Scripture Is Inspired By God: Medieval Exegesis and the Modern Christian

Author: Mark Holtz

All Scripture Is Inspired By God: Medieval Exegesis and the Modern Christian

At the root of this whole understanding of the "spiritual" meaning of the Bible which presupposes but excels the literal meaning is the belief that the Scriptures are inspired, that is, written by God.

by Mark Holtz

We are told by Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1090- 1141) that the length of Noah's Ark, 300 cubits, is a sign of the Cross, since the number 300 is represented in Greek by the letter tau (T), which has the shape of a cross. Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129) tells us that Proverbs 19:12, "A king's wrath is like the growling of a lion," speaks of Christ in his crucifixion, since then the King of kings roared at the Devil. Guibert of Nogent 11053-1124} claims that in the darkness which "was upon the face of the deep" in Genesis is a sign of the darkness of sin and worldliness which clouds men's minds, and in the grass which sprouts from the earth, a sign of the fruitfulness of God's word when worldly cares have been cast away. The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) explains that the two stones of onyx on the ephod of the Aaronic priesthood described in Exodus 28 suggest in their red color the ardor of charity, or, since they shine like fire surrounded by white bands, the light of knowledge accompanied by the band of chastity.

In stark contrast, the encyclical (1943) of Pius XII makes a clear statement in favor of the application of the modern, scientific study, including linguistics, history, archeology, and the like, to gain as accurate as possible an understanding of the meaning of the biblical texts and the time of their composition. With this approval of the historical-critical approach to the Scriptures came a caution against an overly "figurative" interpretation. This encyclical and its emphases were given further approbation and support in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (, 1965), promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. It seems all the more perplexing, then, that the should speak so highly of the "ancient tradition" of spiritual exegesis which, taken along with historical analysis, "guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church" (no. 115).

At first glance, this coupling of the mystical significance of the decorative gems on Aaron's priestly vestments with modern linguistic analysis of Ugaritic loan words in Hebrew strikes the modern Christian as something well beyond the simply comic. Stepping into the Medieval exegesis of the Bible is rather more like stepping with Alice through the looking glass into a world where nothing is what it seems and where anything can happen. It is a world where the only guarantee is that nothing is ordinary, nothing behaves as it ought, nothing is reasonable. It sometimes bears a striking resemblance to the world of an over-zealous Freudian psychoanalyst for whom, Freud's own objections notwithstanding, a cigar is never just a cigar. Even for those who might sympathize with the teachings which Medieval exegetes professed to be contained in their spiritual reading of the Holy Scriptures, the notion that there is not one detail in the Bible so minute or insignificant that it will not yield spiritual truth is not widely believed today. Schooled as we are in the fruits of the historical and linguistic studies which have grown since Pius XII's revolutionary encyclical, whether we find Medieval exegesis neurotically thorough in its symbol hunting or touchingly naive in its credulous piety, we are not apt to regard it as serious study of the sacred text.

Yet, this understanding of Scripture, that the lessons to be learned from Holy Writ far exceed those available to a reading of the words and historical circumstances of their composition, was sustained in a society which was saturated with the Bible. The great age of Scholasticism in the thirteenth century is often characterized by its production of theological which tried to balance and synthesize the teachings of the Church with the (pagan) philosophy of Aristotle. Less widely is it known that the pinnacle of learning in the universities of the high Middle Ages was not the mastery of Aristotle, which was only the beginning of the Arts degree, but the authority to teach and preach on the Bible. The discipline itself was even called not primarily theology, but , sacred doctrine, or sometimes simply , the sacred page.

Nor was the Medieval preoccupation with the Bible confined to the of university study. The monastic life embodied in the Rule of St. Benedict was grounded in the weekly recitation of the Psalter along with biblical canticles in the Daily Office, the hearing of the Scriptures with their exegesis by the Fathers at Matins, and the frequent engagement in , the private reading of the Holy Scriptures. So vivid were the narratives of the Bible to their monastic audience, in fact, that the Rule forbids the reading of the Heptateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges) or the books of Kings (1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) in the evening, lest the excitement of the text disrupt the listeners' sleep.

