On Reading the Bible
The bible is a whale of a complexity. It can help to have “tools” whereby to access the riches of the bibles. There are sundry tools for reading the bible. I can lay out a few here.
One key tool long prized by the Tradition is the distinction between the proper literal sense and the improper literal sense. Note that in each case we are dealing with the “literal sense”.
What is the “literal sense”? It is that meaning which the words first convey; or, it is that reality which the words first signify. The “literal” sense is distinguished from the “spiritual sense”. Briefly, the “spiritual sense” is that further meaning which the reality first signified itself signifies. Let me give a brief example and then return to the literal sense.
The “literal sense” of the “Binding of Isaac” is the man Abraham, his son, the wood, the fire, the knife, etc. In short, the realities first signified by the words of the text. However, Christians perceive in these realities a further set of realities: God the Father, his only Son, the crucifixion, and vicarious representation. These further realities are signified by the earlier realities. That “movement” of signification from things signified to further things signified is the “spiritual sense”.
Thus, the literal sense is that first meaning conveyed or reality signified by the words of the text. Now, Catholic faith holds that the literal sense of every book and of every part of every book of the bible is inerrant. That is, no part of the bible contains error in its literal sense. Why? Because God inspires the biblical author. Thus, God is the chief agent of the bible; the human author is only a secondary agent. And God so inspires the thought of the human agent, so moves him to write, all the while respecting the human agent’s limitations and freedom, that the result is inspired and without error.
Nevertheless, the “literal sense” is not in every case “the plain simple meaning”. This is where people usually go astray. They see that the “plain simple meaning” is at odds with common sense or with reason or with scientific consensus. In such cases, two things can happen. It may be that the reader clings to God in faith (as he should do) and then feels he must “sacrifice” being rational and so he becomes a “fundamentalist” or “fideist”. Thus, the reader claims that reason is poisoned and totally depraved and never certain; etc. But such a reader will then form a ghetto culture while the modern world of rational inquiry and technology will steamroll over his bible church. His approach has no public future. Or, conversely, it may be that one clings to one’s own egoistic rationality and rejects the bible as so much wrongheaded superstition. Such a person will go on mapping out life without mystery, without faith, without wonder. Such a person’s future is without awe and love. Indeed, it is without reason. For if we are not made by someone and for someone, but only by chance and for …?, then the dark truth is that once pleasure runs out of us or we run out of it, we should commit suicide.
But this foolish alternative – fideism and rationalism – need not be the case. The bible does not always proceed in a “plain and simple manner”. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not. Thus the importance of the distinction between the “proper literal sense” and the “improper literal sense”.
I define the “proper literal sense” as follows: That mode of discourse in which terms are employed with respect to their full, normal meaning. So, if the text states that “Jesus walked by the sea”, clearly, the text is simply using the terms in the normal way according to their full meaning.
I define the “improper literal sense” as follows: That mode of discourse in which terms are not employed with respect to their full, normal meaning. For instance, the text may read, “God is the lion of Judah.” Now, integral to the definition of lion is “Feline”. But God is not an animal; therefore, he cannot be “feline”. Therefore, the text is not employing the full definition of the term to God. Rather, the text is metaphorical. As a lion strikes terror in his prey, so God strikes terror in his enemies.
Thus, the way to test for proper or improper discourse is to determine whether or not there is a “noteworthy literary device”. If there is such a device – metaphor, hyperbole, etc. – then the text is in the improper literal sense. If there is no such device, the text is in the proper literal sense.