Interpreting the Holy Bible


How the "Senses" of Scripture Provide the Foundation for a Proper Interpretive Stance


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Literal Sense



The first of the two major senses to consider for understanding the Scriptures is the Literal sense: "...let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal."(2) The definition of the Literal sense, according to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, is that "which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors."(3) What the human authors intended to mean in writing the text of the Bible is the Literal sense. For example, the author of Psalm 22 writes his work in order to console Israel by telling her that although they may face extreme sorrow and suffering, God will yet be victorious.

The Literal sense most often renders just one possible meaning, but can sometimes yield more than one. There are two ways by which a single passage can have multiple literal meanings(4). The first is common to all human writings. Human language is such that an author can intend several meanings with but one set of words(5). For example, consider Robert Frost’s classic poem "The Road Less Traveled By". This piece describes someone taking a walk in the forest and coming upon a fork where the road separates into different paths. One of them has been taken more than the other and the person takes the "less traveled" path. Frost’s intention- his meaning- in this poem could simply be to describe a pleasant experience he once had in taking an infrequently utilized course in the woods. However, through his use of words, he also illustrates a common situation in life in which someone is confronted with two choices, and opts for the one that not many others had chosen. Both of these meanings of the poem can be considered its ‘Literal sense’. Frost is able to have a double meaning due to the fluidity of human language. So also can the authors of the Sacred Scriptures intend multiple meanings when writing their work.

The other way by which the Literal sense of a text can possess various meanings is unique to the Word of God. Given its inspired nature, the Scriptures have two authors- the human and the divine. Through inspiration, the divine author can intend a different (yet not contradictory) meaning to that which the human author intended. These meanings must "both [be] made clear by the context"(6) in order to be classified as literal. Although the dynamic and fluid nature of language makes multiple meanings possible, all of them must be loyal to the intent of the text. (Note: how to determine a loyal rendering of the text will be discussed later in this paper).


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