In fact, not only the monastic Office, but also Medieval worship as a whole was steeped in the texts and imagery of Holy Writ. In the Latin West, most of the music of the Church was composed by setting the texts of the Bible, usually the Psalms, giving glory to God through the words of his own inspiration. The Introit for the feast of the Holy Innocents, for example, was taken from Psalm 8, "By the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast perfected praise, because of thy foes." The East shared this same devotion to the Scriptures in its celebration of the Divine Liturgy. So, for example, the Hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God) on Pascha (Easter) weaves phrases from Luke, Philippians, and Isaiah together to form one, eloquent praise of the risen Son through the invocation of his Mother.

The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace:

Rejoice, O pure Virgin! Again I say: Rejoice! Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb!

With Himself He has raised all the dead! Rejoice, all ye people!

Shine! Shine! O New Jerusalem! The Glory of the Lord has shone on you! Exult now and be glad, O Zion! Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection of your Son!

Even the illiterate faithful, by far the majority of Medieval Christians, had access at least to the stories of the Bible, if not the texts themselves. While preaching had declined in the West since the age of the Fathers and was not seriously revived until the spread of the Franciscan and Dominican preachers in the thirteenth century, tales from the Old and New Testaments were given visual proclamation in the icons, sculptures, stained glass, tapestries, and even vestments and holy vessels used in churches for divine worship. The fairs held on the feast days of the saints would often be accompanied by processions with biblical and miracle plays which recounted key narratives from the Bible, such as the Fall, Cain and Abel, the Nativity, and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. For a society as unlettered as Medieval Europe, there was no lack of access to the substance of the biblical narrative.

If it was not a lack of familiarity with the Bible, what was it that allowed the Medieval reader to discover so much in text of the Scriptures, this plenitude of meaning which we cannot but eye with suspicion? Central to the Medieval understanding of the Bible was the conviction that there are two basic levels of meaning in Scripture: literal and spiritual. In this regard, Medieval exegetes were following in the tradition of the Fathers, and in the West that of Augustine in particular, especially his work . Words, Augustine notes, are such because they are signs of something else, of things. The word "dog,, points to an actual animal, but the word itself is a human convention. However, he notes that sometimes things are themselves signs of other things, as smoke may be a sign of fire. God, he argues, as the Creator, the Author, of all things, and as the providential Lord, can speak not only through words, but through the natures of things (such as the purity of snow or the ferocity of a lion), or even through the events of history (such as the Exodus or the Babylonian Captivity). This sort of signification, in which things are signs of other things, is not conventional like language but part of the very nature of things as God has created them.

Given this understanding of God's way of speaking, through words and through things, Patristic exegetes and their Medieval inheritors distinguished the literal meaning of the Bible, the level at which words refer to things, from the spiritual level, wherein things themselves are signs of other things. The literal level was understood to include not only the ordinary use of language, so that the word "hand" points to a physical member of the body, but also idiomatic or metaphorical language, where "the right hand of God" is taken to mean God's power. Both of these represent the literal meaning because they relate the , the "letters," to the thing itself. Within the limits of Medieval linguistic study, this involved the attempt to understand the meaning of obscure words and phrases, along with the attempt to interpret and categorize modes of expression typical of Hebrew and Biblical Greek, but foreign to the Latin of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Byzantine Greek of the East.

From the Medieval point of view, God's willingness to be described in accord with human modes of expression, that is, with metaphor, as if he had a right hand or an arm, or breathed through his nostrils, was a sign of the divine mercy, God's condescension to human limitations. Thomas Aquinas understood this well in his explanation of the use of metaphor in Scripture.

"It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things" (ST I 1, 9, resp.).

Such is God's power and skill that these metaphors do not diminish the truth which they convey, but rather lift the human creature out of his creaturely limitations into the contemplation of Truth. Yet, lest the truth be entirely hidden, "those things which are taught metaphorically in one part of Scripture, in other parts are taught more openly" (ST I 1, 9, ad 2).

