‘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).

“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Thomas Aquinas

See Part 1, 2, and 3 of this series on metaphor and biblical interpretation…

Thomas’s understanding of metaphor and analogy is essence-driven and built upon Aristotelian categories and definition. While he acknowledges metaphor and analogy play a role within scriptural interpretation, even goes so far as to discuss them in the first section of the first book of his Summa, his own ontological and epistemological commitments relegate metaphor to a subordinate role in interpretation (much like being assigned to the kiddie table at a family gatherings).

For Thomas, there is a real and significant ontological gap between the human and divine. For God to be God, this essential qualitative difference had to be maintained. Interwoven with this ontological gap was his epistemological commitment to a tight relationship between things and words. Each word is assumed to signify an entity in the real world and these significations were quite fixed and precise.

Aquinas, therefore, struggled to understand how humans could use language to refer to God. That is how human beings, mere creatures, can claim to comprehend God, presume to speak about God, or to suggest that sacred writings can impart or carry divine truth with merely human words. Yet, in Aristotle’s understanding of metaphor, Thomas discerned a method.

Relying upon Aristotelian categories, Thomas constructed an elaborate system to explain metaphors, a system that evolved during his lifetime. By the time of his Summa, the system  included a three-fold definition of words and analogy. I only want to highlight one type of analogy here. The third type of analogy highlights a relationship in which one entity imitates the other or somehow ‘participates’ in it, but without confusing the distinctive essences of the two entities, an analogy of imitation or participation. While it has limitations, this category held much promise for interpreting scripture. For example, it allowed Thomas to grasp how both God and humanity could be described as good. Through analogy of imitation, both humanity and God could be truly called good, remember words have meaning tied to reality, but the quality of goodness was distinct based upon ontological differences. Human beings could imitate or even participate in the goodness of God, but never equal God.

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.

The next post in this series will make a quick run through Enlightenment views of metaphor. In two weeks, it will turn to the examine conceptual metaphor theory as introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.