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LESSON 2: THE FOUR SENSES OF SACRED SCRIPTURE
by John F. McCarthy
5. The literal sense and the spiritual sense. St. Thomas Aquinas defines the four senses of Sacred Scripture in his Summa Theologiae (part I, quest. 1, art. 10). First he distinguishes between the literal sense and the spiritual sense in general, where he says that "the first meaning, according to which the words signify things, pertains to the first sense, which is the historical or literal sense, while (the other) meaning, according to which the things signified by the words again signify other things, is called the spiritual sense, which is based upon the literal sense and presupposes it." Thus, he points out, the Bible is a special kind of book like no other book, inasmuch as it has two senses expressed in the very same words. Here the most obvious aspect of the spiritual sense is the typical sense, which pertains to the allegorical sense. Msgr. John E. Steinmueller, in his well-known Companion to Scripture Studies (vol. 1, pp. 256-257) remarks: "Hence, the literal sense would be the meaning expressed immediately and directly by the words of the sacred writers," while the typical sense "is based only indirectly upon the words and directly upon things, events, or persons (either individually or collectively) used to express something else on a higher level and to foreshadow some great truth." And Msgr. Steinmueller gives as an example the expression in Osee (Hosea) 11:1: "I called my son out of Egypt," which refers literally to the descendants of Jacob brought out of Egypt under Moses, and which refers typically to the Infant Jesus returning to Palestine from Egypt.
In this study we are going to seek to identify clearly the literal sense and to distinguish it from possible spiritual senses contained under the same words. We are going to look for three different kinds of spiritual sense, namely, the allegorical sense, the tropological, or moral, sense, and the anagogical, or final, sense. The typical sense will be considered as an expression of the allegorical sense.
6. Definition and division of the literal sense. We define the literal sense as "the meaning expressed immediately and directly by the words of the sacred writers." The literal sense is divided into the proper literal sense. which pertains to the native and obvious meaning of the words, and the improper literal sense, which pertains to a transferred, derived, or figurative use of the words by the sacred writers. Thus, for example, "Abraham begot Isaac" in Matt 1:2 expresses a proper use of the word "begot," while St. Paul's saying to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 4:15, "For in Christ Jesus by the gospel I have begotten you," expresses a derived use of the word "begotten." To perceive the literal sense of a verse, one need only know the meaning of the words and their grammatical use in the sentence, allowing, however, for an intended "improper" use of various words, such as a metaphorical use or the use of a figure of speech. For instance, where the apostles James and John are referred to as the "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3:17), the word "thunder" is being used literally, not in its native and original sense, but in a metaphorical sense.
7. Importance of the literal sense. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu (Enchiridion biblicum, 550; Rome and the Study of Scripture, 550), points out to interpreters of the Sacred Books that "their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal." It is necessary to determine first what the sacred text really says before one can come to understand what the sacred text really means. All of the truths that are necessary for faith are expressed or implied in the literal sense of Sacred Scripture or in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, and, we might add, the basic facts and truths that underlie the three spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture are all presented somewhere in the literal sense of the Scriptures or in the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
8. An example of the four senses: the treasure hidden in a field. In Matt 13:44 we read: "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, a man having found which, he hid it and, for joy thereof, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." The literal sense is contained in the bare meaning of the words. It is clear what a kingdom is and what a treasure is. One can think of gold or silver buried in an open field. But there are two ways literally to read this simile, or comparison. One way is "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field ...." The other way is "The kingdom of heaven is like this. There is a treasure hidden in a field ...." The second way is probably more accurate, for reasons that will be given. The spiritual sense of this simile is taken up in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. The search for the spiritual meaning begins when we ask ourselves what the "treasure" stands for in the comparison. As compiled by Thomas Aquinas in his Catena aurea and in his own Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew at Matt 13:44, we find as follows. According to St. Gregory the Great, the treasure is "heavenly desire" (Isa 33:6), hidden in the field of "the discipline of zeal for Heaven" (Prov 24:27); according to St. John Chrysostom, the treasure is the teaching of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:7), hidden from the eyes of the unclean people of this world (Matt 11:15); according to St. Jerome, the treasure is the divine Word of God (Col 2:3), hidden in the field of his Body (Col 2:9), or Sacred Scripture, hidden in the field of the Church (Wisd 7:14); according to St. Augustine the treasure is the two Testaments. We should note that St. Thomas Aquinas, when he brings out a spiritual meaning of a word or passage in Sacred Scripture, also when he is quoting from the Fathers of the Church, as he has done here, usually associates it with a literal expression of the same word elsewhere in the Scriptures. Such cross references are very useful, but they require a vast knowledge of the Scriptures in order to be found consistently. The use of a concordance can be very helpful in this regard.
