In Praise Of (Renaissance) Humanism

Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.

—Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74), Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), 1a 1.10 (resp. dic.).

One of the highlights of the spring term is the opportunity to read portions of Thomas’ Summa Theologica with students in the medieval seminar. Among the places we consider is Thomas’ discussion of the interpretation of Scripture where he argued that Scripture has a fourfold sense (quadriga): literal, doctrinal (allegorical), tropological (moral), and the anagogical (eschatological). Contrary to the what one might expect, Thomas placed the emphasis on the literal sense, but he wanted to enlarge it.

In article 10, he defined the literal sense just as most traditional evangelical and Reformed interpreters would: the sense intended by the author. This is an important correction to the late-modern subjectivist move to elevate the reader and his subjective experience of the text over authorial intent. Thomas represents a broad classical and Christian consensus about how to regard authors and texts. Augustine had argued that reading a text according to the author’s intent was an act of charity, a way to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. For more on this, see Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1991). That this should be so is reasonably easy to demonstrate. Those who write books about deconstructing other people’s books intend the readers of their books to understand them according to their intention. They only want us to deconstruct the books of others. Such an argument is little more than literary graffiti.

The second half of Thomas’ response is a little more difficult to accept without revision. There is no question whether God is the author of Holy Scripture. 2 Peter 1:19–21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 teach that the authors of Scripture wrote God’s Word as they were “carried along” and that the Scriptures themselves are “breathed out” by God himself through the agency of the human author. To say, however, as Thomas did that the author of Scripture is God and then to stop there, is to say too little.

This way of thinking of Scripture was truly ancient. When we look back at the way the Patristic and medieval interpreters understood Scripture, we see that they often made the same assumption as Thomas. They were so focused on divine authorship that they thought about and talked about Scripture without accounting for the original, historical, cultural, and linguistic setting in which the various parts of Scripture were written. Scripture became utterly transcendent. There were exceptions. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 AD) was keenly interested in the original setting, recipients, and the human authors of Scripture. As the early church, however, began to emphasize the spiritual (figurative) senses, this also contributed to the sense that Scripture is a revelation of timeless truths. Those (e.g., the early Jerome) who were influenced by Origen (d. 254 AD) tended to be more interested in the doctrinal and moral senses of Scripture. Gregory the Great (c. 540–604 AD) wrote a commentary on Job emphasizing the moral sense. Perhaps you have heard a preacher ask the congregation, “What are the Goliath’s in your life?” That is nothing but a tropological (not strictly allegorical) interpretation. It substitutes one of the traditional figurative senses for the literal. Typically, such interpretations did not deny the literal sense, i.e., David’s confrontation with Goliath (1 Sam 17), but they did tend to marginalize the historical events in favor of their significance to us. This is a great temptation faced by every preacher. Congregations typically like sermons that move from the literal, historical sense of the text to the doctrinal, the moral, or even the eschatological. Of those, people seem particularly to favor the moral (tropological). They want to know what the text means for our us morally. Perhaps more fundamentally, we like it when the text is read or the sermon is made to be about us. This can happen in other ways (e.g., a strong, consistent emphasis on religious experience).

