Senses of Scripture

It is often difficult to discern the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. St Thomas speaks of two different ways in which a passage of scripture can be understood: literally and spiritually, by which terms he means according as the words used signify things and then according as the things signified in their turn signify other things.

The literal sense, that sense in which the thing properly signified by the words is considered has four major types: historical, etiological, analogical, and metaphorical or as they refer to things in a straightforward way, as the words refer to the causes of things, as the truth of one passage is shown not to contradict another passage and as words are used metaphorically.

The spiritual sense, that sense which the things themselves spoken of signify something else, can be broken into a three major types: allegorical, moral, and anagogical or as Old Testament things refer to New Testament things, as things done by other members of the mystical body ought to be done by us, and as things signify eternal realities that will persist after the end of time.

The literal and spiritual sense, as well as their seven species: the historical, aetiological, analogical, parabolical, allegorical, moral, and anagogical are the most frequently used ways to explain the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. This is not to say that every passage can be understood in each of these ways, but rather, not unlike the Topics of Aristotle, the senses of Scripture are list of possible categories of meaning for any given passage. Indeed the latin word sensus has as one of its definitions meaning. The senses of Scripture are the various possible meanings of Scripture.

Literal Sense

In the Summa St Thomas divides the literal meaning of Scripture into two parts: when the words are used to properly signify their object and when they are not. This latter we usually call metaphor and St Thomas uses the word parabolicus. For an example of metaphor we do well to turn to that collection of poems in the middle of the Scriptures: the Psalms. In the third psalm David asks God to hear him, not because God has ears and will actually hear David, but because God can approve of Davids disposition.

However sometimes the bare explanation of what is signified by the words, that is to say the fundamental literal sense or what St Thomas calls the historical sense in order to differentiate it from the other literal meanings which are based on it, is not sufficient to understand what the authors of Scripture are talking about. One reason the historical sense is not sufficient isbecause the causes of the subject are unclear. The causal explanation of Scripture is called the etiological sense. An example can be found in St Thomas’ Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew where he explains the presence of three sinners, Tamar, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife in the genealogy of Christ. Beyond the mere historical sense, namely that they are listed and that they are sinners, St Thomas says that they are included as a sign that Christ, whose genealogy is given, entered the world to save sinners.

Another reason why the literal sense of Scripture poses a problem is because it seems to contradict other passages. When the meanings of each passage is made clear and thus resolving the apparent contradiction, this is called the analogical sense. It seems that the title of Mathews Gospel The Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ is contradicted by Isaiah’s statement, “As for His generation, who will tell it?” (53:8). This contradiction is resolved when we consider that Christ has two generations, an eternal one from the Father which no man can tell and this is spoken of by Isaiah, whereas His human generation is taken up by the Evangelist Matthew.

In his Commentary on Galatians St Thomas speaks of a fourth type of literal sense, the metaphorical. This one can be the most difficult to understand as it is very similar to the spiritual senses of scripture. The metaphorical type of the literal sense, unlike the historical, etiological, and analogical types does not refer to the object properly spoken of by the words but rather to that object metaphorically spoken of. The difference between the metaphorical sense and the spiritual senses of Scripture is that the object of the metaphorical sense has no signification beyond itself, whereas the things themselves of the spiritual sense refer to things other than themselves.

While the explanation above is a clunky and unclear one perhaps it would help to remember that human authors of all kinds of texts use metaphor all the time, if this is true of any human text it is certainly true of Scripture as well. To help we include a series of quotes from the Angelic Doctor below and we hope (as time permits us to learn how) to build an info graphic to visually explain these distinctions.

Spiritual Sense

The spiritual sense of Scripture is not about the words and their signification but about what the thing itself in its turn signifies. This is true even of those things which are refereed to in metaphor. From this it follows that the spiritual sense is wholly dependent upon the literal sense. As such no spiritual meaning of Scripture can contradict what is said literally elsewhere in Scripture. It is for this reason that students must first have a clear understanding of the literal sense of Scripture before a spiritual meaning can be given. St Thomas speaks of three types of spiritual sense: the alegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.

When something from, “The Old Law is a figure of the New” as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, the allegorical type of the spiritual sense is being used. For example Jesus (Joshua) the son of Nun, “mighty in war and the successor of Moses in prophesying” (Sir 46:1) is a figure of Jesus Christ, for just as he introduced the people to the promised land so to Christ introduces the people into the Heavenly Kingdom.

When the things that Christ or those who prefigure Him are signs of things we ourselves should do this is the moral sense of Scripture. If we turn back to Matthew’s Genealogy we can find an example of the moral meaning of Scripture in each of the three groups of 14 generations given. For each of these groups represent what mystical theology calls the three ages of the spiritual life: the age of beginners, proficients, and the perfect. St Thomas goes on in his commentary to give specific behaviors and dispositions to each of the people named in relation to one of these three ages which we must imitate if we are to progress in the spiritual life.

When the things are signs of what lies ahead in eternal glory this is the anagogical or aescatological sense, that is to say, a meaning related to the final things. For our example we may turn again to Jesus son of Nun used in the allegorical sense. For being led into the land beyond the Jordan is a sign of the life of the Christian after he is baptized so to are these signs of the eternal life we will lead after our death and resurrection.