The Allegory of Love (C.S. Lewis)

One must approach any criticism of Lewis’s style with fear and trembling.  In terms of literary grace, he is the master and we are the mere peons.  With that said, this book sometimes suffers from organization.  He begins with a fascinating suggestion that courtly love poetry was a celebration of adultery.  Perhaps it was.  From there he moves to a persuasive, if not entirely related, discussion of the fall of the gods.  This fall is important, for it allowed later thinkers to speak of a universe that was neither pagan nor ordinary.  In any case, the point was not to glorify paganism.  The pagan gods were a heuristic device.

Similar to the decline of the old gods, there is a  parallel of the movement of mythology to allegory.  There is a reverse movement from deity to hypostasis to decoration (Lewis 94). In other words, as he later says, the gods have “died into allegory” (98).

With the rise of allegory, and before the rise of Thomism’s Aristotle, the medievals had to find a place for “Natura.” Rather than an opposition between nature and grace, Lewis notes, “Nature appears, not to be corrected by grace, but as the goddess and vicaria of God, herself correcting the unnatural” (111). Whatever its undeniable explanatory power may have been, Platonism always had a dangerous relationship with paganism.

Lewis has written one of the most important chapters of criticism on The Romance of the Rose.  We, however, will not explore it.  The Romance is not as familiar to us as it was to Lewis, and we are probably better served by his chapters on Chaucer and Spenser. We speak of the Chaucer of Troilus and not of the Canterbury Tales. This is a magnificent essay, but I am going to disagree with some of Lewis’s main conclusions, which we will see below.

Even though Troilus is a Trojan hero at war with the Greeks, for all practical purposes he is a Christian knight, “a new Launcelot” (220). Chaucer’s readers would have seen London in his description of Troy.

I agree with Lewis that Cryseide is neither very good nor very wicked.  I just do not think she was that bad.  She was a victim of fortune.  Did she betray Troilus?  Not really.  True, she left him, but that was not her choice.  And if Troilus did have a claim on her, he should have married her.  If he was too scared to do that, it is hard to see why we should feel sorry for him.

We end with Edmund Spenser, the most underrated, yet easily one of the best poets. Like other critics of Spenser, Lewis notes where Spenser copied the Italians.  Unlike these critics, though, Lewis does not fault Spenser for it.  The problem is not that the Italians are good and Spenser is mediocre.  Rather, they are strong in different ways.  The Italians tell a better story, yet Spenser is a deeper and more profound writer.

One of the reasons Spenser is such a great thinker (and this is also one of the reasons people enjoy C. S. Lewis) is his ability to make strange situations seem all too familiar. You are already familiar with “that type of love” or “that type of betrayal.”  Indeed, in Lewis’s memorable description, Spenser’s first readers would have been like that “nervous child [who] heard tales of a panel slid back at twilight in a seeming innocent manor house to reveal the pale face and thin, black body of a Jesuit” (388). Speaking of influences, the previous quote suggests, not the Platonic academies, but the rustic country chapel.  Spenser’s power is his ability to use “the popular symbols he found ready made to his hand” (390). Lewis rounds this chapter out with a careful discussion of certain motifs in Spenser.


This is not Lewis’s greatest work.  Many of his references are unknown even to readers of British literature.  Moreover, his thesis is not that clear at times.  But for the serious student of Lewis, it is worth reading.  Every page or so provides lucid commentary and instruction.

Sacramental Preaching (Boersma)

It is tempting among some evangelicals today to call everything “sacramental” (not unlike the recent phrase to use “kingdom” or “gospel” as an adjective modifying every single noun). As such, I wish the book had another title. In any case, a sacramentum points to and reveals the res. Thus, sacramental preaching will see Christ unfold in the Old Testament. It’s neither crude allegory nor typology.

I’ve criticized Boersma’s approach in the past. My problem is he uses “sacrament” as a term to cover everything, especially relating to hermeneutics. If he would simply use another term, maybe one such as “participatory” or even typological, then much confusion could be avoided. This book is closer to typology than to allegory, and as such it has a fair bit to commend it.

