Recovering the Riches of Premodern Exegesis

Mickey L. Mattox
Monday, July 16th 2007
Jul/Aug 1999

In his preface to the 1545 Wittenberg edition of his Latin writings, Martin Luther provided an autobiographical account of his discovery of the meaning of the Gospel. There the old doctor recounted the story of that all-important time when, as a young theologian troubled by his sin and by the threat of God’s justice, he had hammered away at Paul until he discovered the evangelical meaning hidden in the enigmatic words of Romans 1:17: “For in it [i.e., in the Gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith'” (NASB, italics mine). As Luther remembered-and clearly also romanticized-the course of events, he had after a lengthy struggle come to understand the righteousness of which Paul speaks here. The passage refers not to God’s personal righteousness, on the basis of which he will one day judge every sinner (iustitia activa). Instead, the passage reveals a righteousness passively imparted to the sinner by grace for Christ’s sake, through faith alone (iustitia passiva). Thereupon, Luther reports, “I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise…” The rich mercies of God, epitomized in the Gospel, became for Luther a hermeneutical key to unlock the meaning of the whole Scripture.

Since Luther’s time, Protestants committed to the sole final authority of Scripture-particularly anyone unfamiliar with the rich array of resources a late medieval exegete like Luther used to understand the Bible-have been tempted to romanticize his story even further, finding within it an ideal for individual exegesis. The great Luther, so our thinking quite logically proceeds, armed only with faith and a passable knowledge of the biblical languages, barely subsisting in a church which had lost the center of its saving message, stood locked in lonely struggle with the text until at last he broke through to the Gospel. A romanticized view of Luther’s evangelical breakthrough and the corresponding demonization of the late medieval church combine to create a useful but historically misleading myth.

As Lessing might have reminded us, good logic does not necessarily good history make. While there is more than an element of truth in the heroic retelling of the story of Luther’s struggle, it nevertheless must be rejected, not only because it is wrong hermeneutically, but also, and most importantly, because it is wrong historically. In the first place, an individualistic ideal of exegesis is wrong hermeneutically because it inevitably oversimplifies the way in which the texts of Holy Scripture exercise their unique authority in the life and faith of the Church. While every Christian should be a devoted student of the Scriptures, individual interpretation must have its home in, and take its point of departure from, the worship life and theological reflection of the Church universal. The exposition of Scripture, even when undertaken privately for purposes of personal edification, is a profoundly public and ecclesial act.

The tale of Luther’s individualistic exegesis is also wrong historically because that is not in fact how Luther read the Bible. In the pithy aphorism with which Luther summarized his approach to Scripture, the task of the exegete is to discern was Christum treibt, “whatever promotes Christ.” The Scriptures are the “cradle” in which Christ is laid, or the “swaddling cloths” in which the Christ child is wrapped. It is as a Christian, in other words, that the Christian reads the Bible. The Christian looks expectantly for the saving Word of Christ in the Scriptures precisely because, in faith, he or she already believes that Word is there. The Christian reads the text as one who knows, and not, for example, as a mere grammarian. By faith, the Christian knows the very substance to which the Scriptures refer, the substance which is none other than Christ himself.

How did Luther know this? Because he was one of the baptized, a Christian who lived in communion with all the saints, and who had been nurtured by their corporate faith. That faith had itself borne fruit in more than a thousand years of Christian commentary on Holy Scripture, commentary of which Luther readily availed himself in his own vocation as Doctor in Biblia. Without doubt, Luther felt free to criticize the errors which he sometimes found in the exegetical traditions of the fathers. But his own exegetical work demonstrates time and again how very much he stood in the debt of the fallible traditions of premodern exegesis.

Premodern Exegesis

With the publication of the essay “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis” in 1980, Duke historian David C. Steinmetz not only challenged the hegemony of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis, but also breathed new life into the study of the “premodern” (i.e., before 1600) Christian biblical interpretation upon which Luther and his contemporaries relied so heavily. Steinmetz’s bold claim for the superiority of “pre-critical” exegesis amounted to a kind of rescue operation for that vast body of exegetical literature (commentaries, lectures, sermons, and the like). Practitioners of historical-critical interpretation had been inclined smugly to dismiss these writings as, at best, the wishful thinking of churchmen woefully lacking in historical sense. At worst, premodern exegesis actually seemed to them an obstacle to uncovering the Bible’s true meaning, because, so the argument went, the premoderns had forced fanciful allegories upon the text, many of which were transparent props for outdated doctrines.

In fact, as Steinmetz himself showed, premodern exegesis, when taken on its own terms, was anything but pre-critical. And because it was not hog-tied to the historical-critical insistence that the meaning of a biblical text must be sought solely in mind of the original human author, premodern exegesis proved more useful to the Church. Rather than engaging in an endless search for the “real” meaning of the text which once existed in the mind of the author, premodern exegetes read the Scriptures as a text rich with divinely intended meaning. To be sure, the possible spiritual meanings of the text were delimited by its plain literal meaning, by other clear biblical assertions, and by the traditions of faith. Steinmetz’s bold conclusion: “The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false.”

