Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, July 22, 2005

Saddled by the Spiritual Method 

In Beryl Smalley's epochal work, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, the author lets loose a barrage of snide criticism against the 'cumbersome' exegetical methodologies of the proto-scholastic masters. Here, Peter Langton falls prey to Smalley's pen:

"The concordantia has been quoted as a final example of the cumbrous paraphernalia which the masters were saddled with. Langton takes a section, comprosing, let us say, four verses; he gives a list of variant readings; he gives out the order of the glosses and perhaps variant readings of them too; he collects alternative explanations (I have known him to suggest six for one text, three of which he prefers); he solves questions arising from the glosses and their 'originals', and perhaps from the Histories, as a rule by 'concording' them; he makes a table of related texts, a 'concordance'; after that he still has to plod through it, according to the spiritual senses, all over again. By the time he has finished, we have forgotten what he said about the section before. All continuity in the explanation of the sacred writer's meaning has disappeared."

Understanding Smalley's criticism requires an awareness of her presuppositions, chief among which is her utter contempt for the spiritual exegesis of the Fathers, which receives a brutish right hook in chapter one and never quite recovers (our friend Origen, as you might imagine, is the Antichrist). It is difficult to determine exactly what Smalley prefers (she writes before the full 'blossoming' of modern text-criticism, though she seems to anticipate it), but it is less difficult to determine the essential outline. Smalley gets goosebumps about anything vaguely Hebraic (hence, Jerome gets a pass), which is another way of saying anything which points to a reading of Old Testament not overly colored by Christian suppositions. Her obsession with the Victorine school is clearly due that school's trademark preference for the historical reading over the tropological. All this points to one golden ideal - a literal, straightforward reading of the biblical text according to its historical sense, without reference to the Christian theological tradition, or any other such subjectivism.

Here lies the root of the tree, the template for historico-criticism of the post-modern variety. While none would deny that a historic ('literal') reading of Scripture is an essential part of our tradition, perhaps the most essential, it takes a very truncated view of historical theology to claim that it is the only authentic way the Church reads Scripture, or ought to read Scripture.

The most intriguing facet of the 'spiritual method', as the Fathers called it, is, paradoxically, the quite extraordinary degree to which it could be scientific. Origen, of course, is the first to apply a scientific rigorism to the spiritual method, which is outlined in the De Principiis but evidenced in the hundreds of commentaries and exegetical homilies he leaves us (much misunderstanding of Origen would be allayed if first-year graduate students were given the Commentary on St. John rather than the De Principiis as a representative work of Origen, given that the latter is anything but representative).

For this exegetical methodology we go to Book IV of the De Principiis. The letter of the text, for Origen, is the mere 'earthen vessel' for the divine meaning (8). A priggish affection for the letter can only lead to absurdity, heresy, or worse, the hardness of heart typified by the Jewish rejection of the Messiah. If, as Christians believe, the Scriptures are God-breathed, bequeathed to and handed down by the apostles through ecclesiastical tradition, the only conclusion can be that the text constitutes merely "the forms and figures of hidden and sacred things". Recall that, for Origen, to 'stop' at the figure without advancing to the truth is the very essence of sin. The inspired reader is forced to ask, "Is there not hidden there also an inner, namely a divine sense, which is revealed by . . . grace alone?" "[A]re not the Epistles of the Apostles, which seem to some to be plainer, filled with meanings so profound, that by means of them, as by some small receptacle, the clearness of incalculable light appears to be poured into those who are capable of understanding the meaning of divine wisdom?"

For Origen this realization unfolds a 'threefold manner' in the understanding of 'divine letters'. This is rooted in Origen's tripartite understanding of the human person as 'body, soul and spirit' (man being the image of the Triune God - hey, that would make a great dissertation topic!). The simple begin with an understanding of the 'body' of Scripture, the 'common and historical sense' (elsewhere, the 'inferential historical sense'). Once they make spiritual progress, they begin to discern the 'soul' of Scripture. Those who attain spiritual perfection, however, progress even to the 'spirit' of Scripture (11). “Now a 'spiritual' interpretation is of this nature: when one is able to point out what are the heavenly things of which these serve as the patterns and shadow . . . and of what things future the law contains a shadow, and any other expressions of this kind that may be found in holy Scripture; or when it is a subject of inquiry, what is that wisdom hidden in a mystery" (13).

As Origen systematized Pauline exegesis, Augustine systematized Origenist exegesis. We find St. Augustine's method laid out in his De doctrina Christianae, in particular Book III of that work. St. Augustine's methodology is more strictly grounded in the historical-literal sense, this latter sense never threatens to asphyxiate the spiritual, but rather becomes its foundation and springboard. His approach to the literal sense is expansive, insisting a full exploration of etymology and linguistics, zoology and minerology, a cross-reference with other available textual sources, and above all, a sense of the unity of all Scripture. The literal sense never binds: If ever the literal sense suggests a meaning which stands in violation to reason, piety or sound Christian doctrine, this is a sure sign that the text has been misunderstood. The impact of the text on the moral life of the Christian, its efficacy in preaching (cf. Book IV), its relation to the rule of faith, all have a bearing on how that text is to be read. The 'rule of charity' prevails over all: a text is read properly only when it facilitates the reader's love of God and neighbor. One could hardly be further from the rigid historo-literalism of the modern biblical schools.

The Medieval exegetical system, which is detailed in Smalley's book, represented nothing more than an organic development of the Origenist-Augustinian exegetical tradition, as that took shape in the monastic cloister, and eventually, in the monastic schools. Hence, the pious tradition of lectio divina, along with the 'ornamentation' given to many biblical passages by their liturgical placement, advanced the 'spiritual' strain. Parallel to this, the various collections of scholarly glosses, along with the need to cross-reference between them, advanced the 'scientific' strain. The emerging exegetical methodology, then, was both spiritualist and scientific, a complex and expansive interweaving of patristic, liturgical, moral-spiritual, and dogmatic elements to form a synthetic, if somewhat cumbersome, system. This, of course, is what Smalley ridicules as the "the cumbrous paraphernalia which the masters were saddled with," in her commentary on Langton's work which opened this piece.

I have always noted that no one without a spiritual life is capable of understanding the spiritual method. But I must also add a renewed complaint. No matter how 'cumbersome' the early scholastic commentaries on Scripture could become, could any of them ever approach the sheer textual weight of Raymond Brown's New Jerome Biblical Commentary? Would St. Jerome himself not cringe in horror at a 'commentary' in which a single phrase of Scripture can receive up to two pages of commentary, especially when that commentary is exclusively of a 'scientific' nature (historical, archeological, textual-critical and lingustic)? A tome so massive it requires a substantial effort to lift, and yet there is not a word in it which is capable of lifting the mind to God, much less the spirit. Father Joseph Komonchak once told us of preparing for a homily on Jesus' healing of the man born blind. After spending an hour in Raymond Brown and reading nothing but critical notes about the textual history of the kerygmatic oral motifs of the original narrative, he turned to St. Augustine, and found a beautiful, uplifting and catechetical commentary on man's healing from the crippling effects of sin. If modern readers are 'saddled' with anything, it is this. If anything can free us, it is the exegesis of the Fathers.

# posted by Jamie : 11:58 AM


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