Also understood as part of the level of the literal exposition of a text was the searching out of the historical circumstances of its composition. Usually this took the form of debates over the authorship of a given book, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, a text whose authorship has been debated since the time of Origen (c. 185-c. 254). While their level of analysis might be considered crude or naive today, they did show, within the limits of their knowledge, a keen interest in the different styles of the various books, noting how the variety of original audiences called for various forms of discourse, the "many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets" (Hebrews 1:1).

Yet, while the literal level was considered foundational to all spiritual understanding, for Medieval exegetes the historical situation of the original composition of the text was not of great importance. Gregory the Great 1c. 540-604) scoffed at those who would waste time debating the human authorship of Job, noting that one would not ask who held the pen when an important man dictated a letter. While less dismissive of human cooperation with divine inspiration, even Thomas Aquinas could note without hesitation that "the literal sense is that which the author intends" but that "the author of Holy Writ is God" (ST I 1, 10, resp.).

As noted, the Medieval exegete saw the spiritual meaning, through which the things described at the literal level were themselves signs of spiritual truths, as built upon the foundation of the literal meaning. Only when it is known what the words themselves mean can the significance of the things to which the words point be understood. While there were many strategies of subdividing the different types of spiritual meaning to be found in the Scriptures, one of the most enduring was that known to the Scholastics. They divided the spiritual meaning of Scripture into three senses: allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical.

The allegorical meaning was that which related things and events of the Old Testament to those of the New. The (near) sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, for example, was understood allegorically as the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, Joseph's rejection by his brothers as the rejection of Christ by the Jews, and so on. This sort of spiritual meaning is probably the most familiar even to modern Christians who still accept, to one degree or another, that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Law, and that in him is perfected all which was done or promised imperfectly in the people of Israel.

The tropological meaning linked the things contained in Scripture with the moral life. While the Beatitudes or the Decalogue speak at the literal, plain level of moral duties, according to the tropological sense, moral lessons can be learned from things in themselves. Thus, the beauty of Rachel is said to be a sign of the contemplative life, while the ugliness of Leah is a sign of a life marred by vice. The physical appearance of these matriarchs, without reference to their actions, is itself understood as a sign of the moral life.

The anagogical level, from the Greek , a "leading up," joins the things of Scripture to eternal glory. Where allegory speaks of what has been accomplished in Christ in his earthly ministry in the past and his continuing ministry in the Church, and where tropology gives moral instruction for the present, the anagogical meaning is oriented to the things beyond this world and the future glory promised in Christ. The historical city of Jerusalem, for example, is anagogically the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the blessed in the New Creation.

According to this way of reading the Bible, any one thing in Scripture could be understood according to all four senses. The Passover and Exodus of Israel from Egypt, literally a narrative of historical events, allegorically speaks both of the Sacrifice of Christ and his victory over death and sin as well as the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, tropologically tells of the conversion from sin and carnality to virtue, and anagogically tells of the leaving behind the trials of this world for the glories of heaven.

Yet, if the Scriptures have so many meanings, what is to keep the reader from forcing the Scriptures to say anything he likes? How is the spiritual sense to be distinguished from idle musing and fanciful absurdities? The Fathers and Scholastics were not unaware of this objection and spoke to it directly. Augustine argued that all spiritual interpretation must be based on the literal sense. Furthermore, all readings of the Bible must be governed by the law of charity, so that any reading which is not conducive to love of God and neighbor is to be rejected as incorrect. Hugh of St. Victor chided those who would race to engage in spiritual exegesis before they had mastered the literal understanding, comparing them to those who would try to read before they had mastered the alphabet. Thomas Aquinas, agreeing with Augustine that all Scriptural interpretation is to be drawn from the literal level, adds that "nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense" (ST I 1, 10, ad 1).

