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The Word and the Text

The Word and the Text: Allegorical Exegesis and the Christological Ontology of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Factum audivimus; mysterium requiramus.

“We have heard the deed; let us seek the mystery.” So says Augustine in his tractates on the Gospel of John. Sentiments such as this were the bedrock of Medieval hermeneutics regarding Scripture. The mystical interpretation of Scripture, particularly allegory, had been bequeathed to the theologians and scholars of the middle ages by giants of Scriptural reflection like Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and many others. These colossal figures were studied intensely, that their methods might be appropriated and the beauty and power of their exegesis be unlocked. For it was the exegesis—the Word—that the medievals really wanted. The nectar of pure truth. Contrary to many popular misconceptions about medieval Scripture study and theology (and despite the almost limitless height of esteem the medievals gave to the Fathers), the Sacra Pagina was their main preoccupation; all the machinations, arts, and potentiae mentis they could muster were bent upon it.

This should not surprise us. Medieval exegesis connects how the medievals understood revelation with how they saw the world—and vice versa, of course. The ratio of creation was embedded in the text, which is the ratio of God’s mysterious whisperings: how the cosmos elucidates Christ, and how Christ elucidates the cosmos. They are the “mystica Christi dispensatio,” as Origen says; the place where “spiritual mysteries were signified, which pertained to Christ and to the Church,” Augustine avers. Thinkers like Maximus the Confessor, John Scottus Eriugena, and Bonaventure understood the Scriptures as a kind of incarnation of Christ. For medievals, the Scriptures were a special space—a holy place where the uncreated uniquely met the created. It was more than a text; it was The Book, in which all that has been, is, and will be was recorded by the willed and gracious donation of God Himself.

That is, this book had a special origin, and so naturally, in the mind of the medieval exegete, required special rules for its interpretation. This is crucial to understand because such a Christic ontology undergirded all exegesis (especially allegory). While we moderns—whether staunch fundamentalists or historical-critical so-called “liberals”—look at what the Scriptures say in order to understand their function in the life of the Christian and the Church, to the medieval mind this would certainly seem entirely backwards. Medieval exegesis flowed from what the book actually is: what it is comes before, and radically frames, what it says. This is why medievals were not bothered by the putative “satanic verses” of Scripture, where God seems complicit with or even commands evil deeds. They neither required some sort of mental gymnastics to overcome such passages, nor did they simply throw their hands up in despairing capitulation. They sought a deeper meaning.

For example, Benedict of Nursia, in his prologue to the famous Rule, cites the infamous Psalm 137. I was once at a Benedictine monastery, where a monk told me how he would cringe when they would actually sing the verse about throwing babies against rocks with vindictive alacrity. Now there is a great deal of speculation about which parts of the rule are attributable to Benedict himself, and what represent later interpolations. However, in the Rule as we now have it, Psalm 137 was a passage that should spurn the monk on to holiness—casting his evil sins against the Rock, who is Christ. Such verses, morally cringe-worthy, were subsumed into a metaphysically greater view of the Scripture itself.

To our modern consciousness, this interpretation may seem naïve, haphazard, silly, or even dangerous. However, this is to deeply misunderstand the way the text of the Bible functioned in the profoundly exegetical and spiritual culture of medieval thinkers. For medieval theologians and exegetes, the allegorical hermeneutic flowed from the theological conviction that the Word of God actually is the proclamation of Christ himself. This is a statement about the ontology of the text—what it really is. That is to say, Scripture, when seen through the eyes of faith, is the actual person of Christ. Thus, to interpret the text, one must undertake a mystical journey into the divine life, perceiving the mystery of God spelled out by every stroke on every page. Because the text is divine, the historical meaning, while critical to medieval thinkers, was only the surface; the Christian must be led deeper, by grace, to encounter not only the human author but the Author of life itself. This means de facto that the text, and its interpretation, cannot remain static. It is therefore an odd sort of irony that the medievals would very well look upon our modern hyper-historical approach to Scripture as naïve, haphazard, even silly, because it constrains the Word in a way that would make little sense to the medieval mind.

