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Scripture’s Two Senses and my Granddaughter

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A contribution by Paul Szobody

The other day I encountered a striking, living illustration of the Church’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures possess essentially two senses—literal and spiritual—and that both are real and indivisible, both divinely intended.

In God’s book, more than one sense in a text is not non-sense. To say that it is (as one recent evangelical scholar did) reveals that our hermeneutic is too influenced by human rationalism rather than the mystery of divine superintendence over Scripture’s composition and intended meaning. A mere cursory reading of the Gospels and Epistles confirms that the traditional hermeneutic of two senses in one and the same text was already operative in the apostolic mentality.

My four-year-old granddaughter Selma was playing in the sandbox with water. She made some mud balls and was carrying them over to a concrete ledge which, presumably in her mind, was her oven. As she passed me by, I asked her: “So you’re making mud balls?” “No, grandpa, these are cookies!” she retorted with all seriousness, and then added, “Would you like some?” Certainly this was not the place or time for rational disputations. “Yes” I said, and then I leaned over and pretended to eat and enjoy scrumptious cookies. She was pleased.

Then later, after I privately related to my daughter-in-law (Selma’s mother) the story, she asked Selma: “what were you doing in the sandbox?” “Making mud balls” Selma replied to her mother, still in the same sincere tone.

Yes, on one level, a very conscious level, Selma knew all along she had literally, historically and substantially made mud balls. This was the essential meaning of her act as reported to her mother. That information (evidently, in Selma’s mind) was the essential information to communicate to her mother. But her assertion to me: “No grandpa, they’re cookies!” was no less real in her mind, no less intended. In fact, it was the teleological fullness of her act: to figure, to convey to the imagination, cookies. Two modes of consciousness, two intentions, in one act, an act interpreted in two different fashions to two different people in two different situations and relations to her.

This is exactly the Church’s traditional understanding of the two senses of Scripture, the literal (historical-grammatical) and the spiritual (figural and Christic). In the first, one encounters raw empirical literary and historical data. In the second, the God who hides himself in Scripture unveils himself to the reader in contours figuring the Person and work of Christ (we will leave off, for this brief reflection, the discussion of the expansion of the spiritual meaning into the medieval three senses). The situation of the reader, his/her spiritual condition and intentions, determine how things are read and perceived. It’s the letter and spirit dichotomy. Likewise on the author’s side: In the same creative act, Selma wanted to say one thing to Grandpa, and another later to her mother. But alas: both senses are intended, both true, both legitimate interpretations; yet, how the intention and interpretation gets worked out in each situation remains under the sovereignty of the creator, whether that person creates mud balls, cookies or canonical texts.