Reading the Bible with simplicity: Francis of Assisi’s (c. 1181–1226) spiritual reading of the Bible

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The purpose of this article is to examine Francis of Assisi’s (c. 1181–1226) spiritual reading of the Bible. The study begins with an overview of the nature and function of the Bible, in general terms, during the early Middle Ages. Thereafter, the focus moves to Francis. After providing a short overview of Francis’s life, the author examines the access Francis had to the Bible, and the unique way in which he made the Bible his own. The author then examines Francis’s reaction against Biblical literalism, how he prayed the Bible, and the role of the Bible in the famous Franciscan Rules. The article concludes with a summary of the findings, and also provides some suggestions regarding how Francis’s spiritual reading of the Bible might still have value for modern-day Christian spirituality.

The spiritual reading of the Bible has been present since the beginning of Christianity. Most notably, we see an emphasis on the spiritual “sense” of scripture in the popularity of allegorical Biblical interpretation in the early church. By the beginning of the Middle Ages the Bible was inextricably connected with liturgical, homiletical and interpretative trends in the early church. Thus, when we speak of the “Bible” in the Middle Ages, we should not have a modern concept of the Bible in mind. The Bible was like a library, and because of this, individual books or collections of books were often the foundation for spiritual readings of the Bible. Furthermore, the process of Bible study, in itself, and not simply the truth derived from the study, was at the heart of the spiritual experience. Allegory remained central during the Middle Ages. Finally, it should also be remembered that access to the Bible was limited. During the Middle Ages, the Bible was, in most respects, an elite material object. The production of Bibles or collections of Bible books was very expensive. When a lay person did have access to the Bible, it was by means of an intermediary, like a priest or monk, and such a person did not always have immediate and ready access to the entire Bible. Moreover, we should also remember that, in the context of Francis, the Bible was available only in Latin translation, and the majority of the laity had a very limited, if any, working knowledge of Latin. These were the challenges faced by Francis, to which he gave a significant and meaningful response. 

For Francis, a spiritual reading of the Bible was a reading based on the virtue of simplicity. Francis’s approach to the Bible is mirrored in his approach to life. Francis admonished people to live with simplicity and even in poverty, and thus the Bible should also be read in a simple manner. Yet this reading based on simplicity is by no means one that is anti-intellectual or naïve. The Franciscan “simple” reading of the Bible implies a spiritual and mental engagement with the text. The text then becomes a safe haven for the reader, and even turns into the very language of the individual in the experience of daily life. Francis’s understanding and use of the Bible also challenge one not to be constrained by the limits of genre when it comes to his spiritual reading. Francis’s spiritual reading of the Bible often functions simultaneously as a commentary, a song and a prayer.

In the Middle Ages, where access to the Bible was exclusive and often limited to the elite, we find that Francis democratised the message of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. In this way, he also made his spiritual reading of the Bible available to more people. He was, on the one hand, opposed to the strict literal interpretation of the Bible, yet on the other hand we also do not find excessive allegorisation in his reading of the Bible. Francis’s spiritual reading of the Bible might also be considered, then, as a moderate interpretative framework, almost between literal and allegorical interpretation. Vauchez (2012:267) speaks of a “spiritual literalism” when referring to Francis’s reading of the Bible. Francis aimed to balance the understanding of the Bible with living the Biblical truths. If one was to paraphrase Francis’s view it might be in these words: “Your life must be a Bible.” 

Keywords: Bible; Christianity; Francis of Assisi; Middle Ages; spirituality


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