(The following comprises Part Five of the Saturday series on Secondary Illuminations of Scripture.)
Since Thomas Aquinas represents the apex of the scholastic Church age, it is interesting to poke around to see how he handled interpretation. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas examines the nature of Scripture and whether or not it is open to layers of meaning. His concern is that “many different senses in one text produce confusion and deception and destroy all force of argument.” He is encouraged amid this valid objection to reflect that, “Gregory says: Holy Scripture by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.”
Aquinas concludes that there is a “spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it,” a sense that can be divided between allegorical, moral, and analogical possibilities. Moreover,
“Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of the Holy Scripture is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Scripture should have several senses.”
In other words, considering God’s unlimited sovereignty and creativity, secondary illuminations may themselves sometimes be part of His severally-sided primary intent.
Note in the following that Aquinas takes comfort in the fact that no essential arguments (“nothing necessary to faith”) should be built out of the “spiritual sense” but only the “literal sense.” Here “literal sense” references the most clear and basic intent of the author:
“The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves signs of other things. Thus in Holy Scripture no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn…. Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes because of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward clearly by the Scripture in its literal sense.” (pp. p395-6, Steven M. Cahn, Classics of Western Philosophy 3rd Edition)
The spiritual sense will always uphold the literal. The “spiritual sense,” then, may flesh out the bones of the “literal sense” and ornament it with beauty and comprehension. However, the one bows to the other.
I would hope to resist, as all believers should and as Aquinas would concur, any “insight” which does not appear to be in accord with God’s overarching messages and purposes in Scripture. The most accepted “spiritual senses,” such as the fresh revelations regarding the Old Testament spelled out in the New Testament, are commonly referred to as sensus plenoir, or “fuller meaning,” for precisely the reason that they complete an already existing literal sense rather than utterly contradicting it.
Now for the Scary Part
We might find that time spent with “spiritual senses” can be an element of inspiration for upending faulty arguments which do not hold up before the intricate tapestry of the Word OR its primary intents. It should never be that the “spiritual senses” are driving doctrine but, rather, that a complete engagement with the Word has helped us to see something more accurately than before.
It’s like looking at a grainy black and white photo and then seeing the same images in color. Some items that had blended together in a blur of grey now appear individual and interesting. Looking back at the black and white image, you now are much more certain of what it holds. The freshness of the secondary scriptural engagement may have jolted us out of poor theology or breathed more wind into an exegetical study, helping us to “Retain” precisely that “standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) established only by cross-examination with historical-grammatical interpretive techniques and gospel knowledge.
There is a frustratingly subjective element to our most careful historical-grammatical hermeneutics. To acknowledge that wrestling with secondary illuminations might play a subsidiary role in that process for good or for ill is really just being honest about the variety of subjective influences that come up for everyone more frequently than we often realize or admit. Even evangelicals who are not open to secondary illuminations of scripture acknowledge that we are dependent on the Spirit to illumine His word. So here’s a theological question to trouble our rational brains: Are we to look at that (the Spirit’s illumination and its inherently subjective element) as the weak link or the strength of our interpretation?