Literal Vs. Literal

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

Down yonder, a reader (quoting me) writes:

Maybe, though the literal sense of those texts is that God will send a great age of peace, during which it will be as if all strife–even between animals–will be eliminated.

Er. No. What you mean here is that the meaning of the passage is certainly metaphorical. Which, to be sure, it is. Lions, leopards, lambs, kids — even if the beasts will literally exist, they will be part of, and symbolically represent, that peace.

The literal meaning is what the passage actually says not what it actually means, even if that meaning is demonstrably false or makes no sense.

Er, yes, actually.

This may be a case of field-specific jargon.

In biblical studies the "literal" sense of the text–in the proper sense of the word–is what the author meant, not what his words say.

Thus when Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son, the literal sense of the text is not that there was this son who demanded his inheritance and went and spent it on loose living and came back to his father, who received him.

The literal sense is that God is always willing to take back a sinner, no matter what he has done.

I know it’s paradoxical to call this the literal sense, but this is the sense in which the term is used in classical exegesis (e.g., in the dictum that the literal sense of the text is always the foundation of the spiritual and you can’t play the spirital against the literal.

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. the profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."

Unfortunately, there is no word that has become firmly established for what you are calling "literal," and someitmes biblical scholars casually speak of it as literal, too–leading to confusion.

To avoid this problem, in what I originally wrote I contrasted literal with "even more literal." In other places, I’ve used the terms hyper-literal or literalistic.

In any event, the contrast remains between the surface meaning of the words of a text and what the author intended to communicate by them. In biblical studies–as paradoxical as it sounds–the latter is properly considered the literal sense of the text, not the former.

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{ 8 comments }

Al March 13, 2006 at 4:32 am

Another example of why you are the #1 apologist.
By the by, would the word “concrete” in contrast to abstract be a better word choice than “literal”?

Steven D. Greydanus March 13, 2006 at 6:20 am

Jimmy is absolutely right: The literal sense of the text is one thing, and the literal meaning of the words is something else. (I was thisclose to commenting on this exact point in the earlier post as a preemptive clarification, but now I’m glad I didn’t.)

discomike2000 March 13, 2006 at 3:55 pm

Jimmy,
As a very wise college professor of mine has said over and over, “language limps”.
As we have two different but similar meanings to the word “literal”, in an exegetical sense, it seems that a new word needs to be coined, so as to avoid confusion.
Perhaps the word “literal” should be applied to the meaning, “directly affirming what the author meant“.
And the phrase “superliteral” should be applied to the meaning, “to be understood just as the words imply”.
Just a thought.

Mary March 13, 2006 at 7:06 pm

Er, yes, actually.
OTOH, what was Tim Powers using the word to mean?
Having re-read it, I find it clear that he was using it in the common, not the Biblical studies, meaning.
Using it in the different sense in your response was, at the very least, confusing.

Jimmy Akin March 13, 2006 at 7:11 pm

Yes, though I tried to nuance this by distinguishing between the literal sense an a “more literal” sense.

michael hugo March 15, 2006 at 12:09 am

Here are some alternatives. I actually like “written”.
Thesaurus Synonyms:
accurate, actual, apparent, authentic, bona fide, close, critical, faithful, genuine, gospel, methodical, natural, not figurative, ordinary, plain, real, scrupulous, simple, strict, true, undeviating, unerring, unexaggerated, unvarnished, usual, veracious, verbal, verbatim, veritable, written

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