Form and Content in History of Exegesis Scholarship

[M]odern scholars have a tendency to concentrate on form and method to the exclusion of content. (John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity [Cambridge, 1996], p.22)

Hardly was there a truer sentence written. Sawyer laments that when scholars come to quotes from Isaiah in the New Testament, they usually list the quotations, note the introductory formulae, ask which original language version they correspond to, and how the quotation is treated, etc. I have found very much the same in studying the history of exegesis. Everyone is concerned with what sources commentators used; whether we can pinpoint an edition of the work cited; the chain of transmission; what languages the commentator knew; whether to characterize the interpretation as literal or allegorical or typological or figurative, and so on. For so long, very few were at work on the actual theology so richly present in the history of exegesis: what were these commentators actually saying? This is changing, thankfully. There are theologically-attuned history of exegesis works, such as G. Sujin Pak’s excellent The Judaizing Calvin (Oxford, 2009), and now many essays take this methodology. My own work on premodern commentary in 1 Corinthians 1-4 is strongly focused on the theology developed in those works which, after all, is what the commentators were principally concerned with.

PhD Thesis

My PhD thesis, “God Our Teacher and the Teaching of Theology: Learning from Premodern Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4,” is officially available online now at the University of Durham’s e-Theses depository. Alternatively, you can read only the Introduction and Chapter One on my profile at (Please do note that citations from the thesis must be acknowledged.) I welcome any questions or comments.

Sedulius Scotus on 1 Corinthians 1:21

Following up on my continuing fascination with exegesis of this verse, here are the comments of Sedulius Scotus (fl. 848-58) on 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe”:

The creation of the world was shaped in the wisdom of God, in which through natural wisdom, which was given and created for this purpose, one ought to have known the one who made it. But since humanity did not know God, other medicines were provided to help them. Therefore, ‘through his wisdom’ is to be understood as ‘through natural wisdom,’ which was given so that God might be known; this ‘natural wisdom’ can also be called the ‘wisdom of God,’ because it was created by God, or because the wisdom of God is certainly the spring and the natural creator of wisdom in humanity.

Factura mundi Dei sapientia est fabricata, in qua per sapientiam naturalem, quae ad hoc data et creata fuerat, debuit cognosci ipse qui fecerat: sed quoniam non cognoverunt homines, alia illis succurritur medicina. Ergo per sapientiam suam intelligendum, per naturalem sapientiam, quae ad hoc data est ut cognoscatur Deus; quae naturalis sapientia, et Dei sapientia dici potest, quod a Deo sit creata, aut certe Dei sapientia fons est et creatrix naturalis in hominibus sapientiae.

Sedulius Scotus, In epistolam I ad Corinthios 1:21 (PL103: 130).

Sedulius’ commentary is unique in speaking here of a “natural wisdom.” Most commentators here speak of God implanting his wisdom into created things or making the world “in wisdom,” but not of there being a “natural wisdom” which can even be identified with the “wisdom of God”! Of course, even though this wisdom was available in the creation, humanity only rarely made use of it; thus, God provided “other medicines”–another unique feature of Sedulius’ exegesis here. Many commentators (including Aquinas and Calvin) speak of God as a teacher who sees that his students have not understood the lesson, and so begins to teach them another way (i.e., the incarnation); Sedulius, on the other hand, views God as a doctor who provides remedies for his patients’ diseases.

Bullinger on 1 Cor. 1:21

Reading Heinrich Bullinger’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (1534), one notices some remarkable similarities to John Calvin’s commentary, to be published some twelve years later (1546). This is especially evident in his comments on 1 Cor. 1:21, “For it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe”:

Let no one wonder at the counsel of God, who revealed the gospel when he wished it to begin to dawn on mortals. It is like this: God fashioned this whole world with the decoration of his majesty–for which reason the Greeks adapted their name for the world, κόσμου, [related to κοσμειν, ‘to order’ or ‘to adorn’]–in order that all nations or educated peoples might know and call on God through this most beautiful spectacle. For so sings the prophet, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1 ESV). And the Philosophers who were believed wise by the consensus of the whole world, did not undertake their praise of it from anything other than what they laboured to examine and investigate in the natures of things. And yet, things were less fortunate when, not only with the common people, but also with the philosophers themselves, this effort ceased. For, by his works and the nature of things and his wonderful governance, they either did not know God, wondering rather at hidden things, or knowing him rightly, they did not worship him, seeking their own praise rather than the praise of the divine. This is explained more fully by the Apostle in Romans 1. Then, since with this he would not succeed, God, who does not want the human race to perish, instead accommodated himself to the capacity of mortals, and, led by his native goodness, altered himself in all appearances [i.e., took on a human life] in order to watch over them. Here he also approached this matter another way, and indeed, through “the foolishness of preaching”–meaning, “through foolish preaching,” in a Hebrew way of speaking.

