David Jeffrey on “Scripture in the Studium and the Rise of the Humanities”

Thinkers on both sides of the Christian/secular divide have attempted to cordon themselves off from the other; the only question, David Jeffrey suggests, is “which one is the fly in the ointment?” But contrary to both perspectives is the fact that the rich tradition of biblical learning in the west has remained more biblical than classical despite ancient and contemporary desires for it to be otherwise.

Having offered this central claim, Dr. Jeffrey proceeded to lay out in historical fashion the influence of the Bible on both the content and the method of the humanities in the western world. At every stage of history, from Paul to Augustine to the Benedictine monastics to Aquinas to Bede to Erasmus to Calvin to Milton to Goethe to Gadamer (Dr. Jeffrey was rather fond of lists!), Scripture has served as the “ontological object” of western thought.

To note a few more important examples: Augustine’s work became the methodological basis for the humanities even in cases where his actual exegesis fell out of favor, and his distinction between things and signs laid the groundwork for modern semiotics, and his pedagogy, as both implementation and critique of Cicero, became standard in the medieval (and later) university. Anselm argued on the basis of the imago dei that study of the humanities borders on the sacramental. The Benedictine monasteries stood alongside Roman garrisons as the centerpieces of towns throughout Europe, and the monasteries remained centers of learning and particularly of translation centuries after the garrisons had been destroyed.

Polymaths such as Bede and Hugh of St. Victor wrote widely on geography, rhetoric, grammar, and other disciplines, but were above all else biblical theologians. St. Bonaventure described the cyclical relationship between “secular” and “sacred” truth by saying that all knowledge is light, but the highest of all lights is Scripture, and yet knowledge that pertains to Scripture may be found in all divisions of knowledge. In a later more antagonistic era, Dr. Jeffrey suggested that even Goethe’s explicit challenge to the authority of Scripture demonstrated Scripture’s foundational role in his writing. Recently, of course, the tables have turned somewhat as Christian, Jewish, and secular literary critics have revived the reading of the Bible as literature (e.g., Alter, Sternberg, Ryken). One can even find courses at secular universities on “the bible as literature” and the like.

To sum up, Dr. Jeffrey suggested that Augustine’s critique of Cicero still stands—to pursue the liberal arts (in the former case, eloquence in particular) as intrinsic rather than instrumental goods has failed. We need instead an integrated wisdom undergirded and unified by sacred Scripture itself. Scripture must continue to be, as it has always been, a fountain that waters and gives life to all other disciplines.


About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
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