Thus, medieval exegesis was not simply an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual practice. As Junilius Africanus says, when the Christian studies the Scriptures, the heavens are opened up and the Holy Spirit descends upon her, proclaiming: “I have come from the Father and entered the world.” There is a present occasional aspect to exegesis, in which God unlocks the text, and in so doing, transforms the reader. This is why lectio and meditatio were, for Hugh of St. Victor, spiritual practices. Through reading (lectio), prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and intense examination (contemplatio), the Scriptures were opened up and the devotee would bask in the divine light. Often this was referred to as illumination.

Some medieval thinkers proffered this view, rather delightfully, in the act of exegesis itself. John Scottus Eriugena, in his Homilia on the Prologue of John, references the passage of the Gospel in which Peter and the Beloved Disciple rush to the open tomb. He writes:

The tomb of Christ is the divine Scripture in which the mysteries of his divinity and humanity are enclosed by the weight of the letter, as the tomb was by a stone. John runs ahead of Peter. For contemplation, altogether purified, penetrates the profound secrets of the Divine Scriptures more acutely and more quickly than action that has yet to be purified. Nevertheless, Peter is the first to enter the tomb, and then John. And so both run, and both enter. For Peter symbolizes faith, John signifies understanding. And so, since it is written “unless you believe you will not understand,” faith must precede into the tomb of the holy Scripture, then follows understanding, whose entry is prepared by faith.

In this lovely passage, the method of allegory is in some sense explained through allegory, and I take its approach and elucidation to be generally representative of medieval scriptural hermeneutics. Anyone may understand the literal meaning. But reading deeply into the Scriptures in order to ascertain its mysteries requires reading through the eyes of faith, so that the Spirit may do God’s work upon the Christian, as we saw Junilius attesting above. According to Eriugena, the tomb, which is Scripture, holds the deep mysteries of reality—that is, Christ.

Yet this passage also attests to the noetic function necessary in interpreting the Scriptures. Eriugena says that faith prepares the way so that understanding [intelligentia] can do its work. There is a common modern conception that medieval allegory was a capricious or willy-nilly affair. Proponents of this view usually cite certain infamous instances, such as Augustine’s allegorical reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan. But one of the major problems with this conception is that it is, well, false. Thirteenth century theologian Robert Grosseteste refers to allegory as a scientia—a science or discipline of interpretation. Interpreting the Scriptures, even allegorically, for the medievals—while certain experiential factors were certainly present—did not entail that the exegete could simply say whatever they wanted. Far from it. Their readings were bolstered and checked by a thing they called ratio. Reason, rationality, were essential to proper scriptural interpretation. As G. R. Evans writes, the Scriptures were:

God’s [way] of re-establishing his communication with man and bringing man back to the rationality and spirituality of vision with which he was created; restoring him, in other works, to understanding and the knowledge of God. Thus it is…that there must be not only labour but rational effort in reading Scripture, or those who merely apply themselves with assiduousness are like men who cross a wood by a circuitous path [here she is using an illustration from Hugh of St. Victor]; those who use their reason are like men who cross in a straight line and come quickly to the other side…the reader applies his mind, and increasingly, such technical aids as the study of the arts of grammar and logic and other artes can provide to help his reasoning.

This is quite frankly self-evident in that many ways that they clearly and blatantly applied the rules of reason as they saw them constantly to the text. And this too should not be surprising. The medievals held reason—while having a healthy respect for its limits—in the highest esteem, because they believed that it attested to the order by which God created the universe. And it was this same God who spoke to humanity through the sacred book. The God who begat the Word inspired the word of God according to his eternal wisdom.

This mystic conviction testifies to the reasonableness of allegory. Allegory, as Bonaventure says, concerns belief. He goes on (in the Prologue to his Breviloquium):

[Scripture] proceeds, by supernatural inspiration, to give us human wayfarers as much knowledge as we need to achieve salvation. And so, in language that is sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic, as in a kind of summa, it describes the contents of the entire universe…And so the whole course of this world is shown by Scripture to run in a most orderly fashion from beginning to end, like an artfully composed melody. In it, once can contemplate, by means of the succession of events, the diversity, multiplicity, and symmetry, the order, rectitude, and excellence, of the many judgments that proceed from the divine wisdom governing the universe. Just as no one can appreciate the loveliness of a song unless one’s perspective embraces it as whole, so none of us can see the beauty of the order and governance of the world without an integral view of its course. But since no mortal lives long enough to see all this with bodily eyes, nor can any individual foretell the future, the Holy Spirit has provided us with the book of Sacred Scripture, whose length corresponds to God’s governance of the universe.

