"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Ninth article: whether holy scripture should use metaphors

State of the question. The reason for this inquiry is that t theologian must carefully distinguish in Sacred Scripture betwe the literal sense according to the proper signification of the wor, and the metaphorical sense, according to some similitude, as wh it is said that "our God is a consuming fire." - Hence the question is: Why does Sacred Scripture sometimes have recourse to metaphorical language?

The difficulty is: (i) that metaphor fittingly pertains to poetry, not to the proposition of some truth; and thus it is not allowed in the sciences;(112) (2) that by metaphors the truth is obscured; (3) that metaphors taken from corporeal creatures cannot at all represent the purely spiritual life of God.

The answer, however, is: It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward diivine and spiritual truths metaphorically by means of comparison with material things. This is proved in two ways: (i) because it is natural for man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, and God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature; (2) because many are unable of themselves to grasp intellectual things, and Sacred Scripture is proposed to all. Hence Christ our Lord spoke to the multitude in parables.

Does Sacred Scripture make use of metaphors in the way poetry does? In the reply to the first objection it is stated that poetry makes use of metaphors on account of the pleasure derived from representation, but Sacred Scripture on account of its usefulness. Farther on,(113) St. Thomas states in substance that poetry makes use of metaphors because of the lack of appeal on the part of the object extolled, but theology because of the preponderance of the divine reality, which cannot be expressed except by way of analogy.

God, however, is analogically made known to us in two ways, either by proper analogy, as when it is said that God is just; or by metaphorical analogy, as when it is said that God is angry .(114)

In the reply to the second objection it is pointed out that "those things which are taught metaphorically in one part of Scripture, in other parts are taught more openly." Moreover, "the hiding of truth in figures is useful as a defense against the ridicule of the impious."

Commenting on the reply to the third objection, regarding metaphors taken from corporeal things, as when it is said that God is a consuming fire, we say that these are more fitting, in this sense that they do not permit us to rest the merits of our case in the similitudes, because God is not a material fire and because this is said only by way of similitude. On the other hand, when we speak of the divine perfections in the strict sense, it may be that some judge of these perfections as being formally and actually distinct in God as they are in our mind. This would be to detract from God's absolute simplicity and loftiness of life.

Index Top


111. Heb. 12: 29.

112. Cf. Post Anal., Bk. II, chap. 12, no. 26.

113. Summa theol., Ia IIae, q.101, a.2.

114. Ibid., Ia, q. 13, a.3.


"He who wishes to be perfectly obeyed, should give but few orders."

St Philip Neri

* * *

"There is nothing which gives greater security to our actions, or more effectually cuts the snares the devil lays for us, than to follow another person’s will, rather than our own, in doing good."

St Philip Neri

* * *

"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."

St Philip Neri

* * *