Each chapter contains a short sermon he preached to his students at Regent College. Each sermon is followed by technical “preacher’s notes.” The notes are where the real money is at.

The book is structured around blessedness:
1) Sensed Happiness
2) Pilgrim Happiness
3) Heavenly Happiness
4) Unveiled Happiness

Boersma suggests that patristic and medieval exegesis is 3-D, whereas modernity is 1-D. In a participatory metaphysics, there is always “moreness.” Modernity is characterized by lessness. (Postmodernism is characterized by nothingness). A sacramental reading simply means the text points to Christ.

Me: That’s fine, but I wish he would have actually defined “participation.” Platonists are sometimes notoriously vague on that point. On a similar note, instead of “sacramental” I am going to say “participatory.”

A participatory metaphysics points to (or makes present) realities beyond that of the physical. One neat benefit of participatory preaching is that it bridges the gap between exegesis and application, since we are “in Christ” and Christ is “in the Old Testament,” so in a significant way we have a link with the realities of the Old Testament. And as we open the text and find Christ, we find all the gifts he brings to us.

Boersma’s collection of sermons has an anagogical structure. In each sermon we successively ascend the mountain until we are face to face with Christ in the beatific vision. This, quite simply, is happiness. It is blessedness.

Song of Solomon, Motherhood, and Virginity

The tradition justified an allegorical reading on the grounds that it was so easy and “fitting” to find Christ in it. Secondly, as Boersma notes, a realist epistemology held that “objects of sensed experience lie anchored in the reality of the eternal, heavenly Word of God.”

So far, so good. Boersma’s next move is rather shocking for Protestants, though one should have seen it coming. If you feel that you can do an allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon, then there is no logical reason why you can’t see the Virgin Mary in it. Make of that what you will. Boersma takes this key point to highlight “virginity” and “motherhood” within the history of salvation. Gregory of Nyssa noted that life and death are connected. Motherhood implies grief. Virginity attempts an end-run around that cycle.

Nota Bene:

“How people interpret the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, says a great deal about how they understand the nature-grace relationship.”

The section on Nathaniel being a true Israelite is good. The backdrop is Jacob’s ladder. Jacob, however, was full of guile. Nathaniel is now face to face with the real Ladder, and there is no guile in Nathaniel.

There is a fascinating chapter on Ezekiel 1. Boersma makes the argument, which I can’t develop here, that the heavens opening means God is ready for battle. The wheel within a wheel is a war chariot of the heavens. Where else did the heavens open with angels? The nativity. Also, Boersma reminds us of Fra Angelico’s “The Mystic Wheel.” The wheel within the wheel is the Gospel within the Old Testament.

5 Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

Boersma, Hans. Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 2021.

The idea behind this book is good; the book not so much. Boersma is correct that no one approaches the text without a commitment to metaphysics. Moreoever, we can only smile with amusement when someone says, “If you would just stay committed to the Bible,” presumably you would believe as I do. Unfortunately, much of Boersma’s discussion trades on ambiguities and straw men. To be sure, the book does have a few good chapters, namely the ones on metaphysics and heaven. The chapters are something like: No Plato, No Christ; No Plato, No Scripture; No Plato, no metaphysics; No Providence, no Scripture; No Heaven, No Scripture.

The Good

  1. We can’t simply appeal to “the bible” qua bible. We all come with metaphysics.
  2. If Christ is present in the Old Testament, then some form of a sensus plenior obtains. That seems to be unavoidable.
  3. He has a good section on Athanasius. However, Boersma doesn’t realize that Athanasius’s Christology undercuts Plato’s cosmology. If the Son is fully God, then we don’t have a Demiurge creating the world.
  4. Excellent chapter on metaphysics. His argument, though, might be inadequate. Key to the Platonic framework is the idea of “participation.” What does that actually mean? I’m not sure. Boersma never defines it. Aristotle, too, pointed out that ambiguity in Plato. It seems Platonism is simply a stand-in for Augustinianism and realism. I have no problem with that. He identifies 5 aspects of Ur-Platonism: 1) anti-materialism, 2) anti-mechanism, 3) anti-nominalism; 4) Anti-relativism, and 5) Anti-skepticism. On one hand this sounds like basic Christian wisdom. True, you find all of this in one form or another in Plato’s dialogues. But must it be called Platonism? Are we not leaving out other key aspects of Platonism?

