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Senses and Sensibility

The Words of Aquinas on the Word of God

Every interpreter comes to Scripture with presuppositions. There is no such thing as a neutral Bible reader. And since we are not the first to read the Bible, we will benefit from asking what those who have gone before us have assumed about the Sacred Text. If we ignore the cloud of witnesses in the Great Tradition, we do so to our hermeneutical peril. The question isn’t whether we bring presuppositions to Scripture; the question is which ones we bring.

This article will focus on Thomas Aquinas as an interpreter. What did Aquinas believe about the Bible? Should faith be pitted against reason in the interpretive task? What were his hermeneutical assumptions? And what did his interpretive convictions lead him to produce?

Reflecting on Aquinas’s approach to Scripture makes sense because, as Keith Stanglin observes in his book The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation, Aquinas was “the most influential theologian after Augustine” in the Western church (103).

On the Nature of Scripture

We will first consider what Aquinas said about scripture, and his words will confirm the high view with which he held it. He spoke about Scripture’s purpose: “It must be said that Sacred Scripture is divinely ordered to this: that through it, the truth necessary for salvation may be made known to us” (Quaestiones quodlibetales, 7.6.1). For his words to make sense, Scripture must not be like other books; it is “sacred.” And scripture is not just authored by humans; it is “divinely ordered.” This order is toward an end. There is a direction, and a telos, of the Sacred Text. The purpose of scripture is to make known the truth necessary for salvation. It must be said that Sacred Scripture is divinely ordered to this: that through it, the truth necessary for salvation may be made known to us. -Thomas Aquinas Click To Tweet

Aquinas’s claims in the 1200s would not resonate with the post-Enlightenment higher-critical scholars who devalued the divine authorship of Scripture. He wrote, “The author of Holy Writ is God” (ST 1.1.10). If Scripture has been divinely ordered, then there is a coherence—a unity—across the two Testaments. And the divine intention for Scripture is to reveal specific things to the hearers and readers of Scripture. The revelation pertains especially to “the truth necessary for salvation,” which would emphasize the person and work of Christ as the culmination of God’s redemptive plan.

The Insufficiency of Human Reason

Hermeneutical practices flow from the presuppositions an interpreter has about the Bible. Since interpreters engage the Sacred Text with assumptions, the use of reason is thereby involved in the interpretive process. The employment of reason does not negate the role of faith, however.

Faithful interpreters will have both faith and reason. For example, Aquinas’s famous “Five Proofs” for God’s existence highlighted the importance of what we can discern and affirm in God’s world, even though sin has affected human reason. But true knowledge of God required faith. Accurate understanding of scripture required faith. “Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God, they must be accepted by faith” (ST 1.1.1). Aquinas emphasized the primacy of scripture as the necessary revelation for God to make himself known.

In other words, Aquinas believed that human reason was insufficient to know and understand the triune God. The revelatory function of scripture was not incidental; it was necessary for the triune God to be truly known and rightly worshiped. According to Aquinas, “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason….Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (ST 1.1.1).

Scripture consists of many genres that communicate divine truth in different ways. Metaphors abound. Aquinas sees a fittedness to this abundance:

“It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ, spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things” (ST 1.1.9).

Divine revelation is communicated to human minds, but readers must receive divine truths by faith.

The Sense and the Senses of Scripture

Throughout the Middle Ages, interpreters commonly employed the fourfold sense—the Quadriga. This interpretive strategy consisted of:

  1. the literal (or historical)
  2. allegorical
  3. tropological (or moral)
  4. anagogical sense

The literal sense referred to the surface meaning of the text. The allegorical sense took the reader into Christological significance. The tropological sense guided interpreters with moral instruction that the text either stated or implied. The anagogical sense referred to what lies ahead—the future of the saints and the glorious hope they have.Aquinas was one of the interpreters who countered what he considered hermeneutical abuses. He did this by emphasizing the literal sense. Click To Tweet

When we peruse the Medieval use of the Quadriga, abuses are not in short supply. Aquinas was one of the interpreters who countered what he considered hermeneutical abuses. He did this by emphasizing the literal sense. Craig Carter is right in Interpreting Scripture With the Great Tradition, however, that while stressing the literal sense in his exegesis, Aquinas drew conclusions that had previously been attributed to the spiritual sense (99).

The spiritual sense of the Sacred Text flows out of the literal sense. According to Aquinas, “the literal sense is that which the author intends, and…the author of Holy Writ is God” (ST 1.1.10). We should not conclude that Aquinas subordinated the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses as belonging to a category of What God Did Not Intend. Since God “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” (ST 1.1.10).

Aquinas anticipated the objection that multiple senses will bring confusion and interpretive disarray. Yet he insists that to acknowledge divinely-intended meaning beyond the literal sense of the text does not necessarily entail confusion or nonsense. “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” (ST1.1.10).The spiritual sense of the Sacred Text flows out of the literal sense, according to Aquinas. Click To Tweet

Aquinas did not want doctrinal convictions rooted in something other than the literal sense. There was no need to attribute to the spiritual sense any teaching which was found clearly in the literal (ST 1.1.10). While a passage’s spiritual sense would not contradict what scripture teaches in the literal sense, the former can certainly complement and confirm the latter.

Commenting on Scripture

Aquinas was a prolific author. He wrote works about the works of Aristotle, and his love of philosophy shined through what he produced. Aquinas is especially known for his Summa Theologiae, which has been quoted multiple times in the preceding paragraphs, and the Summa Contra Gentiles. The Summa Theologiae is a massive accomplishment which spans thousands of pages in print. In it he seeks to survey all theological and doctrinal matters. The format is laid out in terms of a question, possible objections to the teaching, and then his corresponding replies to those objections. The Summa Theologiae is the best known of all his works.

Yet perhaps the most important works Aquinas produced were his commentaries on scripture itself. These include Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah from the Old Testament, as well as Matthew, John, the letters of Paul, and Hebrews from the New. He also compiled quotations from the early church fathers on the Four Gospels, and the result was the Catena Aurea. His thorough and diligent attention to scripture confirms, again, his high view of it.Perhaps the most important works Aquinas produced were his commentaries on scripture itself. Click To Tweet

Aquinas begins the prologue to his Gospel of John commentary with a reference to Isaiah 6, the prophet’s vision of the Lord in the heavenly temple high and lifted up. According to Aquinas, the reader of John’s Gospel was embarking on a path of contemplation, just as Isaiah beheld the exalted Lord. Students of the Fourth Gospel would behold glory because they would contemplate the life and ministry of Jesus. We would contemplate the one who has loved us into eternal friendship.

As a theologian and commentator on the Sacred Text, Aquinas knew he was engaging the inspired words of God wherein God had made himself known. The literal sense, and the spiritual senses proceeding from it, should be received by faith and reflected on with reason. But no human meditations can fully represent the grandeur and glory of God and what God has accomplished in Christ.

In the final lines of his commentary on John’s Gospel, Aquinas reminds us of the humble state of all students and teachers who share words about the Word. Since the beginning of the Church, believers have written about their Lord; “but this is still not equal to the subject. Indeed, even if the world lasted a hundred thousand years, and books written about Christ, his words and deeds could not be completely revealed.”

Mitchell L. Chase

Mitchell L. Chase (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the pastor at Kosmosdale Baptist Church and an adjunct professor at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the author of Behold Our Sovereign God, The Gospel Is for Christians (2nd ed.), and 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory. He is married to Stacie, and they have four boys. You can follow him on Twitter.

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