"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.


Tenth article: whether in holy scripture a word may have several senses

State of the question. The special purpose of this article is to distinguish between the literal sense and the spiritual sense in Holy Scripture. The difficulty in admitting several senses is: (1) that many different senses in one text produce confusion; (2) that authors are not fully in agreement about the names to be given to these various senses.

The reply is, however, that in Holy Scripture a word can be used both in the literal or historical sense and in the spiritual sense, which latter is either allegorical or moral or analogical, in accordance with the traditional terminology.

A profound reason is given for this first distinction, namely, that "the Author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves." But what is signified by the words belongs to the literal sense, whereas the sgnification by which things signified by words have themselves also a signification belongs to the spiritual sense. Thus Job is the figure of Christ suffering, the paschal lamb is the figure of the Lamb who taketh away the sins of the world. Therefore these two senses are fittingly distinguished.

But the spiritual sense (1) is called allegorical so far as the things of the Old Law signify in figure the things of the New Law; (2) it is called moral according as the things done in Christ are types of what we ought to do; (3) it is called anagogical, as the New Law is itself a figure of future glory, as Dionysius says. (115)

So far there is no special difficulty, but St. Thomas furthermore says in the last paragraph of the body of the article: "Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says,(116) if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses." This statement has been and still is a subject of controversy, namely, whether a word can have several senses. St. Thomas seems to affirm this in the passage quoted above, (117) and his leading commentators are generally of the same opinion. Many modern exegetes, however, such as Patrizzi and Cornely, take the opposite view. This question of the many different literal senses in Holy Scripture is explained at length by Father P. V. Zapletal, O.P.(118) Whcn it is said, for instance, "God created heaven and earth," (119) the word "heaven" would mean, so says St. Augustine; (120) both the material heaven and the angels. Or again, when it is said: "Give us this day our daily bread," this would mean both the ordinary bread and the supersubstantial bread, explicitly so named in theGospel.(121) Let us see first the replies to the objections that are advanced in argument by those who deny the many different literal senses in Holy Scripture.

In the reply to the first objection it is stated that: "The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation . . . seeing that these senses (namely, these about which the objection is concerned, the literal sense, and the threefold division of the spiritual sense) are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things."

Some say that in this passage St. Thomas seems to deny the multiplicity of the literal sense. Many Thomists reply that such is noti the case, because St. Thomas would then contradict himself. He is now speaking, they say, only of the quadruple sense about which the objection was concerned, the literal sense, namely, and the threefold spiritual sense.

In the same reply to the first objection it is furthermore remarked that: "In Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one (the literal) from which alone can any argument be drawn . . . and nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense."

In the reply to the second objection, St. Augustine's terminology is cxplained, who called the spiritual sense, for instance, allegorical.

In the reply to the third objection it is stated that the literal sense is either proper or parabolical, that is, metaphorical. Thus when God's arm is mentioned, the literal sense is to be taken metaphorically as expressing God's power.

There is still a doubt whether there are not several literal senses in some texts of Holy Scripture.(122) St. Augustine answers in the affirmative. Summing up the question, he writes: "When it is said 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth,' it is revealed that God did not create from eternity and at one and the same time both the material heaven and the angels, both visible and invisible things; for this truth is afterward held as certainly revealed." (123) St. Augustine remarks that if we perceive this twofold sense, why is it that Moses, guided by the light of inspiration, did not perceive it? St. Gregory the Great says the same.(124)

St. Thomas, says Father Zapletal, frequently speaks of the literal sense in a favorable manner, as he so does at the end of the argumentative part of this article. Likewise in another of his works he writes: "It is not incredible that Moses and other authors were granted by God knowledge of various truths capable of perception by man, and that the one statement of words denotes these truths, so that any one of them may be the meaning intended by author." (125)

Thus it is not incredible that Moses, inspired to write: "In beginning God created heaven and earth," understood not only the material and visible heaven, but also the invisible angels, as Augustine says.(126) In like manner, our Lord Jesus, saying that thus must pray: "Father ... give us this day our daily bread," (127) could have had in mind both the ordinary bread and supersubstantial bread. The opponents say that this second sense is not literal but spiritual. But it is evidently not so, for the actual words of the first Evangelist are: "Give us this day our supersubstantial bread." (128) Perhaps Jesus said to the multitude "daily bread," and to the apostles "supersubstantial bread."

St. Thomas, who is conservative in his statement, writes: "it is not incredible. ..." (129) He would have more to say if it were a question only of the spiritual sense, because this latter is quite evident. Hence he is speaking of the twofold literal sense. The majority of the commentators of St. Thomas, as Father Zapletal points out, admitted the multiplicity of the literal sense. Among these are Cajetan, Cano,(130) Bannez, Sylvius, John of St. Thomas, and Billuart.(131)

Against this multiplicity of senses are quoted, among the earlier theologians: Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and St. Albert the Greatl who said: "Theology gives one meaning to a word." (132) Of the same opinion are most of the modern exegetes, who bring forward the objection that, if there were several literal senses, the result would be confusion and equivocation. This is their chief reason.