Furthermore, the relationship between things and spiritual truth was understood in the Middle Ages to be real, part of the very nature of Creation, and not something imposed by cultural norms. The strength, courage, and nobility of the lion are real attributes which God placed in it to be a sign, however imperfect, of the strength, courage, and nobility of the Lion of Judah, seen imperfectly in David, but brought to perfect expression in God's only Son. The whiteness of snow was not, for Medieval exegetes, a convenient but arbitrary sign of moral purity. It is part of God's providential ordering of the universe that snow, along with plants, animals, stones, numbers, in fact, the whole of the created order, proclaims the Truth who is God. Even a coincidence of language, like that between , the Greek word for "cross", and , the Latin verb "to restore," was understood to be filled with meaning and significance. In the final analysis, no relationship between the world of things and spiritual truth is ever the result of human institution or meaningless coincidence.

For all the nobility and beauty of this view of the world and of God's way of speaking to and through it, what motivation do we, as Christians in the modern era, have to accept this view as our own? Why does the Church recommend drawing from all four senses of Scripture in her Catechism? What is to be gained by embodying an understanding God and his Creation that seems so steeped in archaic modes of thought, that seems so contrary to the scientific approach to the Bible that the Church herself, in this century, has authorized and promoted?

The simplest and most direct answer to these questions is that the New Testament is itself filled with an allegorical reading of the Old. In Peter's first sermon after the descent of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2:14-36, he unashamedly proclaimed that the words of the prophet Joel and of Psalms 16 and 110 were fulfilled in the miracle of tongues at Pentecost, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. Likewise, Paul did not hesitate to read the events of the Old Testament as proclamations of the New. The people of Israel, he says in 1 Corinthians 10, were baptized "in the cloud and in the sea" and "all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink" and that the Rock which followed them was Christ. In Galatians4:21-31, he writes that the sons of Abraham and their mothers, Hagar and Sarah, were allegories of the two covenants. Hagar "corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children" while "the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother" so we, "like Isaac, are children of promise." He also reminds us of God's proclamation through created things in Romans 1:20, "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." These are merely samplings. The Gospels and the Epistles are filled with the affirmation that the writings, things, and events of the Old Covenant all proclaim the New.

Furthermore, if the assertions of Peter, Paul, and the evangelists are not enough to persuade those who might hesitate to believe that the spiritual meaning of the Bible is not subjective fancy, then there is the witness of Jesus himself. In the parable of the tenant of the vineyard who kill the servants and finally the son of the landowner, Jesus applies to himself the text of Psalm 118:22, "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." He teaches in John 3:14 that the lifting up of the bronze serpent by Moses in Numbers 21:9 to heal those who were afflicted by the poisonous snakes was a figure of the lifting up of the Son of Man on the Cross. Even the prophecy of the coming of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5 Jesus proclaims to be fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 9: 11). Finally, before he ascended into heaven, he spoke with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Confronted with the authority of Christ himself, even the most hardened of skeptics must take pause.

At the root of this whole understanding of the "spiritual" meaning of the Bible which presupposes but excels the literal meaning is the belief that the Scriptures are inspired, that is, written by God. This does not mean that we should ignore the human authors, or even the human means by which these texts were transmitted and edited over the centuries of their composition. Indeed, modern historical and linguistic study of the Bible, its authors and composition, represents an extension of the same principles, if not the same assumptions and conclusions, which governed the Medieval understanding of literal exegesis.

The spiritual reading of the Bible, in other words, is not a challenge to, or challenged by, the historical-critical approach so dominant in modern Scripture study. Rather, it stems from the confidence that God is the Lord of history, and that, however unplanned and haphazard the composition and transmission of the Bible may seem to historical analysis, we have received it precisely as God designed. We may read the Bible with the assurance that it is free from error since, whatever else may be said of its human authors, it has meaning for the Church precisely since it has God as its principal author. We need not shy away from reading one book of Scripture in light of another, even if the two books were written centuries apart. We may, in short, proclaim in the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

Mark Holtz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame. He is presently finishing a dissertation on the Sacred Blood of Christ in the Middle Ages.

This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.