St. Thomas on Scripture (Theology Class #2)

Only now, nine years after finishing my MDiv, am I finally getting around to reading Thomas Aquinas on Scripture. Some interesting points which I wish I had known much earlier:

1. Thomas emphasizes the priority of the literal sense of Scripture, its sensus litteralis. However, he does not mean by this what most modern people mean by “literal.” When most modern people talk about “literalism” or “literal” interpretations of Scripture, they tend to mean something like “common sense” (whatever that is) or “the plain meaning” (whatever that is) or some kind of univocal historical precision (which presupposes a modern, positivistic view of history and historiography). However, when Thomas discusses the literal sense of Scripture, he is talking about the historical meaning: the “mighty deeds” wrought by God in space and time. He does not presuppose in this, however, “a univocal description and exact representation of particular sequences of ‘fact’” (to quote Rowan Williams).

2. Thomas affirms what later Reformed theologians would mean when they say that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Specifically, Thomas says that “everything in Scripture that is taught metaphorically is elsewhere in Scripture taught nonmetaphorically.” (Walter Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching (2005) p. 41, n. 36). So, for example, if one wanted to interpret, say, from the Book of Revelation the “literal” rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem at some point in the future, this would fall short of this “test” which Thomas proscribes (since nowhere else in Scripture is there a nonmetaphorical reference to this).

3. Thomas, as is well known, advocates the four-fold meaning of Scripture. What I did not know, however, is that this is one of the “doctrines” he defends in the Summa Theologica using the structure of disputatio. He quotes Gregory the Great: “Holy Scripture, by the manner of its speech, transcends every scientia, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.” (Bauerschmidt, 43). He then develops this by distinguishing between the literal sense (see above) in which the text of Scripture refers to the “things” in creation and the spiritual senses of Scripture. This is one “kind of referring,” (the first kind), he says. These created things, however, themselves refer to God himself (or to heaven, or to the church, etc.). This is the second kind of referring, the spiritual kind of reference, which presupposes the literal.  It is this spiritual sense that has a three-fold division. “So far as the things of the Old Law refer to things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense. So far as the … things that signify Christ are signs of what we should do, there is the moral sense. So far as things related to eternal glory are signified, there is the analogical sense.”


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