The Four Senses of Scripture: The Literal Sense

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Studies in Catholic Thought immerses students in Scripture, theology and philosophy.
A lot of Scripture makes use of figurative language in order to get across the Literal Sense the authors want to convey. PHOTO: Starkey/Getty Images

Part 1 of a special series on the Four Senses of Scripture

Have you ever noticed that you can do something without realising you are doing it?  Like when you wear glasses and give no thought to the fact that you are wearing them. Or unless you are learning a foreign language, chances are good that you never give any thought to subject/verb agreement or any of the other fine details of grammar when you carry on a conversation.

My point is this: there are certain things you know so well that, in another sense, you don’t know them at all.

Among these things, if you are a Christian, are the Four Senses of Scripture.
“What are those?” you ask?
You actually know.  You just don’t know you know.

The Literal Sense of Scripture is like the foundation of a house.  It’s an indispensable part of the house, but at the same time, it is not the house.

The Four Senses of Scripture are why you don’t think it is weird when John the Baptist describes Jesus as the Lamb of God or when the priest holds up the Host and says the same thing about what appears to be a piece of bread.

The Four Senses of Scripture are why you don’t think it is odd for Paul to tell the Corinthians not to sleep with prostitutes since that will defile the Temple, which seems to be a big stone building on the other side of the Mediterranean from Corinth.

And the Four Senses of Scripture are why no Christian bats an eye when the Bible tells us we have all come to Mount Zion even though most us have never been to the Holy Land.

In short, the Four Senses of Scripture involve looking not only for what the human authors have to say about literal stuff (like David hiding from Saul in the cave of Adullam or Paul getting shipwrecked on Malta or Jesus being crucified by Pontius Pilate), but what the Spirit is saying through those authors about the profound meanings lurking in the events of salvation history.

However, in order to get at all this symbolic meaning, we have to begin with that first sense: the Literal.

The Literal Sense of Scripture concerns what the human author is saying, the way he is trying to say it and what is incidental to what he is saying.  So when Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, his literal meaning is just that.  But when Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches, he also has a Literal Sense but he does not mean he is a grape plant.

He means that the believer is completely dependent on him for his spiritual life.  The distinction here is between the Literal Sense (what the author means to get across) and mere literalistic reading (which flat-footedly misreads as newspaper or science language the metaphors and imagery with which human beings get across what they are trying to say).

Huge amounts of Scripture make use of figurative language in order to get across the Literal Sense the authors want to convey.  So when the prophets call Israel the “vineyard of the Lord” or Paul likens the Church to the Body of Christ, they don’t mean nothing by it: they have a Literal Sense.  But the Literal Sense is conveyed in figurative language.  Israel is like a planting of grapes from which God seeks the fruits of love, justice, and peace.  The Church is made up of members with different gifts who are to exercise those gifts for the common good just as the parts of the body are all ordered toward the health of the whole body.

The Literal Sense of Scripture is like the foundation of a house.  It’s an indispensable part of the house, but at the same time, it is not the house.  The Literal Sense of Scripture can never be disposed of any more than you can build a house and then dynamite the foundation.

But at the same time, just as the foundation of the house requires that something be built on it, so the Literal Sense calls for a deeper reading of Scripture that shows us what God is saying through the often strange and mysterious signs and sayings found there.

We know this because Jesus himself tells us so when he says of the Old Testament:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47).

Of which more next time.Sc

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