John Contreni

title.none: Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, Vol 1: The Four Senses of Scripture (Contreni)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.013 99.08.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Contreni, Purdue University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis, Vol 1: The Four Senses of Scripture. Mark Sebanc trans., originally published as Exègése médiévale, 1: Les quatre sens de l'écriture, Éditions Montaigne, 1959. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998. Pp. vii, 466. $45.00. ISBN: 0-8022-84145-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.13

Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis, Vol 1: The Four Senses of Scripture. Mark Sebanc trans., originally published as Exègése médiévale, 1: Les quatre sens de l'écriture, Éditions Montaigne, 1959. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998. Pp. vii, 466. $45.00. ISBN: 0-8022-84145-7.

Reviewed by:

John Contreni
Purdue University

Henri de Lubac's Exegese medievale: Les quatre sens de l'Ecriture appeared in two parts consisting of two tomes each between 1959 and 1963. The four volumes comprise some 1,826 pages. Marc Sebanc's fine translation makes available in English the first tome of de Lubac's "Premiere partie," covering the first five of the initial part's ten chapters. Happily, Sebanc elected to designate this portion of the work as "volume 1". Whether this handsomely-produced book will be followed by siblings covering the 1460 pages of de Lubac's work remaining in French is not clear from the information on the translation's covers or from Robert Louis Wilken's brief preface.

The translation is eloquent, a real strength in a book built around long series of citations of texts and names of authors that could easily become numbing in a less colorful, pedestrian translation. Sebanc has also rendered a singular service by translating the Latin citations that frequently pepper de Lubac's text. Translation of proper names is often challenging, but only in a few instances do retention of French forms jar (Eucher, Angelome, Claude of Turin, Ambrose Autpert, Aimon of Auxerre, Remi/Remigius of Auxerre; Latran) and outright mistakes are exceedingly rare (p. 42: Navarre for Novara; p. 163: Laon for Lyon; pp. 166 and 325n3: Jonah for Jonas of Orleans). The notes remain as de Lubac left them forty years ago. Updating them would have been a gargantuan task (there are 2776 notes for the five chapters) and one that would have destroyed the personal nature of de Lubac's achievement.

Exegese medievale: Les quatre sens de l'Ecriture originally appeared as the forty-first title in the series, "Theologie: Etudes publiees sous la direction de la Faculte de Theologie S. J. de Lyon-Fourviere." Robert Wilken's observation (p. xii) that de Lubac was not writing history needs to be borne in mind. The translation's new incarnation in the series "Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought" fits perfectly de Lubac's intention to address the concerns of modern Christian exegetes and especially to promote the tradition of spiritual exegesis that he regarded as uniquely Christian and complementary to modern "scientific" exegesis. A comment on the last page of Medieval Exegesis seems to capture the spirit that animated de Lubac's research: "Thus we need both the learned, in order to help us read Scripture historically, and the spiritual men (who ought to be 'men of the Church') in order to help us arrive at a deeper spiritual understanding of it. If the former deliver us from our ignorance, the latter alone have the gift of discernment, which preserves us from interpretations that are dangerous to the faith" (p. 267).

Henri de Lubac, S. J. (1896-1991) thought and wrote as a man of faith who could describe the New Testament's "unique, unsurpassable Newness, utterly special and transfiguring everything it touched" (p. 233) or write of Christ, "In him, Scripture in its entirety had 'once and for all' received its fulfillment" (234). Readers will respond differently to passages such as these and to the author's call to "men of the Church." De Lubac was quite aware that some would think his objectivity and scholarship compromised by his faith: "To a certain extent, the consciousness of a community of faith that exists between myself and those whose thought I am studying is quite well able to keep me from looking at my object from the outside" (p. xxii). This is a frank and courageous admission as well as an honest assessment of the author's stance. De Lubac saw himself as a member of a "community of faith" that embraced hundreds of medieval exegetes from Abelard to Zeno of Verona, but especially Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and, above all, Origen of Alexandria. De Lubac's stance constitutes to my mind a fundamental weakness of the book. Built on a priori assumptions about the Bible and how learning and scholarship are transmitted across cultures and centuries (seamlessly and atemporally it would appear) and devoid of a sense of Christianity as a historical religion, Medieval Exegesis strikes me as terribly dated and largely irrelevant to current scholarship on biblical exegesis.

Largely, but not entirely. De Lubac, a member of the ressourcement movement of the 1930's and 1940's, was a prodigious reader of medieval sources. De Lubac and his colleagues sought in medieval sources what the editor of the Ressourcement series described as "revitalization . . . for the purpose of developing a theology that will truly meet the challenges of our time" (p. ii). Robert Wilken reports that de Lubac began Medieval Exegesis when finishing his study of Origen's spiritual understanding of Scripture, Histoire et Esprit (Paris, 1950). He began to collect citations from other authors and "kept these notes in a sack that he carried from one dwelling place to another in the 1940's . . . filling it with more and more note cards as he read other authors" (p. x). What he did not need for the Origen book furnished the foundations for Medieval Exegesis. The evidence of de Lubac's sack of notes is apparent on every page of his work. The introduction, for example, traces the ubiquity of the doctrine of the fourfold sense of interpretation and especially Augustine of Dacia's oft-repeated distich ("Littera gesta docet. . . .") through 129 citations in fourteen pages, all by way of justifying adoption of the fourfold schema as the framework for his study. De Lubac's collection and juxtaposition of numerous medieval sources make for interesting reading, even if one does not share the premises of the ressourcement theologians.

