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Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas
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Article Ten

Whether One Passage of Sacred Scripture may have Several Interpretations

We proceed to the tenth article thus:

1. It seems that one passage of sacred Scripture cannot have several interpretations, such as the historical or literal, the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical. For many meanings in one passage make for confusion and deception, and destroy the cogency of argument. We cannot argue from ambiguous propositions, which are blamed for certain fallacies, whereas Scripture must be capable of showing the truth without any fallacy. There cannot, therefore, be several meanings intended by the same passage.

2. Again, Augustine says (De Utilitate Credendi): “The Scriptures which we call the Old Testament bear a fourfold record —the historical, the aetiological, the analogical, and the allegorical.” Now these appear to be quite different from the four interpretations mentioned. It seems wrong, therefore, that the same words of sacred Scripture should be expounded according to the latter.

3. Again, besides these four interpretations, there is the parabolical, which has been omitted.

On the other hand: Gregory says (20 Moral. 1): “The sacred Scriptures surpass all sciences by their manner of speaking. In one and the same word they record an event and proclaim a mystery.”

I answer: God is the author of sacred Scripture, and he is able not only to adapt words (which even a man can do), but also to adapt things to signify something. While words mean something in every science, it is characteristic of this science that the things which the words indicate themselves signify something. The signification by which words signify things belongs to the first interpretation of Scripture, namely the historical or literal. The interpretation wherein things signified by words stand for other things is called the spiritual interpretation, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. The spiritual interpretation is threefold. As the apostle says in Heb. 7, the Old Law is the figure of the New Law, and as Dionysius says (5 Eccles. Hier., cap. 1): “the New Law is itself the figure of future glory.” In the New Law, things done by the Head are signs of what we ourselves ought to do. Thus in so far as the contents of the Old Law indicate the contents of the New, the sense is allegorical. In so far as the deeds of Christ or the things which signify Christ are signs of what we ought to do, the sense is moral, and in so far as they signify what belongs to eternal glory, the sense is anagogical. Finally, since it is the literal sense which the author intends, and since the author is God, who comprehends all things in his mind together, “it is not unfitting that there should literally be several interpretations contained in one scriptural word” (12 Confessions 18–20; 24; 31).

On the first point: this manifold interpretation does not make for equivocation, or for any other kind of multiplicity. As we have said, its manifold nature does not mean that one word indicates different things, but that things indicated by words can be signs of different things. Thus no confusion results, since all interpretations are based on one, that is on the literal, from which alone we can argue. As Augustine says (Contra Vincent. Donatist. 48), we cannot argue from the allegorical meaning. Yet sacred Scripture loses nothing thereby, since nothing essential to the faith is contained in the spiritual sense of one passage which is not clearly expressed in the literal sense of another.

On the second point: the historical, the aetiological, and the anagogical are all three interpretations of the one literal interpretation. As Augustine explains in the same passage, it is history when something is merely narrated; aetiology when a reason is given for what is narrated, as when our Lord gave the reasons why Moses permitted the dismissal of wives, namely, for the hardness of their hearts (Matt. 19:8); analogy when the truth of one passage of Scripture is shown to be compatible with that of another. Of the four, allegory itself stands for the three spiritual interpretations. Thus Hugo St. Victor includes the anagogical under the allegorical, naming only the historical, the allegorical, and the tropological (Sentences 3. Prologue to 1 De Sacrament. 4).

On the third point: the parabolical meaning is contained in the literal, since the words indicate something directly, and also something figuratively. The literal sense is not the figure itself, but the thing which is figured. For when Scripture speaks of the arm of the Lord, the literal sense is not that God has such a bodily member, but that he has what such a bodily member indicates, namely active power. It is thus clear that the literal interpretation of Scripture cannot contain what is false.

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