- Biblical Poetics before Humanism and Reformation
Since at least the publication of Beryl Smalley’s The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1940), scholars have been fully on notice that the Middle Ages was a time of considerable ferment, development, and creativity regarding the manner in which Christian readers ought to approach the Bible as Holy Scripture and find therein divine truth. How are the words of Scripture to be understood, and however can such words make God known? What kind of speech is this? A plethora of studies in the years since Smalley’s now-classic work have given us a much better understanding of the development of biblical science in the long Middle Ages. The present work makes an original and energetic contribution to this important conversation, one that should inform not just medievalists but Reformation scholars and practitioners of theological exegesis as well.
Ocker’s argument is sophisticated and subtle, so much so that I hesitate even to try to sketch it out here. Basing his analysis on an impressively wide reading in both the sources and the secondary literature, he makes a case for a later medieval change in “textual attitude” that looked to the human words of Scripture as the locus of divine revelation. This “textual attitude” was based perhaps most importantly on St. Thomas Aquinas’s well-known dictum that from the literal sense alone “argument can be made.” This meant that meaning, the material of theological argument and ecclesial proclamation, was to be found in the human words of Scripture: “verbal signification.” This contrasted, as Ocker tells the story, with the Victorine idea (drawn from Augustine) that meaning is heavenly: the text as sign points to a natural object, which in turn points beyond itself to the object of knowledge properly so called. Meaning, on this old scheme, is located not in the verba of the biblical text, but lies beyond it, in the realm of intellectual or spiritual reality.
The new way of conceptualizing textual meaning paved the way, or, perhaps better, went hand in hand with developments in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy that helped make it possible to treat Scripture itself as a divine word. In two extraordinarily wide-ranging chapters, which treat an almost dizzying array of little-known later medieval expositors, preachers, theologians, and postillators, Ocker carefully elucidates case studies in miniature of the transition to a “new textual attitude,” a “biblical poetic” that brought Scripture into a wide-ranging nexus of relations with such works as Lombard’s Sentences, canon law, the Glossa Ordinaria, patristic and other sacred literature, and so on. [End Page 576]
This would be a fine work if Ocker had simply traced out this later medieval transition. Not content to leave it as a merely medieval story, however, he moves on in the chapter “Reformation” to sketch out some of the continuities and the deep dependence of Protestant exegesis and biblicism on the “textual attitude” created in the later Middle Ages. Theologians like Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin were, in Ocker’s account, building on medieval developments, even when they rejected aspects of the theology and practice that had been developed by their western forebears. Most intriguingly, at least for this reader, this means that Luther’s oft-trumpeted “hermeneutical breakthrough” did not at all signal a radical break with the Catholic Middle Ages. To the contrary, as Ocker puts it, it was a quintessentially later medieval protest against a false hegemony of the “spiritual senses” in favor of the true “spirituality of the letter” (p. 219).