    In a throwaway line that must have had the Revoice guys in mind, Boersma (rightly) says our primary identity is in Christ, not in some made-up social identity (which also applies, mutatis mutandis, to other post-Marxist constructs).
  5. Excellent chapter on heaven. He puts a halt on many silly “anti-imperial” readings. He notes that their (often shrill) us vs. them rhetoric is the very violence they seek to oppose. In fact, he specifically calls out left-wing agendas, noting they treat sin and redemption in this worldly structures. Moreover, something like the Beatific Vision is present in historic Christian reflection. Whatever else is true about the New Heavens and New Earth, we must retain the basic structure of the Beatific Vision.

The Bad

  1. We’ll start with the most obvious problem: allegory. Boersma’s section on typology was actually good. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like the contrast b/t typology and allegory. Typology links history to history. Allegory links history to some eternal archetype. What matters for him is allegory. Here is one problem: why even bother w/the original languages and the Hebrew-ness of Israel if the text is allegorical? All that matters is the “deeper meaning.” This is the fatal flaw in all allegorical schemes. Following upon that point, what criteria does Boersma have for saying “this deeper reading” is wrong while the other one is correct?
  2. He claimed Charles Hodge was a nominalist. Boersma said Nevin chose Plato and the Great Tradition while Hodge chose Francis Bacon. This is bad. Nevin chose German Idealism, not Plato.
  3. Boersma never defines biblical theology. At times it means “bad academics” and at other times it means “sola scriptura.” Even worse, he never defines sola scriptura.
  4. Very little of Israel’s story is connected with Plato. There is nothing Platonic about the Exodus, the Temple, or the Atonement. There is also nothing Platonic about the New Jerusalem descending to earth.

I can recommend other books by Boersma. I cannot recommend this one.

Life of Moses (Gregory of Nyssa)

This is a crash-course in Patristic allegory. We might wince at some of his connections, but Nyssa never rejects the literal meaning.

“No good has a limit in its own nature, but is limited by the presence of its opposite” (Nyssa 5).

Within God there is no opposite. So far so good. But is God limited by what is not God? I don’t think that is what Gregory means, since farther down the page he says “This good [God] has no limit–the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place, but stretches out with the limitless.”

The climax to Nyssa’s narrative is Moses’s meeting with God on the mountain. Our knowledge of God is like the circumference of a circle. That outside the circumference is what we do not know. As our knowledge grows, so does that which we don’t know about God. As the circle gets bigger, so does the area where the circle touches “not-knowledge.” In heaven, the soul is always moving towards God, yet because God will always be “beyond” the soul in heaven, the soul will always be growing. Every limit involves an essence beyond it. This means the soul can only rest in the infinite. Knowledge by representation takes us right to the limit. One can never be face-to-face with God because that would place the knower “opposite” to God, and anything opposite to the good is evil. Therefore, in order to see God we must see “the back parts of God.”

We must follow the back-parts to the Good/God. We can’t see him by seeing opposite to him, for anything opposite to the Good is evil

Christian Church and the Old Testament (Van Ruler)

Van Ruler, A. A. The Christian Church and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. trans. Bromiley.

The book’s initial purpose is to justify the Christian’s use of the Old Testament. He does, however, put the brakes on more fanciful readings. For the reader today much of it is dated, as is most OT work post-Vos (and certainly post-Beale). Nonetheless, there are a few fascinating and controversial sayings that are worth engaging.

He wisely points out that the OT’s identifying God as “Yahweh” and even “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” puts to rest any generic “God-in-general” god of the ecumenical movement (Van Ruler, 17; the comments on the ecumenical movement are mine, not his).

