Scripture has what are known as different senses. That is, there are layers of meaning found in apparently simple sentences and images. This should not be strange to us, since we all make statements that can be read in different senses all the time. Sometimes, the ambiguous sense of a statement can result in humor, like the recommendation letter of the employer desperate to foist a lazy worker off on some other unsuspecting boss without telling a direct lie about his poor performance. It reads, “You will be very lucky to get this guy to work for you!”
Sometimes, the deeper sense of something can reveal a truth that takes your breath away, as when Jesus tells James and John that they shouldn’t fight about who is to be at his right and left hand when he comes into his kingdom since only God can ordain this–and we finally see who has been reserved for that privileged position only when Jesus is crucified between two thieves.
The notion that Scripture has different senses is as old as Jesus himself. After all, it was he who said (Luke 24) that the whole Old Testament was actually about him. In other words, as St. Augustine said, the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New.
That said, it is important to remember that the first and foundational sense of Scripture is the most obvious one: the literal sense. In other words, before we go looking for hidden meanings we have to pay attention to obvious ones. We have to, in short, understand what the human author was trying to say, the way in which he was trying to say it, and what is incidental to the assertion.
This is important because the literal sense of Scripture is like the foundation on a house. You can transcend it and build on it, but you can never “outgrow” it. If Scripture clearly tells us (as it does) that there is one God and only one, our understanding of that can develop (as that God reveals himself to be one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But it cannot mutate into something flatly contradictory, such as the acceptance of worshipping pagan gods and goddesses. If the literal sense of Scripture says that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, we cannot explain that to mean that he was eaten by wild dogs but his memory lives on in the hearts of his friends.
The key to understanding the literal sense of Scripture is to distinguish between the terms literal and literalistic. Every text of Scripture has a literal sense. That is, every text of Scripture has a meaning the author intends to convey. It does not therefore follow that every text of Scripture is to be read literalistically, like a newspaper. If I tell you, “My heart is broken” I have a definite meaning I’m trying to convey: I am deeply grieved. But I am not using literalistic language to convey that meaning. I don’t mean “My cardiac tissue is torn.” Same with the biblical authors. They employ all sorts of linguistic tricks of the trade–poetry, history, parable, hymn, fiction, reportage, myth, argumentation, legal codes, apocalyptic–to get their various points across. But however they express themselves, they all have a meaning they intend us to get. That meaning is what is meant by the literal sense of Scripture.
Sometimes that meaning is obvious: “Love your neighbor” though hard to live, is not hard to understand. But on other occasions, Scripture can be very mysterious simply because it is, after all, the product of people who lived three thousand years ago and who spoke another language in a foreign culture on the other side of the earth. So when Abraham seals a deal with God by cutting animals in half and walking between the severed hunks of carcass, it’s not hard to feel completely at sea if you don’t have some knowledge of the local customs and their meaning. This is why study bibles are so handy-dandy. The footnotes can provide clues every bit as invaluable as the hints of a native speaker of Italian when you are visiting Rome.
Jeff Cavins’ invaluable Great Adventure series recommends that the beginning student of Scripture start, not by trying to plow through the whole Bible, but simply by reading fourteen books–Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabees, Luke and Acts–that give you the “Big Picture” of the biblical story. I heartily agree. Start there, looking just for The Story first.
In my next column, we’ll talk about how to start going snorkeling in preparation for deep sea diving. For now, it’s okay to be content with water-skiing.