Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pope Benedict on the senses of Scripture

Abraham and Isaac:
The literal sense - Abraham believed in the resurrection.
The spiritual sense - Christ would be sacrificed for our sins.

In his Exhortation, Verbum Domini, the Holy Father offers a vision of the senses of Scripture which has been lost to most popular Catholic exegetes of our day. Following the scholastic division of the Scriptural senses into the literal and the spiritual (the spiritual being further divided into three senses: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical), Pope Benedict emphasizes that the senses cannot be wholly separated, since it is the same Spirit which has inspired them. Moreover, the Holy Father offers a vision of the literal sense which is far broader than that which many modern exegetes would allow; but, as will be shown, his Holiness is well founded in the tradition.
The Literal Sense
It is not at all uncommon to find the literal sense of Sacred Scripture defined as “that meaning which the sacred authors (i.e. the human authors) intended to immediately express.” This is the definition adopted by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC). Why, even Mark Shea and Fr. Corapi have defined the literal sense in this way! There is only one problem…neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor any Vatican document, nor the Pope in this most recent Exhortation has adopted this definition. This idea seems to have come in through protestant exegesis; it certainly is not from the Catholic tradition of Scripture study.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following St. Thomas Aquinas, defines the literal sense of Scripture as “the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation” (CCC 116). As it turns out, this is the definition which Pope Benedict has adopted in his Exhortation – he seems specifically to avoid offering the PBC definition; though he accepts their explanation of the spiritual sense, he does not even mention their analysis of the literal sense.
But what is really the difference between these two definitions? Notice, the modern definition emphasizes the intention of the author as primary, but the Thomistic definition gives priority to the meaning of the words themselves and does not have any explicit reference to the intention of the human author. Thus, whether or not Isaiah explicitly knew of the Virgin Birth, the literal sense of the words, “The virgin shall conceive and bare a son,” is that Blessed Mary would conceive and give birth to the Messiah while yet remaining a virgin. Likewise, whether or not Moses explicitly knew of the Immaculate Conception, the literal meaning of the words, “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” is that the Blessed Virgin Mary would be conceived free from sin and remain unstained by sin throughout her life.
While the PBC definition (surprisingly adopted by many would-be conservatives) plunges us into the psyche of long dead prophets, the Catholic definition of the literal sense takes the text of Scripture as it is and interprets the words themselves. And, if the literal sense is that meaning conveyed by the words themselves, then it becomes clear that the whole of Scripture can be read together, since all of Scripture has God as its primary author and the words of one book may be interpreted by the words of another.
 From the Literal to the Spiritual
The Holy Father writes, “It is necessary, however, to remember that in patristic and medieval times every form of exegesis, including the literal form, was carried out on the basis of faith, without there necessarily being any distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense.” Desiring a renewal in modern exegesis, Pope Benedict encourages scholars to recognize “the unity and interrelation between the literal sense and the spiritual sense.”
Literal and spiritual exegesis must never be seen in opposition. However, since that the spiritual sense can be given only by the divine power (ST I, q.1, a.10), it is clear that the spiritual meaning of the text always surpasses the intention of the human author. Thus, if we were to accept the PBC limitation of the literal sense as that which the human author intended to express, there would be no room for this “unity and interrelation” which the Holy Father desires. Nevertheless, taking the Thomistic and Catholic definition of the literal sense as the meaning conveyed by the words themselves (whether or not this meaning is apparent to the human author), there is much space for interplay between the senses.
As words convey meaning by signifying things, so too those things can in turn signify other things. St. Thomas tells us that, when a thing (which has been signified by words) signifies yet another thing, this is the spiritual sense of Scripture.
 Let’s look at an example (from St. Clement’s first letter to the Corinthians): The story of the red cord which Rahab tied to her window signifies the historical event by which Rahab was spared during the destruction of Jericho (this is the literal sense). That red cord which was instrumental in saving Rahab, is itself a sign for the red blood of Christ which is saves humanity from sin and eternal death (this is the spiritual sense). The words “red cord” signify the thing “red cord” – the literal sense. The thing “red cord” signifies another thing “the red blood of Christ” – the spiritual sense. We can see clearly that the scholastic approach holds the two senses of Scripture in an intimate union. The literal sense is the foundation of the spiritual sense, the two work in harmony.
The Bible’s intrinsic unity
If we abandon the Biblical Commission’s definition of the literal sense, we are more easily able to perceive the unity of the Old and the New Testaments. If the literal sense is not determined by the knowledge of the human author, then there is no reason why one passage of Scripture (written by a particular man at a particular time) might not be interpreted in light of another passage of Scripture (written by a different man and at a different time).
Allow me to quote the Holy Father at length (par. 39): “In the passage from letter to spirit, we also learn, within the Church’s great tradition, to see the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity of God’s word, which challenges our life and constantly calls us to conversion. Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: ‘All divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in Christ.’ Viewed in purely historical or literary terms, [e.g. following the PBC definition of the literal sense] of course, the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of literary texts composed over the course of a thousand years or more, and its individual books are not easily seen to possess an interior unity; instead, we see clear inconsistencies between them.”
Thus, the Holy Father reminds us of the dictum of St. Gregory the Great (par. 41): “What the Old Testament promised, the New Testament made visible; what the former announces in a hidden way, the latter openly proclaims as present. Therefore the Old Testament is a prophecy of the New Testament; and the best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament.”