I n reply to this we say that if the names used were equivocal, as in the case of dog used to denote the terrestrial animal and the heavenly constellation, then I concede the assertion; but if the names are analogous, then I deny it. Thus heaven denotes both the firmament and the angels, and bread is understood in the ordinary sense of the term and it also means the Holy Eucharist. But if it is a case of two subordinated analogates, or of two that are co-ordinated under a higher, and if no false sense arises from this, then there is no equivocation.(133)

It is still a disputed question. The following argument may be advanced in favor of those who admit a twofold literal sense. If men can utter words that have a twofold literal sense and that are most intelligible to an intelligent hearer, much more so can God do this, who is the author of Holy Scripture. But intelligent men frequently utter words that have a twofold literal sense and that can easily be understood. Thus at a certain banquet a prelate who was a moderate Thomist said to another prelate who was of the rigid type: "Do you want a little water in your wine?" The rigid Thomist perceived quite well the twofold literal sense in the words, the first being a reference to the mixing of water with the wine,the other to the moderation of Thomism. His answer therefore was "I admit only one drop of water in the wine of the Mass." There was likewise in these words a twofold literal sense: (i) the obvious sense; (2) the metaphorical literal sense, the one however primarily meant, namely, that there must be no mitigation in the soundest of doctrine. Thus it is said that W. Goethe sometimes assigned a twofold literal sense to his verses, so that at least the more intelligent readers might perceive this second sense. This frequently the case when persons of great culture converse.

But if men can so express themselves, why could not God, and even Moses, have attached a twofold sense to the words: "In the beginning God created heaven" (namely, the material heaven and the angels). And why could not these words, "Give us this day our daily bread," have a twofold literal sense, the one referring to ordinary bread and the other to supersubstantial bread?

But the opponents would say that in these examples one of the senses is literal (as in the case of ordinary bread and the material heaven), whereas the other sense is spiritual, since bread in the usual sense of the term is the symbol of the other kind, and since the material heaven is the quasi abode of the angels. Hence it not quite clear that there are two literal senses; but neither is the contention of the opponents an established fact. It is therefore a probable opinion, if the question concerns the presence of a two-fold literal sense in certain texts, and a more than probable opiniion if it is a question of the possibility of these two senses.

As for the words, "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," it is not quite clear that there are two literal senses. However, the Fourth Lateran Council discovers two truths in this text namely, that God did not create the world from eternity, and that "He created out of nothing, from the beginning of time, both the spiritual and corporeal creature, to wit, the angelic and the mundane," (134) which means that the angels were not created before corporeal creatures. Hence this council seems to understand, as St Augustine did, that the words, "In the beginning God created heaven," mean that He created at one and the same time, the heavenly bodies and the angels.

We must conclude that the possibility of a word having two literal senses appears to be a certainty, but that there are actually two senses is but a probability. Therefore St. Thomas says: "It not incredible that Moses and other authors were granted by God knowledge of various truths capable of perception by man, and that one statement of words denotes these truths, so that any one of them may be the meaning intended by the author." (135)

Thus we bring to an end the question on sacred doctrine, a question in which the holy Doctor determined the nature and dignity of sacred theology, effecting this by an examination of its object and of the light from which it proceeds. He also determined its method of argumentation and the various senses of Holy Scripture.

Index Top


115. Cf. Coel. Hier., Bk. I, chap. 5.

116. Confess., Bk. xII, chap. 31.

117. See also II Sent., d. 12, q. 1i, a. 2 ad 7um; De potentia, q. 4, a. 1.

118. Cf. Hermeneutica biblica, pp. 26-36.

119. Gen. 1:1.

120. Confess., Bk. XII, chaps. 26-32.

121. Matt 6: 11.

122. Cf. P. V. Zapletal, O.P., loc. cit.

123. St. Augustine, loc. cit.

124. Cf, in Ezech. 3: 13.

125. De Potentia, q.4, a.1i.

126. St. Augustine, loc. cit.

127. Luke 11:2-3.

128. Matt. 6: 11.

129. De potentia, q.4, a. 1.

130. De locis theol., Bk. II, chap. 11 ad 7um, arg. ad 3am rationem.

131. Many of them, such as Bannez, quote as example the following verse: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." They say that the words "in the beginning" mean: (i) in the beginning of time, so that the world is not eternal; (2) it was created before all things, which means that the angels were not created before the material world. Billuart discusses this point in his treatise De regulis fidei, diss. la, a.8.

132. Summa theol., I, tr.1, q.5, memb. 2 ad 5nm.

133. John of St. Thomas (in Iam, disp. 12, a. 12) says: "Nor does it follow that there is equivocation or confusion from such plurality of senses, and this for two reasons: (i) because there is often a certain similarity or order among these senses, for where there is order, there is no equivocation; (2) because a multiplicity of senses results in equivocation when it is the occasion of deception, or when there is a possibility of falsity in the other sense. But when each sense is true, as must be the case by the very fact that it is said of God in the literal sense, then there is no occasion either for equivocation or deception. It is due, however, to the element of mystery and the excellence of the speaker that he can in one utterance include and denote several senses."

134. Denz., no. 428.

135. De potentia, loc. cit.


"For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?"

Thomas á Kempis

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"God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."

The Cure D'Ars

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"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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