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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 4: The Plural Senses of Scripture"


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As we saw, there can be more than one author of a book of Scripture. Can there be more than one literal sense of a scriptural passage? While we have no clear statement of the Church to guide us on this, it is quite possible according to very many scholars.

First, we need to clarify the expression "literal sense." It is not a crude, fundamentalistic way of understanding that treats the ancient writer as if he were a twentieth century American—as if one were to say: "Genesis speaks of six days. That means six times twenty-four hours." No, the literal sense is what the ancient writer really meant to convey. (More about such matters in chapter 9.)

To find what the ancient writer meant to convey, we must take into account differences of language. For example, our Lord tells us that we must hate our parents (Luke 14:26). Sadly, some cult leaders take this, unintelligently, as really meaning hate. Still more sadly, some,, of their duped young followers are even pleased to carry that hatred out. The truth is that our Lord would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew—more likely the former. In either language, the degrees of comparison were missing. Where in English one would say, "Love me more, and them less," the Aramaic and Hebrew, lacking the right words, might say, "Love me and hate them."

We must also take into account the genre of literature the writer intends to produce. One writes differently in poetry for example, than in prose.

There is also a typical sense, one in which there is what might be called a prophecy through actions instead of through words. For example, Isaac carrying the wood on which he was to be sacrificed is a forecast, a type, of Jesus carrying His cross. Since the existence of types depends on the will of God, we can be sure of that will only when a later part of Scripture tells us that about an earlier part, or when the Fathers or the Church tell us.

Sometimes scholars also speak of an accommodative sense. This is not really something intended by Scripture at all. It occurs when a speaker or writer applies the words of Scripture to something that they could fit but that was not intended by God or by the human author of Scripture.

There is no entirely clear statement by the Church on the possibility of more than one literal sense, which is called "fuller sense." or, using a Latin phrase, sensus plenior. We have only one text from Pope Leo XIII: "Since the author is the Holy Spirit, many things come under the words which far surpass the keen power of human reason, that is, divine mysteries, and many other things contained along with these. This [happens] sometimes with a fuller and more hidden meaning than that which the letter, and the laws of interpretation, seem to indicate" (Providentissimus Deus, 1893).

Yet, if we reflect that the Holy Spirit is the principal author of Scripture, it becomes obvious that He could intend to convey more by the words than the human author may have realized. Yes, the human author is sometimes described as an instrument that the transcendence of God uses. Yet that relationship should not bar God from intending more if He should so will. That additional meaning can become clear with the help of later parts of Scripture, or with the help of the Church.

Matthew 1:22-23 seems to be a case in point: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel."' St. Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7:14. The text of Isaiah has been discussed much by scholars. They have asked: Who is the child'? What is the proper translation of almah here, which St. Matthew translates as "virgin"?

We first look at the setting. In 735 B.C., Syria (Aram) and Israel (the northern kingdom) invaded the southern kingdom of Judah to force King Achaz to join a coalition against Assyria. They really wanted to depose Achaz and set up a king of their own choosing. Achaz was tempted to join Assyria instead. Isaiah met the king, told him he must not do that, that he must have faith. Isaiah promised him any sign he might ask for, but Achaz refused to ask. Isaiah was especially disturbed because to submit to Assyria would mean recognition of the gods of Assyria (see 2 Kings 16). Isaiah promised the sign of the child to be born of the almah.

Most scholars today try to see this child as Hezekiah, son of Achaz. His birth would have been a sign within the lifetime of Achaz—an important point. The child would be a sign of one to continue the Davidic line. In favor of this view, it is pointed out that almah in Hebrew means simply "a young woman," presumably unmarried. It does not mean "a virgin." So the almah would be the wife of Achaz in this view.

But there are strong reasons for the view that the Holy Spirit, and perhaps also Isaiah, intended the virgin birth of Jesus. It is admitted that the child in Isaiah 7:14 is the same as the marvelous child of Isaiah 9:6 who is to be called "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end." Such a description hardly fits Hezekiah, even though he was a good king. Further, almah in the Hebrew text has the article the—which would be strange if it refers to the wife of Achaz. And again, that word is not very apt for a wife. Still further, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third and second centuries B.C., uses parthenos ("virgin") for almah.

We can get some help, too, from the Targum on Isaiah 9:5-6. The Targums are ancient Aramaic translations, plus comments, of the Old Testament. Their date is uncertain. Some think the Targum Jonathan on the prophets very early, pre-Christian; others would make it later. Whatever its date, it gives us an ancient Jewish understanding of the text, an understanding not helped by the hindsight of seeing it fulfilled in Jesus.

