Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis

[This is a revised and expanded version of a post from last December. Further thoughts have occurred to me and I decided to rework the old post rather than write an entirely new one.]

In the course of an article in the De potentia on matter and creation (q. 4, a. 1), Aquinas has a remarkable discussion of biblical hermeneutics. Actually, it may only be “remarkable” for us, that is, we moderns who prize the historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture and thus tend to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aim at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible, hoping to find, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, “the single beatific interpretation.” I suppose our ideal would be: one Scriptural proposition/one meaning, something not dissimilar to the ideal language that the early Wittgenstein seems to dream of at times in the Tractatus.

Whatever the case may be, Aquinas, like the Fathers, was quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course. Aquinas’s rule in the passage in question is that the meaning suggested not go against the letter. But he does not imagine that this will be overly restrictive, “for it is part of the dignity of the Divine Scriptures that under the one literal sense many others are contained.”

The other “remarkable” thing (for us) about this passage is that although Aquinas acknowledges that the human author’s intention has a role to play in interpretive decisions, he is not at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood because, in his view, what is essential is that the meaning(s) be what the Holy Spirit understood “since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures.”

Aquinas writes:

[T]wo things also are to be avoided [in interpreting Scripture]. One is to give to the words of Scripture an interpretation manifestly false: since falsehood cannot underlie the Divine Scriptures which we have received from the Holy Spirit, as neither can there be error in the faith that is taught by the Scriptures. The other is not to force such an interpretation on Scripture as to exclude any other interpretations that are actually or possibly true, not compromising the literal sense of Scripture, for it is part of the dignity of the Divine Scriptures that under the one literal sense many others are contained. It is in this way that there is an adaptation to the various levels of intelligence among men, so that each one marvels to find his thoughts expressed in Divine Scripture. But also Scripture is all the more easily defended against unbelievers in that when one finds his own understanding of Sacred Scripture to be false he can fall back upon some other. Hence it is not inconceivable that Moses and the other authors of the Sacred Scriptures were given to know the various truths that men would discover in the text, and that they expressed them under one literary style, so that each truth is the sense intended by the author. And then even if commentators adapt certain truths to sacred Scripture that were not understood by the [human] author, without doubt the Holy Spirit himself understood them, since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures. Consequently every truth that saves the literal sense of the Divine Scriptures, is their sense.
If the literal sense (sensus litteralis), which Aquinas also calls the "historical sense" (sensus historicus, cf. ST, I, q. 1, a. 10), is what sets the limit to the vast possibilities of meaning, we would do well to ask what Aquinas means by the literal sense of Scripture. He explains his understanding of it in the Summa in q. 1, a. 10. Here again his theory of biblical hermeneutics is remarkable: for Aquinas the literal sense is the sense that God intends as the author of sacred Scripture. Aquinas makes that claim toward the end of this passage from the corpus of ST, I, q. 1, a. 10:

The author of sacred Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Heb. 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Denys says (Coel. Hier. i) “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of sacred Scripture is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in sacred Scripture should have several senses.
This understanding of the literal sense of Scripture is quite different from the dominant understanding of this term in contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has become one of the standard reference works for Catholic biblical hermeneutics, defines the "literal sense" as "[t]he sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey." Brown is well aware of the traditional understanding of the literal sense of the medievals, like Aquinas, and the Fathers. But in his piece in the JBC that understanding only seems to have the status of an historical curiosity. (Am I being unfair to Brown?)

One final point. There is a movement in the Church today -- not really a coordinated one but significant nonetheless -- to get Catholics to become biblically literate. All well and good. St. Jerome says, as we are often reminded, that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But in our haste to promote Bible study groups, let’s not forget that it’s not the bare biblical text that we need to be familiar with but the text as Christ teaches it through his Church: “he who hears you hears me.” Reading Scripture in isolation from the Church is another typically modern -- and dare I say Protestant -- exegetical mistake.

Here again Aquinas is unmodern:

The formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith … faith adheres to all the articles of faith by reason of one mean, viz. on account of the First Truth proposed to us in Scriptures, according to the teaching of the Church who has the right understanding of them. Hence whoever abandons this mean is altogether lacking in faith.
The text comes from ST, II-II, q. 5, a. 3. As Aquinas understands things, God is sovereign over the Church and Scripture and both proceed from him but the latter two do not have equal status in this economy. Faith is not determined by mere appeal to the Scriptures but to the Church’s reading of them.

If you want your parish to have a Bible study group, you should also make sure that the participants know their catechism.

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UPDATE June 12: I've been having an exchange on this with John Martens. Here are his comments at the America Magazine site from June 6:

Aquinas, Modern Biblical Exegesis, and Dei Verbum

Here is the response that I made today to his comments:

Reading in the Spirit: A Reply to John Martens 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Joe,

    I enjoyed this post and responded to it at

    John W. Martens


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