Understanding the Literal and Allegorical Senses of Scripture

The traditional liturgy of the Church is filled with allusions to figures and types in the Old Testament that are taken in an allegorical sense. For example, in the traditional Roman Rite, the story of Daniel in the lion’s den is read on Tuesday of Passion week [i] because, among other possible interpretations, Daniel foreshadows Christ, who, though in the midst of ferocious enemies who would tear him to pieces, triumphs over them and comes forth from the pit of Hades in the glory of inextinguishable life. Daniel is an allegory of Christ. But when we say this, what exactly do we mean by “allegory”?

Spiritual meanings based on historical realities

The narrative books of Scripture tell us about various persons, things, and events. What Scripture says about these constitutes the “literal” (sometimes called “historical”) meaning of the text.

When these past entities themselves point to something further, however, we say they are “types,” signs of something greater to come that already share to some extent in the character of that which is to come, and yet are like a shadow in comparison with a body. The persons, things, and events of the Old Testament are types or signs pointing to Christ and the Church. When we look at them this way, we speak of their “typological” or “allegorical” meaning. For St. Thomas Aquinas, “allegory” is thus synonymous with typology.

Examples help clarify these concepts. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt under Pharaoh and were guided by Moses to cross the Red Sea and enter into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years, and were then led into the Promised Land. All this is narrated in Exodus and constitutes the literal or historical meaning of the text of Scripture. God — who is the author of things and events as well as of words — chose to signify by way of these events something to come. The events are a type or shadow of things to come; they anticipate and prophesy them and in some way actually bring about what they signify.

The historical deliverance of the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage is an allegory for the liberation, by Christ through baptism, of fallen man from his slavery in the kingdom of darkness under the devil and of his embarking on a pilgrimage in which, strengthened by bread from Heaven, he must remain faithful to the promises until he is at last permitted to enter into glory. The correspondence is exact:

Hebrews fallen mankind
Egypt kingdom of Satan
Pharaoh Satan
Moses Christ
Red Sea waters of baptism
wilderness earthly life
manna Eucharist
promised land Heaven

By the all-seeing and all-supporting providence of God, who is the principal author of Scripture, the literal-historical sense — the description of what happened — can thus contain a further allegorical sense.

For most medieval exegetes, literary images or metaphors are not considered allegorical; they are used precisely to point to something in the real world. The “stone cut from the mountain” is a figure of speech that refers directly (not allegorically) to Christ. As Nicholas of Lyra notes, the literal sense “is not that which is signified by the words [taken at face value], but that which is immediately meant by the things signified” [ii]. For example, when Judges 9:8 says, “The trees went forth to anoint a king,” the literal meaning is not that a preternaturally talented tree anointed a king, but rather that the citizens of Shechem, who are represented by the trees, anointed a king, Abimelech. Hence, this is not a case of allegory, in the sense defined above; it simply speaks of things by way of poetic images. It’s like saying, “The walls have ears.” We are not making a claim about painted plaster having a quasi-miraculous power of sensing, but using a colorful idiom to get our point across.

Another example: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Even with the excessive environmentalism of our times, no one thinks Jesus is saying He is actually a plant and we are attached to him as organic outgrowths. Readers do not find it difficult to see that Christ is speaking metaphorically and that such a use of words belongs to the meaning intended by the speaker. In other words, the literal meaning is not that Christ is a plant, but that Christ is our preeminent and perpetual source of life, whose grace is like the sap running into a plant’s branches and leaves; if we are cut off from Him, we cannot have spiritual life or bear any fruit [iii].

Confusion about the word “literal”

Unfortunately, some medieval exegetes insisted on identifying “literal” with just what the word says, hence were forced to conclude that certain passages have no literal sense, but only a spiritual sense. For instance, they would say: “When Christ calls himself a vine, this cannot be taken literally, but only spiritually.” Comparable is the modern habit of saying: “Don’t read that verse of Scripture literally!”

For St. Thomas a statement like that would be sheer nonsense. If there is no literal sense, there is no sense at all, because the literal sense is nothing other than what the words written on the page are supposed to signify. “Vine” and “branches” are supposed to signify the intimate relationship between Jesus and His disciples — so intimate that it can be compared to the organic unity of a plant that lives by one vital sap, from one set of roots. In other words, his language is plainly, and literally, metaphorical. He is using poetic imagery.

The same is true for all of the parables of Jesus. Take, for instance, the parable of the sower and the seed. In this instance, Jesus Himself interprets His parable and points out what each metaphor corresponds to: the sower = God; the seed = the word of God; the soil = the soul preached to; the thorns = the cares of this life. Jesus tells His disciples that He intended to speak of the Word of God, and that He employed images for this purpose [iv].

Consider St. Thomas’s remarks on “parabolic speech” — i.e., parables:

The parabolical sense is contained in the literal, for things are signified by words [both] properly and figuratively [v]. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Scripture. [vi]

A general lesson can be derived from these examples. A careful reader does not skim the surface of the text and take every word “at face value,” as if the first meaning listed in the dictionary were what the author intended to talk about — as if, for example, an author who says the word “tree” or “vine” can only ever mean to talk about a particular kind of plant — but rather asks himself: what reality is the author speaking about or pointing to by means of his words? What do these words mean for him? Is he speaking with or without literary figures such as metaphor, parable (which might be defined as an extended sequence of metaphors or a metaphorical narrative), hyperbole, etc.? Is the locution proper or metaphorical?

When Scripture tells us Moses threw a tree into the water to make it sweet, the text is speaking of a real man throwing a real tree into real water to make it really sweet for the sons of Israel. When Scripture tells us that Christ is a door, the text is speaking of Christ under an image. He is like a door: we must go to God through Him. In both cases alike, we are looking for the intended meaning of the text, that is, its literal sense.

