14.11.05, Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority

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Eyal Poleg

The Medieval Review 14.11.05

Levy, Ian Christopher. Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages. Reading the Scriptures. Notre Dame, IN:Notre Dame University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 320. ISBN: 9780268034146 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Eyal Poleg
Queen Mary University of London

Ian Levy took upon himself a formidable task. He has mined the depths of the intricate theological debates of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century for their discourses of biblical authority. His mastery of the writings of the likes of Netter, Gerson, and above all Wyclif, is evident. He strides confidently where many historians do not walk. This, however, is a highly delicate task. Views of scriptural authority range from theory to practice, and at times fluctuate even within the writings of a single theologian. Moreover, this delicate strand of argument was at times misunderstood by medieval contemporaries, making the modern scholar's work all the more complicated. Levy's analysis exemplifies the centrality of scriptural authority to the theological debates that spread across Europe in the struggle against Wycliffites and Hussites. The use of Scripture was paramount for both heterodox thinkers and their opponents, and looking at this rhetorical device gives the book a unique prism to reveal unexpected similarities, as well as differences, between the camps. Or, in Levy's own words, "What separated Jan Hus from Jean Gerson--the man who went to the stake and the man who sent him there--was almost nothing in comparison to what these two had in common" (xii). It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that the word 'irony' appears time and again in Levy's conclusions.

This was a crucial time in the history of religious thought: the Great Schism that shook the church, the rise of the conciliar movement and the emergence of heresies. These are explored in the book and serve to highlight the value of its methodology. Thus, for example, the centrality of the papacy to Páleč's anti-Hussite writings is shown to be at odds with the rhetoric of the Great Schism; the theological confrontation between Jan Hus and Jean Gerson is presented on the background of the Council of Constance. This was also a time of social unrest and vernacular biblical translations. Social, political and vernacular factors are left mostly unexplored; they add another dimension to it. Wyclif's condemnation at Blackfriars in 1382 is seen differently when the 'Peasant Revolt' of the previous year is brought to mind. Levy notes that "The tragic irony is that virtually everyone involved [in the Hussite controversy]--from Jan Hus to Stephen Páleč and even Jean Gerson--has very similar goals. More than that, however, they shared many of the same exegetical strategies, and ecclesiological assumptions, that would allow them to reach those goals" (150). It was also the political dimension of the movement that posed a clear challenge to the Holy Roman Empire. Politics was as important as theology in its fate. This omission does not prevent Levy from identifying key underlying principles of medieval authoritative use of Scripture, and the basic tensions that stood at its basis: between a universal Church and papal authority; between theologians and canonists; between antiquity and progress.

The first chapter, Facets of Authority in the Late Medieval Church, jumps straight to business. Evoking the A-List of medieval exegesis (from Bonaventure and Aquinas, through Henry of Ghent, Terreni and Ockham, to Lyra and Paul of Burgos) it explores the key parameters of the discussion: the boundaries between scriptural and ecclesiastical authority, the value of antiquity, the possibility of development, and the identity of authoritative mediators. Quickly on, the crucial definition of the literal sense is approached. This aspect of the debate has been, as argued by Levy, misunderstood by medieval theologians as well as by modern scholars. Many medieval theologians employed its conflated definition, which extended the 'letter of the text' to include authorial intentions. By allowing both explicit and implicit arguments, it embedded elements of the three other senses into the literal. This did not stop medieval polemicists from accusing their adversaries of employing a narrow literal sense, thus ignoring church traditions and authority. Both sides of the discussion, however, were part of a unique class within the medieval world. As Masters of the Sacred Page, they were often independent of church hierarchy. Their authority was unclear, and their argumentation was meant, in parts, to consolidate their power in comparison with canonists, bishops, church councils and the papacy. They constituted a small milieu that spoke the same language, and employed the same arguments, no matter on which side of the heretical fence they stood.

The following chapter, "The Indignant Master: John Wyclif," presents a nuanced understanding of Wyclif's exegetical technique. Arguing that Wyclif's opponents, and modern scholars, have reduced his technique to sola scriptura, Levy aims to advocate his traditionalism. Wyclif corroborated other theologians in emphasising the centrality of Scripture, not necessarily in their manuscript form (which he saw as their lowest manifestation), but as an ideal extant in the mind and vouchsafed by Christ in his Church. In regards to the exegetical senses, once more Levy presents the orthodoxy of Wyclif, whose emphasis on the literal sense (in its expansive definition) was hardly unique in the medieval university. It was his opponents, such John Kynyngham and Thomas Winterton, who misunderstood Wyclif's exegetical techniques to present an emphasis on the narrow literal sense foreign to Wyclif. Whether this was the result of mis-reading, or intentional adversary, is an interesting question. Levy's animated defence of Wyclif also extends to situating Wyclif's view of papal authority well within orthodoxy, best seen on the background of the diminishing status of the papacy at the Great Schism. Rather than Wyclif's theology, it was his willingness to extend the debate beyond the classroom that posed a threat to Church hegemony.

