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The “literal” Sense

The “literal” Sense

Rule 1. We must know what the human author of a scriptural text wanted to say before we can come to any conclusions as to what God is telling us.

“All that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirmed should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit . . . The interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words”.

Divine Revelation, nos. 11-12; Vatican Council II, ed. A.FLANNERY, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1975, pp. 756-757.

The “literal” sense is the sense intended by the human author of Scripture.

Notice: the important element is the intention of the author, not the “literalist” meaning of the words.

Why the “literalist” sense will not do

Let us start from basics and take a simple example. In Matthew we find this important admonition of Jesus:

Love your enemies.
Pray for those who treat you badly.
In this way you will become true children of your heavenly Father
for he causes his sun to rise on bad and good people alike, and makes his rain fall on dishonest as much as on honest people.1

Matthew 5,44-45.

The general meaning is straightforward enough. But suppose we want to probe further and ask ourselves what is meant by the statement that God ‘causes his sun to rise’? We could fall into the trap of thinking it is the words that matter, and so just look up a dictionary.

This is what fundamentalists and literalists do. They think they can establish the meaning of the phrase by the meaning of the words. However, this can seriously mislead.

Fundamentalists has become a term to denote conservative Christians who hold on to a set of narrow, anti-scientific and often intolerant doctrines. The name derives from the American Bible League which, in 1902, produced a series of 12 pamphlets called ‘The Fundamentals’. In these the traditional interpretation of Scripture was defended against modern Scripture studies.

Literalists derive the meaning of a text from the superficial meaning of the words, without reference to the context or literary form. A ‘literalist’ interpretation should not be confused with a ‘literal’ interpretation!

In the sixteenth century, for instance, the astronomer Copernicus had begun to show that it is not the sun that moves around the earth, but the earth that encircles the sun. Literalist Christians rejected this finding as impossible because, they said, ‘it goes against the inspired Scriptures’. Matthew 5,45 was one text quoted to prove this claim. For Jesus says: ‘The Father makes the sun rise . . . . ‘ Therefore, it is the sun that moves and not the earth, they said. Another text misunderstood in a similar way was Joshua 10,12-15, in which Joshua is said to have made the sun stand still. On the strength of such literalist interpretations,Galileo Galilei was ordered by the Holy Office in 1633 to retract his belief that the earth circles round the sun, and condemned to house arrest till the end of his life!

But if the words by themselves do not fix the meaning, where do we find it? The answer is: in the so-called ‘literal sense’.

What is the “literal” sense?

The literal meaning of a text, as opposed to the ‘literalist’ meaning, is the meaning which the original speaker or writer intended. In other words, we should ask ourselves: what did this person want to say? We may not read more, or less, into a piece of writing than what its author actually had in mind.

When Jesus adduced the example of his heavenly Father making the sun rise on good and bad alike, he did not want to teach astronomy. Modern science lay outside his scope and would have been beyond the grasp of his audience anyway. The question whether it is the earth that lies at the centre or the sun, is not touched by the literal meaning of his words. Jesus just uses an everyday expression we still do today. We say: ‘the sun rises’, inspite of our better astronomical knowledge!

We are talking here about an important principle which applies to all authors of Scripture. What it means, in fact, is that since God speaks through human authors, God follows their human mind and heart and way of speaking. We will only know what God was trying to say by knowing what his human instrument wanted to say.

The rule of the “literal” sense is closely related to the other rules:

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