Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages
by Ian Christopher Levy
University of Notre Dame, 332 pages, $38
As long as the Church has endured, the “quest for authority” has been a problematic enterprise. Christians have always agreed that the Scriptures are foundational, but whence comes the authority to distill biblical teachings, form specific guidelines for practice and belief, and adjudicate disputes about the interpretation of Scripture?
In a fascinating historical treatment, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy offers a new perspective on this question. Levy, a professor of historical theology at Providence College, overturns the image of a placid medieval Church and shows instead that the crises of interpretive authority that we associate with the early modern period in fact have their roots in the turbulent controversies of the Middle Ages.
A skillful and conscientious historian, he looks back on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in order to document a failure of theological method. This failure, he suggests, then paved the way for a modern, hierarchical reconfiguration of ecclesial authority, in which Church authorities took a more decisive role in the determination of doctrine. Given the intractable interpretive controversies of the late medieval period, this development, he suggests, was necessary.
Yet it is worth asking whether the central problem really was a deficiency in method, a failure to programmatize adequately the “quest for authority.” As Levy has shown, reformers and their opponents both acknowledged the authority of Scripture within a traditional, ecclesial framework. This methodological equivalence, he argues, produced unresolvable conflicts.
His perspective, though, is clinical and abstract. It permits him to see the breakdown of authority in structural rather than moral terms: as the incoherence of a shared method rather than a failure of charity. Theological conflict does not register in this account as the lamentable fragmentation of Christian unity but becomes, in quasi-Hegelian terms, the engine of doctrinal development.
In his account, the honorable holism of bishops and theologians seeking to balance both Scripture and tradition appears to be fatally circular. No appeal to Scripture could stand unless it harmonized with the tradition; and no recourse to tradition was viable unless it squared with the literal sense of Scripture. As a theological method staked on multiple sources of authority, late medieval holism proved too weak and incoherent in practice to permit a decisive rendering of doctrine.
To illustrate the point, Levy turns to two late medieval reformers, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. In Catholic memory, these reformers were radical, transgressive schismatics condemned by the Church and burned—Wycliffe after his burial and Hus, famously, while very much alive. To many Protestants, they were forerunners of the Reformation: courageous champions of sola Scriptura, critics of a corrupt hierarchy, and, in Hus’ case, a martyr for the cause of truth.
The principal burden of Levy’s book is to show that Wycliffe and Hus were entirely conventional in the ways that they argued for their theological positions. Their actual conclusions, to be sure, were edgy—including, as they did, belief that the true Church included only the predestined. Wycliffe also leveled sharp criticisms against papal authority, the legitimacy of mendicant orders, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. Yet a close examination shows that with respect to method and sensibility, they stood fully and firmly within the parameters of Catholic tradition.
According to a common view of medieval academic thought, biblical interpretation worked with dull efficiency, as scholastics threw a net of logical, dogmatic coordinates over the books of the Bible in order to capture their meanings. Instead, Levy shows, appeals to authority did not capture meanings as much as multiply them. One could speak in theory of a coherent body of truth revealed in the Scriptures and clarified by the Spirit in the life and traditions of the Church. But in practice, the synthesis of Scripture and tradition was too weak to adjudicate real controversy.
The Bible was the liber vitae, the “book of life,” which formed the foundation for all Christian life and practice. Yet it was not a naked text. To read it properly, to ascertain even its literal sense, required that one be a loyal son of the Church, humbly disposed toward the sacred page, and attuned spiritually to the “overarching sacred sense” as witnessed in the life of the Church. But traditions (e.g., sacraments not found in the Bible) gained force only as explications of what was implicit in Scripture. And no pope had a right to expect obedience if his decrees did not align with biblical teaching.
This situation produced confusion. Take, for example, the charge against Wycliffe that he was an extreme subjectivist who insisted on the authority of a literal sense disjoined from and set above theology. Nothing in his actual writings, says Levy, supports this judgment.
Scripture is not, for Wycliffe, an inert text that must be brought by interpretation into accord with theological positions. Scripture is already a theological reality identifiable with Christ, and so the “material text should not be called Holy Scripture strictly speaking, since these manuscripts are only sacred to the extent that the sacred meaning accompanies them.” In other words, Wycliffe identifies precisely the kind of metaphysical background for Scripture which requires one to understand it in a Catholic way, within the fuller reality of Christian redemption.
On other questions, Levy argues, we have tended to confuse calls for reform with doctrinal reinvention. The new mendicant orders that had already begun to develop by the middle of the thirteenth century were challenged by many in the Church who argued that there was no scriptural warrant for creating these orders. When Wycliffe and Hus took issue with mendicants and papal overreach, they were simply expressing a “long-standing frustration,” not making an innovative call for the abolition of “human institutions.”
So where does all of this leave us? Levy claims that late medieval theology was structurally unstable. No “fully coherent system of authority” existed that could arbitrate theological disputes. As a result, two reform-minded Catholic theologians working within traditional parameters were condemned by the Church. At the conclusion of this dark episode, a critical historian might step in, thank Levy for his research, point to the ashes of Wycliffe and Hus, and explain that history knows only power, not truth.
But Levy is no deconstructionist. Anticipating the critical, Foucauldian maneuver, he waves away the suspicion that the function of “truth” is simply to provide rhetorical cover to forms of political domination. He cautions that his study “should not be taken to imply that orthodoxy itself is a relative concept with no objective referent” or that it is a “‘power construct’ designed to achieve political ends.” He further assures the reader that “orthodoxy is objectively real, and it does matter.”
In what way, then, did these disastrous episodes advance the cause of orthodoxy? The chief lesson to be learned, Levy argues, was that the Church hierarchy needed to take a more decisive role in the formation of doctrine. Anything short of this would have left theologians in the same conflicted territory inhabited by late medieval theologians. As he puts it, when it comes to determining the sense of Scripture, “there is some assembly required.”
Revisiting late medieval biblical interpretation, we may consider the delicacy of the hermeneutic circle formed by Scripture and tradition, appreciating the fragility of a synthesis that refuses to impose on ancient consensus a linear, hierarchical path to truth. Late medieval holism, though “weak,” may honor something essential about the nature of Christian truth seeking.
The depth, passion, and Christian commitment of men like Wycliffe and Hus, which Levy has so ably conveyed, suggest that we see them not as casualties of an intrinsically just process of development. Instead, we may see them as magisterial figures committed to Scripture and tradition, as men who were victims not of history but of hatred, the worst kind of theological odium. Thanks to Levy’s careful scholarship, we may lament anew the fall of Wycliffe and the burning of Hus, for no failure of love is ever a victory for God.
Michael C. Legaspi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.