- Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages by Ian Christopher Levy
The authority of scripture to determine right actions and right beliefs was taken for granted at the end of the Middle Ages. Orthodoxy was synonymous with adherence to scripture; following Jerome, the very definition of heresy was a person’s choice to hold an opinion contrary to scripture. Nevertheless, the question of who could determine the accurate and authoritative reading of scripture remained an issue. Ian Christopher Levy’s Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages focuses on the fundamental problems of finding authority to resolve religious controversies and deciding which sources or traditions had primacy over the others. Even as scripture was recognized by all sides as the principal authority in matters of doctrine, there was also the exegetical tradition which had developed through the centuries and which was regarded as authoritative in its own right by most of those whose professional business it was to interpret the bible. Levy’s book focuses on the period between 1370 and 1430, encompassing the struggle over the interpretation of scripture waged between the Wycliffites and Hussites on the one hand, and their British and Continental opponents on the other. Levy negotiates the details of the controversies and the complexities of the various actors in this debate masterfully. One encounters familiar names like John Wyclif, Jan Hus, and Jean Gerson, but one also meets lesser-known figures, like the Franciscan William Woodford.
This book is clearly written and highly accessible to scholars from other disciplines, made so largely by the extensive first chapter, “Facets of Authority in the Late Medieval Church,” which examines the authoritative status of scripture and explores the ways in which it was understood, interpreted, and applied to meet the needs of the church. Five chapters on a series of fourteenth- and [End Page 295] fifteenth-century theologians follow: John Wyclif, portrayed here as a traditional medieval university master committed to the coherence of scripture and church (“The Indignant Master”); William Woodford, the Franciscan friar whose response to Wyclif and defense of the mendicant orders reveals his own ambivalence with regard to authoritative sources (“The Ambivalent Friar”); Thomas Netter, the Carmelite theologian who attempted to counter Wycliffism through appeals to the ancient faith and the universal church (“Ad Fontes [?]”); the Hussites and their Czech opponents, all participants in the reform efforts in Bohemia (“A Falling Out”); and Jean Gerson and the Conciliarists, who located authority in the general council, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (“Approaching Final Authority”). The concluding chapter, “The Enduring Dilemma,” is an examination of fifteenth-century English heresy debates as seen through the figures of the English theologian and bishop Reginald Pecock and the Augustinian friar John Bury. Close reference is made to the key texts throughout, with Latin source quotations provided in the endnotes, allowing readers their own recourse ad fontes.
Throughout the struggle to lay claim on orthodoxy, Levy argues that figures like Woodford, Netter, and Gerson were intent on constructing a narrative in which their Wycliffite and Hussite opponents were portrayed as disregarding the authority of scripture. In this narrative, the Wycliffite and Hussite biblical exegesis was presented as heretical, beyond the bounds of the greater tradition. Nevertheless, Levy asserts that theologians like Wyclif and Hus shared the same magisterial identity as their counterparts, that they in fact “adhered to, and argued on the basis of, the same sources of authority as their adversaries,” and that “all sides of the debate shared the same fundamental catholic assumptions and aspirations.” Levy’s polemical assertion is that modern scholars have often accepted the narrative as constructed by the opponents of Wyclif and Hus, in which certain actors are orthodox and the remainder heretical, and thus fail to recognize the inherent methodological and doctrinal similarities between the figures on all sides.
Although Levy convincingly demonstrates that the theologians under discussion shared similar concerns and methods and that...