Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Literal Sense of Scripture

In his Commentary on Job 1:6, St. Thomas defines the literal sense as that which is intended by the words, whether properly or figuratively (e.g. by a metaphor). In his Commentary on Galatians, St. Thomas gives a fuller explanation of his theory regarding the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture—this same theory is proposed also in the Summa Theologiae I, q.1, a. 10 and the Quaestiones de quolibet VII, q.6, a.1-3. He states that signification is twofold, either occurring from the use of a word to signify a thing or from the use of a thing (itself signified by a word) to signify another thing. The first of these significations pertains to the literal or historical sense, while the second pertains to the mystical or spiritual sense. St. Thomas does not think, however, that man is capable (unaided by the particular grace of inspiration) of signifying things according to the mystical sense. Rather, to signify a thing by the use of another thing (itself signified by words) is peculiar to Sacred Scripture and is accomplished not according to the powers of the human author, but according to the power of God, who is the principle author.

According to St. Thomas, God is the author of the spiritual sense and the literal sense. In point of fact, St. Thomas suggests that the literal sense may signify more even than the human author comprehends, since even the literal sense relies primarily on that signification which God intends (ST I, q.1, a.10). Needless to say, the spiritual sense, it seems, always pertains exclusively to the divine intention and must always go beyond the comprehension of the human author whose powers are unable to signifying things with other things.

Yet, it may be questioned whether, in the case of a metaphor, the thing literally signified is the metaphorical object, the thing figured, or both. St. Thomas contends that the figure (the metaphorical object) is not that which is signified, but rather the thing figured is alone signified according to the literal sense. It must be remembered that metaphor is contained in the literal sense of the text—poetry and metaphor use words to signify things under figures, but this is still far short of signifying a thing with another thing.

St. Thomas’ fundamental teaching regarding the spiritual sense is that it is always founded upon the literal and proceeds from it (Quaestiones de quolibet VII, q.6, a.1). A second theme regarding the spiritual sense is that the truth signified by the spiritual sense in one place - insofar as that truth is necessary to the faith - is signified according to the literal sense in some other place (ST I, q.1, a.10). As the spiritual sense is always founded on the literal sense, so too any essential truth signified by the spiritual sense is also signified according to the literal sense of some other passage.

Most importantly, St. Thomas’ method of literal interpretation is marked by his careful study of each word of the text—each word is studied in itself, in relation to the rest of Scripture, and in relation to truth as presented more generally through science, philosophy, and theology. It is this focus on the meaning of each word which characterizes the literal interpretation of Scripture - since the literal sense is that by which the words themselves signify things.

In contrast to St. Thomas’ position, modern scholarship places the literal sense entirely in the intention of the human author. Thus, the literal sense is no longer directly associated with the manner in which words communicate truth, but rather with the intention of the human author of the text. Thus the Pontifical Biblical Commission in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church defines the literal sense as follows: “... the precise meaning of the texts as produced by their authors...” (IBC, II, B. 1) Referring to “authors” in the plural, it is clear that the Commission intends the human authors and not the divine author - who is, in fact, the primary author. Moreover, this is made explicit when the Commission again defines the literal sense as “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human author.” In what appears to be an after-thought, the Commission adds that “this sense is also intended by God.”

It is obvious that the Thomistic understanding is very different from the modern approach. For St. Thomas, the literal sense refers to the meaning of the words, which meaning is intended by God as the primary author. For modern Scripture studies, the literal sense is that meaning which the human author intends. Thus, much of what St. Thomas would classify as the literal sense (for example, many of the prophecies of the Old Testament are considered to literally refer to Christ), modern biblical scholarship would consider the “spiritual sense”. It seems difficult to reconcile this modern approach with the teaching of the fathers and doctors of the Church.


Patrick Joseph said...

Thanks for the helpful article and for pointing out the various interpretations of the literal sense. Could you perhaps offer a few concrete Scritural examples of where the Thomistic and Modern interpretations would differ in the interpretations of the same passage?- how they would see the same passage through their different lenses.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a bit difficult to point to specifics, since there are so many varied opinions among contemporary scholars.

I will put forward some of the examples given by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church"

1) Isaiah 7:14: "The virgin (heb. almah) shall conceive and bear a son". The Commission claims that in the "fuller sense" (given by St. Matthew), this can be interpreted as referring to Christ being born of the Virgin Mary.
St. Thomas, on the other hand, considers this verse to refer Christ and Mary according to the literal sense: The word "virgin" can be properly applied to Mary, who was indeed a virgin. "Conceiving and bearing a son", is properly applied to Christ's conception and birth.

2. David is promised to reign "forever" (2 Sam 7:12-13). The Biblical Commission states that, according to the "spiritual sense" this can be referred also to Christ.
St. Thomas, again, would see the Old Testament passage as referring to Christ according to the literal sense.

Hopefully this clarifies the difference between St. Thomas' approach and that of Modern Catholic Scholarship.

For St. Thomas, the literal sense is that meaning which the words themselves signify.
For Modern Scholarship, the literal sense is that meaning which the human author understood and intended to communicate.

For St. Thomas, the spiritual sense is that meaning which a thing signifies.
For Modern Scholarship, the spiritual sense (and, perhaps, the fuller sense) is that meaning gained through reading the text in light of Christ and his Church.

Here is just one example of a "spiritual interpretation" according to St. Thomas:
Commenting on Hebrews 9:1-2, which refer to the first tabernacle and the second tabernacle of the Jewish Temple (i.e. the "holies" and the "holy of holies"), St. Thomas says that, according to the spiritual sense, the "first tabernacle" (or "holies") is the Church on earth, but the "second tabernacle" (the "holy of holies") is Heaven.
He also gives the literal sense of the passage: the "first tabernacle" refers metaphorically to the Old Law, while the "second tabernacle" is a metaphor for the New Law of grace in Christ Jesus.
Remember, metaphor is still part of the literal sense!

Ok, I hope that helps!

Iosephus Sebastianus said...

How does St. Thomas's literal sense include or surpass the "historical sense" so often confused for the literal sense in modern Catholic biblical theology?

-Iosephus Sebastianus

Campion said...


St. Thomas refers to the literal sense as the historical sense...but he uses these words in a different manner than is common today.

The "historical sense" as we understand it today (meaning what really happened) would be part of the literal sense, but not identical with it.

For example, the "historical sense" of a parable would be the telling of the parable, but not the actual meaning of the parable.
Meanwhile, the literal sense includes not only the historical reality of the telling of the parable, but also the meaning of the parable.

Further, not every passage needs to have an "historical sense", though every passage does have a literal sense.
Thus, for example, St. Augustine held that the story of creation given in Genesis 1 had no properly "historical sense", but was a metaphor for the way in which the angels came to understand God's work of creation. Thus, the literal sense of Gen 1 would be the description of the angelic knowledge, but there would be no immediate historical sense--since the knowledge of the angels is not part of "history" proper.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

See my article about this at NTM Journal!

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