The Medieval Scholastic Doctrine of Scripture, part 1

Chapter one of volume two of Richard Muller’s magnum opus is concerned with the doctrine of Scripture as it developed over the course of the Medieval period.

Muller notes that “The doctrine of Scripture was, after all, not an independent locus (topic of theology, LK) or quaestio (question, in the technically scholastic sense, LK) until the second half of the sixteenth century” (p. 23). This was surprising to me. The reason for this late development is the Reformation itself. Anything said about Scripture before the Reformation was included in the sections on prolegomena. Indeed, the doctrine did not really receive much explicit notice at all until the high scholastic era of the Middle Ages (p. 25). In the course of the Reformation, the debate between the Reformed/Lutheran, on the one hand, and the Romanists, on the other hand, meant that the topic of Scripture came into its own as a separate locus. The other factor Muller notes is that, in order for there to be a separate doctrine of Scripture, there must arise a “distinction between Scripture as source and doctrine as result – and such a distinction itself took centuries to arise” (p. 23).

Muller says that “the formulation of a doctrine of Scripture virtually presupposes the formulation of the other doctrines in the theological system and assumes an exegetical, hermeneutical, and methodological analysis of those doctrines from the perspective of their relationship to and use of the text of Scripture” (p. 23). In other words, all the doctrines of the faith are closely intertwined.

As with many other loci, the Reformed doctrine of Scripture was not in radical continuity or discontinuity with the Medieval traditions (p. 24). Instead, there is continuity and discontinuity in various ways. Medieval theology certainly constitutes a backdrop to the Reformed understanding of Scripture.

The Medieval doctrine of Scripture manifested “a relative fluidity of the canon” (p. 30). Different authors regard different books as inspired, ranging from the Shepherd of Hermas to the Revelation of Peter. Muller notes (as does Whitaker in many places) that the Apocrypha, THE battle ground in terms of the canon issue between Rome and Protestants, was quite commonly rejected by the Medieval theologians (such as Hugh of St. Victor, see references on p. 31 to Patrologia Latina 175, columns 15-17).

The Medieval period did not draw sharp distinctions between exegesis and doctrine, as we tend to do today. Instead, “the language of Scripture and the language of theology flowed into one another. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, one cannot distinguish firmly between biblical and theological language, but only between the fundamental elements of theological language learned from Scripture and the other aspects and elements of theological language learned from the larger tradition and used to interpret Scripture and to formulate doctrine” (p. 33).

The Medievals interpreted Scripture using the quadriga. The quadriga is a four-fold method of interpretation involving the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical methods of interpretation. The literal describes what really happens in the text. The allegorical is how one understands one thing through another. The tropological is moral declaration, and has to do with the ordering of behavior. And the anagogical is the vertical, almost-Platonic leading into “higher things” (p. 35). However, even within the Medieval tradition, there started to be leanings towards a more heavy emphasis on the literal interpretation. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were “largely responsible” (p. 35) for this shift. They understood the literal as being foundational for the other three methods. Aquinas, in particular, argued that the literal sense contains within it every truth necessary for salvation (p. 36, quoting ST Ia, q. 1, art. 1).

The Medievals were considerably more sophisticated in their interpretations that we tend to think they were. For instance, they recognized the importance of genre for correct interpretation (see p. 37). They even stated that Scripture mostly contains the history of salvation (p. 38)! The historia salutis thus has an ancient pedigree, even in doctrinal formulation.

As to the issue of authority of Scripture, “the emerging concept of theology as a science” (p. 42) had a profound relationship to the inspiration of Scripture. This is so because “logically derived conclusions, no matter how expert and precise the logic, cannot be endowed with certainty unless certainty is known to reside in the principles from which they have been drawn” (p. 43). Hence, “If theology is to be a divine scientia, it must rest on revelation” (p. 43, quoting Aquinas, ST Ia, q. 1, art. 1; art. 8, ad. 2).


  1. Tim Prussic said,

    May 26, 2010 at 10:50 am

    You’re not getting much love on this post, Pastor. Thanks for posting it. It looks like it took a good deal of work to bring it all together. I appreciate you doing that work.

    I’ve been working through Muller’s first volume and posting some thought on my blog, too. I’d like to meet Muller and shake that guy vigorously by the hand. That brother deserves a good hand-shakin’.

  2. D. T. King said,

    May 26, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Muller notes (as does Whitaker in many places) that the Apocrypha, THE battle ground in terms of the canon issue between Rome and Protestants, was quite commonly rejected by the Medieval theologians (such as Hugh of St. Victor, see references on p. 31 to Patrologia Latina 175, columns 15-17).

    The texts of some 30 medieval theologians on the canon (including Hugh of St. Victor and John of Salisbury whom Muller also mentioned) have been provided, as far as I know, for the first time with English translations in the extended endnotes of Vol. 2 of Holy Scripture, the Ground and Pillar of Our Faith. Professional linguists from the University of Notre Dame were employed to make these texts available in English. In addition to the Migne’s Patrologia Latina reference Muller provided for Hugh of St. Victor, see also PL 176:185D-186D. Translations for both of these loci in Hugh of St. Victor have been included.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    May 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks, Rev. King. I can’t wait to have your volumes in my library (they should be arriving in a day or two).

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