Chapter One, "Theology, Scripture, and the Fourfold Sense," reaffirms the fundamentally theological nature of biblical exegesis despite a tendency, evident even in the Middle Ages, to treat the study of exegesis as the study of technique and method. De Lubac called on many medieval exegetes to make the point that their craft requires discipline and aims at spiritual understanding so as not to become merely a "rhetorical or improvisational enterprise" (p. 16). The second chapter, "The Opposing Lists," again surveys numerous medieval texts for examples of formulae that support the threefold sense (60 notes in six and one-half pages) and the fourfold sense (115 notes in nine pages) in order to find "authentic doctrine" (p. 90). This threefold/fourfold duality characterizes the entire medieval exegetical tradition. The chief point de Lubac made about these conflicting formulations concerns not their absolute number, but the ordering of the senses: "sometimes morals or tropology precedes allegory, or mystical understanding . . . while at other times, in contrast, morals follows allegory" (p. 94). The most frequently occurring arrangement places the allegorical sense immediately after the historical or literal. This arrangement he dubbed "theological, doctrinal, or classical" because it "expresses authentic doctrine in both its fullness and purity" (p. 115).

Chapter Three, "Patristic Origins," goes in search of the origins of the competing lists. After eliminating Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great, de Lubac located the source of the two lists and the their respective ordering of senses in Origen who "dominates the whole of the later tradition" (p. 142). Here, de Lubac offered two assessments of Origen's contribution to the exegetical tradition. He challenged recent scholars (seventeen are named) who credited Origen on the basis of passages in the Periarchon and the commentary on Leviticus with establishing the threefold sense of interpretation (history, morality, allegory), a position "which impoverishes the exposition of Origen's doctrine and which can also result in falsifying the meaning of Origen's exegesis" (p. 144). De Lubac argued that in practice and especially in his homilies Origen focused on only two senses, the historical and allegorical or mystical. By placing allegory in second place, Origen at the source revealed classical Christian exegesis's primary purpose to connect "to the soul of the believer" (p. 147). De Lubac's second distinction challenged those scholars, especially H. A. Wolfson "in his all-encompassing Philonic zeal" (p. 148), who traced Origen's exegetical principles to Philo Judaeus. While de Lubac could recognize numerous borrowings from Philo, Origen's Christianity made his exegesis distinctive: "Jewish exegesis is really and truly surpassed, since what is at stake now is a new principle which owes nothing to it. . . . It must, however, be admitted that the inheritance or memory of moral reflections which are of a Philonian nature has burdened Christian exegesis with an arbitrary element and has too often kept a specifically Christian understanding from blossoming forth in its fullness. . . . [W]e have nothing solid to extract from it in terms of our knowledge of the Bible or our meditation on the mystery of faith" (p. 150). Zeal, indeed!

Chapter Four, "The Latin Origen," charts the pervasive influence of Origen throughout the Middle Ages. De Lubac pointed out the paradox of both Pseudo-Dionysius and Origen, eastern authors whose greatest impact was in the Latin West. In Origen's case his condemnation by Epiphanius and Justinian raised cautionary flags, but did not impede his use by Latin exegetes or the appearance of his works on medieval library shelves. A long section in this chapter (pp. 211-222) on the story of the "beautiful captive woman" in Deuteronomy 21.10-13 who became suitable as a bride for victorious Israelites once her hair was shorn, her nails pared, and her old clothes discarded seems at first misplaced, one of the author's occasional "parentheses". Origen apparently was the first to use the story as a metaphor to justify Christian appropriation of non-Christian wisdom. De Lubac traced numerous medieval uses of the metaphor to conclude with Rupert of Deutz who borrowed it to justify reading the suspect Origen.

The last chapter in the translation, the fifth of the ten in the first part of de Lubac's work, treats "The Unity of the Two Testaments". Here de Lubac described the "unique, unsurpassable Newness" of the New Testament. The unity of the two testaments he derived from the "action of Christ": "The conversion of the Old Testament to the New or of the letter of Scripture to its spirit can only be explained and justified, in its radicalness, by the all-powerful and unprecedented intervention of Him who is Himself at once the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last" (pp. 235-236).

Medieval Exegesis, despite its subtitle (which in the original served as the subtitle of the work as a whole and not of any particular part), is not really about the four senses of Scripture. De Lubac treated those in the second half of the "Premiere partie," chapters 6-10. It cannot be used as an introduction to medieval biblical exegesis. What volume 1 does provide is an exploration and justification of the spiritual interpretation of the biblical text rooted in a reading of patristic and medieval authors guided by Catholic theology and spirituality. Very much in the tradition of medieval florilegia, its readers will pick and choose from among the abundant harvest Henri de Lubac gathered in his sack.