He argues that Calvin used the model of progressive revelation (II.x.2). On one level this is obvious. God didn’t give Adam and Eve a complete canon of Genesis-Revelation. That sounds silly, I know, but there are super-internet-covenanters today who say that any use of “history” or “organic” or “progressive” = pantheism. I leave that to you. On a more substantial note, however, we must question how glibly we can say that “Jesus” is in the Old Testament. He certainly is (1 Cor. 10; he is the Rock from which our fathers drank). Here’s the problem, though. If Scripture (and texts in general) have only one meaning–the meaning for the original audience is the intended meaning–then we need to ask if the original audience saw Christ as the rock. Indeed, that’s a tall (but not impossible) claim. Van Ruler questions that we can simply put Jesus wherever we want in the OT, since such knowledge, at least for the original audience, needed the death and resurrection at the very least (21).

Good quote by Kuyper: If our ideas of the Old Testament can’t incorporate national Israel in them, then those ideas are wrong” (Uit het Woord, II, 1, 180). Outstanding. In our conservative circles we might not realize how radical this claim is. A particular Israel is hard to square with “universal messages” or “timeless truths” or the ecumenical movement.

If you are somewhat familiar with Van Ruler, then you know the dangerous area he is now taking us. “The whole concern with Scripture is not with Jesus Christ” (69). That’s a fairly startling claim. What does he mean by it? He says the Spirit embraces more than Jesus does. That’s a vague statement and I am not sure how to take it. He then echoes 1 Cor. 15 that the Son’s mediatorial kingdom will come to an end. (Side note: Berkouwer claimed in The Return of Christ that Van Ruler said Jesus’s humanity will fade away, but Van Ruler doesn’t say that here). Van Ruler does leave us with a startling suggestion, though: “Jesus Christ is an emergency measure that God postponed as long as possible.” Suffice to say he probably isn’t a supralapsarian.

He does point out the wisdom of Reformed Christology and how it is anchored (and further develops) in Reformed anthropology. We believe that original righteousness “was natural rather than supernatural.” Rome believed in a pure nature to which was super-added a gift of grace. So far this is standard dogmatics. From it Van Ruler draws the inevitable but not always obvious conclusion: this means that Jesus doesn’t add a “higher life” dimension to created life. This is why with Reformed we say that grace restores, rather than perfects nature.

Christ on Trial (Klaas Schilder)

Schilder, Klaas. Christ on Trial. Trans. Henry Zylstra. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 1950.

It’s hard to describe what this book is.  These are *not* Schilder’s sermons.  They are meditations. And while they aren’t strictly exegesis, they remained rooted in the text and the life of Israel, which also means they aren’t allegorical gush, either. While this isn’t the best introduction to Schilder, some of Schilder’s key themes (e.g., Covenant, munus triplex, a titanic war between angels and devils) are here.

“Jesus represents a mysterious priestly essence which, according to the Spirit, incorporates into the true priesthood, and ministers the grace of a priest to all those who know of it by reason of the fact that they are included in the Messiah through faith” (Schilder 23).

When Christ is on trial, he places “the issue of his Office before the spiritual tribunal, for the institution of any office in Israel is messianic in its purpose” (38).

The Covenant God Breaks the Deterministic Circle of Life “Under the Sun.”

We need a personal, covenant God to rescue us from the type of picture that the author of Ecclesiastes says about “life under the sun.”  In other words, redemption must come from beyond nature.  “If God does not become the covenant God, if God does not become Father, if the Almighty does not say ‘I am Jaweh,” if the voice of general revelation is not drowned out by the thundering approach of special revelation, then the rashness of the weary-circuit rider of time will ever again deal the blow against God’s own Son” (64).

Schilder describes the end of Christ’s life as  “maschil,” a riddle of intentional concealment.  A maschil is a testing, “proving designed to give him an opportunity to say what he wants” (81).

