We began talking about the quadriga last week and this week will continue into an examination of the senses of scripture, starting with the first sense, the literal. Now before we continue, we need to be clear about our definitions and understandings of literal. For the purposes of the quadriga, the literal sense of scripture conforms to what is now called the historical-grammatical method. What we have seen in today’s world is a two fold problem. We have more liberal theologians who completely reject the literal sense, and the methodology, in favor of higher criticism, and we have very conservative theologians who accept the methodology to the exclusion of all else. Both of these approaches are incorrect, and neither approach is in line with the methodology of the patristics and theologians moving forward into the middle ages.
For the patrisitcs going forward, it was understood that everything begins with the literal. The first questions to be asked when examining a passage of scripture are what happened here? What events, people, places, or requirements are in play? Each section of scripture has a real and literal sense as the Bible speaks of real people and real events. It is important to note that actual literal interpretation (the historical-grammatical method) allows for things such as metaphors and allegories. The parables of Jesus are a great example of this. What it does understand however is that each metaphor or allegory is a picture of reality. The historic facts are accepted as historic facts, and the allegories and metaphors are pictures of the reality being expressed.
There is a great deal of modern skepticism about the literal sense of scripture. Such skepticism boarders on embarrassment really. To often the literal sense is slipped by quickly or out right ignored in favor of a theological or spiritual hermeneutic. Higher criticism is often used to the exclusion of the literal sense, and from that we have seen all manner of poor interpretation of scripture, and also seen that, despite the protests of some, it is not a matter of differing interpretations of scripture, but entirely different approaches to scripture, that are causing such strife in the church. If we do not tart at the same beginning point after all, how can we ever get to anything resembling the same ending point. For the patristics and the medieval theologians, all understanding of scripture begins with the literal. I did not say it ends there mind you, but that is where it begins. John F, Boyle of the University of St. Thomas, wrote a brief summary of how Thomas Aquinas approached scripture. Reading through it provides valuable insight into the quadriga, and especially into the literal sense of scripture. For that matter, most of the Summa theologiae does the same thing. For hundreds of years, the literal sense was the beginning point of understanding scripture. That sense has become, to many, an embarrassment, and has become twisted to mean something which it does not. We would do well to return to the ways of our fathers and mothers and begin our understanding with the literal.
All textual dimensions of scripture begin, and stem from, the literal sense. As noted above, many modern scholars seem to have an embarrassment of the literal sense and gloss over it, or ignore it, in favor of the flavor of the week in interpretive methodologies. Doing this has given such “insights” (and please note the sarcasm and disgust here) as God consuming Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu with fire as an act of divine, homosexual love. Nothing in the text even remotely supports this, and if we begin with the literal, you never arrive as such a blasphemous point. Lest you think this is a new phenomenon however, there is a long list of heresies that have been perpetuated over the centuries beginning before the canon was finalized, and still going strong today. Nearly all of these heresies can be avoided if we begin with the literal sense. The patristics knew this, the medieval theologians knew this, so the question remains why can’t we figure this out?
Now the textual dimensions of scripture do not end with the literal either. Far to many protestant theologians seem to think that it does, and this is equally wrong. Such wondrous things as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and their slide into antinomianism, not to mention the plethora of modern day antinomians, are an example of this. Pretty much everything written by Tim LeHey and Jerry Jenkins would fall into that category as well. Oddly enough the “Jesus never said” arguments favored by some Christians with a theology more liberal than I, are a form of this. These, and other things, occurred because the literal sense was the end of the exploration of scripture and not the beginning point. This is just as dangerous as ignoring the literal sense. The patristics and the medieval theologians knew that understanding did not end with the literal, why are we having such a problem getting that as well?
The first sense of scripture is the literal, and rightly so. What happened? Who did it happen to? Where did it happen? What requirements are in play? These are basic questions, and the foundation of understanding scripture. No, the literal sense is not the end all be all, but neither is it to be ignored or glossed over in favor of the theology of the week. Examining scripture, beginning with the literal sense, is not going to mean that we come to all of the same conclusions all of the time of course, but it is going to mean that we are employing the methodology of our mothers and fathers of the faith and are starting from the same point. It means that we can actually search for truth together because we are suing the same map. It means that we are firmly rooted in the tradition of the church and seeking truth in the same manner as the great cloud of witnesses that have come before. It’s time to revive the old methods that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to the great truths that we now enjoy and embrace. It’s time to set aside the new wine that has been like vinegar souring the faith and return to the old wine that has revealed truth through the centuries.