Ne quis miraretur de Consilio dei, quo uoluit euangelium citra sapientiae splendorem illucescere mortalibus, retegit illud. Est autem tale. Condidit deus uniuersum hunc mundum in ornamentum maiestatis suae, unde & Graeci nomen mundo κόσμου accommodauerunt, ut omnes Gentes uel per hoc pulcherrimum spectaculum eruditae, deum cognoscerent & inuocarent. Sic enim cecinit propheta, ‘Coeli enarrant gloriam dei, & opus manuum eius annunciat firmamentum.’ Et Philosophi qui totius orbis consensu sapientes crediti, id laudis non aliunde assequuti sunt, quam quod in rerum naturis excutiendis & inuestigandis laborarunt. Atqui sinistrius cum apud uulgus, tum apud ipsos philosophos cessit iste conatus. Nam deum ex opere suo atque rerum natura admirabilique administratione uel non cognouerunt, res conditas admirati, uel cognitum rite non coluerunt, suam potius quam numinis laudem quaerentes, quemadmodum copiosus exponitur ab apostolo in 1. in Rom. cap. Proinde cum hac non successisset, deus qui genus mortalium perire non uult, quin potius se ad captum attempterat mortalium, et in omnes formas se, natiua bonitate ductus, uertit, ut seruet, etiam hic diuersa negotium istud aggressus est, nempe per stultitiam praedicationis, id est, per stultam praedicationem. Est enim modus loquendi Hebraicus.

Heinrich Bullinger, In priorem D. Pauli ad Corinthios epistolam (Zürich: Christoffel Froschouer, 1534), fol. 15v-16r.

There are some interesting connections with Calvin here, particularly with the idea that humanity ought to have known God through created things. Calvin speaks of a speculum, a mirror of God’s wisdom: “For in creatures God sets before us a very clear mirror of his marvelous wisdom” (Comm. 1 Cor. 1:21), through which humanity could have come to know God if they hadn’t abused it. Interestingly, Bullinger here speaks of creation as a spectaculum, that “most beautiful spectacle,” through which they “might know and call on God.” Speculum and spectaculum: not, I think, a coincidence.

Both also speak of God choosing to adapt himself to humanity’s failings. Calvin speaks of God approaching us alia via, by another way, using the same verb here as Bullinger uses (aggressus est, ‘to approach’) to speak of approaching us by the Incarnation, and by the foolishness of preaching. Calvin, however, does not specify this alia via, but it is clear he means the same as Bullinger: since humanity had wandered away, God sent Jesus in the flesh–another way–in order to call us back to him.

One interesting difference, I think, though perhaps it is only a matter of emphasis, is where Calvin and Bullinger locate the moral failure on the part of humanity. Bullinger says that the philosophers and common people “ceased” their effort to know God, for two reasons: they either (i) were more curious about hidden things than about God or (ii) they preferred their own glory to the worship of God. Calvin, on the other hand, does not mention particular ways in which humanity is at fault in this, but only that it is our own fault: “Thus, it is to be imputed to our own vice that we do not acquire a saving knowledge of God before we are emptied of our own understanding.” His emphasis is more on this latter: that because of our moral failing, we first must become foolish, empty of our own ideas about God, before we can then come to God in his revelation.

The Canon Within the Canon

Reading about 13th century commentaries on the Bible has led me to a thought: there has always been a kind of “canon within the canon,” sections of the Bible that have attracted more (or less) attention. This has taken different forms and been done for different reasons. For instance, after surveying the number of commentaries produced in Paris in the 13th century on different books of the Bible, Jacques Verger (“L’exégèse de l’Université,” in Le moyen age et la Bible) concludes that the friars were attracted to books that led more clearly to doctrine or lent themselves to preaching morality, books such as the Psalms, wisdom books, the Gospels and Paul’s letters, and led them to leave aside the Pentateuch and historical books, the minor prophets and Revelation. It “illustrates the ancillary use of exegesis for speculative theology and Christian philosophy” in this time period (p.224). Christians of every age, it seems, have had their reasons to be drawn more to certain books than others. What are our reasons?