Ian Christopher Levy teaches theology at Providence College and is the author of The Letter to the Galatians. He is also editor of A Companion to John Wyclif. Here Levy tells of the treasures that await us in commentaries from the Middle Ages.
Holy Scripture was at the very foundation of worship and theology throughout the Middle Ages, whether in the monasteries, the cathedral schools, or the universities. While the Psalms lay at the heart of monastic prayer life, the Pauline Epistles became increasingly important for the development of theology as a discipline, rich as they are in the mysteries of the Christian faith: soteriology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments.
The church possesses a great heritage of commentary upon the letters of St. Paul beginning in the Patristic era and stretching right through to the Reformation. For my volume on Galatians I have translated whole commentaries (and significant portions of others) from the Middle Ages in an effort to help bring to light this aspect of the church’s tradition. It is not simply a matter, however, of presenting interesting historical artifacts to modern readers. These medieval commentaries exhibit qualities that most modern commentaries lack: a spiritual depth that reflects their very purpose, namely, to read Holy Scripture within the sacred tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — the very author of Scripture.
Modern commentaries have much to teach us, to be sure, and we have learned much from modern critical methods. Yet they are often written at a level of detachment from the received faith of the church. For instance, few modern commentators would draw Trinitarian conclusions from the opening greetings of Paul’s letters. Yet a medieval commentator has the whole Creed in his heart as he writes and thus finds the Trinity of Divine Persons throughout the Pauline text wherever these persons are mentioned.
Is he naïve for doing so; is this blatantly unsophisticated? No it is not: it is indicative of an entirely different approach to the text — an approach that begins with the assumption that one is entering into a realm of divine mystery where levels of sacred meaning may be plumbed by the prayerful reader who comes to the text in faith and humility. Perhaps, then, we do have something to learn from our forebears yet.