Aquinas and Metaphor Revisited

In February, I wrote a series on the Western Theory of Metaphor and included this on Aquinas

One final thing to discuss before leaving Thomas, is his understanding of metaphors in scripture. While it seems he would have preferred that God left metaphors out of scripture, he recognizes that since they are present they must be useful. As Thomas interprets them in scripture, he operates basically within an Aristotelian model of metaphor – he discusses metaphors at the level of words, he recognizes that some kind of similarity exists between the words, and he believes it takes insight, effort (Aristotle’s genius) to interpret the meaning of their connection. Thomas, however, goes further than Aristotle to tie the meaning to the historical or literal sense. In what in many ways was a response to the tortured use of the Four-Fold Sense of Scripture, Thomas insists that the literal sense have primacy over all other senses. Thus, as stated above, Thomas saw metaphor as useful for interpretation, but only in a limited or subordinate role.

As I revisited Aquinas, I have expanded on this statement and wanted to add it to the blog:

Aquinas interpreted scriptural metaphors as God’s deliberate means to communicate truth. Scripture is God’s self-revelation and Aquinas states, “Sacred science is established on principles revealed by God” (1.1.2). He is alluding to the fact that scripture is based on premises self-evident only to God and the blessed[1] (1.1.2). Nevertheless, God designed scripture to reveal himself to humanity. In other words, the very purpose of scripture is to teach the truths necessary for salvation to humanity so it must be understandable to mankind if it is to be effective; it must act in accord with God’s designed purpose.

In order for scripture to accomplish its central purpose, Aquinas believes God must accommodate himself in scripture to humanity’s level of understanding, or as Aquinas writes, “according to the capacity of our nature” (1.1.9). Therefore, since humankind naturally learns through external senses (1.1.9) Aquinas determines “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (1.1.9). Thus, scripture’s use of metaphors is not unbecoming of its intent rather it is fitting for the purpose of revealing God. Aquinas asserts, however, metaphorical readings must be governed so that one can judge between acceptable and unacceptable meanings.  In this regard, he says that everything scripture teaches metaphorically is elsewhere in scripture taught more openly (1.1.9).[2]  Here again, Aquinas’ doctrine of scripture, as divinely authored with a purpose, influences his methods of interpreting scripture and accordingly, he treats metaphors not as barriers to truth but as a fitting channel through which God communicates His truth to mankind.


[1] “The blessed” are those who have seen God face to face.  Thus, knowledge of God is no longer veiled but fully discovered.

[2] This alludes to another aspect of Thomas’ methodology for interpreting Scripture, namely that scripture interprets scripture.  Even though he does not stress this in certain terms within his Summa Theologica it becomes self evident when one studies his exegetical works.

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