What Does it Mean to Read the Bible ‘Literally?’ Against the Literalistic and other Literalisms via the Sensus Literalis

Of course even as theological exegetes of Holy Scripture, more so, we want to take the text as Literal. But what does this actually entail; what does it mean to be literal in our interpretation? Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie assert that the sine qua non of the dispensational hermeneutic is to read the Bible literally; he asserts if the reader engages in this type of reading practice they will end up as a dispensationalist. Others, like Doug Hamp similarly assert that their method is of the literal type; but in Hamp’s et als. case he does not end up as a dispensationalist, instead he ends up focusing on a Jewish or Hebraic understanding of the text of Scripture—even in its New Testament iteration (e.g. rather than reading the Bible from an post-Nicene Christologically sourced tradition).

So what does it mean to read the Bible literally? Do we follow a wooden-literal approach, like the aforementioned, wherein what it means to be ‘literal’ actually entails being literalistic to the point that every word in the Bible is read without recognizing the various literary qualities inherent to the text (such as is presented by the types of narrative, poetry, or discourse inherent therein etc.)? I.e. that when figures of speech are used they are read as literal realities rather than figures symbolizing some greater reality that transcends its own figural reality. The Protestant Reformed, following their medieval forebears had an understanding of what interpreting Scripture ‘literally’ entailed, but it was much different than what we find in the modern-critical period wherein a rationalist positivism prevails. Note Richard Muller’s definition of the Latin sensus literalis:

sensus literalis: literal sense; the fundamental literal or grammatical sense of the text of Scripture, distinguished into (1) sensus literalis simplex, the simple literal sense, which lies immediately in the grammar and the meaning of individual words, and (2) sensus literalis compositus, the constructed or compounded literal sense, which is inferred from the Scripture as a whole or from individual clear, and therefore normative, passages of Scripture when the simple literal sense of the text in question seems to violate either the articuli fidei (q.v.) or the pracecepta caritatis (q.v.). See historicus; quadriga.[1]

As defined the previous adherents to ‘literal’ interpretation would want to affirm this definition (but they diverge radically from this premodern principle of biblical interpretation). We see, particularly in Muller’s notation on compositus, an allusion to what was called the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) or analogia scriptura (analogy of scripture); the principle where the clearer passages were deployed to shed light on the crux interpretums (the difficult passages to interpret). All of this presupposes a level of clarity or perspicuity inherent to the text that the Reformers held dear based upon their belief that Scripture was representative of the place where the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) could be encountered; undergirding this, further, was the belief that this God, in all of his graciously accommodating ways, intended to communicate exactly what he wanted within the providential unfolding of salvation history as disclosed in Holy Scripture. What is key to this, key for our purposes, is to recognize that in this sensus literalis it is largely funded by a very theological understanding of things. What it means to read the Bible literally is necessarily couched in and from the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus to read the Bible ‘literally’ means to read Scripture with attention to the centrality of God’s voice given its primary vocalization through his Self-revealed and explicated reality in his Son, Jesus Christ.

To help us expand on this notion of reading Scripture in a literal key, in the historic mode of the sensus literalis, Stephen Fowl helpfully develops this further; and with reference to what I would contend is Scripture’s primary referent (cf. Jn 5.39), Jesus Christ. Fowl shows how in the case of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a very ‘literal’ interpreter of Holy Scripture, what it meant to be a literal Bible interpreter wasn’t just to attend to the simplex, but more pointedly it was to recognize that the ‘simple’ (i.e. the grammatical, historical, literary contours) had a telos (purpose), that it had a res (reality) that it pointed to as its depth reality.

The foundation for Aquinas’s scriptural interpretation was the “literal sense” (sensus literalis) of Scripture. For Aquinas, the literal sense of Scripture is what the author intends. Thomas holds that the author of Scripture is God, or more precisely, the Holy Spirit. The human authors under the Spirit’s inspiration are significant though secondary in this respect. The Spirit is capable of understanding all things and intending more by the words of Scripture than humans could ever fully grasp. This means that believers should not be surprised to find that there may be many manifestations of the literal sense of a passage. Here is what Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae: “Since the literal sense is what the author intends, and since the author of Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends everything all at once in God’s understanding, it is not unfitting as Augustine says [Confessions XII], if many meanings are present even in the literal sense of a passage of Scripture” (Summa Theologiae 1.Q.1 art. 10). This notion of authorial intention, which is very different from the modern hermeneutical accounts of authors mentioned above, will allow someone to treat christological interpretations of Isaiah as the literal sense of that text without disallowing other more historical accounts of the literal sense of Isaiah. Moreover, such an approach will allow Christians to treat Psalm 139 in ways that do not invite Christians to pray for revenge on their enemies. Thus, such an approach will keep theological concerns primary in theological interpretation rather than making theological concerns subsidiary to hermeneutical concerns.[2]

For Thomas Aquinas, and the premodern world he inhabited, what it meant to read the Bible ‘literally’ had range; what was privileged was the theological over the “historical-critical.” This belief, about the primacy of the theological, was fueled by the further belief that the world was God’s, that it was providentially administered and sustained by his Word and for his Word; as such interpreters like Aquinas (Luther, Calvin, et al.) felt it warranted to simply read Scripture as if the world belonged to God, and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the reality of Scripture had an elevation point that redounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So to read the Bible literally from this vantage point was to see the Christ as the primary referent point wherein all else, all the historical proclivities and contingencies unfolded in the panorama of salvation-history, were hued by their canonizing reality in Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly we see this in Martin Luther’s interpretive approach as well; note:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture.[3]

Here we have further elaboration of what Muller referenced for us as the simplex sensus literalis in Luther’s own approach to reading the Bible ‘literally.’ In flow with Fowl’s elucidation of Aquinas, Luther has literal-prophetic; this nuance between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘historical’ nicely illustrates, again, how in the premodern era of biblical interpretation there was an emphasis upon the theological, more pointedly the christological character of the text of Scripture and its reading. All of this is couched in the theological ideation that this is God’s world, and under his providential governance and giveness. Viz. that there is not an abstract autonomous world of history and artifacts wherein the biblical interpreter can stand within as a ‘critical’ interpreter of Scripture that keeps them sanitized or unimplicated by their own locatedness as creatures before a holy Creator.

