Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 11: The Four Senses of Scripture, Part 1: Literal Sense

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Four Senses of Scripture, Part 1

     One of the particular blessings of being a Catholic is the great tradition of studying and thinking about Scripture that has gone on for centuries before us and to which we (and everyone, really, the Church is very generous!) have access.  One of these time-tested traditions is to view Scripture in the light of four senses. In this case, "sense" means the actual truth any given passage of Scripture conveys, so when we talk about the four "senses", we are identifying four different kinds of truth a passage can communicate to us. The first of these four is the literal sense and the second is the spiritual sense, which is further divided into the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense. Understanding and applying this way of thinking about Scripture will yield many spiritual insights.  In today's lesson  we will discuss what is meant by the literal sense and we will identify the literal sense of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

I.  The Literal Sense

The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred scripture are based on the literal."-CCC 116

Let's consider this definition.  The "meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture" is not the facts and details of any given text, but the truth it intends to convey. "Literal" here is confusing for us because we usually use this word to mean the facts a text states.  But, when we are talking about understanding Scripture, we are using "literal" in a different, more technical sense that has to do with the intended truth or meaning God wants to communicate to us for the sake of our salvation.  What does "discovered by exegesis" mean?  "Exegesis" means to interpret or critically explain something, to investigate Scripture with the intention of drawing out its true meaning. So, when Bible scholars study the words, context, history, connections of a given text and then give a critical interpretation of the meaning of that text, that's exegesis. 

"Exegesis" is derived from two Greek words which literally mean "to lead out". The idea is that the Scripture is studied in such a way as to draw out a true meaning from what is contained in the Scripture itself.  A related term is "eisegesis" which means the interpreting of a Biblical text by reading into it one's own ideas.  The scholar trying to make Scripture support his or her own interpretation, even if that is not the clear meaning of the text itself.  "Eisegesis" is made up of two Greek words which mean "to lead in".

       The literal sense of a passage of Scripture is the evident truth those words are intended to convey.  Included in the literal sense is the commonly understood meaning of any idiomatic or figurative language.  So, when Jesus tells His Apostles, "You are the light of the world," He does not mean that they glow in the dark!  He means, as is commonly understood, that they bring the knowledge of God to the world. This is the literal sense, because this is the truth these words of Christ are literally conveying.  

     Now, let us consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this light.  A parable is a (long!) figurative device; it is a story with a moral.  What truth does this parable intend to convey?  Another way to ask the same question is :  What is the point of the story?  The point of Christ's story is that God is always willing and ready to accept and forgive a repentant sinner, regardless of how seriously he has turned against God in the past.

     If Scripture is God's revelation to man, then Scripture must make sense.  It must have a true meaning that God intends it to convey.  So every passage of Scripture has a literal sense, every passage has a meaning which is true and part of the Revelation of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas

 All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal. --St. Thomas Aquinas

I want to add in here one point that occurred to me (in the middle of the night after I originally posted this), and that is that the literal sense of a passage and what we commonly understand as the literal meaning can often be the same.  When Scripture tells us that Solomon built the Temple, it means that Solomon built the Temple!  In this case, the meaning God intends for our salvation is to communicate the knowledge of the actual historical fact of the Temple and God's dwelling amongst His people.

II.  The Spiritual Sense

     In addition to the direct intended meaning of any passage of Scripture, the Church teaches that each passage has a spiritual sense:

The spiritual sense.  Thanks be to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.--CCC 117
Huh?  What does this mean?  Sometimes, when reading the Catechism, we need to think long and hard about what we are reading.  This quote from the Catechism tells us that, in addition to the literal sense, there is another way to look at Scripture.  As a sign points us to another location down the road, so the spiritual sense can signify or point to some deeper, less apparent, but no less genuine truth. This spiritual sense can be understood in one of three ways: allegorical, moral, and anagogical.  Next post we will dig more deeply into these three spiritual senses.

III.  The Guidance of the Holy Spirit

       Whenever we study Scripture, let us remember to ask the Holy Spirit for His Divine inspiration and wisdom.  Our first pope stated: 

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.  2 Peter 1:20-21

The Holy Spirit, Who inspired and authored the Scriptures, is also the One Who can properly interpret them, and He does this through the Catholic Church.  This same Holy Spirit is the promised Advocate who guides the Church and preserves her from all error in matters of faith and morals.  The definitive and authoritative interpretation of Scripture is entrusted to the Church, and we must read and study Scripture in this light.  We cannot make a private interpretation which is opposed to the teaching of the Church and hope that it is correct.  

Pope Leo XIII
It must be observed that in addition to the usual reasons which make ancient writings more or less difficult to understand, there are some which are peculiar to the Bible. For the language of the Bible is employed to express, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, many things which are beyond the power and scope of the reason of man -- that is to say, Divine mysteries and all that is related to them. There is sometimes in such passages a fullness and a hidden depth of meaning which the letter hardly expresses ... Moreover, the literal sense itself frequently admits other senses, adapted to illustrate dogma or to confirm morality. Wherefore, it must be recognized that the Sacred Writings are wrapt in a certain religious obscurity, and that no one can enter into their interior without a guide; God so disposing, as the Holy Fathers commonly teach, in order that men may investigate them with greater ardour and earnestness, and that what is attained with difficulty may sink more deeply into the mind and heart; and, most of all, that they may understand that God has delivered the Holy Scriptures to the Church, and that in reading and making use of His word, they must follow the Church as their guide and their teacher.--Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII

No homework this time!

Main Idea:  The literal sense of a passage of Scripture is the meaning it seeks to convey, not the details and facts of the passage. 

Next lesson:  The Three Spiritual Senses

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