Anonymous said...

There is a certain relation between the two definitions given of the literal sense. Words themselves do not signify by nature but "ad placitum", so an intention always has to be taken into account. That is where words get their signification, which is what the "meaning of the word" is. The traditional definition is certainly more fitting, but the other contains a truth somewhat obscure in the traditional one, if it is interpreted correctly.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

But, as the primary author is God, we do not need to go into the psyche of the human author...
That is the opinion of St. Thomas.
This is where the PBC definition fails.

However, it is true that the Fathers and scholastics have a strong sense of the human author's intention when making the division of the text into its various thematic parts...

Magister Christianus said...

This is brilliant, and I could not agree more. You write:

Thus, whether or not Isaiah explicitly knew of the Virgin Birth, the literal sense of the words, “The virgin shall conceive and bare a son,” is that Blessed Mary would conceive and give birth to the Messiah while yet remaining a virgin.

I cannot help thinkin of the scene in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" in which Charlton Heston (Michelangelo) rails out at the cardinals who are judging his work on whether he is too close or too far away from the Greeks, "Christ on His cross stands between us and the Greeks, and that's what I'll express in my painting!"

Everything, whether Scripture or quantum physics, must now be viewed from the perspective of a world in which God has walked as a man. That remains the very "axis mundi." As a result, there can be no full understanding of Scripture that operates as if this were not the case. While it is possible for an atheist philologist to explain the grammar of a Greek or Hebrew sentence, and thus to bring some measure of understanding to it, this is only a rudimentary understanding on which can rest a full interpretation made through the revelation of God and His Holy Spirit through Christ.

matt said...

Great stuff here.

Is there, then, any value in a historical study of Christ and/or the Bible as in the case of John Meier and his volumes "A Marginal Jew?", or is he misguided in attempting to hammer out exactly what it is that we can know in a strict historical sense?

Mary said...

Scripture is a GIFT from our Lord. It is the 'tangible' gift of His Grace. In order for scripture to have personal and life guiding meaning, one must have ACCEPTED God's gift of Grace in the Holy Spirit.

Pope Benedict has exposed the value of scripture by stating that a word's meaning has many forms. This brings the value and validity of scripture to the forefront. If words have more than one meaning, then it is rational and reasonable to expect that scripture would also have more than one meaning.

This thinking says that even though some of the words of the bible have been 'changed' over the centuries because of the practice of hand copying, it does not mean that the bible is inconsistent, contradictory or incorrect in its many forms.

Hence, the value of reading scripture and gleening its many meanings is indeed a gift to anyone reading any bible copy.

Historical study is an important part of bible interpretation.

Even though history is not the primary interpreter of scripture, it does help the reader place the writer in the correct time, place and intention. Whether there is a timeless quality to what is in scripture, the universal meaning and its interpretation has been, is, and will be, different with each century and/or generation's reading.

Scripture is for all time; for all mankind in any place or time of his/her life.

The bible is God's Eternal Plan of Salvation for man. It shows us where we have been, where we are now and where we are going in the future. It houses God's loving attributes and character which points the way and gives us hope.

This is the wonder of the gift of scripture from our Lord, for which we must always give thanks and praise for.

God inspired words are eternal words, as is, THE WORD, Jesus Christ. Read them and live.

Anonymous said...


I think you misunderstood me. My point wasn't that we have to go into the psyche of the author in some Freudian sense to figure out what was going on in his head, as if that were even possible, but that reference must necessarily be made to human intentions (conceptiones intellectus) at some point in the analysis since words themselves do not signify apart from human institution: "Unde manifeste relinquitur quod sicut nec litterae, ita nec voces naturaliter significant, sed ex institutione humana." This is the common teaching of all scholastics, and St. Thomas discusses it well in the Commentary on the De Interpretatione, Liber 1, Lectio 2. Saying that God is the primary author of scripture is true, but it doesn't remove this issue, since God uses human words as instruments. It is my opinion that discussions of the senses of scripture do not start at the logical beginning or they would have a better account of this. But this isn't my area of specialty, so I'll leave it at that.


SCWJR said...

