A Look at The Various Senses of How to understand Sacred Scripture


Fr. Raymond Taouk,



1.    The sense of a scriptural text is the thought of the Holy Ghost manifested by the text either immediately or mediately. This last can occur because the same biblical text, unlike any human text, can refer to two different senses and both be true. For God can manifest his thoughts to men immediately through words, or mediately through facts which signify future events[1]. Hence, the same biblical narration can present a double sense : a literal sense, that which is meant immediately by the terms of the s. writer, and a mystical (mysterious and hidden) sense, which flows only mediately from the words, yet directly related to the things and persons expressed by these words.


2.    Division :




inspired sense


improper, metaphorical


mystical, spiritual, typical,


not inspired :accommodated


I. the literal sense


1)           Definition. The literal sense is the sense expressed directly by the writer from the very signification of the words of the text.


2)           Division re. the form

·      the proper literal sense is the one naturally suggested by the words according to their common acception, ex.g. ‘hoc est corpus meum’, ‘et erat subditus illis’.

·      the metaphorical literal sense is the one in which the words used are an image : ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, ‘Ego sum vitis vera’. The anthropomorphisms so common in the O.T. are such examples.[2]  Are included in this metaph. literal sense the allegories and parables of the Gospels.[3]


·      It is very important to distinguish the metaphorical literal sense from the mystical sense. The first is the natural sense of the words found in any human language ‘this soldier is a lion’; the second is proper to the sacred books.

3)           Division re. the ideas, the literal sense can be :

·      historical if it deals with past events, prophetic if it announces future events, dogmatic if it formulates doctrinal teachings, moral or tropological if it enunciates a rule of conduct.

·      All these senses can be found in the metaphorical as well as proper sense. ‘Leo et bos comedent paleas’ Is lxv 25 is metaph. and prophetic; ‘Ecce virgo concipiet’ Is vii 14 is proper and prophetic.


4)           Extent. Every text of the Bible offers a literal sense.

·      being written in human language and for men, the SB like any other h. text must have a meaning discernible  by a reasonable man. If certain texts are unintelligible this is due to accidental causes, eg. copyist error.

·      Otherwise, the SS text would become useless and subject to rejection or retention at will.

·      by the common teaching of the Fathers, the ‘mystical sense is always founded and depends on the literal sense’.[4]  Certain passages have no proper literal sense and must be understood only metaphorically. Thus ‘Si autem manus tua vel pes tuus scandalizat te, abscide eum’ (Mt v 30), shows how much the Christian must avoid occasions of sin. The entire book of ‘Canticle of Cant.’ is, according to the common opinion, an allegory which signifies the love of God for Israel.


5)           Unicity. There is only one literal sense for any given passage of the SS.

The question here is what the H.G. in reality did. Since the SS is a book which remains written in human language, by men although under the insp. of H.G., and for men, it follows that it is written as a man writes, i.e. to signify only one literal sense to his word. Otherwise we fall into ambiguity and equivocity, which would be unworthy of God.


ii. the mystical sense


1)           Definition.

·      the myst. sense is a hidden sense which expresses future events or persons by means of the things or persons given by the literal sense.

·      called also: spiritual sense (Vs. the literal sense considered corporal), figured sense (which is confusing since the formal metaph. sense is figurative); typical sense (things are types).

·      the myst. sense has a double element : the type (figurative thing or person); the antitype (the thing signified), e.g. Ro v 12 considers Adam as the type of Christ (antitype). The type is different from a pure symbol or symb. actions (like mimic parable of Ez xii) : the figurative character of the type has its own value regardless of the thing typified.


2)           Division. The same type (Jerusalem, the burning bush) can have several senses :

·      Prophetic (allegorical) if the type prefigures X or the CC.

·      Tropological if it has a moral lesson.[5]

·      Anagogical re. the last ends.


3)           Existence. It cannot be known a priori, but only through revelation.

·      O.L. not only affirms that certain O.T. types are a figure of Himself (brazen serpent), but also that the entire O.T. is a figure “The Scriptures render testimony of me,” Jo v 39.

·      The Apostles show the typical character of certain O.T. persons or things : the pascal lamb (Jn xix,36, cf. Ex xii 46); 40 years in the desert (I Cor x,1-11); Melchisedec (Heb vii 1-10).