A case in point: The Song of Songs

The foregoing should guide our approach to one of the shortest, densest, most intriguing, and most commented-on books in the Bible: the Song of Songs. For St. Thomas, our first question ought to be, what is the literal or historical sense of the text? What is the author signifying by the bridegroom and bride and by all the imagery used to describe them?

It is possible, of course, prescinding from further argumentation, that the author intends to signify a particular bridegroom and bride. But it is no less possible that, as occurs so often in Scripture, the author is using a literary device such as parable, hence that the lover and beloved literally — i.e., by the author’s intention as to what things the words refer to or signify — represent something other than a particular lover and beloved, or in short, that the language is deliberately metaphorical.

For Aquinas, the literal meaning of Solomon and the Shulamite woman in the Song of Songs — that to which they literally refer — is not the relationship between King Solomon himself and a particular bride of his from Egypt, but Yahweh as represented by the king, and Israel as represented by the “dark but beautiful” bride. The literal, historical sense is the nuptial relationship of God and His people, God who called forth a people, prepared them as a bride, and entered into a covenant with them.

This literal sense being established, the allegorical sense immediately follows: the covenant between Yahweh and Israel is a shadow, a type, of the more perfect, definitive covenant between God and man in Jesus Christ. That is, the old covenant is a type of the new covenant, prefigures it, and in some sense causes it, as least in regard to matter or material disposition [vii]. The Song is literally or historically about the old covenant, the betrothal in the desert, and allegorically or typologically about the new covenant, the marriage consummated on the Cross.

The same Scripture texts offer us two more levels of meaning: the “moral” or “tropological” meaning, by which we learn from Scripture’s literal sense how we ourselves are to behave (or not to behave) as we seek to imitate Christ, and the “anagogical” meaning, by which we learn about our ultimate end in the beatific vision and the heavenly Jerusalem. Both of these senses are, again, always based on the literal sense.

Reading Scripture with the mind of the Church

With these clear distinctions in hand, we will be better prepared to understand the scriptural passages read or sung at the traditional Mass — not only the Epistle (or Lesson) and the Gospel, but the many antiphons interspersed throughout the rite and the longstanding allegorical meanings the Church opens up for us as we strive to run after Christ, who has walked through all the pages of Scripture ahead of us and left us a path to follow.

If we pray the Divine Office, this way of thinking about Scripture will become still more important, since the parts of the Office are made up predominantly of passages from the Old Testament, read not only for its own literal meaning, but even more for its allegorical signification of Christ, its modeling of how we are to live in Christ (or warning about how we must not live), and all the lavish imagery through which we catch glimpses of our eternal destiny in Christ.

Even as it assists us in so many other areas of Catholic life, the traditional liturgical rites of the Church, Eastern and Western, teach us how best to read the Bible. Nor is this surprising, since their roots stretch back to the time of the apostles and their immediate successors: the liturgy grew and developed in the midst of the very generations that saw the writing of the New Testament and its inclusion in the public worship of Christians and reached its initial bloom of perfection in the patristic era, when so many of the greatest commentaries on Scripture were given to us. The old Roman lectionary itself breathes this apostolic and patristic air.

Scripture and the liturgy grew up together in so intimate a bond that whenever Christians had reason to ask about the exact contents of the biblical canon, the evidence most often appealed to was “What books are being read aloud in the liturgy?” Thus, the very ancient cycle of readings in the Roman Rite of the Mass fits beautifully the other parts of the Mass and the Divine Office, and all together they provide us an ideal school in which to learn how to read God’s Word with the mind of Catholic Tradition — that is, with the mind of the Church. But for this to be most effective, we need to know the basics of scriptural exegesis. We will not find a more admirable teacher than St. Thomas Aquinas.

[i] This reading was evidently deemed unhistorical and unbelievable by the redactors of the new lectionary, who therefore left it out. One who attends only the Novus Ordo will not encounter this story, which remains a favorite of children’s Bibles. Various conclusions suggest themselves, but I will not draw them here.

[ii] Ibid., 106.

[iii] Denys Turner explains it this way: “To signify something by words or merely by the construction of images … yields nothing but the literal sense. … Poetic images refer to something other than themselves only so as to signify them, and so a signification of that sort goes no way beyond the manner in which the literal sense signifies (ibid.).

[iv] In modern literary theory, by contrast, “allegory … is a literary device, a narrative metaphor, interpreted by reading off events in the narrative as metaphors for other events whose relation with one another is similar to the relation of the events in the allegorical narrative” (Turner, Eros and Allegory, 107). For modern people, the term “allegory” is simply another way of saying parable or metaphorical narrative, and so the parable of the sower, for example, will often be called an “allegory.” We can see the confusion this modern unclarity would cause against the backdrop of the traditional distinction between metaphor and allegory as explained in the Catholic tradition.

[v] That is, a speaker can, according to his purpose, use words either properly or figuratively; words, in their literal sense, admit of both proper and metaphorical application.

[vi] ST 1, q. 1, a. 10, ad 3.

[vii] “Typology, on the other hand, is not a literary, but a theological doctrine — or rather is based upon one, namely upon the theology of history according to which earlier events not merely match later events in formal outline, but are prophetic anticipations of them; they are in a certain way causative of the events which they anticipate” (Turner, Eros and Allegory, 107–8). For St. Thomas, typology as just defined is the sum and substance of allegory. Thus, we can make a brief definition of allegory according to the Thomistic school: “An event or sequence of events, a person or thing, etc., that prefigures Christ and the Church.”

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