William Perkins and Medieval Exegesis
Oct 17, 2017
In my previous post, we considered the response of William Tyndale to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholic exegesis, specifically the fourfold method. In line with his claim for the “single, full, and natural sense” of Scripture passages, William Perkins (1558-1602), a pioneer in the rise of Puritanism, states in his preaching-handbook classic, The Art of Prophesying (1592), “Scripture has only one sense, the literal one.” He contrasts this with “the Church of Rome,” which “believes that passages of Scripture have four senses.”
Perkins illustrates this from Genesis 14:18 from “the figure of Melchizedek” and how “he offered bread and wine to Abraham.” According to the fourfold method: “The literal sense is that the king of Salem, with the food that he brought, refreshed the soldiers of Abraham, who were tired after their travel. The allegorical sense is that the priest offers up Christ in the mass. The tropological sense is that we are to give to the poor. The anagogical sense is that Christ who is in heaven shall be the bread of life to the faithful.” Perkins vehemently concludes, “This pattern of the fourfold meaning of Scripture must be rejected and destroyed.”
Unfortunately, he never tells how we ought to understand this passage. At the same time, he does not throw away every element of the fourfold approach: “An allegory is only a different way of expressing the same meaning.” In others, a text may need to be exegeted as an allegory where the meaning comes not from a surface reading but a figurative one. “The anagogy and tropology,” are simply “ways of applying the sense of the passage.” In other words, we get to the ethical and/or eschatological import only by way of application not sense. Therefore, it is one thing to set forth several applications of the one meaning and quite another to extract several meanings from a passage.
In Perkins’s posthumously published Commentary or Exposition, upon the Five First Chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians (1604; recently republished by RHB), he critiques the fourfold approach again in discussion of Galatians 4:22-24, where Paul identifies Abraham’s wives, Hagar as the “bondwoman” and Sarah as the “freewoman,” as an “allegory” representing the Old and New Covenants. He argues that the “Papists” here make a “double sense” of Scripture in terms of the literal and the spiritual. Perkins attests that there exists in the fourfold approach the literal sense (whether proper or figurative) and the spiritual sense, in which is included, the allegorical (OT “signifying” NT ideas), tropological (“touching manners”), and anagogical (“the estate of everlasting life”) senses.
Applied to what Paul calls the “free” and “mother” city of Jerusalem in Galatians 4:26, the fourfold method sees it as a city “properly,” the “Church” allegorically, “a state well ordered” tropologically, and “the estate of eternal life” anagogically. Perkins claims, “to the contrary,” there is always just one “full and entire sense,” the literal one expressed in a straightforward or figurative manner by way of divine intention. Instead of seeing these as two senses, as the Roman Catholic does, they are but one, for “to make many senses of Scripture, is to overturn all sense, and to make nothing certain.” In other words, arguing for multiple senses leads to chaos and confusion and the lingering question, So what does this text mean anyway?
Regarding the three spiritual senses, Perkins maintains, “they are not senses, but applications or uses.” So, within the “history of Abraham’s family” in Jerusalem the literal and figurative understanding of the text are not two senses, but “two parts of the one full and entire sense.” Thus, the full sense contains “not only the bare history, but also that which is thereby signified.” In this way, we do not negate the historical aspect of the text but see it as a contribution to the fuller sense intended by the Holy Spirit.
Perkins does not connect divine intention with fuller sense in a detailed manner. Still, we can see that he has much to contribute to the contemporary hermeneutical discussion and debate over sensus plenior (“the fuller sense”). In other words, given the unity of a Bible breathed out by the superintending work of the Holy Spirit, should we not expect at times a divinely intended meaning not immediately apparent in the text and may even transcend human authorial intention? Unfortunately, Perkins is not available for a detailed response to this question.
In the process, we are left wondering how to get at the meaning of a passage understood figuratively. Are we not liable to the very subjective overturning of Scripture we want to avoid? Perkins helps us in the Art of Prophesying, where he insists that the Scripture itself governs its interpretation with three subordinate means for such interpretation: “the analogy of faith, the circumstances of the particular passage, and comparison with other passages.”
The analogy of faith refers to a summary of Scripture extracted from its clearest texts. The summary fences in errant conclusions teachings we may glean from more “cryptic” texts. The circumstances of the passage concern the preceding and following context within which the passage resides. Discussing the context naturally leads to considering the passage in comparison with other passages, which helps to clarify the one meaning of the text.
Taken together, context and circumstances help us to differentiate between “plain” passages whose meaning arises naturally out of the context (e.g. “whoever believes in [clearly Christ] will receive remission of sins” in Acts 10:43) and “cryptic” ones requiring the plain parts of Scripture to shed light on the “dark” passage (e.g. “This is My body [bread understood metaphorically as Christ] which is broken for you” in 1 Cor. 11:24). Put simply, some texts must be understood in light of other clearer texts and in agreement with the theological summary of faith. In this manner, theology and exegesis continually feed off of one another. Without explicit discussion, the Puritans understood very well the symbiotic relationship between biblical and systematic theology.
To his credit, even the medieval Aquinas (considered in our previous post) asserted that the obscure must be interpreted in light of the clear. Likewise, the Puritans did not insist that the surface reading of a text always got to its “single” meaning. Sometimes, we have to dig deeper. Still, the Puritans saw the failure of Roman Catholic exegesis to limit the text to the single meaning. Thus, we hear Perkins speaking of the divine “intention” of the Holy Spirit as interpreter and determiner of meaning. This comes in connection to Perkins’s mention of the anointed preacher of Isaiah 61:1 finding its ultimate meaning in Christ as revealed in Luke 4:18. This meaning is not immediately apparent in the Old Testament text and so divinely determined and discovered in light of the entire canon of Scripture.
Perkins’s exegetical approach leads to extracting its teachings, which are either explicitly stated (e.g. human depravity) or necessarily deduced (e.g. the Trinity). This highlighted discontinuity with medieval exegesis, which strays into excesses all too easily. In a couple of instances, Perkins takes issue with Augustine, who was certainly a forerunner to such medieval wanderings.
Finally, Perkins considers the “uses” or applications must come directly from the text. In line with his earlier discussion, this necessarily relates to tropological (ethical) and anagogical (eschatological) uses. Most importantly, and with the impact of Lutheran hermeneutics apparent, proper application demands knowing whether the passage sets forth the law or gospel. In line with his two-covenant theology, he argues that the law shows the “need for perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them.” The gospel, by contrast, reveals “Christ and his benefits, and of faith being frutiful in good works.”
In the end, the Puritans showed both continuity and discontinuity with medieval exegesis and even the fourfold method. Unfortunately, in calling attention to the continuity, some scholars have missed the distinction that the Puritans made between sense and application. Such an oversight leads to the tendency to see how foundational the discontinuity remained. Still, the continuity that remains leaves us wondering whether helpful discussion and healthy compromise might take place at a table talk with Augustine, Aquinas, Tyndale, and Perkins.
Previous Posts in this Series
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