Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture

Written by Henri De Lubac

(Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998, 2000, 2009), pp. 489, 453, 800.

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


You will never know the Bible as the Church knows the Bible until you understand it according to the Four Senses.

Imagine reading a book on how people in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 AD) interpreted the Bible. And then imagine doing so over three volumes, for a collective 1742 pages!

The essential question here is, why would anyone want to do either of these things?

Why should I care about how Medieval people interpreted the Bible? Most Catholics might not know how to answer this question with any degree of confidence, but of course we all know that we are supposed to “give a nod to tradition,” for some reason or other. There are at least two ways to answer this question:

1) according to the general sense – that the Bible is an endlessly rich document and we can profit from engaging with it anywhere and everywhere.

2) according to the specific sense – in this sense we are not interested in what Medieval people thought of the Bible, we are interested in what the Church officially teaches about the Bible, and this includes the popes, bishops and theologians of the Middle Ages.

I would read this book for both of these reasons. The subject of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible occupied two of my graduate theses. In each case I focused on a particular aspect of St. Augustine’s thought. In some ways we can say that Augustine’s thought created Medieval theology, so for me the study of Medieval exegesis is like looking at the shock waves created by my great hero. But, of course, Augustine inherited his view (as did Gregory the Great, Jerome and Ambrose) from the great Egyptian Christian, Origen. This book has plenty to say about him.

I got into the topic because I could not and would not believe that the true Church of God would teach stuff like that world was actually created in six days. It doesn’t; it didn’t. But since that initial start I have been committed to reading the exegetical works of the great masters mainly because they are spiritually nourishing (unlike many contemporary works of biblical scholarship).

But do you have to do this over 1700 pages? No, of course not. In fact, de Lubac didn’t have to do this either. He also wrote a short and most useful, Scripture in the Tradition in 268 pages (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), which perhaps I’ll review later. But this is an unparalleled and seminal study, still heavily referenced by scholars, even though it was originally written in 1959.

Frankly, no one before De Lubac knew the topic as well as he did. That is probably still true today. If you have read anything by this Jesuit scholar whom St. John Paul raised to the cardinalate late in his life, you know that he was massively erudite. His books are all punctuated by an excess of learning, if there is such a thing, and excess of references to Ancient and Medieval writers.

Over the three volumes of Medieval Exegesis, De Lubac traces the origin (first volume), provides comprehensive definitions (second volume) and use of the so-called “four senses of Scripture,” flowering in the great thinkers he treats in the third volume, people such as Hugh as St. Victor and Joachim of Flora (aka Fiora).

The four senses are the literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical. The first is kind of obvious (but, technically speaking, the most complicated of the four!). Allegory is when something basically tells a story that is really about Christ, like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Tropological is the moral sense: what are we supposed to learn from Daniel and the lion’s den. Anagogical is the ‘final’ sense, basically any meaning that refers to the world to come, judgement, heaven, hell, etc.

De Lubac’s book has been thought of as having created a revolution in Catholic scriptural interpretation, the kind of revolution that is best defined in relation to the ‘theological school’ to which he, Ratzinger, von Balthasar and others have been associated with: the ‘Ressourcement School,’ which sought to return to a fuller sense of the theological tradition, away from narrow Thomism, on the one hand, and liberalism with its faithless kind of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible, on the other. There are many signs of this revolution as having taken place, but as someone who keeps a keen eye on what impact Patristics (the study of the Fathers of the Church) is having on the contemporary Church, I would say that a revolution has yet to really begin. If you look at places like the John Paul II Institute in Washington and the Augustine Institute in Denver, there are some signs that a return to the sources is occurring, but I think it has not made a permanent place for itself yet. I still see seminary and other theological schools sadly neglecting the fuller tradition.

Anyway, back to the book. It is a masterpiece. There could be no more comprehensive treatment of the topic, and, as I have argued, it is an important one over which to gain comprehension.

I will review some other books that purport to present ‘the Catholic’ understanding of scripture. There will be some winners and some losers. All of the winners will have gained a great deal from Medieval Exegesis.


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