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Volume 13, Issue 5: Ex Libris


Historical Writing in England, vols. I & II
Antonia Grandsen
Routledge [reprint], 1996
Reviewed by Chris Schlect

These are books about books. In fact, Historical Writing in England considers some of the most profound historical literature ever written. If you have read the likes of Bede the Venerable or William of Malmesbury or Matthew Paris, then Historical Writing in England may indeed be for you. If you teach these texts, Historical Writing in England may be your most valuable tool.

Because we follow the Enlightenment's view of the past, we downplay the Age of Faith. And some despise the Middle Ages out of fidelity to our historyless Protestantism: we scurry from the papist spooks we imagine to be hiding under beds and in back of closets. (We forget that the medieval church was the church that created Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin.) The resulting prejudice has caused us, by and large, to ignore a good deal of Christendom's most significant literary output. Surely this is as true of historical literature as it is of other genres. Antonia Grandsen's two volumes of Historical Writing in England is both a work of reference and a survey. It is accessible both to academics and to serious students who are looking for background on, say, the chroniclers who wrote about the reign of a particular English king. Grandsen is a scholar of the first rank, and provides many original insights into certain medieval writers. Her treatment of Asser, the much-debated biographer of King Alfred, shows her mastery of complicated issues and competence to contribute new thoughts to a specialized debate that has raged since the 1840s. Time and again I have turned to Grandsen's sections on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Henry of Huntington and the St. Albans school highlighted by Matthew Paris.
Perhaps most useful are Grandsen's broad discussions of the history of historians, brief as they are in such a largework. Historical Writing in England considers changes and influences over many centuries, from annalists and monastic chroniclers and secular scribes, down to the decline of the monastic tradition of history that accompanied the rise of humanism in the Tudor era. Through her survey Grandsen focuses on particulars, discussing one historian and then the next. Apart from trifling disagreements over details here and there, my main criticism is the brevity of her broad analysis. She could do better to identify broader trends. When we flit from arch to buttress to rose window without stepping back to take in the whole, we can miss the cathedral itself. But how grand is the rose window of Bede and the buttress of William of Malmesbury!

Medieval Exegesis, Volumes I & II
Henri du Lubac
William B. Eerdmans, 2000

Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

If the modern world has a whipping boy more popular than the Puritans, it would have to be the medievals. And one of the foremost recipients of modernity's scorn in this regard is the medieval hermeneutic. As an antidote for all such foolishness, these volumes are outstanding. Lubac puts to rest the notion that medieval exegesis was a vast, millennium-long exercise of naivete. Not only so, but he shows near the end of the first volume how such practices were driven by an understanding of the profound newness of the new covenant. And at the conclusion of the second volume (and scattered throughout the books), he shows how Pauline in spirit this approach to the texts was. Thus the approach was both theologically profound and spiritually fresh, and in many ways far more admirable than what we as moderns do. I have to confess these books were a real blessing to me—I am especially grateful for the image of the beautiful, captive woman from Deuteronomy as an illustration of how Christians are to handle secular learning.

Not surprisingly, however, the book still got my Protestant goat at some key places. The medieval quadriga is really nothing other than systematic theology. The system is different from ours, but the presence of systematic is not. All the dangers of this that we have come to recognize in modern systematics should be kept in mind.
Lubac includes typology in allegory, and says typology is insufficient on its own (Vol. I, p. 259). I would want to reverse this. This is because typology is Hebraic—in contrast to Hellenistic "allegory." Hellenism remains a deadly foe to this day, and some of the early adversaries of Gnosticism, like Origen, still tracked a good deal of it into the Church. To use modern terms, allegory tends to understand spirituality and "spiritual meanings" Hellenistically, while typology understands spirituality Hebraically.
One example was Lubac's ability to applaud "scientific" exegesis alongside "spiritual" far too readily for my tastes, showing how easy it is for the mystical understanding to float above the real world of literal meanings.
And last, how is the historic Protestant to handle his confessional restrictions, particularly where we are told the meaning of Scripture is "not manifold, but one"? (WCF I/9.) This is not saying that every word of Scripture is univocal. The text itself determines how many meanings there are. As acquaintance with the exegesis of early Protestants shows, and as Richard Muller notes in his theological dictionary, the Protestant hermeneutic is not simplistic reaction.
Any Protestant who wants to wrestle with these issues of faithful exegesis should get these books.

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