Schilder has the best comments on predestination ever put to paper: “God never gives a human being a prophecy about his future perdition.  Predestination is God’s warfare against fatalism, and the preaching of it is that also.  For he has also predestined the fact of responsibility.  No one is ever told that his perdition is absolutely certain, and that he lies under the irrevocable judgment of a hardening of heart.  Such an announcement , certainly, would dull the predestined awareness of responsibility.  In fact, it would break down predestination” (105).

Later on he notes that “election means calling, privilege implies task, to may is to must” (379).

“Even less is this God a ‘being’  who lives only in the hearts of men.  No, this God of Daniel is united with the world and with the sea of men in an abiding covenant” (143).

On Common Grace

“Hereafter every man is duty bound to conform himself not to common but to special revelation.  Hereafter any prophecy derived from common grace unattended by a sincere desire for special grace is but a rejection of Christ into the vicious circle of this hopeless life” (152-153). Common grace can never be abstracted from Christ’s judicial office (533).

While there isn’t an apparent structure to this book, it is there.  Christ ascends the “mountain” and in his recapitulates the three offices (314ff). 

Covenant hearing: “We human beings must grow in attention, must develop in the capacity for and the act of hearing.  The river bed along which the stream of revelation is slowly driven must be worn deeper and deeper in our inner life” (200).

Schilder elsewhere hints at an eschatology, though he never develops it.  He sees history as an “age-old conflict between the world empire and the people of revelation” (224). He identifies Rome with the horn of the beasts of Daniel. He specifically says Antichrist will spring from this horn (321).

Like many Dutch Reformed in the early 20th century, Schilder is very attuned to the titanic war of spirits that is being played out.  He writes, “If we really had eyes to see that invisible world in all of its movement and life, it would have our undivided attention…He, especially, who lets the Holy Scriptures have their say in this matter will direct the attention of his soul to these spiritual forces in the air” (244, 245).

Commenting on the confrontation between Christ and Herod, Israel and Esau, he writes that “The Bible knows that there is such a thing as a spiritual communion which inheres in successive generations” (373).  He is coming very close to saying something like “bloodlines” and “generational curses.”

On Allegory: since modern day allegory is purely subjective, it is a profanation to God’s word (266).

Speaking of the shedding of blood and the crucifixion, Schilder makes a few modern-day applications.  “The church has become lax in its dogmatic thinking” by allowing groups of “mystical poets and artists–first by permission, later by request” to control the aesthetics.  Indeed, he laments a “so-called spiritual eroticism…which prefers to accentuate the blood of Jesus rather than His soul, His soul rather than the hidden powers which inhere in him as the Christ” (511).

Of course, Schilder holds to the blood of Christ, but not as a merely artistic fetish.  From here he makes a fascinating point which should be obvious but I’ve never heard anyone say it: His blood had to be shed (so far, so good). The obvious conclusion: for the soul (or life) is in the blood (513). 

He then adds that the circulation of blood won’t be part of man’s perfected state. He connects the circulation of blood with the urge to eat and procreate.  The circulation of blood remains within the vicious circle of “life under the sun.”

Back Toward the Future (Kaiser)

Kaiser, Walter C. Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishing, reprint 2003.

Regardless of your eschatological viewpoint, Walter Kaiser, mighty in the Scriptures, gives guidelines for hermeneutics and how to approach prophetic texts.  Only one chapter deals with so-called “millennial issues.”

Make Prophetic Interpretation Center on the Living God

Prediction isn’t an add-on to divine revelation– “it is one of the methods of revelation” (Kaiser 18: Rev. 19:10).  Characteristics of biblical prophecy:

1) Plainly foretells things to come. No ambiguities.
2) Entails designed and intended predictions.
3) Written or spoken prior to the event.
4) It is not isolated but correlated to larger biblical revelation.

1 Peter 1:10-12 doesn’t mean Old Testament prophecy was vague or needed NT for the “real meaning.” It just means the OT writers didn’t know the time of Christ’s coming (Kaiser 23). A prophet didn’t “speak better than he knew,” but rather, on issues where he confessed ignorance (Dan. 8:27; 12:8; Zech. 4:13), he merely confesses ignorance of the time or “wants to understand what is said before he writes it down” (24).

