The Literal and the Spiritual Sense of Scripture

I have taken several courses in exegesis since the early 1970s, both on an undergraduate level and on what was the equivalent of graduate studies. There seems to be a tension for so many ¬†between the “literal” sense and the “spiritual” sense of scripture.

St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed the significance of the “literal” sense of the texts. This sense is coming to understanding of what the human authors of scripture meant in a given passage according to the literary conventions of the time of the writing. This is not to be confused with a “literalist” approach which many fundamentalists take. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to get its “literal” sense. When a text uses metaphor or poetry, for example, the “literal” sense is not immediately apparent with a simple transliteration of the words. There is a certain dynamism in any given text that must be grasped if the “literal” sense is to be appreciated.¬†

This is the type of exegesis which I studied in American colleges and also at the Gregorian University in Rome. It is a demanding science requiring extensive knowledge of ancient languages, and a good grasp of history and culture.

Then there is the “spiritual” sense of scripture. The strict historicists will complain often that this sense is alien to the text. If one reads the Church Fathers, you will find they have utilized the “spiritual” sense extensively. The “spiritual” sense may be defined as the meaning a text may have when read under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the context of Christ redemptive actions, i.e., the Paschal Mystery. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus,we believe, establishes a fundamentally different historical reality which sheds light upon, fulfills and changes the meaning of the ancient scriptural texts.

The “spiritual” sense cannot be likened to subjective interpretation, imagination or speculation of some sort. Authentic “spiritual” sense of scripture requires a balance among three levels of reality: the biblical text, the paschal mystery of Christ, and the contemporary circumstances of life.

Of course, what the Church strives to proclaim is the “full” sense of scripture, the deeper truths which come to light as the years pass, and the Church reflects more and more on the person of Jesus as expressed in the Bible and in the living Tradition of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The point which seems so obvious to me is all of this must come together. All of it is important, not just one piece. Why the divisions among us Christians in our understanding of scripture? Comments?

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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