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36 - The Bible in the spiritual literature of the medieval West

from Part IV - The Bible in Use

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2012

Richard Marsden
University of Nottingham
E. Ann Matter
University of Pennsylvania
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From the twelfth century through to the period of the Protestant Reformation, western Christian authors produced a great library of texts focusing on the relationship between human beings and God, offering insights to and paths for the spiritual life of the believer. Many of these were visionary texts, directly revealed to the author; some were formally theological and thus more properly could be called (using a word that medieval authors did not use in the way we do) ‘mysticism’. When twentieth-century scholars finally came to terms with this literature as part of the legacy of Christian thought, they basically agreed on two things: first, that the corpus (which had been largely neglected in favour of works of systematic theology) was an important part of the development of Christian theology, and second, that an encompassing term that could aptly describe a variety of these texts with a minimum of anachronism is ‘spirituality’ or ‘spiritual literature’.

Besides the fact that western Christian spiritual literature and the tradition of biblical exegesis are literary genres that have been relatively neglected by historians of Christianity, spirituality and exegesis have much in common. For one thing, spiritual literature relies on received traditions of biblical interpretation for fundamental keys to living a Christian life. In fact, many works of medieval biblical exegesis can be read as spiritual guides. This chapter will begin by discussing some of the most important examples of such ‘spiritual exegesis’, and then conclude with a look at how the traditions of biblical exegesis influenced a broader selection of spiritual literature.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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For a discussion of visionary literature and the problematic term ‘mysticism’, see McGinn, B., The Presence of God. A History of Western Christian Mysticism. Vol The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. xi–xx and 265–343, where McGinn distinguishes between theological, philosophical and comparative/psychological approaches to ‘mysticism.’ He points out (pp. 157–8) that the term ‘mystical theology’ was invented in the early sixth century by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (see below), and used by Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century (Vida, 1.10), but our current understanding of the term ‘mysticism’ was a creation of the seventeenth century.
There has been an explosion of scholarly literature on western Christian spirituality in the past four decades, including the influential, and ongoing, series of English translations The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978–).
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