Some Thoughts on Medieval Exegesis

In the last week or so, I’ve waded through quite a few works concerning exegetical practice of the medievals. Opinions seem to be varied regarding the level of constraint (or lack thereof) that characterizes a medieval approach to the Bible. That is, to what degree are medieval theologians to be considered “responsible” exegetes in their level of respect for the literal meaning of the text. I cite here two opinions…the first from Denis Farkasfalvy’s Inspiration and Interpretation, and the second from David Steinmetz’s classic piece, The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis. Enjoy:

In medieval exegesis the relationship between interpretation and philosophical reflection is often unclear. Lacking a sense for the historical dimension of reality (at least in the modern sense of the term), the medieval exegete may not realize that he must not force upon the biblical text the concepts and the terminology of another culture or age. Medieval exegesis is, therefore, like a kaleidoscope. It is full of shiny items, including many true gems, but also objects that are like glass beads or false gold, appealing to the eye but without lasting value (Farkasfalvy, 151).

Modern literary criticism has challenged the notion that a text means only what its author intends it to mean far more radically than medieval exegetes ever dreamed of doing. Indeed, contemporary debunking of the author and the author’s explicit intentions has proceeded at such a pace that it seems at times as if literary criticism has become a jolly game of ripping out an author’s shirt-tail and setting fire to it (Steinmetz, 37).

Call me crazy, but I’m inclined to affirm both of these statements.

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Medieval Exegesis

  1. I think this must have been the third time I’ve read the thing. I read it once in seminary, at some point after arriving at Marquette, and now for the qualifying exams. It is a great text, but a strange text…each time I read it I find something new that I love and also something I used to love but now hate. Strange, but wonderful and thought-provoking.

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