Sunday, May 30, 2010

St. Thomas and the Literal Sense of Scripture

A Protestant comboxer suggests that St. Thomas prefers the literal sense (rather than any of the other senses of Scripture) for purposes of argument. He quotes the following from ST I Q1 A10 ad 1:

Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.

This comboxer uses this quotation in order to justify his rejection of a typological argument for the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin—one that views her as the Ark of the new covenant and compares her to the Old Testament ark of the covenant.

There are at least two reasons why this use of St. Thomas for this purpose is improper. In the first place, since the New Testament itself makes use of typologies, it seems to be proving too much to say that they are invalid in and of themselves: if it is to be assumed that typologies are invalid, then we would forced to conclude that the New Testament writers had gone too far themselves in making use of them. I have heard Protestants say that the only valid types are the ones that Scripture uses and that all others are invalid, but we have no principled reason to accept this claim.

In the second place, the comboxer misquotes St. Thomas by omission, and consequently causes him to appear to accept something that he does not. Earlier in the same article, St. Thomas said this:

Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ 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 Holy Writ should have several senses. [Emphasis added]

So it’s clear that you can’t appeal to Aquinas as an authority for the idea that the literal sense of Scripture is something singular, which would rule out typology. This fact is made more clear from Aquinas’ own use of the Bible. A single example will suffice for now: his commentary on St. Gabriel’s salutation to the Blessed Virgin, which we looked at here. There are many examples of his use of Scripture in the commentary, but perhaps the most interesting for our purposes here is the following, from his argument in the commentary for the Virgin’s purity:

Third, she exceeds the angels in her purity, for the Blessed Virgin was not only pure in herself, but she also obtained purity for others. For she was most pure with respect to guilt, because neither mortal nor venial sin could be imputed to this virgin, and she was equally pure with respect to punishment.

Three curses come to men because of sin…The third is common to men and women, namely that into dust they shall return. The Blessed Virgin was free of this, because she was assumed in the body into heaven. For we believe that after death she was raised up and borne to heaven. Psalm 131:8: Arise, O “Lord, into thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy majesty.”

The most important thing to note here is that he specifically quotes Ps. 131:8 in such fashion as to refer to Mary as “the ark of thy majesty.” In other words, he’s making the exact same typological argument that our Protestant comboxer objected to, and the same argument that he erroneously claimed was invalid in the eyes of Aquinas. Hence we see that, quite contrary to what our comboxer asserts, Aquinas believed in the legitimacy of typologies like this, and actually made use of them himself.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Mr. Cagle, the comboxer to whom I reply in this post, follows up with this:

Still and all: what are we to make of this? It is equally clear that Aquinas rejects arguments from pure allegory.

So it might be the case that Aquinas is here inconsistent. Or, that Aquinas somehow sees Ps. 131.8 as typifying something taught in a more literal sense elsewhere.

It is of course possible that St. Thomas was inconsistent on the specific point under consideration, but on the principle of charity such a suggestion ought to be a last resort—if we cannot otherwise discern a reasonable way to understand him consistently. After all, the difficulty may be with ourselves, rather than the author.

It seems in this case that the difficulty may rest in some equivocation over the meaning of “literal sense,” possibly deriving from a misunderstanding concerning authorship. As he says in the article (and as quoted in my post), Aquinas considers God to be the author of Scripture, and consequently believes that there is nothing to prevent a given passage from having multiple literal meanings (and of course, even human authors may intend multiple meanings). This being so, there is no justification for attributing inconsistency to him in this case, because if Aquinas believes that God, the author, intends the passage to have multiple meanings (as Aquinas insists is possible), then we may conclude that Aquinas believes he is simply identifying a second literal meaning.

So in the present case, I submit that the typological identification of Mary as the ark of the new covenant is understood by St. Thomas as a literal meaning of the text—a meaning intended by its author, the Holy Spirit. Consequently this is not an example of inconsistency on his part. We see the same sort of thing in play in regard to another passage of Scripture in the article of the Summa that is devoted to Mary’s perpetual virginity. I have discussed that here.

greenbaggins said...

If I might make a suggestion here. The commenter in question was limiting Aquinas's preference to which sense was appropriate *for argumentation.* Jeff was not making a statement on whether all other forms of interpretation were inherently suspect. The words of Aquinas are quite clear in stating that, *for argumentation,* the literal was the only legitimate sense. This did not come across very clearly in your critique of Jeff.

Reginald de Piperno said...


Thank you for your concern. I attempted to address this objection in another post a couple days ago, where I presented an example from the Summa where St. Thomas clearly appeals to typology as part of his argument. This shows that he considers typologies to be a valid use of the literal senses (plural) of Scripture (remember also that I've already shown St. Thomas considers it "not unfitting" if a passage of God's Word has more than one literal sense).

Additionally, I think I have also addressed your concern in the first comment in this thread, where I responded to Mr. Cagle's follow-up/reply to what I had written in my post: he seems to have concluded that Aquinas' use of Ps. 131.8 does not live up to his own (that is, Aquinas' own) standard of argumentation on the basis of the literal sense only. I think I have shown that this conclusion is unwarranted.

Lastly, In my own defense, Mr. Cagle clearly read my post and didn't seem to object that I misrepresented him. If I have, it was entirely unintentional.