Thomas Aquinas – Doctrine of Scripture III

For me, the doctrine of Scripture (what one believes about the nature of scripture) is the most fascinating topic in Christian theology. I enjoy reading contemporary works on the subject but I find that I most identify with ‘older’ works where the debate does not center on defining, qualifying, accepting, rejecting inerrancy and/or infallibility. Therefore, over a series of posts I am going to examine doctrines of Scripture found in various ‘older’ writings.

Up first: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Book 1, Question 1, Articles 1-10). The first two post looks at his view of the divine nature of Scripture, the connection of reason and faith, and metaphors. This third and final post examines his thoughts on plurality in Scripture.

A third aspect of Aquinas’ methodology influenced by his doctrine of Scripture is 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[1] 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).


[1] The Medieval period had a fourfold sense of Scripture.  The literal sense was simply the meaning of the word or its historical sense.  The spiritual sense of Scripture was subdivided into three categories: typological or allegorical sense, the tropological or moral sense, and the anagogical or eschatological sense.

‘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).