So Scripture—in ontology, scope, and function—is intertwined with the act of God to reveal God’s self to creation. To read Scripture allegorically, through the eyes of faith, is to read with the contours of the cosmos, and to find with delight God’s grand design for all things—past, present, and future. The Scriptures are profoundly mystical, and necessitate a mystic posture to engage them fully.

And yet, given that the Author is infinite, they can never be fully exhausted. It has, as Bonaventure says, “a multiplicity of mystic meanings.” No text or passage means only one thing. No interpretation is final. And the act of interpreting itself is only an instrument for the creature to encounter her Creator.

And so the end of the Scriptures is the mystery, the mystery of the God who so loved the world that he spoke to it. And this scriptural mystery is wrapped up both delicately and tightly with the beauty of the one who breathes life into the Scriptures—as God does, for the medieval Christian, everything else. Bonaventure says of the sacred page that “the affection is moved more strongly by examples than by arguments, more by promises than by reasoning, more by devotions than definitions.” Leaving everything else behind, the Scriptures lead the interpreter through the celestial spheres to the God who is beyond all things.

Is it possible to prove that the meaning of Isaac carrying the wood up the mountain for his immolation is that of Christ carrying his Cross to Golgotha, as it is to prove the location of ancient Jericho or the historicity of the Canaanite conquest? The historian may judge the veracity of Christ’s crucifixion, but can she judge whether the water and blood that flowed from Christ’s side upon being pierced signifies the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist, the birth of the Church from the Second Adam’s side? Of course not. But that’s not what allegory is, what it is meant to do. To ask the question doesn’t even make sense, it is categorically confused, the language fails. But for the medieval, who believes that the Scriptures were authored by God, the interpretation is nigh unavoidable, as the many exegetes who elucidate it attest.

And I think they would not even want to avoid it. Such interpretations are powerful, and overcome the Christian with a sense of cosmic meaning. And while it may appear strange to us in the twenty-first century, it does not follow that what they were doing was wrong, false, or irrational. It was wholly coherent with their philosophical, theological, and spiritual framework. Were one of us to go back in time, we may ask a medieval exegete, “Now what on earth are you doing?” But by the same token, were one of them to come to us and see our oftentimes sterile handling of the text, they may very well ask us the same thing.

What I have labored to show in these reflections—not in vain I hope—is that medieval allegorical exegesis makes perfect sense when one understands their exegesis in the context of their greater theological framework and cosmology. To come to the text, for the medieval, is to ask “Where is Christ?” “What has he to say to me?” and “How can I become like him?” The scope of Scripture in the medieval furniture of the mind goes well beyond our oft-constricted circumscription of the text—a text we Christians claim to be divine. Allegory was not just a hermeneutical tool or literary construct, but a spiritual practice, a way of being Christian. It was to delve deep into the mysteries of creation and even God own self, graciously offered for us and our salvation.

We can do with this whatever we like, I suppose. Nobody, not even the Christian, is bound to resurrect this method of scriptural exegesis. But I hope, professionally and popularly, that we can dispel this nonsense that medieval allegorical exegesis is in some way capricious, silly, or an example of the backward thinking of a bygone age. And I hope personally, as a Christian, that we may follow the medievals example in thinking more deeply about what Scripture actually is as a primam quaestionem, not simply an afterthought or an inductive conclusion based upon a prima facie and supposedly “objective” first reading the of text—something of an odd irony, in my opinion. Moreover, like the medievals, I hope that Christians may be able to allow our tradition to make these adjudications, not the more recent advents of disciplinary humanities or sciences, which ought to be applied to the Scriptures, not define them. Medieval allegorical exegesis offers us a way of encountering the Scriptures that is not only fresh and timely, but rooted deeply within the life of the Church. Upon realizing this, we may be able to say, factum audivimus; mysterium requiramus.


T. Alexander Giltner is a doctoral candidate at Saint Louis University working on the philosophical theology of Saint Bonaventure. Among his academic interests are the intersections of Christology, Trinitarian thought, anthropology, and the relation of metaphysics to mysticism. He will defend his dissertation in November, 2017.

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