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Making Sense of Scripture

Time and sense in Scripture

St. Thomas Aquinas says two things which are particularly useful concerning the interpretation of Scripture.  The first is that 'human minds, existing in bodies, know first the natures of material things, and by knowing the natures of what they see derive some knowledge of what they cannot see'39; and the second is that 'nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense'40.

The especial relevance of these two texts from St. Thomas are that they give rise to a general impression concerning the whole of Scripture and, given that the unity of Scripture is a factor in the interpretation of Scripture41, then it could be said that this general impression is of relevance to the parts within that whole.  The general impression to which I refer is that there is a movement throughout the whole of Scripture from a physical-historical event to its spiritual interpretation42.  This is not to deny spiritual interpretation in the earlier work, nor historical fact in the later; rather, it is to indicate that Revelation works through the natural order of human understanding and the developmental character of that understanding through time, both the individual time of a person's life and the entire history of the human race43.

The aforementioned process is well illustrated by an example given by the Pontifical Biblical Commission of how Scripture itself contains many re-readings, or relectures44, 'whether it is to deepen their meaning or to make known their fulfilment'45.  The reason for choosing this example is precisely because the aformentioned process culminates in the Letter To The Hebrews: 'Thus it is that the inheritance of the land, promised by God to Abraham for his offspring (Gen 15: 7), becomes entrance into the sanctuary of God (Exod 15: 17), a participation in God's "rest" (Ps 132: 7-8) reserved for those who truly have faith (Ps 95: 8-11; Heb 3: 7 - 4: 11) and, finally, entrance into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 6: 12, 18-20), "the eternal inheritance" (Heb 9: 15)'46.  Thus the initial objective of land is a physical fact with an inseparably religious significance, precisely because it is a promise fulfilled by God; and similarly the Letter To The Hebrews is a reflection which 'holds together three levels of reality: the biblical text, the paschal mystery and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit'47.

39 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, a concise translation by T. McDermott, (London: Methuen, reprinted 1992), Pt I, Qu 84, art 7, page 131. Abbrev. ST.    Back
40 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, literally translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc. 1947-8), Pt. I, Qu 1, art 10, page 7. Abbrev. SuTh.    Back
41 Cf. Catechism Of The Catholic Church, (Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), art 112, page 32. Abbrev. CCC etc.    Back
42 Cf. Dei Verbum, art 2, page 751 of VCII; PBC, Preface by Cardinal Ratzinger, page 27; PBC, Pt II, B, 3, page 84; and cf. PBC, Pt III, A, 2, page 88; and cf. also PBC, Pt III, A, 2, page 89.    Back
43 Cf. CCC, art 684, page 179.    Back
44 PBC, Pt III, A, 1, page 86.    Back
45 PBC, Pt III, A, 1, page 87.    Back
46 Ibid.    Back
47 PBC, Pt II, B, 2, page 82.    Back

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