After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition

By Richard A. Muller | Go to book overview

9
The Debate over the Vowel Points
and the Crisis in Orthodox Hermeneutics

Although the century-long debate in post-Reformation Protestantism over the origin and antiquity of the vowel points in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament may seem somewhat far removed from the concerns of modern theology, it remains a significant index of the alteration both in doctrine and hermeneutic that took place in Reformed theology as it moved from the period of the Reformation into the age of orthodoxy and rationalism. This debate stands on the divide between exegesis according to the principles of analogia Scripturae and analogia fidei and the more strictly textual exegesis associated with modern criticism of Scripture.

At the beginning of the Reformation, the system of “jots and tittles” known as vowel points, and used as an aid to the pronunciation of Hebrew in the Massoretic text of the Old Testament, was hardly a source of exegetical difficulty. Whereas rabbinic teaching, following the doctrines of the Kabbala, held the coetaneous revelation of consonants and vowels to Moses on Sinai, medieval Christian interpreters of Scripture had viewed the points as a Jewish attempt to conceal the true meaning of the text and render it useless to Christians. The several patterns of allegorical, spiritual, and typological exegesis practiced in the late Middle Ages and the early sixteenth century, however, made a critical approach to the vowel points unnecessary. 1 Luther argued that the points were merely an imperfect aid to the reader, that they were unknown to Jerome and thus postbiblical in origin, and that they might be altered by the interpreter in order to bring the meaning of the Old Testament into conformity with the revelation of Christ in the New Testament. 2 Zwingli concurred, expressing a low opinion of the vowel points. 3 Neither worried over the possible use of the system of vocalization to corrupt the text. Calvin, more textually oriented in his exegesis than either Zwingli or Luther, had a high regard for the accuracy of the Massoretic editors of the text and, while believing the vowel points to be an invention of these rabbis, approved of alterations in pointing only after critical examination of the meaning of the text. 4

A crucial juncture in the understanding of the text of the Old Testament occurred in 1538 when Elias Levita published his commentary on the collected scribal annotations, the Massorah. Levita was able to show that neither the Talmud nor the Midrash mani-

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