I confess that this is the way I approach my reading of Holy Scripture. Does this mean that some of the relative gains garnished by the turn to the modern must be completely evacuated? No, it simply means that the theological ought to be given priority of place in the biblical interpretive process, and that the so called ‘critical’ is given due notice only within this sort of humiliating reality (i.e. humiliating in the sense that the critical reader of Scripture is not so critical after all; in the sense that they/we are sinners). Does reading the Bible theologically mean that we cannot pay attention to various historical vicissitudes present within the text that might not seem to have direct relation to the Messiah? No, it just means that when engaging with historical instances, or personages in the text of Scripture, that we will always be cognizant of the fact that they are part of a greater historical sweep wherein their place within the salvation-history unfolded and deposited in the text of Scripture only has telos, only has meaning in light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 279.

[2] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 49-50 kindle.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80. Quote sourced from this post: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis.

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‘Thy Word is Truth, Sanctify Them by Thy Word’: Reading Scripture Theologically Rather than as Nature Lovers

My last post has highlighted what it looks like when a hermeneutic isn’t explicitly or intentionally related to a genuinely Christian reading of Holy Scripture. The results of engaging in biblical interpretation in this way allows for an un-tetheredness from the reality of the text of Scripture which allows the interpreter to impose whatever their chosen flavor of hermeneutic or philosophy might be (i.e. something like a reader response approach to Scripture wherein cultural fluctuations, and personal predispositions determine the way the text is read and understood).

In contrast to this John Webster offers an alternative (and historical) treatment and ontology of Holy Scripture wherein Scripture’s theological reality—the reality of the triune life as revealed in Christ—is given the regulative power it ought to have for Christians. You will note, starting a reading and reception of Scripture this way recognizes from the get go that the Bible comes couched within its own explicitly framed confessional position wherein Christ and the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the ‘domain’ wherein Scripture finds its orientation and thus meaning. In other words, to approach Scripture this way is to do so with the full recognition that we as Christians are determined to be, as a people, by the inner depth reality of Scripture itself. What this does is to give the keys (i.e. the authority) to the reality of Scripture to the Giver of Scripture; it is to recognize that Scripture is a work of God and that God’s work cannot, and shan’t not, be torn asunder from the person of God’s life in Christ. As such when we read Scripture it is not an epistemological source-bed wherein an unentangled unSpirit filled person can simply enter in and read off a series of historical facts (or myths, whatever the case might be); no, to approach Scripture this way, through its Self-determined reality vis-à-vis God in Christ, means that the reader is entangled in the telos of Scripture; is enmeshed in an interpenetrative way with the reality of Scripture, such that Scripture, its reality, is reading us more than we are reading ‘it.’ This is why John Webster places Scripture in the realm not only of soteriology, but more pointedly in the frame of sanctification (Jn 17.17). Scripture isn’t ‘open’ to whatever mode, whatever way we want to fashion it; nein, Holy Scripture, is, for the Christian, the holy ground wherein the Christian engages in a dialogue with the living voice of God afresh and anew, and in that process is transformed from glory to glory (cf. II Cor. 3.18).

Stephen Fowl summarizes some of this for us as he offers a sketch of Webster’s theology of Scripture. Fowl writes, particularly engaging with Webster’s thought on how Scripture came to be read naturalistically rather than theologically:

This recognition becomes difficult to square with a doctrine of revelation if that doctrine is divorced from its subsidiary role in relation to the doctrine of God. As Webster argues, just such a divorce occurred in the history of modern theology. Rather than a doctrinal assertion related to God’s triune identity, theologians came to think of revelation as an epistemological category requiring philosophical rather than theological justification. “Understood in this dogmatically minimalistic way, language about revelation became a way of talking, not about the life-giving and loving presence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” Once one moves in this direction it becomes easier to understand why some attempts to defend the divine nature of Scripture tend to focus their attention on establishing either the incorruptibility of the text or the benign nature of the processes by which the texts of Scripture come to us. The most extreme manifestation of this concern is found in those theories or doctrines of Scripture that require some form of divine dictation where the human authors of Scripture simply record the words the Spirit speaks to them.[1]

In other words, when philosophical epistemology becomes the warp and woof of a theological conceiving of a doctrine of Scripture, what is produced is some form or some emphasis upon the quality of Scripture itself (as an end in itself); i.e. inerrancy. What is lost in this endeavor is a proper focus on Scripture’s ontology; in other words, Scripture’s character and ‘place’ is lost when we fail to see it within the domain of God’s life in Christ, by way of its ordering, and instead we place it as a cipher between ourselves and God. Scripture in this case, when understood as an epistemological source, becomes an artifice of social analogizing rather than the holy ground that it actually is vis-à-vis God as its giver and speaker. Do you see the problem? God becomes the tail and we the dog who wags the tail; Scripture’s place is displaced to the point that it is contingent upon whatever philosophical program we want to impose upon it; whatever pet theological paradigm or hermeneutic we want to bring to it to enhance or degrade its inerrant properties. This should not be so.

Let us close with a quote from Webster that clarifies all of this that much more closely:

First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[2]

This represents the type of approach we will take if we read Scripture as it ought to be read; viz. theologically.

 

[1] Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 8 kindle.

[2] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.