‘Literal’ hasn’t always meant ‘Literal’

When discussing biblical hermeneutics, inevitably the ‘literal’ meaning of scripture pops up. The ‘literal’ meaning of scripture in some quarters signifies the holy grail of interpretation and in others all that is wrong with biblical scholarship. Yet, what is the ‘literal’ meaning of scripture?

In my study of classic doctrines of scripture, I find Aquinas’ thoughts on the literal sense of scripture fascinating because he uses ‘literal’ to argue for the opposite of what many mean by it today. Furthermore, he does so with a deep conviction of scripture’s unity and divine authorship.

Aquinas is convinced that since all parts of scripture work together to fulfill God’s designed purpose they are unified, but not univocal.  Aquinas’ concept of unity draws upon his complex understanding of the literal sense of scripture.  At first glance, his understanding of the literal sense seems to fall in line with the Augustinian tradition.  For example, he writes, “Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one – the literal – from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended to allegory” (1.1.10).  Yet, one must be careful to clarify what he means by the term literal sense.  For Aquinas, the literal sense of scripture is related to the intention of the author.  On the one hand, the human author may have intended the words to refer to a historical fact or a material reality.  On the other hand, since God is the ultimate author of scripture it can have several senses or meanings.  He states, “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting…if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses” (1.1.10).  Consequently, the literal sense of scripture, for Aquinas, can entail all four aspects of the medieval four-fold sense of scripture depending on the intended purpose of the author, who is ultimately God. 

In effect, it is precisely because scripture “derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge” (1.1.5) that Aquinas finds it inevitably multi-vocal.  God, whom is beyond human capacity to understand, cannot be defined plainly and as a result, Aquinas anticipates a passage will have a multitude of meanings, even on a literal level.  Thus, his understanding of scripture as unified in purpose does not mean that scripture is singular in meaning or that each word, verse or passage has one true meaning.  Instead, scripture’s unity is found in that it has many meanings and through the power and purposes of God, they do “not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity” (1.1.10).

5 thoughts on “‘Literal’ hasn’t always meant ‘Literal’

  1. Great post. I would be interested to see how Augustine’s understanding of “signs” fits into a “literal hermeneutic”. I am currently reading On Christian Doctrine and am in the middle of his discussion on signs. I would imagine that he has a more nuanced understanding of “literal” than what is commonly supposed in conservative circles. I’ll know more in further reading.


    1. The understanding of Augustine’s literal comes mainly from his view of ‘things’ not ‘signs’ but definitely needs nuancing from traditional views. Need to talk more as you continue reading.


        1. I haven’t read these but they have been recommended to me:

          * Michael McCarthy “We Are Your Books: Augustine, the Bible, and the Practice of Authority” – Journal of the American Academy of Religion
          * Jeff B. Pool “No Entrance into Truth Except Through Love: Contributions from Augustine of Hippo to a Contemporary Christian Hermeneutic of Love” – Review and Expositor
          * Francis Young “Augustine’s Hermeneutics and Postmodern Criticism” – Interpretation
          * Jason Byassee “Praise Seeking Understanding”
          * James A. Andrews “Hermeneutics and the Church”


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