The literal and historical sense of Scripture

In treating the senses in which Scripture can be read, St. Thomas saw “literal” as synonymous with “historical”. This sense, however, was nothing more than when “words stood for things” and which was opposed to the figurative senses. Note that there is nothing in such an account that can explain Scripture as historical – for words stand for things even when one is not writing history.

Nevertheless, this raises the question of what we are supposed to do when history develops to such an extent that it means a good deal more than what is merely opposed to a figurative reading. For St. Thomas, one was reading Scripture literally – and therefore historically – when he read God’s statement to Moses “I am who am” as speaking to a metaphysical claim that was only articulated by philosophers 2000 years after Moses.  There is no time when, in considering the divine name, St. Thomas gives a historical account in the sense of history that is familiar to us. In fact, we would oppose the sort of analysis that St. Thomas gives of the divine name to a historical account.

This creates a problem for Thomists – and for Scholastics in general since none of them had a very robust sense of history – about what to say about the relation between literal readings and historical ones.


  1. Mike Flynn said,

    March 21, 2011 at 10:42 am

    “Literal” covers a wide range of readings, I think. Take the expression:
    “You are the salt of the earth.”
    In the historico-literal sense, Jesus was not telling the apostles that they were composed of sodium chloride. [The modern historical sense is that, historically he said that.]
    However, the metaphorical meaning is also literal. It depends on the actual factual meaning of the term “salt” and its use in flavoring and preserving. To say, “You are the asparagus of the earth” would not mean the same thing at all. So metaphors are literal, too, in Thomas’ sense, in a way that allegories are not.

    What happened in the Modern Ages, is that the word “literal” took on a scientific meaning. Scientific terms and data are supposed to be univocal, and the prestige of science imposed that protocol on other domains. I have sometimes called this “naive literalism” or a “remorselessly prosaic literalism.” (I’ve never thought it a coincidence that the term “scientist” came into use during the Second Great Awakening and the emergence of fundamentalism.

  2. Brandon said,

    March 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Historicus in Aquinas’s sense certainly just means ‘what belongs to the story’ (historia meant any sort of story or account in general). So really it comes down to the question of how we relate the story with historical inferences about events the story is about. And surely that’s not a question exclusive to Thomists? Stories have a teleology: they foreshadow, they symbolize, they hint and allude to universal truths. The conclusions of historical scholarship do none of these things, at least not as we usually think of historical scholarship.

  3. March 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Thinking about this further, I wonder if there is, in fact, a Thomistic answer, but only for the question considered as a general question. If it’s a general question about how history and Biblical story are connected, it’s handled by the doctrine of providence. It’s in the specifics (was there a real Adam, was there an actual flood, did Sennacherib really turn back because his army was struck with madness, is Luke’s description of why Jesus was born in Bethlehem strictly accurate or only approximate or largely symbolic, etc.) that the question becomes tricky, because as story the Bible can function in many modes: straight history, parable, legend, etc. Obviously it can’t all be legend, or the truths of the faith are unfounded (that, I take it, was the real and primary point that Pius XII was trying to make in Humani Generis). But at the same time, there’s no need for it all to be straight history, either. So we’re stuck sorting the infinity of contingent particulars, a task made all the more complicated by the fact that historical inferences necessarily only get at their subjects in an indirect, roundabout way. And then it would seem that every case has to be considered on its own, and each case would be different.

    It reminds me of John’s account of the Baptism, which adds what I’ve always thought was an interesting detail, and perhaps a very important one to think about. The heavens open and the voice of the Father says, “This is my Beloved Son.” Many people witnessing it are amazed at having experienced a miracle. But many others insist that it was only thunder.

  4. Brandon said,

    March 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hmm… trick of memory; it was John 12:29 (a non-Baptism, non-Transfiguration instance of a voice from heaven, with different words) that I was thinking of.

  5. skholiast said,

    March 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I think Origen sometimes uses “bodily” for this same sense of “literal,” e.g., since plants are created on day three in the Genesis 1 account, and the sun upon day four, Origen opines that this cannot be true “in a bodily sense.” I’m citing from memory here though, so don’t hold me to it. But the intersection (& divergence) between “historical,” “literal,” and “bodily” seems interesting.

%d bloggers like this: