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Defending the Senses of Scripture

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Note: I drew from many sources, Francis Turretin, William Whitaker, Petrus Van Mastricht, Edward Leigh, and Richard Muller. Many of these arguments are repeated throughout multiple sources. I did my best to cite those sources.

The Doctrine Stated

For the Statement of the Doctrine, one need not go further than the summary given by the Angelic Doctor in his commentary on Galatians,

Here it should be noted that “allegory” is sometimes taken for any mystical meaning: sometimes for only one of the four, which are the historical, allegorical, mystical and the anagogical, which are the four senses of Sacred Scripture, all of which differ in signification. For signification is twofold: one is through words; the other through the things signified by the words[in Sacred Scripture] words and the very things signified by them signify something. Consequently this science can have many senses. For that signification by which the words signify something pertains to the literal or historical sense. But the signification whereby the things signified by the words further signify other things pertains to the mystical sense.

There are two ways in which something can be signified by the literal sense: either according to the usual construction, as when I say, “the man smiles”; or according to a likeness or metaphor, as when I say, “the meadow smiles.” Both of these are used in Sacred Scripture; as when we say, according to the first, that Jesus ascended, and when we say according to the second, that He sits at the right hand of God. Therefore, under the literal sense is included the parabolic or metaphorical.

However, the mystical or spiritual sense is divided into three types. First, as when the Apostle says that the Old Law is the figure of the New Law. Hence, insofar as the things of the Old Law signify things of the New Law, it is the allegorical sense. Then, according to Dionysius in the book On The Heavenly Hierarchy, the New Law is a figure of future glory; accordingly, insofar as things in the New Law and in Christ signify things which are in heaven, it is the anagogical sense. Furthermore, in the New Law the things performed by the Head are examples of things we ought to do—because “What things soever were written were written for our learning” (Rom 15:3) —accordingly insofar as the things which in the New Law were done in Christ and done in things that signify Christ are signs of things we ought to do, it is the moral sense. Examples will clarify each of these. For when I say, “Let there be light,” referring literally to corporeal light, it is the literal sense. But if it be taken to mean “Let Christ be born in the Church,” it pertains to the allegorical sense. But if one says, “Let there be light,” i.e., “Let us be conducted to glory through Christ,” it pertains to the anagogical sense. Finally, if it is said “Let there be light,” i.e., “Let us be illumined in mind and inflamed in heart through Christ,” it pertains to the moral sense. (Gal.C4.L7.n253-4)

In sum, in scripture signification may be done according to words or according to things. According to words is the genus of the literal sense. This may be done after the plain meaning of the words (proper), or after some sort of metaphor or simile (improper), thus we have the two species of the literal sense.

According to things (where the thing signified by the words is also a sign) is the genus of the spiritual sense. It can be a sign in three ways, first it is a sign of the new law (allegorical), second it is a sign of future glory (anagogical), or, third, it is a sign of what we ought to do (moral), thus we have the three species of the spiritual sense.

By way of example, if we are speaking about the unbroken lamb. The literal sense of the words (which is proper) is the unbroken lamb, yet the unbroken lamb, the thing signified by the words is itself a sign to another thing (Christ) which is the allegorical sense.


Objection 1: “Truth is only one and simple and therefore cannot admit many senses without becoming uncertain and ambiguous.” [1]

Response: The consequent is affirmed. The Consequence is denied, for (1) the description of “many senses” is ambiguous. Rather two-fold sense in scripture is a better descriptor. For, the signification that is the spiritual sense is the signification of the thing signified by the letter of scripture. Thus, the spiritual sense is said to be “based upon” the literal sense. Therefore, such is not uncertain. Further, (2) it is affirmed that “whatever is found in the spiritual sense is found elsewhere in the literal sense.” While the spiritual sense can itself be ambiguous, it does not therefore follow that truth is ambiguous. Such an argument would also press against the notion that “whatever is unclear in one part of scripture is clear in another part of scripture.” Thus, for ambiguity, not only a certain part, but the whole would have to be ambiguous, which is not the case. Further, (3) as the Angelic Doctor says, “It must be said that, as Augustine says in the book On Christian Doctrine, profitably is it disposed by God that truth in sacred Scripture should be manifested with some difficulty: for this is useful for destroying tedium, because unto those things which are difficult there rises a greater attention, which destroys tedium. Similarly from this the occasion of pride is destroyed, while a man can seize the truth of Scripture with difficulty. Similarly through this the truth of the faith is defended from the derision of infidels; whence the Lord says: Do not give what is holy to dogs (Matt 7:6); and Dionysius admonished Timothy that he should preserve holy things uncontaminated from the unclean. And thus it is clear that it is expedient that the truth of the faith should be handed over under diverse senses in sacred Scripture.” (QVII.Q6.A1.Rep2)

Obj. 2: “there is only one essential form of any one thing (now the sense is the form of the Scriptures).” [2]

Response: The Major premise is affirmed. The minor premise is distinguished. For, if by “form of the Scriptures” one means that the literal sense is the forms of the letters of scripture, it is affirmed. Yet, it is denied that the spiritual sense is the form of the letters of scripture, rather the spiritual sense is the form of those things signified by the letters of scripture (broadly speaking, the literal sense).

Obj. 3: “From the perspicuity of the Scriptures, which cannot allow various foreign and diverse senses.” [3]

Response: To this I respond which the Protestant principle that “whatever is found in one area of scripture to be unclear, is found in another area to be clear.” Thus, clarity is found in the whole, not in the part. In a similar way, whatever is found in the spiritual sense, is found in the literal sense in another place.

Obj. 4: To allow for multiple senses allows for equivocation.

Response: This is simply denied. As the Angelic Doctor writes, “It must be said that a variety of senses of which one does not proceed from another makes a multiplication of speech; but the spiritual sense always is founded upon the literal and proceeds from it, whence from this: that sacred Scripture is expounded literally and spiritually, there is not any multiplicity in it.” (QVII.Q6.A1.Rep1) For, equivocation would have multiple significations of the letter, on the other hand, the spiritual sense is a signification of the thing signified by the letter.