Review: Medieval Exegesis volume 1


de Lubac, Henri.  Medieval Exegesis volume 1.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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.

Review: De Lubac, Scripture in the Tradition

This is an abridgement of his works on Origen and Medieval exegesis–but don’t let that turn you off. In many ways, this book is much the superior, especially when compared with the latter. It relies on footnotes, not endnotes, and de Lubac’s choice of chapters focuses more on exposition than name-dropping. Further, most of the Latin is translated into English within the text, rather than being relegated to footnotes.


Sola Revelation

What does the title, Scripture in the Tradition, actually mean? It’s easier to point out what de Lubac is not addressing. He isn’t addressing Protestant vs Roman Catholic/Orthodox polemics on authority. Nor does he get into controversies surrounding liturgy, Marian prayers, and other things placed under the label “tradition.” Rather, he points us back to Jesus. For de Lubac there is one source of revelation, the Incarnate Christ (xvi).

Allegory is a passage from a moment of things under the shadow of law to things under the light of grace. It posits a qualitative difference. While de Lubac doesn’t mention it, in many ways allegory functions like Hegel’s “aufheben,” raising up, sublating a lower concept to a higher one. He notes that the reality “follows upon another, replaces it and assumes it…while at the same time surpassing it and superseding it” (166). Indeed, de Lubac argues that the relationship between OT and NT is one of “dialectical movement” (180). Of course, we do not think de Lubac (or Augustine) was a Hegelian.


This book is clearly superior to his other treatments of exegesis. The citations are kept to a minimum, allowing the thesis to reveal itself. The last chapter is the most important and is quite stirring. Should you buy this book? If you are new to de Lubac, buy this book instead of his Medieval Exegesis. If you have read his works on Medieval Exegesis and Origen, this won’t tell you anything new.

Review: Medieval Exegesis, volume 2

Henri de Lubac’s writing style is similar to M Night Shamalyan’s film success: in some works he was wildly successful, in others he just got lucky, and some just failed to deliver.  Volume 2 of Medieval Exegesis is in the last group. (Though to be fair volume 1 was fairly good).


A book of end notes

De Lubac killed the forest for the sake of the trees. The book did explain medieval exegesis, so I give him credit on that. And many of his quotations were quite interesting, even stirring–so that’s good. But he drowned his argument for the sake of piling on citations. Within 226 pages of text, I counted a total of 2,563 citations, leaving 208 pages of end notes.

So what’s his argument? I’m not sure. (I’m kidding). On de Lubac’s reading, allegory isn’t the wax nose that it would later become. Rather, Allegory is when one thing is being accomplished and another pre-figured (de Lubac 7). Sounds a lot like modern typology. The “mystic sense”of Scripture refers to a reality ‘hidden in God’ and then revealed to mankind in Christ (20). And the movement from history to eschatology (anagogy) isn’t completely arbitrary. It unfolds within the prior historical moment of the Incarnate Word. The object of allegory is a reality of things to come (94). It is an opposition of sign and thing signified within a single duration (95). History, in short, can never fully contain that which it foretells. Allegory, then, is an irruption from the historia into the allegoria, what de Lubac calls “another dimension” (95). Interiority: not necessarily the inner life, but the interiority of the mystery (97). These “hidden facts have an inside,” which is salvific (98).


I’m not sure if I recommend this book. It is very expensive and crowded with citations that don’t always add to his argument, leaving the actual argument in fog. And I say this as someone who loves de Lubac’s work. Read Boersma instead.

Review: Nouvelle Theologie (Boersma)

Genealogical critiques are always dangerous, but it seems they are necessary. Hans Boersma examines the ideas that undercut late medieval Catholicism and also provided for the rise of “nouvelle theologie” in the 20th century.  This book is the scholarly version of Heavenly Participation.


Thesis: “I have made the case that the historical embodiment of theological truth expressed a sacramental ontology that would enable the reintegration of nature and the supernatural—of history and theology” (202).

There are several villains in this narrative. One, obviously, is modernity. The other is early 20th century Neo-Thomism. Boersma notes, “The theological manuals of the neo-Thomist scholastic theologians tried to be faithful to the theology of Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–74), and they believed that this could be done only by maintaining a strict separation between the natural and supernatural realms” (4). In other words, nature is a hermetically sealed realm.

By contrast, as Boersma reads them, Nouvelle Theologie theologians wanted to argue for an “interpenetration of sign (signum) and reality (res) [that] meant, according to the nouvelle theologians, that external, temporal appearances contained the spiritual, eternal realities which they represented and to which they dynamically pointed forward. For nouvelle theologie, theology had as its task the dynamic exploration of the reality of the divine mystery: (292).

There were several ways to do this, not all of them equally successful. To shorten the review: while de Lubac had promising insights on nature and grace, his medieval-style exegesis was simply too unwieldy to be an effective tool.

Von Balthasar’s concepts of analogy and participation not only served as a critique of Karl Barth, but allowed him to appropriate Henri de Lubac’s Neo-Platonic project without the latter’s tendency to downplay physical creation. Boersma: “Contra Barth: “According to Balthasar, analogia entis did not assume a neutral concept of being; it merely implied that God’s salvation in Christ was the saving of his created order:… For Balthasar, the doctrine of analogy simply served to defend that there was a natural stability to the created order that God had redeemed in Christ (132).

Boersma realizes, however, that the rise of Nouvelle Theologie was not a complete victory. In some ways, one could argue that it was partly responsible for the horror that is Vatican II–though to be fair, some of the Nouvelle theologians saw that as well. Boersma mentions it in passing but probably doesn’t see the significance of it. In de Lubac’s short book on Nature and Grace, de Lubac mentions an “underground council” that worked at cross-purposes to his own work in Vatican II. He is right. That is the council that was probably responsible for the occultic practices documented by Fr Malachi Martin in Windswept House.

This is a good summary of a facet of 20th century Roman Catholicism, though many will get bogged down in the long lists of French names