Because biblical prophecy involves the Lord of space and time, its fulfillment isn’t intended to be ambiguous, as we see in Greek oracles.

Don’t Believe Every Prophet

Kaiser gives some criteria for discerning false prophets.  They are known for their immoral lifestyles. They are crowd-pleasers. They do not distinguish their own thoughts from biblical revelation.  Finally, they plagiarize (Kaiser 31).

Yet some prophecies do not appear to be fulfilled.  Kaiser mentions several kinds of prophecy: unconditional fulfillment; conditional fulfillment, and sequential fulfillment (35). We shouldn’t be surprised by conditional prophecy: prophecy is intended for holy living. God’s character doesn’t change; his actions might.

Word Packages

When the Bible uses “earth” in distinction from heaven, it is usually universal.  When it uses earth in distinction from the Gentile world, it probably means Israel (48). 

Go Back to the Past in Order to Get to the Future

Thesis:  Biblical prophecy uses the language of previous revelatory events: creation, flood, Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.

Biblical Theology of Prophecy

Kaiser’s method for studying prophecy is standard Evangelical hermeneutics.  He wisely recommends finding longer passages and units rather than just proof-texting verses.  Indeed, he gives a table of key biblical texts to understand prophecy:

Gen. 12 Promise to Abraham
Lev. 25/Dt 28 blessings and curses for obedience/disobedience
2 Sam. 7 Promise of a kingdom to David
Isa. 9 Promise of Immanuel and his dominion
Isa. 24 Devastation of the earth and the millennium
Isa 52:13-53:12 Suffering Servant
Isa 65-66 New heavens and new earth
Jer. 31:31-34 Promise new covenant
Ezek. 37 Restoration of Israel
Dan. 2 and 7 Succession of empires and coming of kingdom of God
Joel 2:28-3:21 Coming of the Holy Spirit and the judgment on nations
Amos 9:11-15 Restoration of David’s hut
Micah 4 Future assembly of nations in Jerusalem
Zech. 14 Christ’s return on the Mount of Olives

Kaiser recommends we focus primarily on the promise plan of God.  While it is true that Christ is the center of the Old Testament, Christ emerges from the Old Testament promises.  It is like a tree that is branching out. This is a much better approach than seeing Jesus as a rock on the road to Palestine.  It avoids allegorical goofiness.

He suggests we read “All Israel will be saved” as sequential in thought.  It might be temporal. It seems to be temporal, but even if it isn’t, nothing is lost by seeing it as sequential to the promises (114).  It follows from the promises made in the OT about including the Gentiles in salvation. It isn’t negating Israel. The phrase “life from the dead” brings to mind Ezek. 37. 

Kaiser gives a good premillennial account of two ages.  

The                 Age                       to Come

This Age   ——                                                         The Millennium/Eternity
                    Resurrection of XP              2nd Coming Great                       Judgment Throne

Three Resurrections

In 1 Cor 15 all humans will be raised by the power of God, but each in his own platoon (tagmata). Paul uses the epeita….eita construction similar to Mark 4:28: first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn appears (120).

The              Age                         to                      Come

This Age——                            The Millennium/                                       Eternity

Resurrection of Chr.              Resurrection of believers                   Resurrection Unbel.

The Pentecost Problem

Simply because Peter cited a few verses from Joel 2, does that mean all future referents in Joel are exhausted on the day of Pentecost?  Of course not.

Kaiser mightily refutes the “double-meaning” theory of prophecy, which is akin to allegorism.  Note, he isn’t addressing the fact that some prophecies have a partial or delayed fulfillment. That is perfectly legitimate.  Nay, he refutes the Philonic allegorism.

(1) This sets aside the common laws of language and makes communication meaningless.
(2) If there were a double/allegorical meaning, how could it be identified (129)?
(3) What boundaries, if any, are to be placed on double-meanings (130)?
(4) Advocates of double meaning admit it shouldn’t be used to establish doctrine, but why this reluctance all of a sudden?
(5) While it is sometimes claimed that the NT writers give a “spiritual” interpretation to OT passages, they wouldn’t have expected prophecy-fulfillment to make any sense if the rules of language were conveniently thrown out the windom.

