Medievals Weren’t Literalists

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Paul Gillette, The Catholic University of America

A short look at ancient and medieval opposition to biblical literalism

Biblical literalism is a hot topic in Christianity today. How to interpret Sacred Scripture is no doubt an important question, so this is hardly surprising. The debate has also spilled over (as everything does, apparently) into political spheres. To analyze the messy sectarian network of biblical literalism (‘fundamentalism’ is a related term), which both concentrates in certain circles and cuts across party lines, is far beyond the scope of this brief article. And besides, many biblical literalists are atheists! That said, it is interesting to notice that there seems to be a tacit presumption that non-literal readings of Sacred Scripture are distinctively modern, in opposition to the more literal readings typical of the medieval and ancient Church. This presumption, it must be said, is common to literalists just as much as their opponents. It is generally false. Literalism does have an ancient pedigree, but contrary to common opinion, non-literal readings of Scripture are not only equally ancient but were also more vigorous and more closely associated with sound and orthodox teaching in the Church. As proof, I need only say that one of the principle figures whom I argue is non-literalist was none other that Saint Augustine of Hippo. In this article, I would like to briefly summarize two important authorities who offer refutations to the stereotype that premodern Christianity read the Bible only in a literal and fundamentalist way. These voices, one ancient and one medieval, are Saint Augustine in his On Christian Teaching and Hugh of Saint Victor in his Didascalicon. Furthermore, these works offer excellent accounts of biblical interpretation which are worthy of attention beyond mere opposition to literalism.

Saint Augustine begins his work on interpreting Scripture, On Christian Teaching, with a short preface in which he defends his project against potential critics. He outlines three types of critics; those who don’t understand his rules, those who get nothing out of reading Scripture his way, and those who think they need no rules to understand Scripture. He responds briefly to that if you do not understand or achieve nothing, that is not his fault and you should pray to God for guidance. To those who “boast that they understand and interpret sacred books without rules,” however, he tersely replies that they do use rules (the rules of the alphabet and grammar), and besides, if they are so blessed as to see God’s truth without help, they ought not then cruelly deprive normal people of the aids to understanding. None of these dismissals bear directly on literalism as such, but it does show from the start that Augustine thinks little of those who do not appreciate the complexity that reading the Bible presents. 

Following upon this Augustine lays out two philosophical principles vital to his rules of interpretation; the theory of signs and the primacy of love (caritas). Signs, briefly put, are anything which cause something else to appear in the mind. Words are the prototypical sign, but smoke is a sign in the same manner, insofar as it causes us to think of a fire. Love, in turn, is the central organizing principle; Scripture can be read either according to love for God and neighbor or according to lust, which is any desire not ordered to God. Every valid reading must therefore be checked against the principle of love in order to be verified. I won’t spend much more time giving the many details of On Christian Teaching (those are worth digesting yourself), but some brief examples will illustrate how Augustine’s Scriptural theory is at odds with literalism. Augustine states that, after the reader has a general knowledge of Scripture’s contents, “one should proceed to explore and analyze the obscure passages… There are two reasons why written texts fail to be understood: their meaning may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs. Signs are either literal or metaphorical… they are metaphorical when the actual things which we signify by the particular words are used to signify something else” (Book Two X). Exhausting the examples where Augustine obviously gestures toward the fact that Scripture is frequently metaphorical would be impossible. But this quip will drive the point home; “one must take care not to interpret a figurative expression literally” (Book Three IV). So, there you have it on the authority of a Doctor of the Church.

A second voice which I would like to give as an example is Hugh of St. Victor, a medieval scholar teaching in Paris. Hugh is not very well known, but I think he is helpful in showing that the medieval Church was also not dominated by literalism. Many today might be able to concede that the early Church did not read the Bible literally but are entrenched in the perception that no medieval cleric could think critically concerning Scripture. The stereotype may have some factual basis, but it too is false. Hugh of St. Victor wrote an excellent work on reading called the Didascalicon. It can be applied to any type of reading, but its focus is the Holy Bible. Much like On Christian Teaching, it is a rich work and ought to be read in full. I will pull just a few quotes to show Hugh’s rich understanding of how Scripture is often allegorical and non-literal. 

Hugh’s philosophical framework was much the same as Augustine’s; both were Neoplatonist, and Hugh, of course, was himself greatly influenced by Augustine. Hugh organizes his method of reading Scripture around the three ways; history, allegory, and tropology. History is narrative content, allegory is hidden spiritual meaning, and tropology gives moral models to imitate. Hugh attaches great importance to allegory, seeing it as a way for the mind to ascend to divine reality. In fact, he states quite forwardly that “the man who follows the letter alone … cannot long continue without error” (Didascalicon Book Six ch. 4). He goes on to explain in detail how seeming conflicts in the Bible must be interpreted figuratively in order to understand them and gives much more good advice in understanding Sacred Scripture. 

Both these works deserve reading, and I strongly recommend them. What I hoped to show here was that our common but unfortunate stereotyping of our predecessors in the Church as literalist is simply inaccurate, whether we are criticizing biblical literalism or perpetuating it. People of the past were not stupid. St. Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor help to show us that the Church boasts a long and rich tradition of intelligent Scriptural studies, which we ought to learn from.

One Response

  1. One could illustrate this point also with the simple quote: if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. The early Christian community was not filled with people who took this literally, including, of course, the Apostles.

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