In the now nearly two decades since the publication of Steinmetz’s essay, additional work in the history of exegesis has established his claim, showing just how a recovery of premodern exegesis can contribute to the task of contemporary Christian proclamation. Much of the impetus behind those studies may be traced not only to Steinmetz, however, but also to work like that of Gerhard Ebeling. His 1947 book, Church History as the History of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture, ingeniously suggested that the history of the Christian church could be written as a history of the gathering-and sometimes dividing-streams of Christian biblical exposition. The very idea of writing such a history implies from the outset that any history of exegesis will be in fact a history of tradition. It thus implies the necessity of setting the work of biblical commentators from each age of the Church into the context of the writings of their predecessors and contemporaries. Such contextualization has the salutary and (in my judgment) necessary benefit of rendering triumphalist appeals to party favorites-say, Luther for the Lutherans, Calvin for the Reformed-suspect from the outset. One should still ask what Luther or Calvin says, but one must also ask what they repeat and from whom they learned. The questions, in short, have to do not only with Luther’s or Calvin’s explanation of a given text, but also with the exegetical traditions upon which they knowingly built. Premodern exegesis, in other words, is the sine qua non of Reformation exegesis: no premodern exegesis, no Reformation.

Steinmetz’s emphasis on the recovery of a worthy tradition and Ebeling’s recognition of the centrality of exegesis to the history of Christian thought combine neatly with emerging trends in “post-modern” exegesis, particularly so-called “theological exegesis.” Stephen E. Fowl, for example, in the introduction to a recent collection of sources in classic and contemporary exegesis, emphasizes the value of premodern exegesis, arguing that it “should be seen as a conversation partner providing insights and resources for reading scripture theologically in the present.” (1) And in a kind of manifesto for the value of the premodern exegetical tradition, the editors of a recent festschrift for David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and John L. Thompson, propose that a retrieval of premodern exegesis is essential to the recovery of Scripture as a Word addressed to the living, and not just to the dead.

Contextualizing Reformation thought, it should be noted, is not a new idea. In the 1960s and 70s, the work of the Dutch historian Heiko A. Oberman stimulated feverish research in the late medieval context of Reformation theology. No longer, Oberman insisted, should Luther be imagined as appearing out of the blue, or even out of the dark night of late medieval thought. Instead, he claimed, the late middle ages should be thought of as the cradle of the Reformation. In similar fashion, the work of scholars like Steinmetz and Ebeling challenges us to set the Reformers’ biblical work in its own late medieval context. Likewise, talk of exegetical context leads inevitably to talk of the Church, for the Christian exegetical conversation takes place in the community of faith.

Luther as a Biblical Exegete

Scholarship has long recognized that Luther made use of the latest critical tools available in his day. In his translation of the New Testament into German, for example, he relied upon Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament, the so-called Novum Instrumentum, while in some of his early work on the Psalms he used the cutting-edge work of the French humanist, Jacques Lefèvre d’Ã?taples. Luther’s ear was tuned not only to what was new in his day, however, but also to the classic patristic and medieval sources of Christian interpretation. Among these, one of the most important, particularly for his exegesis of the Old Testament, was the work of Nicholas of Lyra, whose so-called Postillae provided exegetes like Luther with a commentary on the whole Bible. Indeed, Lyra’s influence on Luther has been thought by some to be so pervasive that it was said, “Had Lyra not Lyred, Luther would not have danced” (si Lyra non Lyrasset, Lutherus non saltasset).

Through his knowledge of the Hebrew language, Lyra offered Christian biblical interpreters not only his own interpretation of the text, but also insights from Jewish commentators like Rashi (Solomon ben Isaac) on the Old Testament text. In hermeneutical terms, Lyra’s work offered Christian commentators solutions to problematic texts based on what has been called the “double-literal sense of the text,” i.e., a literal-historical meaning intended by the human author, and another, literal-prophetic meaning intended by the divine author. Using this approach, Lyra could affirm, for example, that a psalm spoke literally both of David and of Christ.

But hermeneutical theories about the meaning of a text tended, then as today, to play a considerably less important role in the actual practice of exegesis than do the published opinions of respected interpreters. Not every exegete consciously applies a hermeneutical theory to each text, but almost all of them consult respected authorities. No single instrument published in the middle ages did more to make those opinions widely available to Christian exegetes, including Martin Luther, than did the so-called “Ordinary Gloss” (Glossa Ordinaria).

Originally compiled in the twelfth century, the Gloss provided under one cover the exegetical opinions of such diverse Church fathers as Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Bede the Venerable, and many others, on every text of Scripture. The Glossators did much more, in other words, than simply pass on their own reading of Scripture. Page after page of the Gloss is filled with choice selections from the fathers and the medievals. In fact, on many of its pages a scant few lines of Scripture stand surrounded by many lines of commentary. In short, the Bible known through the Gloss was a traditioned text, one whose voice was heard in the context of a chorus of witnesses who testified to the meaning of the text as it had come to be understood by the Church. An individualistic reading of such a Bible was literally impossible, since what any individual exegete might say about a particular biblical text-even if one might disagree with a received consensus of interpretation-would itself become part of that larger chorus of witnesses.

