegesis! – and, in (new) medieval biblical exegesis!

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