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.

‘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).

A “Motion” for Southern Baptists on the Interpretation of Scripture

With the Southern Baptist Convention happening in my hometown and as a first-time attender, I decided to post a paper I wrote a few years ago on Southern Baptists and biblical interpretation. In the paper, I argue that Southern Baptists and pre-critical exegetes, such as Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, have much in common. And thus, believing in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible can exist alongside thinking critically about the Bible.

The introduction is copied below and the whole paper is available for those interested (Southern Baptists – A People of the Book)

Southern Baptists and Pre-Critical Exegesis


            As the first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, the discipline of biblical interpretation finds itself in a state of flux as postmodernism[1] continues to challenge the modern worldview.  Perhaps, most significant for biblical studies has been postmodernism’s frontal assault on the modern vision of objective or universal truth.  On this front, numerous ‘new’ theories of interpretation have opposed the historical-critical method of interpretation, the prevailing method of modern biblical scholarship, and its search for a biblical text’s one true meaning.  Theologians and exegetes, such as Karl Barth, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, Stephen Fowl, Gustavo Gonzalez, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have each, in their own way, offered alternative ways of interpreting Scripture. 

            Regularly, an antagonist of these ‘new’ theories of interpretation is the so-called conservative fundamentalist.[2]  While conservative fundamentalists usually are not defined in any specific terms, the label is designed to distinguish them as the prototypical modern interpreter who relies precisely on the mindsets and methods in question.  In this paper, I am going to assume to speak for my particular Christian denomination, which is frequently if not always, placed within this faction, namely Southern Baptists.  My primary purpose is to establish that when one considers the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, as defined in our own official statements this is, in many respects, a case of mistaken identity.  I also have a secondary purpose for this paper and that is to call Southern Baptists to reexamine our habit of biblical interpretation in light of our own understanding of Scripture.  All too often, what has passed as Southern Baptist interpretation defies what we claim about Scripture, or in more colloquial terms, we do not practice what we preach.  I contend that if Southern Baptists practice exegesis according to our own doctrine, our interpretation should correspond most intimately not with modern or post-modern exegesis, but with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.

            To accomplish these tasks necessitates beginning with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.  By examining what David C. Steinmetz describes as the pre-critical exegetical tradition,[3] I identify a simple but fundamental doctrine of Scripture and from this I construct a two-fold exegetical theory.  With this historical perspective, I examine the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, illustrating the similarities between our understanding of Scripture and that of the pre-critical tradition.  As would be expected, there will be instances of divergence, but in studying their works, Southern Baptists may surprisingly find comfort and reassurance.[4]  In conclusion, I briefly outline a way forward for Southern Baptists that embraces the doctrinal similarities and adopts a pre-critical exegetical theory as the foundation for our interpretation of Scripture. 

[1] I am using postmodernism in the most general sense in that it comes after modernism.  Of course, even in this general sense it still conveys distrust in the ideas of modernism.

[2] For example, Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 1.

[3] David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today, 37 (1980): 27-38.

[4] As a supplement to this engagement with the pre-critical understanding of Scripture, I have included an appendix, which examines the exegetical methods of Augustine and Aquinas.  With Southern Baptist congregations specifically in mind, my desire is to reveal that engaging their writings can enrich both our understanding of the nature of Scripture and our interpretation of Scripture.