Polanus on interpreting Scripture

Posted on February 22, 2008

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‘The interpretation of H. Scripture is the exposition (explicatio) of its true sense and use, arranged in clear words (verbis perspicuis instituta), to the glory of God and the edification of the church.’ Even in my inelegant translation, that’s not a bad opening gambit. The (long…) section ends with a paragraph ‘on the use of H. Scripture for consolation’: ‘…therefore however grave the evil, so great and certain is the good set against it, that it is an effective remedy for sorrow. A most beautiful example (exemplum pulcherrinendum) is Isa. 41:26 ff. …’

The words are from Amandus Polanus’s Syntagma Theologiae Christianae; it was never going to be a big seller, even in theological terms. The edition in our library, published in Geneva in 1617, runs to something over 700 pages in folio, with two columns of (I estimate) six point Latin text on each. Oh, and the printer’s Greek font is all-but-illegible, at least to my eyes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the ‘Synopsis’ at the start of the book is a masterpiece of Ramist bifurcations (I counted six levels of subdivision on the definition of theology alone), and the text itself is in classical scholastic quaestiones form. What was it Barth said of Heppe? ‘Dry and dusty as a table of logarithms …’

I pulled it out the library to check a reference. I suspect I am its first reader in living memory; it is not yet on our electronic catalogue (most of our best books aren’t…), and was apparently misplaced in the stacks, so the librarian took a while to find it. Her perseverance seemed to demand some from me; and in between the anti-Roman polemic, and the fading and tiny Latin print, I found my heart strangely warmed.

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