Frans van Liere on Ian Christopher Levy’s Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages
Biblical hermeneutics is the key to understanding the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Or so traditional Protestant historiography would have us believe. Yet there is surprisingly little research on biblical exegesis in the fifteenth, and as a result the view of John Wyclif as the “morning star of the Reformation” has enjoyed a long life. In recent years John Frymire’s The Primacy of the Postils and Christopher Ocker’s Biblical Poetics before Humanism and Reformation have fundamentally changed the notion that the Reformation marked a radical departure in attitudes towards scripture. Now Ian Christopher Levy joins the debate and points out that the Reformation was characterized more by questions of authority than scriptural hermeneutics.
Wyclif’s scriptural theology was a less radical departure from its own time than Protestant historiography has made it out to be. The portrait of Wyclif and Hus as strict biblical literalists was very much a creation of their adversaries, who, however, encountered great difficulties defining authority in a satisfactory and consistent way of their own. The debate that Levy describes here did not lead to satisfying conclusions in their own time, and in a way they are still a point of division among the various confessions within Christendom.
No late medieval theologian would deny that the literal sense of scripture was the basis for authoritative statements on Christian doctrine and practice. Most would have agreed that the literal sense took a primacy over the other senses (allegorical, anagogical, and moral), an idea espoused by Thomas Aquinas and emphasized by Nicholas of Lyra. But while the literal sense of scripture was clear on many irrelevant matters (that Tobias owned a dog, for instance), it was opaque on more important theological matters (such as the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist, or the exact relation of the three persons of the Trinity). Taken to an extreme, the literal sense might even appear contrary to common-sense logic, as when Jesus said “I am the door.”
Wyclif developed his own scriptural hermeneutics against the fourteenth-century Oxford Ockhamists, who argued for the primacy of logic over scripture. The latter maintained that scripture could be false in its literal sense “ex virtute sermonis.” Wyclif argued that an apparent error in scripture is rather the fault of the interpreter, not that of the text. The interpreter should know the special internal logic of scripture to figure out these apparent contradictions and falsities. Even more, in faith he should seek to adapt his own speech to that of sacred scripture and conform himself to scripture, rather than try to make it conform to the rules of logic.
Like Wyclif, most medieval theologians defined the literal sense as the one intended by its author, the Holy Spirit. But just as both sides in the debate agreed on the primacy of scripture’s literal sense, they also accused each other of distorting that literal sense. Unlike Wyclif, who maintained that any biblical text could be explained by reference to another biblical text, his critics emphasized that some extra-scriptural authority was needed to establish the “true sense” of scripture. William Woodford and Thomas Netter, for instance (each receives a chapter in Levy’s book), emphasized the role of the church—whether it be the highest office, the pope, or the ecclesiastical tradition more broadly—to determine the exact meaning of those things that were taught only implicitly by scripture. However, what happened when the church and tradition erred? And who was the ultimate authority in church matters: the pope, a general council, masters in theology, or canon lawyers? Issues like these remained essentially unresolved in the fifteenth-century debates.
They came to a head, however, with the condemnation of Wyclif’s follower, Jan Hus, at the Council of Constance in 1415. Hus was sent to the stake without having been given the opportunity to defend, or even elucidate, his positions. Levy dedicates a substantial portion of his book to discuss Hus’s conception of scripture and theology compared to that of his opponents, the conciliarists Pierre d’Ailly, Dietrich of Niem, and especially Jean Gerson. Hus, like Wyclif, had a Christological understanding of biblical truth. For him, scripture was not a text but an emanation of the living Christ.
Ironically, Hus’s conception of scripture was very close to that of his main opponent at the council, Jean Gerson, who was ultimately responsible for sending Hus to his death. Gerson was an anti-papalist like Hus, but the latter was ultimately condemned as the “ideal heretic.” His execution was intended to deter more radical heretics such as the Taborists, whose political clout threatened the establishment in Bohemia. But in many respects, Hus was more traditionalist than the proponents of orthodox theology, and Gerson’s appeal to the authority of the council was a practical solution to an insoluble dilemma.
The theological idea of conciliarism, condemned in 1460 by the papal bull Execrabilis, was, however, short-lived. A number of issues other than scriptural hermeneutics determined the discussion on authority in the fifteenth century. One of them was the tension between presbyterium and magisterium in questions of Church doctrine. Were the answers to such questions to be determined by those vested in the apostolic succession, or by the insight of theologians? Rivalry between canon lawyers and theologians, and between secular masters and mendicants also played important roles. Wyclif, Hus, and Gerson were as united in their aversion to the mendicant orders as they were in their scriptural hermeneutics.
But the most divisive issue was ecclesiology. Was the Church the community of all the predestined, or the mixed body of all those baptized who would be separated at the Last Judgment according to their merit? Wyclif argued that there were many people “in” the church who were not ultimately “of” the church; by contrast, Gerson firmly believed in the redemptive sacramental power of the priesthood. It is perhaps over this subject, rather than over scriptural hermeneutics, that the real battle was fought.
It might be tempting to view Wyclif in a teleological light as a precursor to the theologies of Luther and John Calvin. Levy consistently avoids such a teleological interpretation in this study, and rightly so. He sets Wyclif against the discussion of his own time and finds that his opponents have consistently painted him in a more radical light than he defined himself. Still, at the end of this book one might be left with the impression that both Wyclif and Hus were condemned for no good reason at all, except for the malice of their adversaries.
Perhaps I am too much of a Calvinist to go along completely with this revisionism. Their contemporaries were on to something when they saw in the theologies of Wyclif and Hus a radical departure from the boundaries of medieval catholic traditions, and this is perhaps a point that Levy underemphasizes in the present study. The point of departure was not in Wyclif’s and Hus’s scriptural hermeneutics, which did not differ too much from that of their adversaries, but in their ecclesiology, and especially in their view of predestination and their theology of grace. But this does not detract from the value of Levy’s analysis; this seminal study of late medieval theology deserves its place alongside Heiko Oberman’s Harvest of Medieval Theology or Steven Ozment’s Age of Reform.