Thursday, May 5, 2011

Biblical interpretation down through the ages - the dark ages

As we might expect from whole tone of the Dark Ages, no effort was made to interpret Scripture accurately.  Paul Lee Tan, in The Interpretation of Prophecy, explains that the principles introduced by Augustine not only continued to be used, they were even expanded during this time period:

During the Middle Ages, the fourfold sense of Scripture was taught. Medieval scholars took Origen’s threefold sense—the literal, the moral, and the spiritual—and subdivided the spiritual into the allegorical and the anagogical. As schoolman Thomas Aquinas affirmed, ‘The literal sense is that which the author intends, but God being the Author, we may expect to find in Scripture a wealth of meaning.’ An example of how the fourfold sense was worked out during the Middle Ages is Gen. 1:3, ‘Let there be light.’ Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally—An act of creation; (2) Morally—May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically—Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically—May we be led by Christ to glory.

Louis Berkhof agrees and says this in Principles of Biblical Interpretation:

In this period, the fourfold sense of Scripture (literal, tropological, allegorical, and analogical) was generally accepted, and it became an established principle that the interpretation of the Bible had to adopt itself to tradition and to the doctrine of the Church.

Even though Aquinas agreed with the idea of looking beyond the primary meaning of the author, he did see some of the dangers of allegorization. Rodney L. Petersen in Continuity and Discontinuity: The Debate throughout Church History, tells us that...

Aquinas put forward a threefold argument against allegory: (1) it is susceptible to deception; (2) without a clear method it leads to confusion; and (3) it lacks a sense of the proper integration of Scripture.

And finally, Farrar summarizes this whole period by saying:

...we are compelled to say that during the Dark Ages, from the seventh to the twelfth century, and during the scholastic epoch, from the twelfth to the sixteenth, there are but a few of the many who toiled in this field who added a single essential principle, or furnished a single original contribution to the explanation of the Word of God.  During these nine centuries we find very little except the "glimmerings and decays" of patristic exposition.  Much of the learning which still continued to exist was devoted to something which was meant for exegesis yet not one writer in hundreds showed any true conception of what exegesis really implies.

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