Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 9. Middle Ages (I)

by | May 6, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Introduction: Gerald Bray opens his discussion of Medieval interpretation as follows:

The medieval period of biblical interpretation is one of the most complex and difficult of all, and it has not received the attention it deserves from theologians or biblical scholars. Most of the work in this field has been done by medievalists, who cannot escape the all-pervasive role which the Bible played during those centuries. But medievalists have their own agenda, and it is not always possible for a theologian to gain ready access to their work. There is also the fact that centuries of training have made Protestant scholars particularly wary of the medieval period, which they have been inclined to think of as an age of darkness. As most modern biblical scholars have been Protestants, this prejudice has contributed to the relative neglect of medieval exegesis.[1]

Not only do Bray’s statements seem to reflect reality, they are peculiarly true of me. I have been trained to think of the Middle Ages as the dark era of Christian interpretation and, thus, unhelpful and unnecessary for anything good. Certainly the rise of Islam during the eighth century had its ill effects upon Western culture at large and Christian interpretive methods in particular. The old Mediterranean culture broke up and neither Greek nor Latin were universal languages. During the Middle Ages Western Christians maintained Latin while those in the East did not. Some time in the ninth century Charlemagne (Holy Roman Emperor, crowned as such by Pope Leo III) “sponsored a revival of learning, which officially recognized that the ancient world had disappeared. Latin now had to be learned as a foreign tongue, even in Italy…”[2] This and other factors, such as illiteracy and a distinctly monolithic, “Christian” culture made the common Christian entirely dependant upon professional scholars who taught the clergy and, especially, the papacy (“Church”) as the final word on interpreting the Bible.

The Middle Ages should not be viewed as a single-minded, monolithic era culturally, philosophically, or theologically. There were phases of development occurring at different places and at different times.[3] Due to this reality, various men contributed various things at different times which ended up creating the Late Middle Ages, which is what most view as the Middle Ages come to maturity and against which the Renaissance and Reformation protested.

[1] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 129.

[2] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 129.

[3] Cf. Bray’s four phases of periodization in Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 131-33.

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1 Comment

  1. Cam Prather

    Thank you Dr. Barcellos! I’m looking forward to this series!



  1. A Historical Overview of Hermeneutics (From Richard Barcellos at MCTS Blog) | 1689reformedbaptist - [...] [...]

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