One important feature of the Renaissance (14th–17th centuries) was its human-ism. In reaction to the medieval pattern of thinking of Scripture as having only one author or as a collection of timeless truths, the Renaissance writers were relatively more interested the historical and human aspects of Scripture than most of the medieval (and many of the patristic) writers had been. If you have ever read a patristic commentary on Scripture and wondered why they reached such different (and sometimes incomprehensible) conclusions to those with which you might be familiar from Reformation and post-Reformation interpretations, the difference lies, in part, in the influence of the Renaissance humanists, which must be distinguished clearly from that associated with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment humanism. Modern humanism (which we might call secularist humanism) tends to assert the primacy and autonomy of human reason (or sense experience or emotional experience) over all other authorities (e.g., Scripture and church). Renaissance humanism was largely (though not exclusively) a Christian movement. Most of the Renaissance figures believed the orthodox Christian faith. It was marked by a renewed concern for Christian morality, for educational reform, for a return to original sources (ad fontes) read in their original literary and historical contexts. Prior to the Renaissance, patristic, legal, and biblical sources were often encountered not as a whole but in collections, something like an undergraduate course reader put together by a college professor. So, students in medieval law faculty (i.e. law school) received collections of legal opinions but not the original sources. Students in the theology faculty (i.e. seminary) learned theology from collections of biblical and patristic opinions in Abelard’s (1079–c.1143) Sic et Non (This And Not This) and Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1155–58) but not so much in their original literary and historical contexts. The same was true in church. Biblical readings and sermons (when they happened) were not determined by the biblical context but by the church calendar.

We take it for granted that, in order to interpret a text well, we must account for the original authorship, the setting of the author, the original readership and their setting, the immediate literary context, the broader canonical context, and the original language. It is not unusual to hear faithful ministers say, “Paul says” or “Mark says” or “Moses says.” I have read some criticism of speaking this way as impious. I disagree. There is nothing wrong with recognizing the human authorship of Holy Scripture. The Apostle Peter did this very thing: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:15,16; ESV). Peter’s personality as an author is distinguishable from Matthew’s, from Paul’s, or from John’s.

The influence upon the Protestant Reformation of Renaissance concerns and methods is evident. Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Melanchthon, and Calvin were all deeply influenced by the Renaissance. One reason Calvin’s biblical commentaries still hold up is that he applied humanist methods to the interpretation of Scripture.

We need to continue the tradition of applying those methods, too, of asking those questions of Scripture. Thus, the David and Goliath narrative is not about the challenges you may face (i.e., the tropological sense). Read in its original context, it is about God’s surprising and remarkable deliverance of his people through and an unexpected and overlooked deliverer. In the broader canonical context, the narrative points us to Christ. The natural tendency is to look for a Saul figure to save us from our sins but, in mystery of God’s providence, salvation came not through an easily recognized hero but from Mary’s son, about whom people said, “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” (Mark 6:3).

To interpret Philippians properly, we need to know something about Philippi (a Roman colony), about the congregation, about the issues they faced, about Paul’s history and location as he wrote to them. To ask and answer these question is to begin to put the interpretation of a text on a sound footing. These are the kinds of questions to ask when interpreting any text, whether the American constitution or a confessional document. When we do we should remember what the Renaissance humanists contributed to our ability to read Scripture in its original language and context. Prior to the Renaissance, in the Western church, Scripture was read almost exclusively in Latin. Relatively few people read Greek and even fewer read Hebrew. When Johannes Reuchlin’s (Melanchthon’s great uncle) Hebrew grammar (De rudimentis hebraicis) appeared in 1506, that was a monumental occasion.

There are signals that, despite the amazing resources to which we have access today, we may be sliding back to a pre-Reformation, pre-Renaissance approach to Scripture as schools downplay the original languages, as students and congregations seem more interested in “what Scripture means to me” (the subjective) rather than the objective (e.g., Scripture’s own context). We should not take for granted the Renaissance and Reformation recovery of the literal sense, the original languages, and the original context. It slipped away from the medieval church. It could happen again. That would be a tragedy.

God is the author of Scripture but the Spirit also carried along and worked through sinful human beings infallibly to reveal his inerrant Word and he did so in history. The Renaissance helped us to appreciate that reality again to the benefit of the church.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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One comment

  1. “ To interpret Philippians properly, we need to know something about Philippi (a Roman colony), about the congregation, about the issues they faced, about Paul’s history and location as he wrote to them. To ask and answer these question is to begin to put the interpretation of a text on a sound footing. These are the kinds of questions to ask when interpreting any text, whether the American constitution or a confessional document. ”

    Amen!

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