The glossed Bible thus stood as an invitation for genuinely Christian reflection on the text in the context of a real communion with sainted exegetes from ages past. As such, it encouraged the study of the ancient and medieval commentators, most of whom had relied upon one or another version of a four-fold allegorical method. The Quadriga, as this method came to be known, provided an ingenious way to account for multiple levels of meaning within the biblical text while, at the same time, providing a means of explaining difficulties which sometimes arose from a literal reading of the text. In its classic form-developed by Origen, John Cassian, Augustine, and others-the Quadriga alerted biblical readers to expect to find as many as four different kinds of meaning in a biblical text. Each of these possible meanings was summarized in a popular Latin rhyme which served as a convenient menemonic device:

Littera gesta docet,
quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas,
quo tendas anagogia.

An expanded translation might read: “The letter of the Scriptures instructs us about past events; at the allegorical level the same text teaches what we ought to believe; a moral meaning teaches us how we ought to live; and an anagogical meaning reminds us of that for which we ought to hope.” It should be emphasized that this did not mean that every biblical text had to have four meanings.

But it might. Perhaps the best example of one that did, made famous by Cassian, came from the Psalms. Using the Quadriga, Psalm 137-in its literal meaning an imprecation against Israel’s Babylonian conquerors-could be transformed into a worthy Christian prayer. On a literal level the “Jerusalem” for which the Israelites longed was simply a city in the Middle East. Understood through the lens of the allegorical method, it could mean three additional things: allegorically it referred to the Church; morally, to the faithful soul; and anagogically, to the heavenly Jerusalem referred to in the Apocalypse of St. John. Of course, allegory did not always play such a clear or even clearly edifying role in Christian exegesis. Transparent allegorical appeals to the Scriptures in support of papal claims to ultimate authority in both heavenly and earthly matters made allegorical interpretation seem arbitrary, subject only to the whim of the interpreter. Pope Innocent III, for example, claimed that the “greater light” and the “lesser light” of the creation narrative in Genesis represented, respectively, the papal authority and that of the secular ruler. The fact that such claims sometimes went so far as to make subjection to papal authority essential to final salvation, moreover, did little to endear allegory to Protestant biblical interpreters.

Abuses such as this inclined Reformers like Luther to speak derisively of allegorical exegesis when unmoored from the literal sense of the text. Apart from polemical attacks against the practitioners of such interpretive strategies, however, Luther himself clearly also recognized levels of meaning in the biblical text, most prominent among them an allegorical/Christological and a moral meaning applied to the virtue of faith. Besides searching the Scriptures for testimony of Christ, Luther also tended to interpret its stories as examples to build up Christian faith. In the final analysis, for Luther biblical exegesis meant an encounter between text, the reader, and the whole community of faith.

Holy Scripture and the Traditions of Exegesis in the Lutheran Confessions

In the “Epitome” of the Formula of Concord we read the following: “We believe, teach, and confess that the Prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged….” Scripture alone, in short, is the infallible norm of doctrine. What room is there, then, for the traditions of interpretation in the work of the Lutheran exegete?

Plenty. Without a doubt, in the context of the debates over the comparative authority of Scripture and tradition during the latter half of the sixteenth century, the authors of the Formula stake out a position in which Scripture alone rules as the only infallible norm of all doctrine. But, in the same article they also clearly admit to the conversation “other writings,” including those of “ancient and modern writers,” the catholic creeds, the “first and unaltered” Augsburg Confession and its Apology, and the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther. All these are subordinated to the authority of Holy Scripture. The creeds are received as symbols of the faith, and the Augsburg Confession and Apology as “the symbol of our time.” The catechisms are “the layman’s Bible,” texts which contain everything “which a Christian must know for his salvation.” They are received, in other words, as statements which have been normed to that “sole norm” of the Scriptures. Their authority is derivative, but real.

“Other writings,” those of learned doctors and teachers, are received not as normed standards which authoritatively set forth the faith. But they are received, and that is the important point. It is not necessary for Lutheran Christians to be cut off from the traditions of the Church. On the contrary, “other writings” will help the Christian understand “how at various times the Holy Scriptures were understood by contemporaries in the church of God with reference to controverted articles, and how contrary teachings were rejected and condemned.” In addition to consulting Luther, Lutheran Christians are, I would argue, not only free, but beholden, to treasure and esteem the exegetical traditions of the patristic and medieval Church. These are not infallible norms of doctrine, nor even authoritative symbols of biblical teaching, but are helpful-even if fallible-guides into the faith which the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.

It is therefore encouraging to note the increasing attention being paid to premodern exegesis among American evangelicals. The publication by InterVarsity Press of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, for example, under the editorial leadership of Thomas C. Oden, promises to enrich both preaching and exegesis for many years to come. The express goal of the series, as Oden puts it, is “the revitalization of Christian teaching based on classical Christian exegesis.” That goal is perfectly consistent with the classical Protestant insistence on the sole final authority of Scripture, and has the potential to contribute much toward the reformation of American Christianity in modern-or are they post-modern?-times.

1 [ Back ] Stephen E. Fowl, ed., The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), introduction.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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