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[NB: This paper is a ROUGH DRAFT for discussion purposes only]

Changing Strategies for Reading the Two Books in Dialogue (1200-1700)

Jitse M. Van der Meer* and Richard Oosterhoff

Redeemer University College
Ancaster, Ontario, Canada

September 8, 2006

* Corresponding author

Harrison’s Hypothesis

An endeavour as complex as natural science could not have emerged unless many conditions were fulfilled. Peter Harrison has added a new one: the need for unambiguous language. Starting roughly in the 12th century, an aversion to the many meanings of passages in the book of scripture emerged, peaked in the Protestant Reformation and became culturally pervasive by the 17th century. It evoked an analogous aversion to multiple meanings of the book of nature. The rejection of allegory gradually removed ambiguous readings of nature and this was a major condition for the development of science.

The allegorical interpretation Harrison is referring to is not literary allegory such as a metaphor. Rather it is a reading of visible, material things in the world as symbols of invisible, spiritual realities. Thus while a word may refer unequivocally to a single material thing, the latter may refer to many other spiritual things because all material things are linked by means of similarities to spiritual things.1 EXAMPLE “Multiple meanings emerge from allegorical readings of texts because the things to which the words literally refer have themselves further multiple references. [ ] The multiplicity of meanings which arises out of allegorical readings is thus a function of the reader’s view of the nature of objects.”2 The belief that material things have spiritual meanings is what Harrison refers to as the symbolic world view.
In literal interpretation, on the other hand, things do not refer. Only words refer.3 According to Harrison “[ ] when the reformers championed the literal sense their concern was to deny the indeterminacy of meaning of canonical texts, and thus to insist that each passage of scripture had but a single, fixed meaning. Protestant exegetes were to use a variety of terms to express this approach – literal sense, grammatical sense, historical sense, plain sense. It was always possible that such an approach would lead to a situation where the single sense of some biblical passage was not, strictly, its literal sense, as for example in the parables of Jesus, or the prophecies of Revelation. Protestant ‘literalism’ thus needs to be broadly conceived as an assertion of the determinacy of meaning of biblical texts, a meaning which usually, though not invariably, lay with the literal sense.” In medieval exegesis the literal meaning was the structural basis for other meanings while the latter were more important spiritually than the former. Protestant exegetes rejected meanings other than the literal meaning because they were concerned with denying indeterminacy of meaning.4
Given that Harrison defines allegory as a symbolic relationship between material and spiritual things, a rejection of allegory by the Protestant reformers entails rejection of the spiritual meaning of material things. Material things are denied the capacity to act as signs of spiritual realities. This separated words and things, limiting the allocation of meanings to words. “To insist [ ] that texts be read literally was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things. A literal reading of scripture was one in which the previously open-ended process of deriving a series of references from a single word was terminated once a word had performed its basic task of referring to a thing.”5 This approach was applied by analogy to interpretation of things by natural philosophers.6 The assertion of the primacy of literal reading [ ] entailed a new, non-symbolic conception of the nature of things. No longer were objects in the natural world linked to each other by sets of resemblances. As an inevitable consequence of this way of reading texts nature would lose its meaning, and the vacuum created by this loss of intelligibility was gradually to be occupied by alternative accounts of the significance of natural things – those explanations which we regard as scientific. In the new scheme of things, objects were related mathematically, mechanically, causally, or ordered and classified according to categories other than those of resemblance.”7
This hypothesis has several implications that can be tested. We question this proposal because the Protestant reformation produced many disagreements over text interpretation and doctrine, and encouraged the symbolic view of nature that Harrison claims produced ambiguity.