History and Spirit (de Lubac)

“The Law is spiritual.” This one sentence allows Origen to seek “mystical” meanings beyond that of the literal text–and in de Lubac’s hands he does a fairly impressive job. In many ways this work can be seen as a case study of de Lubac’s Medieval Exegsis (3 vols). Henri de Lubac’s argument is that the spiritual sense justifies the literal sense (de Lubac 121). Furthermore, “allegory” (whatever that word means) always has metaphysical and epistemological overtones. What you say about allegory will reflect what you believe about the soul and how you know that. As de Lubac will conclude, allegory is a “symbolic transposition” (437). All thought is mediated and “positioned” by figures. Allegory, although often abused, is simply a logical outworking of this truth.


De Lubac’s Origen begins by noting correspondences between a trichotomous view of man and the 3-fold sense of Scripture. Man is body, soul, and spirit; not surprisingly, so Origen reads, so is Scripture. Up to a point, anyway. Scripture is unfolded as shadow, image, and truth (250). But we run into a small difficulty. The “three senses of Scripture” aren’t always locked in stone. Sometimes they can be “two senses.” When the mediating term is omitted, Scripture is elevated to the heavenly places. I think Origen paints himself into a corner here but we shouldn’t lose sight of his key epistemological insight: “Truth never appears to us completely free from figures” (253). If Scripture is mediated by figures, then there is nothing inherently wrong with allegory.

All of that is quite wonderful, but if the “mediating term” in Scripture is removed, does that mean the correspondence between Origen’s trichotomism (which I accept) and Scripture’s trichotomism breaks down? I think so. De Lubac leads to that conclusion but he refuses to draw it.

Origen doesn’t use the New Testament in exactly the same way as the Old Testament. There is a principle of New Testament operation: Christ’s actions are symbols of his spiritual operations (253). But “spiritual” doesn’t mean “not really real.” For Origen and Paul, “spiritual” mean eschatological newness (309). Jesus doesn’t explain the Old Testament; he transforms it (316).

De Lubac’s most fascinating chapter is on the relation between History and Spirit and the multiple modes of the Logos. In fact, that’s what the whole book should have been about. Origen’s Logos isn’t the same thing as Philo’s. De Lubac notes, “Philo’s Logos penetrates” into the multiplicity of matter, but Origen’s Logos speaks. He is “as much word as reason” (391).

And it is in this chapter where de Lubac most skillfully weaves together the logos of the soul with the Logos of Scripture. There is a “connaturality between Scripture and the soul” (397). The soul and Scripture “symbolize each other.” Origen applies this reasoning beyond the soul to the whole universe. Reality is an ordered hierarchy.


As wonderful as this book is, there are some negative points. It is about 100 pages too long (a problem with some of de Lubac’s writings). Further, de Lubac hasn’t fully escaped the prison cell of historical criticism, as he somewhat admits.

Medieval Exegesis Vol. 1

Argument: Medieval exegesis isn’t simply allegory, for it goes far beyond the method of ancient pagan sources. Rather, it seeks the “spirit” of Scripture.

Medieval Exegesis. Volume 1: The Four Senses of Scripture. By Henri de Lubac. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Foreword by Robert L. Wilken. Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans


Henri de Lubac is a master writer and theologian, but this book presents a challenge to the reader on a number of levels. De Lubac opens the door to a wide forest of patristic and medieval thinking–and he provides no map to navigate this forest. (Later volumes in the series do provide the map). That’s not to say de Lubac fails to offer a model for medieval exegesis. He does. You just have to read for a while to find it. In what follows I will try to provide a model of medieval exegesis–or rather, foundational presuppositions.

P1: The letter teaches what happened, allegory what we should believe, moral what we should do, anagogical what we should hope for.

