The letter slayeth

This is going to be a longer post about some writing I’m working on: this is thought in progress. I’ve been plumbing commentary on this little bit of Biblical verse: the full passage is from 2 Cor. 2-6:

2Epistola nostra vos estis, scripta in cordibus nostris, quae scitur, et legitur ab omnibus hominibus: 3manifestati quod epistola estis Christi, ministrata a nobis, et scripta non atramento, sed Spiritu Dei vivi: non in tabulis lapideis, sed in tabulis cordis carnalibus. 4Fiduciam autem talem habemus per Christum ad Deum: 5non quod sufficientes simus cogitare aliquid a nobis, quasi ex nobis: sed sufficientia nostra ex Deo est: 6qui et idoneos nos fecit ministros novi testamenti: non littera sed Spiritu: littera enim occidit, Spiritus autem vivificat.

2You all are our letter, written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men: 3it is made manifest that you all are the letter of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but the living spirit of God: not on tablets of stone, but on fleshly tablets of the heart. 4Through Christ, however, we have a great amount of confidence in God: 5not that we are so sufficient that we might think anything of ourselves, as if anything could come from us: but our sufficiency comes from God 6who has made us proper ministers of the new testament, not in the letter, but the spirit, for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

The key here according to the Glossa Ordinaria is a distinction between the Old Law and the New Law: the Old Testament is written on stone, but the New Testament is written on the fleshly body of Christ.

The interesting move, however, is that the passage is used to make commentary on commentary and the nature of the literal sense vs. other interpretive senses. Perhaps the most famous example occurs in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale (see III.1790-1796), but I’ll leave this reference to “glosynge” as obfuscation aside to look at another context: the conflict over Biblical translation. Wycliffite writers beat their opponents over the head with the passage in at least four places–an English sermon (Hudson & Gradon’s no. 42), the treatise “The holi prophete David saith,” ch. 12 of the “General Prologue” to the Bible, and one of the treatises on translation in CUL Ms Ii.6.26. (I’ve not seen this last one yet. It also appears in some of Wyclif’s Latin works, but I’ll leave those aside for now.) The polemical point is perhaps clearest in the “The holi prophete David seith”: “enemies” use “the letter sleeth” to say that

the lettere of hooli writ is harmful . . . sithen that it sleeth men by deeth of synne.” On the contrary: “sithen the wordis of Crist ben wordis of everlastyng liyf . . . the wordis of Crist been ful hooly and ful migty and ful profitable to trewe men.

The passage should be interpreted, he continues, to signify the difference between the Old and New Law, as the Glossa says. A similar point is made in the English sermon. The writer then turns the passage back onto the “proud clerkis”:

Also this sentence, the letter sleeth, schulde more make aferid proude clerkis, that undirstonden the trewthe of Goddis lawe and lyuen custummabli ther agens, than symple men of witt that litil undirstonden the lawe of Crist and bisie hem to lywe weel in charite to God and man.

Here, it seems to me at least, is the heart of it–“charity” comes up here (as it does in Chaucer as well) but this time the point explicitly comes down to how the Bible is not just interpreted but actually turned into practice, how it is used. The oblique reference (explicit in the “General Prologue”) is to Augustine’s extended riff on the passage in Book 3 of De Doctrina Christiana. Augustine starts with the premise that all Biblical interpretation must come back to charity: if it doesn’t, it’s simply an incorrect interpretation. “Simple men of witt” live this in their lives, despite their ignorance of scripture; “proud clerkis” don’t, or pervert it out of lust or greed.

There’s a lot more that could be said about what this connects to, but I’ll stop here with a question that comes from all of this: are these Wycliffite commentators just using the “simple man” as a straw man to make an academic point, or are they interested in advocating some kind of change in actual social practice? They are no doubt interested in political change–viz. the great deal of anger directed at ecclesiastical endowments–but how much is academic Wycliffism interested in changing the lived devotional experiences of academics, or the laity?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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