Now the Targum on Isaiah 9:5-6 sees the child as the Messiah. The same Targum on Isaiah 7:14 does not speak of that verse as Messianic, yet since it is generally admitted that the child of 9:5 is the same as the child of 7:14, the Targum implicitly recognizes the child of 7:14 as the Messiah and, therefore, not as Hezekiah.

There are, then, powerful reasons for saying that the understanding given us by St. Matthew is not just an accommodative sense but a fuller sense. Or, we could consider it as an instance of multiple fulfillment of a prophecy.

This situation is similar to Matthew 2:15: "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Out of Egypt have I called my son."' St. Matthew is making Hosea 11:1 refer to the return of the infant Jesus from Egypt. Yet, and St. Matthew would know it even better than we, Hosea 11:1 seems to speak of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt under Moses; the son is the whole people of IsraeL But again, we' do not think St. Matthew meant this as a mere accommodative sense. It is a fuller sense or, alternatively, another case of multiple fulfillment of a prophecy. (These two possibilities often coincide.)

Genesis 3:15 is much discussed. In it God, after the fall of Adam and Eve, says to the tempter serpent: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed." Some wish to argue that the only woman on the scene is Eve. Yet this view cannot explain how there is a permanent enmity between Eve and the tempter, to whom she has just fallen. And that her offspring is to conquer the serpent is hardly true of the descendants of Eve in general.

Some would retort that the Hebrew shuf is used to mean both that the serpent will "strike at" her heel and that the offspring of the woman will "strike at" the serpent's head. However, here again those three Targums help us. The ancient Targumists, knowing full well the meaning of the Hebrew, still not only made the verse Messianic but also saw in it a victory for the sons of the woman.

The result is that we too can see a fuller sense in Genesis 3:15. It predicts the victory of the offspring of the woman. The woman is Mary; her offspring, Jesus. A note on this verse in the New American Bible seems to understand this interpretation as at least possible. Far more important, Pope Pius XII, in the Encyclical Fulgens Corona Gloriae (September 8, 1953), wrote: "The foundation [of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception] is seen in the very Sacred Scripture in which God..., after the wretched fall of Adam, addressed the ... serpent in these words ..., 'I will put enmity between you and the woman."'

Now if the Immaculate Conception can be found in Genesis 3:15, so can Mary, the Immaculate one.

There are, of course, many other instances of the fuller sense. The topic of our next chapter, multiple fulfillment, will provide instances that can be considered fuller sense at the same time. Let us round off this chapter with a fascinating case of what seems to be a fuller sense in a work of a Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus, the martyr-bishop of Lyons, who died around 200 A.D.

In his work Against Heresies (3.22.4), St. Irenaeus brings out the parallel, in reverse, between Mary and the old Eve. Vatican II quotes it this way: "Rightly then do the Holy Fathers look on Mary as not just passively employed by God but as freely cooperating in faith and obedience in human salvation. For she, as St. Irenaeus says, 'by obeying, became a cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race"' (Constitution on the Church, par. 56).

Further on in the same section, St. Irenaeus adds this remarkable comparison: "For in no other way can that which is tied be untied, unless the very windings of the knot are gone through in reverse: so that the first joints are loosed through the second, and the second in turn free the first .... Thus then, the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary."

Now St. Irenaeus, in context, seems to be thinking of Mary's obedience on the day of the Annunciation. This was, of course, a cooperation in the Redemption. The Second Person of the Trinity could not die without a human nature. Mary, in furnishing that humanity, did share in the Redemption.

But did her cooperation cease there? Or did it extend even to taking part in the great sacrifice itself? The comparison of the knot implies that she shared even in Calvary; for it was only then, and not earlier, that the knot really was untied.

Did St. Irenaeus see all the implications of his own words? If he did, he did not show it. But Vatican 11, as we saw, quoted St. Irenaeus, adding: "In suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way. by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls. As a result, she is our Mother in the order of grace" (par. 61).

St. Irenaeus probably did not see the full implication. Yet he. a Father of the Church, was an instrument in the hand of Divine Providence. That same Divine Providence led Vatican II to see what St. Irenaeus had not seen in his own words.

Similarly, the human writers of Scripture may not have seen all that the Holy Spirit intended through their words. The Church later would see these things.

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