For the sake of completeness, and for those interested I thought I might mention that there are four senses of scripture: literal, moral, allegorical, and analogical (or spiritual).

As explained by Dante Alighieri in Book 2 chapter 1 of his "Convivio":

"The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction...

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils; as, for example, in the Gospel we may discover that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, of the twelve Apostles he took with him but three, the moral meaning of which is that in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions...

The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous (10:31pm),
Sorry! I did not mean my earlier comment to seem like it was contradicting yours...only to say that the PBC had gone too far.

You are certainly correct: words signify from human institution. Thus, we must know what the word was used to mean.
A great example of this is the Hebrew "almah" which is translated in LXX as "parthene" and in the Vulgate as "virgo"...if "almah" means "virgin", then Isaiah prophecies the Birth of Christ (literally); if it only means "young girl", then Isaiah's words may only be of Christ spiritually... "Behold the virgin/girl shall conceive..."

Hence, the very important and necessary work of historical and language-based exegesis...
I am very much in agreement with you on this point.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

As I recall, and it has been several years since I looked at Meier's works, there is some good info in "Marginal Jew".
However, I take issue not with the desire to study the Bible historically, but with the great biases and presuppositions of 'scholars' -- they often rule out much of the material, simply because they do not believe in miracles.
As I recall, "Marginal Jew" is a bit better than most historical-critical books, at least in this one respect.

On the whole, I would look to Cornelius a' Lapide. He gives a very good and scientific study of the Gospels (and much of the rest of Scripture).
Also, St. Thomas' Catena Aurea will give a good summary of the Fathers' commentaries.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Just to make it very clear:
There are TWO divisions of the sense of Scripture.
FIRST, the principle division: The literal and the spiritual.
SECOND: The spiritual sense is further divided into the allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical.

You have made it seem as though the anagogical is the whole of the spiritual sense...but the spiritual sense is threefold, only one part being the anagogical sense.

Also, it is "anagogical" not "analogical"...

Thank you for the wonderful quotation from the Florentine Poet!

kkollwitz said...

"Thus, whether or not Isaiah explicitly knew of the Virgin Birth, the literal sense of the words, “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” is that Blessed Mary would conceive and give birth to the Messiah while yet remaining a virgin."

Yes. And the fact that Isaiah said "almah" doesn't preclude the refinement of that prophecy by the Septuagint use of "parthenos."

"Pope Benedict emphasizes that the senses cannot be wholly separated, since it is the same Spirit which has inspired them."

Yes. Another fine example of the Catholic idea that things which belong together are best understood together, instead of prying them all apart into different categories.

Chatto said...

Very interesting. It would be great if our priests and bishops would teach us this stuff.

I posted on a similar topic on my blog recently, when I was asked by a girl in the Salvation Army whether I thought Scripture was one story, or two (OT & NT). Perhaps I should forward this on to her...

Anonymous said...

Interesting. But what do we do with paragraph 19, pp. 39-40, on 'Sacred Scripture, inspiration, and truth,' in which Benedict quotes Dei Verbum 9 and then writes,

"In this way one recognizes the full importance of the human author who wrote the inspired texts, and, at the same time, God himself as the true author."

Really, I'm curious; the post here is brilliant and got me thinking in new ways, but I'm suspicious that the Holy Father or most orthodox Catholic exegetes (few as they may be -- I'm thinking of Scott Hahn, Brant Pitre, etc) would want to make too firm a split between the letter per se and its human author.


jbrotherton said...

"Verbum Domini" (n.34) quotes "Dei Verbum" n.12, stating the following: "Seeing that, in sacred Scripture, God speaks through human beings in human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of sacred Scripture, if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words."

To the comment you insert into the quote from VD 39, seeing the intention of the human author as important for discovering the literal meaning in its fullness can not simply be identified with viewing the Bible in purely historical or literary terms. Limiting the literal sense to a rigorous literary-historical meaning, according to the quasi-scientific criteria of modern exegesis, does not exclude discovering the spiritual sense in the literal and complementing such diachronic and synchronic exegesis with canonical exegesis. Thus, the PBC prescribes the order: diachronic, synchronic, canonical, Rabbinic interpretation and reception in Tradition, etc.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The literal sense, when strictly defined, is the meaning which the words themselves convey ... even if this meaning was not known to the human author.

Of course, all that the human author intended is part of the literal sense.
But, the literal sense goes beyond this also -- as in the case of Caiaphas who prophesied (which is part of the literal sense) without knowing it.

jbrotherton said...

Agreed. Discovering the author's intention does not exhaust the literal meaning. But without it the literal sense can only be partially grasped. Only those who limit themselves to the historical-critical method claim that the text itself cannot signify more than what the author himself intended. But that does not discount usage of the historical-critical method as wholly invalid.

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