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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 38||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||November 1991|
by Thomas P. Kuffel
But the manifestation which is through words produces the historical, or literal, sense. Wherefore, all of that pertains to the literal sense which is understood correctly from the very meaning of the words. But the spiritual sense, as has been said, is taken from, or consists in this, that certain things are expressed through the figure of other things, because visible things are accustomed to be figures of invisible things, as Dionysius says.3In reality then, a given passage may contain both a literal and a spiritual sense, because quaedam res (certain things) pertain to the spiritual sense, which consists in this "that certain things are expressed through the figure of other things, because visible things are accustomed to be figures of invisible things." Hence, that which is signified by the words "belongs to the literal sense, whereas the signification by which things signified by words have themselves also a signification belongs to the spiritual sense."4 For example, the words of a text concerning Job ground the literal or historical sense, which deals with the person and actions of Job himself. The person and actions of Job, however, signify the future reality of Christ. The literal sense, therefore, is the immediate sense of the words and the spiritual sense is a mediate sense.5
Through the literal sense something can be signified in two ways: according to proper locution, as when I say, "a man laughs"; second, according to a similarity or metaphor, just as when I say, "a field laughs." Thus, in Sacred Scripture we use both manners: as when we say, referring to the first manner, that Jesus ascended; and when we say, referring to the second manner, that He sits at the right hand of God. And, therefore, under the literal sense there is included the parabolic, or metaphorical, sense.7The reason for the use of different literary genres rests on man's spiritual and corporeal nature. St. Thomas states that it is fitting for Sacred Scripture to use comparisons with material objects while expressing divine truths, because "it is natural for man that he come to intelligible things through sensible things, since all our knowledge has its beginning from the senses."8
It is not unbelievable that it was divinely granted to Moses and other authors of Sacred Scripture that they should know various truths which men could understand, and that they should put them down under one series of words to this effect, that any one of these truths is a meaning intended by the writer.23Commenting on this passage, Garrigou-Lagrange states: "He would have more to say if it were a question only of the spiritual sense, because this latter is quite evident. Hence, he is speaking of the two-fold literal sense."24 Therefore, "we must conclude that the possibility of a word having two literal senses appears to be a certainty, but that there are actually two senses is but a probability."25
But since the literal sense is that sense which the author intends, and the author of Sacred Scripture is God, Who comprehends all things at once in his understanding, it is not unbefitting, as Augustine says in his Confessions, Chapter Twelve, that even according to the literal sense there be more than one literal sense in a literary expression.26This reasoning is based on the two authors of Scripture: the Divine Author, namely, the Holy Spirit, Who has inspired the instrumental author, the person who wrote the book. Now, the instrumental, or human, author may or may not have understood all of what he was writing. There is no doubt, however, that the Primary Author, the Holy Spirit, did understand. St. Thomas, then, concludes that every truth which keeps the wording intact and is able to be in harmony with Scripture is its sense.
Nevertheless, equivocation or confusion does not follow from this plurality of senses, both because these senses often have among themselves a certain similarity and order, while where there is order there is no equivocation, and because a multiplicity of senses make an equivocation only when there is an occasion of deception, when there is falsity in a second meaning.33A multiplicity of understanding in the literal sense would not cause equivocation and confusion, because these senses have order and similarity among themselves, and order excludes equivocation: "Moreover, when each sense is true, as by the very fact that it has been spoken by God, there is no occasion of deception or of equivocation."34 Likewise, true similarity does not lead to confusion, "but rather it pertains to the mystery and to the dignity of the speaker that he is able to include and signify different meanings with one expression."35 Furthermore, a multiplicity of meanings of the literal sense is more flexible in that it can better accommodate the wide diversity of Patristic interpretations concerning passages where there is little hope of reaching agreement on just what the author had meant.36
Hence, the New Law is called a law of love and consequently is called an image, because it has an express likeness to future goods. But the Old Law represents that image by certain carnal things and very remotely. Therefore, it is called a shadow (as in) Colossians 2:17: "These are but a shadow of the things to come." This, therefore, is the condition of the Old Testament, that it has the shadow of future things and not their image.39He refers to this explanation in the Summa Theologiae: "For, as the Apostle says in Hebrews 7:19, the Old Law is a figure of the New Law; the New Law itself, as Dionysius says in his Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, is a figure of future glory. Also, in the New Law, those things which have been done by the Head are signs of things which we ought to do."40 The first stage, then, is the Old Law, which is a shadow of the New Law; the second stage is the New Law, the image of the future life of glory. The third stage of salvation history is the sight of God in the Beatific Vision.
There are four senses of Sacred Scripture: history, which speaks of things done; allegory, in which one thing is understood from another; tropology, that is, moral discussion, in which is treated the ordering of habits; and anagogy, through which, in order to treat of the highest and heavenly things, we are led upward.45In this article St. Thomas explains the difference between the literal and spiritual sense, and he then expounds upon the differences between the three subdivisions of the spiritual sense. Regarding the difference between the literal and the spiritual sense, he says:
All that pertains to the literal sense which is rightly taken from the very meaning of the words. But the spiritual sense, as has been stated, is taken from or consists in this that certain things are expressed through the figure of other things, because visible things are accustomed to be figures of invisible things, as Dionysius says. Whence it is that the sense which is taken from the figures is called the spiritual sense.46Then he distinguishes the tropological from the allegorical and anagogical sense: "If (it regards) acting rightly, it is the moral sense, which is also called the tropological sense. If, on the other hand, it regards believing correctly, it is behooving to distinguish according to the order of believable things."47 The allegorical and anagogical are the two senses that pertain to belief:
The spiritual sense, therefore, ordered to believing correctly, can be based on that manner of figuration by which the Old Testament figures the New; and this is the allegorical, or typical, sense according as those things which happened in the Old Testament are explained as of Christ and the Church. Or the spiritual sense can be based on that manner of figuration by which the New and the Old Testament together signify the Church triumphant, and this is the anagogical sense.48In Objection Two of the same Quodlibet, St. Thomas states that the allegorical sense is distinguished from the moral sense against the objection that the allegorical sense pertains only to Christ as Head of the Church. Then he explains that the allegorical sense pertains to Christ "... not only as the Head, but also in His members; just as by the twelve rocks selected from the Jordan River (Joshua 12) are signified the Twelve Apostles."49 The moral sense, however, pertains to members of Christ "... in reference to their own acts and not according as they are considered members."50
But, since Sacred Scripture needs to be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written, to correctly derive the meaning of the sacred texts, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith. It is, therefore, the task of the exegetes to work according to these rules towards a thorough understanding and exposition of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that from this advance study the judgment of the Church may mature.65Pope Leo XIII taught that professors of exegesis should have a thorough knowledge of theology and also of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, of whom St. Thomas is outstanding.66 St. Thomas synthesized the methods used by the Fathers of the Church into a fitting framework which limits its application so as to avoid confusion and grounds the spiritual sense on the literal sense.