Whether in Holy Scripture a Word May have Several Senses?
The Summa Theologica, one of the most important theological works in the history of the Catholic Church, came from one of the greatest philosophical and theological minds in the history of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). St. Thomas tried to summarize the study of theology—not just Christology, ecclesiology, systematic theology, or moral theology, but all theology. Many of us might be intimidated at the thought of reading St. Thomas and learning his works. In fact, the Summa was intended precisely for such students. “We purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners.” Even with that intended audience, the format reads strangely in our modern minds.
It resembles more of an outline (I., A., 1., a., etc.) than what we’d recognize as a theological treatise. There are three Parts, and each Part is then subdivided into Questions. And, each Question is comprised of Articles—all of which begin with a question. Every Article of the Summa takes that question, offers objections, then presents the Catholic answer to the question; finally, all the beginning objections are answered. This is a structure unfamiliar to us. To the modern reader, it may seem like St. Thomas is having a dry argument with himself. Rather, we should see in the style a 13th century scholar sharing in the medieval “passion for order, because they believed that God had a passion for order when He designed the universe” (Kreeft, Summa of the Summa).
Despite the apparent anachronism of the work, the Summa can be of great benefit to modern Catholics for a number of reasons. St. Thomas aimed “to set forth whatever is included in this sacred doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.” Brevity and clarity are wonderful virtues not possessed by all academics! The brevity isn’t found in the size of the entire work (about 3,000 pages), but in its treatment of each topic. It’s meant to function like an encyclopedia.
Besides the information contained in the “encyclopedia,” reading the Summa is also a way to get an introduction to Sacred Scripture, Aristotle, and the early Church Fathers. Scripture references abound throughout the Summa. Aquinas frequently cites St. Augustine, in addition to citing St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostum, and other Church Fathers.
Another use of the Summa to the modern Catholic is in the area of apologetics. The Summa can be a handy tool for apologetics just as much as an introduction to theology. Not all of the objections from St. Thomas’ day are still relevant, but many still are. I’m accustomed to thinking of apologetics as a matter of debating other Christians. But what if the conversation is with an atheist? St. Thomas infused much philosophy and logic into the Summa, which would help when discussing with someone who doesn’t recognize the authority of Sacred Scripture.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from an English teacher was to improve my writing by reading. That is, he told me to read the great books of literature. The more influence on me from the masters of the English language, the better. Reading St. Thomas Aquinas is a similar mental exercise. Something so heavily ordered forces us to think in an orderly way. Theology and the spiritual life operate like philosophy in that sense: there are starting principles, on which everything else rests. Without solid starting principles in place, our theology/spiritual life/philosophy will end up misdirected at best.
Finally, don’t mistake a scholastic opus on theology as being devoid of spiritual value. One of the most important things we can learn from St. Thomas is his pursuit of the Truth. We’re not talking about an abstract, academic truth, however. For us, the Truth is a Someone Who loves us very intimately (cf. John 14:6). St. Thomas covers the life of Christ and the sacraments in Part III. Matters o faith, virtues, and the spiritual life necessarily flow throughout the theological topics in the Summa.
The entire Summa can be found here.
Let’s focus on one key article in particular, on the senses of Sacred Scripture. This is covered in Part I, Question, 1, Article 10.
The Words of Scripture: What do They Mean?
Part I, Question 1, Article 10 of the Summa is entitled "Whether in Holy Scripture a word may have several senses?"
Here is the apologetical inquiry of inquiries: what do the words of Sacred Scripture mean? How do we interpret it? The divisions among the Christian churches & ecclesial communities can be in part attributed to different principles of interpretation. In addition to ecclesiological issues, bad interpretation of Scripture has serious consequences on dogma and doctrine. The correct reading of Scripture is a very, very important thing to get right.
Should there be a single sense in which we read Scripture? The first objection in this question makes this initial point—“Holy Writ ought to be able to state the truth without any fallacy,” that is, without offering up multiple senses of interpretation that could potentially contradict each other. Citing St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas says that words mean more coming from God. In addition to relating facts, “it reveals a mystery.” This is why 2,000 years of Scripture study continues to this day, never exhausting the source. We will never fully plumb the depths of the mystery of God this side of heaven.
In answering this question, St. Thomas lays out the four senses. The first is the literal sense, which simply means that “words signify things.” Next, there are three spiritual senses that presuppose the literal sense: allegorical, moral, and eschatological.
The allegorical sense sees the Old Testament revealed in the New Testament. For example, King David is a type (prefigurement, foreshadowing, etc.) of Christ, and the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of baptism. The moral sense is a logical consequence of revelation. God revealing Himself to us in Christ should spur us to become more Christlike. Finally, the eschatological sense looks forward to the conclusion of our earthly journey (let us hope): heaven. This final sense takes a look at things having eternal significance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church names this as the anagogical sense (CCC #117).
Thomas Aquinas in Action
By way of a more concrete example, let’s take up John 6:48, “I am the bread of life.”
In the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:32-65), Jesus says more than once that He is the bread of life. Catholics take Our Lord at His word, that He is trying to get across the message that He actually IS the bread of life. Without the literal sense—if Jesus was merely speaking symbolically—this verse (6:48) starts and ends with Jesus being spiritual food for our souls. The literal sense opens the verse up to a theology of the Eucharist, to the broader sacrifice of the Mass, and a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.
God gave the Israelites bread from heaven in the manna (cf. Ex 16:4) to sustain them on their journey. Jesus, as the Bread of Life, is the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world (cf. John 6:33). Another instance of bread in the Old Testament was the offering of Melchizedek, described as a “priest of God Most High” (cf. Gen 14:18). Both allusions to the Old Testament enrich the interpretation of this verse, and shine a light on God’s long-running plan of salvation for the human race.
If Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist, then there are moral implications. St. Paul laid it out plainly to the Corinthians:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27)
We have to conduct our moral lives accordingly. On the positive end, frequent and proper reception of the Eucharist is a wellspring of grace to help us live a moral life!
Awaiting us in heaven is the Bread of Life Himself, the One Who will sustain us for eternity. The unity of the Body of Christ is often dimly seen on earth, even though we are intimately joined to Jesus and to the rest of the Body whenever we receive the Eucharist. In heaven, the veil will be lifted. Joy and fulfillment beyond our understanding!
Reading Scripture with the four senses in mind opens the door to the great mystery of God. Words in the Bible are there for our benefit and salvation, and we don’t have to figure it out all on our own. We stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us: doctors of the Church, saints, pastors, and catechists in the faith. St. Thomas Aquinas left a treasure trove of thought and theology to the Church. We should take advantage of it!