9. The anagogical sense of Matt 13:44. The neo-Patristic approach tries to make explicit the framework of the four senses which is usually only implicit in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church. The anagogical sense regards the higher allegory of the Most Blessed Trinity and the "four last things," namely, death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Where Gregory the Great sees the treasure hidden in a field as representing "heavenly desire" in general, the neo-Patristic exegete will locate this insight objectively as the anagogy of Heaven itself, the place where God in Three Persons dwells and where the blessed abide. Subjectively, on the anagogical level, the treasure may be seen as eternal happiness in Heaven. A person finds this treasure now through the supernatural virtue of faith, he rejoices through supernatural hope, and he goes and buys that field through the exercise of the supernatural virtue of charity.
10. The allegorical sense of Matt 13:44. An allegory is "a sustained metaphor." Allegory is also "a technique of creating or interpreting works of literature, art, and music so that they will convey more than one level of meaning simultaneously" (Encyclopedia Americana, "Allegory"). We speak of the allegorical sense of the Scriptures inasmuch as objects of faith are presented by the metaphorical use of words that literally represent natural things, and this usage is repeated over and over again in a recognizable pattern. Allegory in the miraculous text of the Bible does not mean fancy or unreal depiction, except where it deliberately uses a genre of fiction. The literal sense of the Bible carries a higher level of meaning centered around the allegory of Christ and his Church. Thus, following St. Jerome, we may be able to see that the treasure in Matt 13:44 is the divine Word of God, present hypostatically in the human nature of Christ and hidden within the "field" of his Body and Soul. To come to know who Jesus really is means to discover the He is God, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, made man for our salvation. Secondly, we learn who Jesus is through hearing the Gospel as it is preached or through reading the Gospels as they have been written down. We learn who Jesus really is by listening to his words and by reviewing his deeds, recounted in the "field" of the Gospels. Thirdly, the treasure is the Person of Jesus, hidden prophetically in the figurative expressions of the Old Testament. Fourthly, the treasure is Jesus, hidden within the Church, which is his Mystical Body. People come to Jesus through the Church. And so we have the allegory of the Divine Word, the allegory of the written word, the allegory of the two Testaments, and the allegory of the Church.
11. The tropological sense of Matt 13:44. The tropological sense is the objective pattern which represents the impact of the objective truth upon the believing subject, and it is structured chiefly in terms of the virtues of the soul of the believer. We have seen above, in relation to the anagogical sense, that the three theological virtues are the "field" in which the desire for heaven lies. To "sell all that one has" in order to buy that field means to repent of one's sins, to submit our minds to the truth of the Gospel, to focus our minds and our hearts upon supernatural realities, to give up all of our attachments to the world, the flesh, and the Devil, to be wholly converted to love for God and for our neighbor, and other things of this kind. Tropologically, the kingdom of Heaven is the reign of God's grace in the heart of the believer. Cornelius a Lapide, whose commentaries provide abundant help for neo-Patristic research, sees here as tropological Gregory the Great's teaching that the treasure in point is the desire of Heaven, which the finder must hide from the praise of men. "In this present life we are on a road by which we are proceeding to our homeland, but evil spirits are like robbers besetting our path. Whoever, therefore, openly carries his treasure on the way is asking to be robbed" (Gregory, Homily 11 on the Gospels).
12. Conclusion. In this lesson we have seen the distinction between the literal sense and the three spiritual senses, and we have taken Matt 13:44 as an example. For centuries the due consideration of the spiritual senses has been in disuse, so that exegetes often reduce them to "accommodated" meanings, that is, to meanings read into the text by the interpreters but not actually intended by the writers. It is, however, our position that the three spiritual senses are intended at least by the Holy Spirit, who is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, as long as we identify them correctly. Cornelius a Lapide maintains that the proper literal meaning of the treasure hidden in a field is "the Gospel, its teaching, and its faith." We prefer to limit the literal sense to the sheer meaning of the words of the simile and to distinguish more carefully on the level of the spiritual senses to what the treasure refers, but we stand with Cornelius in holding that the sacred text of Matt 13:44 is implicitly telling us what this treasure is, and is not, therefore, leaving us without the possibility of discerning what it is intended to represent.
Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea at Matt 13:44; Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew at Matt 13:44; Summa Theologiae, part I, quest. 1, art. 10.
Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Matt 13:44. An English translation of his commentaries on the four Gospels by Thomas W. Mossman was published in 1903 by John Hodges Publishers of London, and may be available in some dealers of rare or second-hand books.
John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, revised and enlarged edition (Lumen Christi Press, 1969), vol. 1, General Introduction (may be available from Stella Maris Books, P.O. Box 11483, Fort Worth, Texas 76110).
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