Warning: this paragraph may cause grammar-conscious readers to literally explode. In contemporary speech, many people use the word “literally” merely for emphasis, but those who hold fast to the word’s meaning know that this usage is literally barking up the wrong tree. Yet, confusion over the word “literally” has more serious implications than literally getting the goat of every high school English teacher: it can lead to confusion about how we read the Bible.
Are we supposed to read the Bible literally? We may have an impulse to say no. Isn’t taking the Bible literally something that only Fundamentalist Protestants do? Since we hold to both faith and reason, how could we take the Bible literally, when some parts seem to contradict confident findings of science and perhaps even other parts of the Bible itself?
Thus, it may come as a surprise that St. Thomas Aquinas, a man of great faith and great reason, makes the literal reading of Scripture foundational to all interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (ST I.1.10). He even literally throws down the gauntlet: “it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ.”
We literally need to make sense of this.
What is this literal sense? For St. Thomas, the literal sense means much more than taking the words at face value. If we were forced to do that, the creation narratives would be the least of our worries. For instance, Scripture often speaks of God’s “mighty arm” (Ps 89:10, Ps 98:1). Surely we don’t have to literally think that there is a divine bicep floating around in the heavens! Rather, according to St. Thomas, “the literal sense is that which the author intends.” Or as the Catechism puts it, “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation” (CCC 116).
For Catholics, “the literal sense” literally just means trying to understand what the authors, both the Divine Author and the human authors, meant to communicate. Often the authors clearly did intend to report a historical event, such as our Lord’s passion: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth” (Jn 19:35). Any interpretation of the Gospels which tries to avoid their literal historical claims is literally missing the point.
However, the literal sense isn’t limited to history. Sometimes an underlying purpose is identified: “that you also may believe” (Jn 19:35). Often, a theological truth is expressed through metaphor: for instance, “God’s mighty arm” for God’s power.
We can also be confident that, since God is the primary author of all Scripture, the true literal senses of any two passages can never be contradictory. When there is an apparent contradiction, it is a good hint that the point of contention isn’t the literal senses’ points. Thus when we see two creation accounts that disagree about whether man or animals were created first, we can safely conclude that the authors were not concerned with telling us which came first. They had other things on their minds.
Trusting in the guidance of the Church, in which resides the ultimate authority to determine the literal sense of Scripture, we can literally read the best book in the world, the book that literally reveals to us God Himself, the God who literally entered our history when He became man.
“All divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in Christ” (Hugh of St. Victor, cited in Verbum Domini 39).
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Bible Sunday