In Julian of Norwich, Theologian, Denys Turner claims that we’re often tempted to read Julian as caught between the two poles of her immediate, private experience (her “shewings”) and the external, dogmatic authority of the Church. This reading, characterized by William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, posits an interior self perpetually at odds with the mediated formulas of the Church hierarchy (77). Seeking to debunk this myth, Turner examines the medieval form of the biblical text and the complex apparatus of medieval exegesis, the fourfold sense of scripture.
In contrast to today’s biblical scholar, Turner writes that the medieval exegete,
would have found it quite implausible to draw any sharp distinction between the biblical text as a primary datum of revelation and the Church’s practices of that text’s reception, as if either had any authority independently of the other. For in practical reality, the biblical text came to the medieval exegete physically as a codex of which the pages contained the bare words of scripture already “read between the lines” in the form of the interlinear gloss and surrounded by more ample glosses in the margins, a scribal practice that constituted, when standardized in the mid-twelfth century, what by the thirteenth century had come to be known as the glossa ordinaria. This compilation was put together from centuries of the Church’s reflections and meditations, whether embodied in the traditions of patristic and early medieval scriptural commentary, in dogmatic decree, in liturgical practice, or in traditions of preaching. It was that single, many-layered reality that came to the medieval theologian as scripture, scripture as received by the Church, which displayed, even in its physical layout, both the text and its reception. It was known to the theologian with a “bodily” literalness and theological profundity as the sacra pagina, the “sacred page,” the Bible as material object (79-80).
It seems that we hardly regard the bible today as a “material object,” in the sense of abiding within the “many-layered reality” of complex glosses, scribal notes, liturgical formulas – in short, a bible that has already been “read between the lines.” We’re more likely to be confronted by a “pure” text, unmediated and ready for review.
Turner brings to light the complex question of scripture’s relation to authority. Julian’s world, as Turner convincingly argues, was not segmented into silos of tradition, scripture and experience or reason. Rather, her shewings and experience of the sacra pagina were given within “a single, complex, indivisible whole – her shewings as mediated to her through the teaching of the Church” (82). In light of Turner’s reading of Julian, can we so easily untangle the complex web of tradition, scripture and reason?