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Reading medieval biblical commentary for the first time can feel, to some, like entering Jurassic Park and encountering approaches to biblical interpretation they thought long since extinct. They may look around in awe and wonder: Can you do that to the Bible? That text means what? That’s not what my Bible says.
Yet just as monster movies and creature flicks reveal more about ourselves, our fears, and desires than they tell us about an actual long-lost past or distant future, so reading medieval biblical interpretation can illuminate our taken-for-granted scriptural practices and suggest new perspectives on the Bible and God.
The new Eerdmans volume The Letter to the Romans contains, among other texts, my translation of selections from St.Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century commentary on Romans. Most striking about his commentaries is the structure he discerns in (or some might say imposes on) the Bible. He begins by assuming that God has a very clear plan, which he then sets out to uncover. He communicates this structure by developing outlines for the entire Bible, mapping its individual books and chapters. For example, the outline he presents in his discussion of Psalm 35 (Psalm 36 in modern Bibles) has over twenty headings and subheadings. He also develops fanciful etymologies, cites the philosopher Aristotle, and organizes parts of his commentary along the lines of medieval theological disputations.
In addition, books in Aquinas’s time were manuscripts — copied by hand, difficult to read, and containing obscure abbreviations. As a result, mistakes crept in and texts varied widely. And although his Bible already contained chapter divisions, individually numbered verses would appear in Bibles only later on.
In contrast, what a gift printing has been to the student of Scripture! It allows for wide distribution. It also standardizes the text, so that it — along with introductory remarks, chapters, verses, footnotes, and cross-references — is the same in my Bible at Church, at home, and even on my phone’s Bible app.
Yet, I am led to wonder: while much is gained by technology and scholarship, what is lost? Where are we fanciful in our Bible reading? What do we impose on the Bible?
In answer, I am reminded that although standardization enables wide distribution, this word also suggests routinization. Printing presses and word processors produce tidy and repeatable text that, at the same time, suggests domestication. The former is boring — who likes routine? — and the latter implies control.
The experience of Aquinas and the pre-modern Church was different. For them, the biblical script could be unreadable, the meaning of its words sometimes inscrutable, and its text—not yet divided into verses—often unsearchable. The medieval Bible’s format prevented easy reading, but it did not prevent reading altogether. Instead it sparked comprehensive and creative efforts at discovering this mysterious text’s message about God, creation, and God’s desires for creation.
Aquinas himself responded to these challenges with hefty biblical commentaries. Much like Scripture scholars today, he used the increasing number of scholarly tools available to him to understand the language and history of Scripture’s human authors. Yet he also took for granted that all Scripture is inspired by God, and so he made sense of one part of the Bible in terms of another and lavished his commentaries with scriptural quotations and cross references.
As is clear from Aquinas’s great theological works, such as his Summa theologiae, which are written in dryer, more technical language, God is not domesticated, and our life with God is anything but routine. Interpreting Scripture gives him an opportunity to draw this out in more spiritual language. For example, commenting on a passage near the end of Psalm 35 (36:9 in most modern Bibles), Aquinas reminds us that we are destined to live a life beyond all imagining, a life with God that only the language of excess, intoxication, and fertility can describe.
His version of this passage reads, “They will be inebriated with the abundance of your house, and you will give them to drink of the torrent of your delights.” This translation fails to do justice to the Latin Bible. The word translated as “abundance” can also mean fruitfulness or fertility; “drink” can mean imbibe; delights can have sexual connotations. For assistance in interpreting this passage, Aquinas calls on fifteen other biblical quotations and discovers Trinitarian implications. On the first part of this passage, Aquinas remarks, “those who are drunk are not in full control of themselves but beyond themselves. Similar are those filled with spiritual graces; their entire intention is borne towards God.”
I would offer a word of advice to those attracted to such medieval material, though — don’t try this at home! Slavish imitation of the medieval approaches used by Aquinas and others may not be fruitful (or particularly welcome) in our day and age, but allowing ourselves to be informed by medieval perspectives can be rewarding. These odd texts can remind us of what we may have forgotten or taken for granted — that God’s call is anything but routine; that God’s Word cannot be domesticated but is powerful, alive, and inspiring; and that our destiny is life and union with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, a foretaste of which we can already savor.
Click to order The Letter to the Romans, translated and edited by Ian Christopher Levy, Philip D. W. Krey, and Thomas F. Ryan.
Click to learn more about the Bible in Medieval Tradition commentary series.