A colleague of mine who’s pursuing a PhD in Scotland, and contributes a great deal to the All Saints Center for Theology, just put out a neat article introducing how Medieval scholars read & interpreted the Bible. It’s the first article in a series, so I may well mention them again.
Medieval interpretation of scripture isn’t the most popular thing to talk about these days, especially among Evangelicals who typically reject the medieval “four-fold interpretation” scheme (historical/literal, tropological/moral, allegorical/spiritual, and anagogical/end-purposive). However, Jordan has been studying a theologian named de Lubac, who points out that these four approaches match up with the three parts of the human being: body, soul, and spirit. Suddenly this otherwise strange and seemingly-arbitrary four-fold method of approaching Scripture makes a lot more sense. Roughly quoting Jordan:
this spiritual understanding of Scripture is always a gift of the Spirit. As such, the scientific (historical-critical) method alone cannot hope to arrive at the fullness of Scripture. The spiritual sense edifies the church and the individual, thereby making Scripture no longer a mere historical document to be studied, but “the Word of God that is being received, as it is addressed to us ‘here and now’” (I, 265). “Let us not,” therefore, “be seduced by scientism in order to escape illuminism,” writes de Lubac.
This speaks to a difficult issue faced by seminarians and others who receive formal education in studying/interpreting/exegeting the Bible… there is so much emphasis on the tools of exegesis, how to translate and analyze the text, that we are often left wondering how the Holy Spirit fits into this picture, since He’s supposed to be leading us into all truth and teaching us what Scripture means.
After all, if understanding the Bible was simply a matter of knowing how to study it properly, then you’d think that there wouldn’t be quite so many divisions among Christians, and that more non-christians who’ve read the Bible would understand Christian theology better. But we are divided, and they don’t understand. Treating the Bible with “scientific” (aka methodical) approaches does not lead us into all truth; there is something more. There is, in a mysterious way, a level of Scripture that academic study cannot access on its own, where the Holy Spirit alone can lead us. Just like how lots of scholars can help clarify the difference between good scholarship and bad scholarship, lots of spiritual Christians can help clarify the difference between good spiritual interpretation and bad spiritual interpretation – individualism is a danger in both approaches, and preventable by both approaches if the counsel of the whole Church is heeded.
Of course, the academic study is valuable – the literal and historical meanings of the Bible are still very important, if not most important, for setting the stage for any further analysis. It’s just a mistake to say that academic scholarship is the whole picture here.