2. Migration of Meaning and Differentiation of the Literal Sense
In the twelfth century, Harrison observes, a renewed emphasis on ‘literal meaning’ emerges. There is an increasing emphasis on the literal-natural as well as the literal-historical sense of scripture. For instance, Thierry of Chartres and Rupert of Deutz interpret the Genesis account of creation in literal-natural terms. That is, “the waters above the firmament” do not symbolize the presence of angels, but refer to real water, paradise is a real geographical place and the tree of life is a real tree. A similar attitude is found in Hugh of Amiens, Gilbert de la Porree, William of Conches (c.1080 – c.1154) and Bernard Sylvester. However, for these individuals the literal sense of scripture is important as the foundation of the other three senses which are more important in a spiritual way.8 Only Thierry of Chartres wants to eliminate the non-literal interpretation of Genesis.9
According to Harrison, the Protestants restricted themselves to this quadrigal literal meaning of scripture while rejecting the spiritual meanings of the quadriga including the allegorical sense. In contrast, Roman Catholics are said to have continued with all four levels of interpretation of the quadriga with the literal meaning serving as a foundation for the construction of the three spiritual meanings. The aforementioned ‘literalists’ among the Scholastics insisted that allegorical and literal interpretation had equal claim to legitimacy.10 He then attributes the influence of scripture interpretation on the development of natural history to the literal sense retained by the Protestant reformers. We take this to refer to the quadrigal literal sense in which words signify things (including literary allegory) because he claims that the Protestant reformers rejected the allegorical sense in which material objects signify spiritual realities. To assess Harrison’s claim the next section reviews new research describing how between the 13 and 16thth centuries the quadrigal literal sense gradually acquired the allegorical sense, and how at the same time the allegorical sense differentiated into that of literary allegory and allegory as a way of reading material things with spiritual meaning.


When Harrison claims that allegory was rejected in theology, he means allegory as a way of reading symbolic relations between things in the world. The question is whether the factual allegory was also subsumed under the literal sense. If so, the next question is whether the literal sense retained the ambiguity that would make it unsuitable as a model for the unambiguous interpretation of nature.


During the so-called second hermeneutical revolution in the thirteenth century the meaning of the quadrigal literal interpretation begins to include any of the three spiritual meanings of the quadriga.

None of this is detectable yet in Aquinas (c.1225-1274) who adopted Augustine’s theory of meaning.11

Augustine (c.) distinguished between words which originate with humans and things or events which are created and given meaning by God.12 Literal meaning applies when words signify things. Allegorical meaning arises when things, events or persons refer to other things, events or persons. Scripture can be ambiguous because the things and events to which words refer can have many spiritual meanings. The spiritual sense of a text includes the allegorical sense as well as the moral and anagogical sense. Together the literal and the three spiritual senses are known as the Quadriga. To this Aquinas added that the literal sense includes figures of speech, what we would call literary allegory and metaphor.13 This view is adopted by Lyra, Ockham (ca. 1285-1347), Fitzralph, Calvin and Melanchthon. In Aquinas, Lyra and Ockham this was related to a developing emphasis on authorial intent which implied a focus on figures of divine speech understood as accommodation to limited human understanding.14
Nicholas of Lyra’s (c. 1270-1349) broadened the idea of literal meaning on the ground that the meaning of the entire scripture was Christ. This moved him to interpret Old Testament individuals either as a symbol of Christ (typology) or as a symbol of God (allegory).15 Such texts had a double literal meaning – the literal-historical sense referring to a concrete human being and the literal-allegorical sense referring to a spiritual being. His interpretation of the Valiant Woman in Proverbs 31 is an example of this. From Origen to the Protestant reformation the literal woman has been spiritualized as the Church or as Scripture. Lyra does likewise, but he subsumes the allegorical sense of the Valiant Woman under the literal sense.16 The difference is that the Valiant Woman actually existed in the literal-historical interpretation, but not in the literal-allegorical one.
A migration of the three spiritual meanings spanning the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries has been revealed in a comparison of interpretations of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. For instance, Hugh of St. Cher (1200-1263), Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270-1349), Denis the Carthusian (1402/3-1471) and Martin Luther (1483-1547) agree that the ladder refers to Christ. Hugh sees this as its allegorical meaning while Nicholas and Denis subsume this under the literal meaning of the text. Luther, being more medieval than his medieval colleagues, gives the ladder a literal meaning as well as a tropological and an allegorical one.17 A comparison of the interpretation of Jacob’s struggle with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok reveals a similar migration. Denis and Luther agree that the angel who fights Jacob is God. For Denis this is the spiritual sense of the text, but Luther subsumes it under the literal-historical meaning. Luther and Calvin (1509-1564) agree that Jacob is an example for all faithful and tested believers. For Luther this is an allegory, but for Calvin an application of a literal-historical reality.18 Since the ladder symbolizes Christ and the angel symbolizes God these cases fall under Harrison’s category of allegory.
It may come as a surprise that Calvin has adopted allegory under the literal sense because of his outbursts against allegory. However, in the case of Genesis 1-3, Calvin believes that the actual Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was a symbol of Christ:

The tree is therefore more than a mere tree, a living organism with leaves, branches and bark, and yet also more than simply a cipher for something else. Instead it is a symbol which participates “ad litteram” in the reality of the thing signified, namely, the life of Christ the Eternal Word.19

Calvin terms such exegesis as “typological”, avoiding associating such Christological exegesis with such a ‘negative’ term as allegory. Greene-McCreight, however, suggests that such a categorization is more founded in polemic concern than in any real difference in how Calvin views the mechanics of typology or allegory; for Calvin, a bad reading was allegorizing, while a good reading was typology or ‘literal anagogy’.20 Whether one calls this allegory or typology, it involves a symbolism of things – the earthly tree is a symbol or type of the heavenly Christ.
The previous examples are a limited sample of texts that could be compared. Other texts may reveal other trends and we must be careful with generalizations. The history of the interpretation of the Valiant Woman (Proverbs 31: 10-31) is a case in point. While there was a general distancing from allegorical interpretation during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the allegorical meaning of the valiant Woman persisted, but it is not even mentioned by Protestant reformers who practice a literal interpretation that does not include an allegorical one.
In conclusion, between the 12 and the 16thth century the literal sense in scripture interpretation came to include the allegorical sense. The ambiguity associated with it was reduced because allegory was restricted to symbolisms occurring in scripture and thus legitimized by authorial intent. Things, events or persons on earth could be types either of eternal spiritual realities (allegory) or of temporal future realities (typology). By the late Middle Ages much of what had been regarded as allegorical or tropological had been subsumed under a new reformed literal sense.”21 The Protestant reformers completed this development because they subsumed all four meanings of the medieval quadriga under a reformed literal meaning that cannot be equated with the literal meaning of the quadriga.22 It is not entirely clear how this impacts on Harrison’s hypothesis because he appears to be making two slightly different claims. In the majority of cases the reformers are said to pursue literal interpretation and reject allegorical interpretation.23 The problem is that the Protestant reformers could not possibly have rejected allegorical interpretation without further qualification because this would have been theological suicide. It would entail the rejection of all anthropomorphic descriptions of God without which Christian theology could not exist. The newer literature indicates that Harrison’s picture needs to be corrected. The reformers were also among the allegorizers, but in a way that has to be carefully qualified.
Twice, however, he claims that the Protestant reformers were pursuing determinacy of meaning primarily though not exclusively by means of literal interpretation.24 This claim would accommodate the inclusion of allegory in a literal sense provided it has determinate meaning that can be established unambiguously from the context, and the allegory is intended by the divine author. And as I have just shown, the allegory adopted by the reformers as part of the literal sense had its ambiguity reduced by the intent of the divine author as determined from the scriptural context. Under this interpretation of Harrison’s claim the inclusion of allegory in the literal sense may or may not affect the ability of the interpretation of scripture to serve as a model for the interpretation of nature. This depends on the extent to which the multiple meanings underwritten by multiple symbolic relations could be disciplined by authorial intent.
3. Return to Authorial Intent
Since Augustine, interpreters of scripture have tried to limit a plurality of interpretations and curb unrestricted speculation. One strategy has been to restrict multiple meanings to those believed to be authorized by the divine author. Harrison mentions the role of authorial intent, but does not develop it.25 Here we ask whether the removal of ambiguity from scripture interpretation which Harrison supposes inspired unambiguous interpretation of nature might not have been achieved by a return to authorial intent rather than by a return to literal interpretation and a rejection of allegorical interpretation?