·      all Church Fathers have affirmed it, even those opposed to the allegorizing Alex. school.

·      the paintings of the Catacumbs are a proof of the CC faith in the mystical sense : the manna represents the H. Eucharist, Noah’s Ark the CC.

·      The Liturgy assumes the mystical sense mentioning sacrifices of Abel, Abraham, Melch.

·      It is not so sure that there be a mystical sense for the N.T. For many CC Fathers, the answer is affirmative (Peter’s boat is figure of the CC; the miraculous catch figures the CC).


4)           Extent

·      It would be exagerated to find a mystical sense  in the least details of the Bible.[6] The O.T. is a figure of the N.T. as a whole but not in the least details.

·      we are never certain of the existence of the myst. sense of a given passage until the authors of the N.T. or the common agreement of the Fathers points it out.

5)           Demonstrative value

·      Theoretically it has the same demonstrative value as the literal sense, e.g. St. Paul in Heb 1,5 uses the mystical sense of II Sam vii 14 to prove the divine filiation of Jesus.

·      practically, the theologians use it rarely since most of our adversaries deny it, and since it is stmes difficult to find out whether the text is taken in the accommodated or mystical sense.

·      It contributes powerfully to confirm the X doctrine. Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu declares that the X exeget must expose the spiritual sense with as much care as the literal.


iii. the accommodated sense


1.    It is a sense foreign to SS, but attributed to it by applying to an objet what is said of another.


2.    Division

·      the extensive accommodated sense is based on a real analogy betw the thought of H.G. and the sense given to his word. Thus a sinner can excuse himself saying “Serpens decepit me.”

·      the allusive accom. sense. It preserves the words, while giving them a sense ttly different.


3.    Use

·      It has no demonstrative value in theology since it is not a scriptural sense.

·      It can give rise to abuses which a cleric would avoid.[7] St. Francis de Sales says “a Christian should never use the word of God except for holy things, and even then with great respect.”

·      It is not altogether condemnable. In things of piety, its use is legitimate within due limits (Pius XII Divino afflante Sp. ‘with moderation and sobriety’). Its legitimacy is proved by the Apostles (Ro x 18 cf. Ps xviii 5), by the Fathers (St. Aug, St. Ambrose, St. Bernard), by the practice of the CC in her liturgy.[8]


[1]Quodl vii q.6, 14

[2]  ‘the ‘hand’, ‘arm of God’ the literal sense does not mean that there are corporeal members in God, but what is signified by this member, the operative power’ I 1,10 ad 3.

[3]a parable is a developed comparison (the kingd of God is like a net put into the sea), the allegory is a developed metaphor (Jn 10,11 ‘I am the good shepherd’), yet often allegorical elements are found in a parable and both are at bottom an implicit comparison. Other styles can be used : the synecdoche (whole used for the part ‘all flesh shall come to thee’ Ps 64,3); metonomy (one word used for another, cause for effect, container for content I Cor xi 26 ‘for as often as you shall...drink this cup), emphasis (a higher meaning than the words express Mt vii 22 ‘that day’ = day of judgment); hyperbole (more is said than is really meant (Gen iii 22); ellipsis (omission of a word); fable (feigned narrative, only 2 such fables are found in the Bible, Judges ix 8-15; IV Kgs xiv 9); a riddle (enigma) Judg xiv 14.

[4]Quodl vii, q.5 a.14 ad 1.

[5] Wisdom xvi 27 teaches that the order of collecting the manna early is a sign of waking up early to fulfil one’s duties towards God.

[6] S. Aug. de Civ. Dei XVII 3,2.

[7]C. Trent, 4th session, and Vat. “... temeritatem illam reprimere volens qua ad profana quaeque aeque convertuntur et torquentur verba et sententiae sanctissimae Scripturae, ad scurrilia scil., fabulosa, vana, adulationes, detrectationes, superstitiones, impias et diabolicas incantationes, mandat et praecipit, ad tollendam huiusmodi irreverentiam et contemptum, ne de cetero quisquam quomodolibet verba sacrae Scripturae ad haec et similia audeat usurpare.”

[8]The CC in the ep. to the first mass of the common of a confessor Pontiff, applies to the same person the features which in the SS compose the moral physionomy of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron. But the CC is the spouse, and the treasures of her spouse are hers, and no particular person could take such liberties.