On Reading the Bible (Part II)

Having drawn the distinction between the proper and the improper literal sense, we can now indicate rules for the employment in exegesis.

The goal of the exegete is, first and above all, to determine what the literal sense is. Discovering the “spiritual sense” is secondary; important, no doubt, but a secondary task; necessary, but subsequent.

Now, the Church’s guideline is that unless a text is manifestly in the improper literal sense, it is to be taken in the proper literal sense. Thus, unless there is a serious reason to think that the text is in the improper literal sense, the exegete should read the text in a “plain and simple manner”. That is, such should be the first reading of the text. “They shared what they had in common” (Acts). This text gives us no reason to think that there is a noteworthy literary device. Therefore, it is in the proper literal sense.

However, if a text manifestly contradicts another text, which is in the proper literal sense, then it (the former) is to be interpreted in the improper literal sense. For instance, it is the manifest teaching of Scripture that there are two groups of people in the final judgment, the sheep and the goats. This division is also implied by the Magisterial teachings through the ages.

Therefore, when we run into texts that apparently contradict these texts, we must interpret them as somehow other than simple and straightforward. For instance, Jesus also says, “I will draw all men to myself.” Well, has he contradicted himself? Not if Truth cannot contradict Truth. Therefore, theologians through the ages have suggested various possibilities. Perhaps he is using “hyperbole” in this latter text: All, meaning many. And indeed, such a reading harmonizes well with the language of the Church concerning the Eucharist. Christ’s blood is “shed for you and for many.” The Church chooses “many”, not “all”, in order to highlight that although Christ’s sacrifice indeed could save infinitely many worlds of men, yet not all men will benefit from it. But only those to whom the benefit is communicated and who do not reject it. Now, we know by faith that it is communicated to the baptized. We are also convinced theologically that all freely acting human persons are offered grace sufficient for their salvation. We do not know about unbaptized persons who never act freely (deceased infants, e.g.). Further, we know, from the two lists at the end of time — sheep and goats — that not all to whom the grace was communicated will in fact receive it and cooperate with it. Therefore, his blood can redeem more than it will actually justify. Hence, the Church’s very wise use of Jesus’ own words: “For you and for many”. And this “many,” rather than “all”, is, we can be very thankful, now reflected in the English translation of the Novus Ordo.

We can see at once that it is very important to get clear on texts that are in the proper literal sense, so that one can better exegete other texts by their clear light.