Aquinas tried to limit interpretive options by reference to the intentions of the divine author. To this end he distinguished the human from the divine author. “The human author may possess as much meaning as God wishes him to, but it is possible that he may mean one thing and the Holy Spirit another. From the point of view of the human lector, there are two senses in scripture, the literal (written by the human author) and the allegorical (written by God).” This explains why Aquinas restricts allegorization of the text of Scripture to instances in which the divine author can be shown to have allegory in mind both verbal and factual. “From the point of view of God, everything is literally clear. Allegory is part of the human condition.”26 Given that Aquinas considers God as the author of words as well as of things, and that allegory arises when things are used significatively, then, Minnis concludes, Aquinas holds implicitly that the divine and human sense are both literal senses. This idea of a double literal sense is made explicit by Lyra. He distinguishes between a historical-grammatical sense which is grounded in the intent of the human author and the verbal allegorical sense which he understands as the literal meaning intended by the divine author. Lyra’s distinction is adopted by Fitzralph who explicitly justifies the double nature of the literal sense in terms of authorial intent. The logical conclusion of the move from reader-determined meaning of the text to author-determined meaning is found in Ockham and Wyclif who received it from FitzRalph.27 According to Copeland, unlike human words, the literal sense of Scripture is underwritten by the divine wisdom; the author of the written intention is not human, but God. Thus any misunderstanding of the words of Scripture are not due to an ambiguity inherent to tropes of Scripture, but rather the fault of the selfish reader who seeks to twist Scripture to his own purposes, and (human) rhetoric is incommensurately separate from the literal meaning of the divine Author of Scripture.28
From here it is only a small step to the Protestant Reformers. One of Calvin’s theological rules of interpretation was that interpretation depends on the Spirit. For the interpreter this meant humility, a rejection of trust in the interpreter’s own abilities, and a constant opposition to speculation.29 In the first edition (1521) of his Loci communes (1521) Melanchthon writes that Petrus Lombardus had been more interested in collecting human opinions than in presenting the teaching of scripture. He actually excludes the nature of God, the trinity and the incarnation from his discussion because it only leads to speculation. But the need to contradict heretics made it necessary to reintroduce these topics.30 He spoke for all Protestant reformers when he “indicated that the intent of spiritual application had degenerated into practices far removed from the sources and that tightening the rules of interpretation was essential to recovering contact with the native power of God’s Word.”31 Thus excessive use of allegory was rejected because it relies on the interpreter’s imagination and does not stick with Scripture. On this view, the literal turn is a secondary issue. The primary motivation for the rejection of speculation and the practice of self-discipline in the interpretation of nature was the example of these attitudes in the interpretation of scripture. If the problem is seen in the speculative nature of the human imagination rather than the ambiguity of the text, then the cure that focuses on authorial intent rather than meaning of text is appropriate. This is the cure that had been pursued ever since Augustine with varying success. Augustine held that if God’s intention was not clear from the text we can resort to a plurality of meanings limited by the rule of charity.32 Luther introduced authorial intent explicitly to limit the many meanings that were authorized by Augustine’s theory of interpretation, but not curbed by his rule of charity:

The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer and speaker in heaven and on earth. This why his words can have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the written one, or the literal meaning of the tongue. But words and language cease to have meaning when the things which have a simple meaning through interpretation by a simple word are given further meanings and thus become different things so that one thing takes on the meaning of another. This is true for all other things not mentioned in Scripture because all God’s creatures and works are sheer living signs and words of God, as Augustine and all the teachers say. But one should not therefore say that Scripture or God’s word has more than one meaning.33

Melanchthon was sceptical about allegory, not because of its ambiguity, but because it could be used to escape important, but unpleasant truths such as that of total depravity revealed by the literal interpretation of the text in the book of Genesis.34 Total depravity was the flip side of the central theological theme in the Protestant Reformation, that of the free grace of God. He blocked escape by making truth the goal of his hermeneutics. The means to reach this truth of a text was his rhetoric which must be understood in the context of his view of language. Disciplined language is made possible by the fusion of grammar, dialectic, and (Aristotelian) rhetoric. Dialectic “did not mean simply the logic of propositions, but the semantic ordering of thought in the pursuit of knowledge.” In his linguistic philosophy Melanchthon fused dialectic and rhetoric. For “Melanchthon, [the] ‘literal sense’ comprised several sub-properties, such as its primacy as original and ancient tradition, but particularly its semantic propriety, logical coherence and force of arguments, and its rhetorical powers of ‘invention,’ ‘disposition’ and ‘elocution.’”35
Against this background Melanchthon saw the Bible as the word spoken by God the perfect rhetorician. Hence, the text of scripture satisfies all the requirements of disciplined language, sound argument and inspiring speech with which the author establishes a point. Establishing the point meant understanding it as the intention of the speaker and this intention could not be ambiguous because it was God’s intention. In principle this means that the four quadrigal meanings could be included because they can be unambiguous. Melanchthon admitted as much and treated the parables as allegories. In practice he was sceptical about allegory because it could be used to deprive the reader from the historical reality of sin which was part of the main point of the Protestant Reformation. Melanchthon is unique among Protestant reformers in that he developed an explicit and systematic theory of hermeneutics, but all Protestant reformers made the intent of the divine author of scripture of central importance. This intent was understood as the literal-spiritual meaning of the text and could be conveyed by any of the medieval quadrigal meanings.
In sum, there has been a gradual recovery of the importance of the intentions of the divine author beginning with Aquinas. The gradual absorption of spiritual meanings into a single reformed literal meaning parallels the return to authorial intent and may be seen as its result. We conclude that for the Protestant reformers the primary goal was to find the true meaning of the text. Determinacy of meaning may have been a means to that end, but it was not the end. Neither was it the only means available. Truth was understood to be spiritual truth. This moved the primary focus to understanding authorial intent. Characteristics of the text were secondary in the sense that whether truth was conveyed literally or allegorically depended on the intentions of the divine author. The revaluation of the entire medieval practice of exegesis that was involved in this reorientation was more complex than a simple rejection of all, but the literal-historical meaning of texts. At the heart of reformation was a desire to understand divine truth and eliminate plurality of interpretations of scripture. This produced a hermeneutical reorientation from reader-determined meaning to author-determined meaning which led to a reformation of the quadrigal literal meaning. Needless to say that Aristotelian rhetoric contributed to this development.
The move from reader to author in the interpretation of scripture could easily enter into the interpretation of nature because both moves commonly occurred in the same person.36 Melanchthon bridges this gap in his own person on two important fronts. First, he believed that knowledge corresponded to and is derived from the essential nature of things. Language is an essential condition for arriving at truth about things. By locating knowledge partly in the things of nature and partly in language, i.e., sound argument, Melanchthon is the one reformer providing a clear methodological condition for the development of modern science. Moreover, there is a straightforward analogy between the hermeneutics of nature and the hermeneutics of scripture. As true knowledge about nature is composed of the things of nature and sound argument, so is true knowledge about scripture composed of the text of scripture and sound argument. This is one of the conditions that establishes continuity of the Protestant reformation with the Middle Ages and Aristotle. While unambiguous language originates in unambiguous authorial intent, its communication requires “the medieval scholastic concern for precision of structure in language and the essential relation between truth and rational coherence of terms and propositions.” Melanchthon’s “program was from very early on secured [.... ] by a theory of knowledge that gave fundamental importance to the operations of the intellect, ....”37 Secondly, Melanchthon was in a position to have had the widespread cultural influence Harrison claims for the Protestant Reformation. Not only did he articulate the systematic theory of the text that guided his interpretations and was the hermeneutical apologist of the Protestant Reformation, but he also shaped education in the Germanic countries.38 Moreover, Melanchthon’s theory of knowledge offered a vision for the relationship of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. His theory of sound argument integrated grammar, dialectic and rhetoric in its application to the interpretation of texts, primary among them Scripture, but also in its application to the interpretation of nature. Thus the Trivium served theology as well as the Quadrivium. This theory of sound argument was turned into a program that informed his reformation of education in the Germanic countries.39 All of this would have created the reduction of plurality of meanings which according to Harrison was necessary for the promotion of natural history. Unfortunately for this modification of Harrison’s hypothesis, the effects of the Protestant Reformation were mixed and so was its reception.
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