Medieval Commentaries on Galatians

Levy on Galatians

A review of Ian Christopher Levy’s The Letter to the Galatians (The Bible in Medieval Tradition).

Thirty years ago the historian of biblical interpretation David Steinmetz published a provocative article called “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”  He argued that our understanding of scripture had not been entirely helped by nineteenth and twentieth century developments in historical criticism. “Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting,” he said, “it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.” More light could be gained, Steinmetz claimed, by returning to some aspects of the medieval approach to the Bible.

This volume, lovingly put together by Ian Levy, is an attempt to place a variety of medieval commentaries into the hands of Bible teachers and scholars, so we can see what Steinmetz was getting at. Previously, the six commentaries translated here (in whole or in part) lay un-translated, unedited, and so unloved by those without the energy or enthusiasm to chase them down and read them in Latin. This promises to be just the first volume in a new project to give us renewed access to “The Bible in Medieval Tradition” in a way that is similar to IVP’s excellent (and more Patristic-focused) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series edited by Thomas Oden.

Levy begins by giving us a weighty and very useful introduction to medieval methods and styles of biblical interpretation, so that we are well briefed on what to expect.  He then translates the whole of the Galatians commentaries by Haimo of Auxerre and Bruno the Carthusian, and the “Questions on Galatians” of Robert of Melun. To these complete works are added samples from Peter Lombard on Galatians 2, Robert Grosseteste on Galatians 3, and Nicholas of Lyra on Galatians 4. So the book covers the period from the ninth century to the fourteenth, and gives us an excellent idea of what medieval exegesis looks like, with helpful clarifications and historical notes from the editor (with the help of modern commentaries by e.g Betz and Longenecker) along the way.

I put this book to the test in preparing a series of sermons on Galatians. After reading the more recent commentaries of Dunn and Schreiner, I turned to these medieval glosses to see if they would bring me further light in my preparation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that on several occasions the technical discussions in the modern commentaries were mirrored by similar discussions in the medievals. We must not assume that ours is the first generation to read scripture with critical care and diligence. I was sad not to find the absurd allegories I had been led to believe were the stock-in-trade of pre-Reformation exegetes (always nice to have a giggle when doing sermon prep). Indeed, often the older commentaries were better written, clearer, nicely illustrated (verbally I mean, not pictorially), and certainly more aware of some of the theological implications of the text than many modern interpreters who attempt to make a virtue of isolating Galatians or other portions of the Bible from the canon, not to mention the history of Christian reflection. Parts of Bruno made it into the pulpit almost unedited (and unacknowledged) because he is so readable and often pithy. It was a joy to read of “faith alone” in Grosseteste, and that “through grace [Christ] is both the giver of faith and its very content.”

It is disappointing that although they were not entirely unaware of Greek and Hebrew, these men worked primarily from the Latin Bible, and so occasionally their etymology or grammar is not completely trustworthy. Renaissance humanism was, after all, a great gift to the church in making us more diligent to go back to the sources. Gordon Fee says in his Galatians commentary (2007) that he wants to read Galatians “as if the Reformation never happened.” This is naïve and impossible for us, but if we want to have a perspective on the text which takes it seriously as God’s word but which is not skewed in its approach by the massive upheavals of either the Reformation or the New Perspective on Paul (which can lead modern commentators to spin the text in particular directions) there is surely no better way to do it than to get this well-crafted little volume. I look forward to further volumes in a promising series.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

PS. I found this book inspiring as I was writing on Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Hebrews here.

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