Wyclif's major opponents are presented in chapter 3,"The Ambivalent Friar: William Woodford," and chapter 4, "Ad Fontes (?): Thomas Netter," where Levy is clearly locating himself among the critics of these Franciscan and Carmelite theologians. He shows the inconsistency and internal contradictions in Woodford's work, torn between opposition to Wyclif, attempts to match him on his on grounds (biblical authority), and a need to vindicate the Friars. As shown by Levy, Woodford's desire to ground the Friars in biblical authority brings him in close proximity to Wyclif's own work in his reliance on biblical authority and in arguments regarding the reliability of the biblical text, closer perhaps than he would have been comfortable with otherwise. Importantly, Woodford is seen to be fighting an 'imagined Wyclif', whose extreme reliance on Scripture is not fully grounded in the latter's writings. Netter is presented in a more favourable light, although still inconsistent in his work. He emphasised the centrality of antiquity, with the Church a hub of stability extending from the time of Christ. New articles of faith were not created by the Church, but simply reiterated; the mendicant orders were prefigured in the Old Testament; and the novelty of transubstantiation (attacked by Wyclif) is actually a new terminology for an ancient concept. On this background Wyclif is presented as an innovator. Netter nevertheless allows a limited extent of progress, primarily to counter the Wycliffites. Other facets of his writings are similar to those of Wyclif, as in the possibility of error within the church or by church councils, or the piety required of the theologian (unlike a priest, whose identity is more determined by his office).

Moving to the Continent, but very much still within the debate, the following chapter 5, "A Falling Out: Hussites and Their Czech Opponents," shows similarities between Hus and Wyclif, arguing for their use of an expansive literal sense (ignored, in both cases, by their medieval opponents). Hus's reliance on, and independence of, Wyclif is presented, and his orthodoxy is manifested in the central role accorded to canon law, and the similarity between his rejection of an absolutists pope and the theology of the Council of Constance. Páleč's attack on Hus portrays a simplistic understanding, which was concerned with public impact, and led him to accuse Hus of a superficial reading of Scripture. Levy is highly sympathetic to Hus at the time of his trial at the Council of Constance, which serves as a testimony to the implications of theological debates. These were not mere theoretical trifles, but had real implications for the life (and death) of opponents and supporters. Following de Vooght, Levy demonstrates the theological similarities between the Hussites and the Council of Constance, similarities that unnerved the conciliarists. A careful analysis of anti-Hussite writings shows an inevitable clash of authority. The Utraquists' emphasis on administering both wine and bread to the laity at Mass was well grounded in the ancient church. Their orthodox opponents were forced into a corner. Andrew of Brod ended up questioning the supremacy of the ancient church; Maurice of Prague argued that if the Utraquists were right, then generations of orthodox lay men and women were condemned, leading to the impossible condemnation of the entire church. In downplaying antiquity, anti-Utraquists ended up inverting orthodox-heterodox dynamics.

Chapter 6, "Approaching Final Authority: Gerson and the Conciliarists," portrays how key conciliarists were simultaneously reformers and anti-Wycliffites. The proximity between their theology and that of Wyclif and Hus did not prevent animosity. Both Pierre d'Ailly and his protégé Jean Gerson rejected papal infallibility and highlighted the central role of theologians (as opposed to canon lawyers). The limits of papal power were manifested at the Council of Constance in the deposition of John XXIII for his moral misbehaviour. Gerson sought to reform the university curriculum to accord with seeing biblical exegesis as a spiritual discipline, and the similarities between his methodology and Wyclif's leads Levy to conclude that "perhaps it is ironic, therefore, that in his struggle against Wycliffites and Hussites, Gerson stressed the authority of Holy Scripture in ways that would have made Wyclif proud" (212). However, Gerson still vehemently rejected Wyclif and Hus. Unable to win the battle for antiquity or glosses, he accused Wyclif and Hus of mudding the clarity of Scripture and taking refuge in the glosses. His problem was aggravated by the fact that his opponents actually accepted traditional exegesis and theological discourse. It was ultimately in the general councils that Gerson's final authority would be found--a solution that proved to be short-lived.

The problem that hovers over much of the discussion presented in the book is of an 'Exegetical Stalemate'. How could one win a theological controversy in which both sides claim scriptural authority? In many ways, the final authority presented in these debates was political rather than theological. The last chapter, "The Enduring Dilemma," presents a case study from mid fifteenth-century England, in which a new solution was sought. Reginald Pecock had recognised the limits of the debate and come up with an innovative solution: grounding authority in reason. In trying to break the stalemate, however, he also transgressed the boundaries of traditional discourse. This led to a strong reaction. The authority of Scripture was re-asserted, and Pecock was accused of heresy (to later recant). In the heated argument, John Bury deemed Pecock to be worse than Wyclif, as even the arch-heretic did not question the authority of Scripture, as did Pecock. The book ends with a fascinating brief suggestion, which compares the Council of Constance to that of Trent, in both the magnitude of the threat and the comprehensibility of the response.

This is a book for researchers and advanced students. The lack of dates of key figures, or of clear English-Latin texts would render it challenging for many students: some Latin texts brought in the notes are not translated, but rather paraphrased in, or even omitted from, the text (e.g. p. 31, notes 117 and 118; p. 79, n. 91), while some of the English quotations are not supported by the Latin (p.129, n. 57). The main difficulty in reading the book, however, is a lack of clear structure. There is no methodological introduction (apart from a very short preface, pp. xi-xiv) or conclusion, with the first and last chapters carrying the debate before and after our period. The lack of such features would not have inhibited most books. However, Levy's complex analysis, which looks at the meta-narrative of intricate theological discussions, follows many winding paths. It analyses debates not only for content, but for rhetoric, and contrasts the two. This is a delicate and challenging work. And the lack of signposting, either in the form of a methodological introduction and conclusion, or in the form of uniform subtitles for individual chapters, renders each chapter quite different, and inhibits the creation of an overarching argument. The extremely complex nature of biblical authority in the later Middle Ages is amply reflected in this book.

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Eyal Poleg

Queen Mary University of London