(P2) “For the doctrine of the two senses of Scripture and the doctrine of the relationship between the two testaments are in essence one and the same thing” (De Lubac 8).

In order to show that the “spiritual sense” of Scripture is not completely arbitrary, de Lubac notes that it is always tied to “discipline,” which implies a rule or manner (23ff). Scripture is sacrament and symbol, spirit and rationality (76). The implication is the letter of Scripture always points beyond itself. Scripture, like the world, is like a garment of the godhead.

Early Christian symbolism was liturgical symbolism.  De Lubac writes, “It is well know that medieval symbolism readily encompasses not only Scripture and the visible universe, but that other universe, that other living, sacred book which is divine worship. The fathers transposed the ancient doctrine that saw the universe at once as a temple and as a body and each temple as being at once the human body and the universe.  By virtue of this transposition, the cosmic and liturgical mirrors, while corresponding with each other, also correspond to the mirrors of history and the Bible” (103).

The Cross as Cosmic Universe:

“This Christian, who undertakes a new kind of De natura rerum, has achieved a profound realization of the cosmic dimensions of his faith.  He wants to show forth a universe that has been entirely taken up by Christ and recreated in the same Christ…He plants the Cross of Christ at the center of everything, just as Virgil placed Orpheus in the middle of the cosmic cup.  Time and Space, Heaven and Earth, angels and men, the Old Testament and the New, the physical universe and the moral universe, nature and grace: everything is encompassed, bound together, formed, “structured,” and unified by this Cross, even as everything is dominated by it” (111).

But there is a problem in the sources. Most of us are familiar with the so-called “fourfold method” (history, allegory, tropology, anagogy). But medieval and patristic writers didn’t always follow this model. Sometimes it was threefold, or maybe the terms were inverted. Is there a threefold distinction of Scripture, or a fourfold one? Sometimes authors collapsed anagogia into allegory.

Beginning with the fathers we note:

Body = history
Soul = tropology
Spirit = anagogy

The problem before the house: tropology was seen as an intermediary principle between body and spirit (140). There was a danger of introducing the “psuche” Scripture before its “pneuma.” This fails to respond to the intentions of the spirit. De Lubac highlights the problem: there “cannot be found in it an explicit allusion to the Mystery that is at once historical and spiritual, interior and social, a Mystery which is recapitulated in the other formula by “allegoria” (140-141). So which method is correct and when did the fourfold start? De Lubac doesn’t really tell us.

Unity and Harmony

Thesis: Christian tradition understands that Scripture has two meanings: literal and spiritual (pneumatic) and these two meanings have the same relationship to each other as do the Old and New Testaments to each other (225). The spiritual meaning discerns internal causes. The spirit is contained and hidden in the letter. History as a key to understanding the present is more and more transformed into allegory of the future (230).

Typology is not enough. It needs allegory, allegory understood as the pneumatic sense (259). Typology simply tells that A prefigures A’. It says nothing of the opposition or unity between the two testaments.

Conclusion and evaluation.

“High hopes and empty pockets” may be the best way to summarize this book. This is one of those instances where de Lubac’s brilliant reputation actually worked to his disadvantage. Given the rich spirituality of the patristics and medievals and de Lubac’s own brilliant handling of Augustinian Supernaturalism, one rightly expected this book to be a stunning tour de force. It wasn’t.

Given what I’ve read of de Lubac on the social dimension of Christianity and his take on the Surnaturel, I expected this book to outline the failure of liberal and fundmentalist hermeneutics (including, obviously, the failure of modernity), a brief section outlining the medievals’ take on Scripture, the structure of allegory, and how to do allegory in today’s church.

As tedious as this book was at times, it is a necessary read if one is interested in reading de Lubac’s corpus. Fortunately, volume two appears to be more smooth, compact, and focused on the main issues. It was that de Lubac seemed to merely compile quotations of people who agree with him. While I suppose that makes his point, he is always bordering on overkill (I tried to pull this stunt on graduate level essays. The profs were not amused!). Still, at the end of the day when reading de Lubac, one knows one is in the presence of a master.