What is meant by the " spiritual meaning " of Holy Scripture ? Is It ascertainable with the same certainty as the literal meaning ?
rirO answer this question as its -Iimportance demands, it will be necessary to give a brief description of the threefold meaning that any text of scripture may have.
The first meaning is the literal sense. This is what the passage means as it stands; whether as history. exhortation, prophecy, or poetry: "And Abram went up out of Egypt ": " Praise not a man before he speaketh; for this is the trial of men "; "And Jonas was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights."
Here discussion is at the level of the meaning of the language, its words and idioms, history, zoology and other sciences.
The second meaning is the spiritual meaning. So when Our Lord himself makes use of the story of Jonas as a symbol of his own resurrection the spiritual meaning of the passage is made clear.
The author of Jonas did not intend to convey this typical or symbolic sense: and it is only when we see God himself as the author of the whole of Scripture that we can see the intention of the divine author to convey an inner sense, unknown to the human author. The spiritual sense is, then. what the passage signifies symbolically.
A third meaning may be given to a passage of Scripture; this is the accommodated sense. It is much better referred to as " accommodation "; for it is not a sense of the words at all. It occurs when a text of scripture is taken out of its context and used as an apt equotation.
Everyday language. especially English, is full of such accommodations: e.g., " sufficient for the day is the evil thereof." The writings of St. Theresa of Lisieux are also full of " accommodations."
The literal sense of Scripture is not by any means always easy to arrive at; apart from the primary difficulty of deciding the literary form of the hook or passage, whether history, story. prophecy. or poetry, etc., there is the often considerable difficulty of the exact meanings of words and phrases; for example one Hebrew word is translated into Latin 83 times by one word. 32 times by another. seven by a third, twice by a fourth and fifth.
Father Sebastian Bullough, 0.P.. conveniently summarised Pope Pius Xll's teaching in respect of the spiritual meaning of Scripture under four heads: l. The spiritual sense must be God-given; not dependent on the fancy of this or that preacher or writer.
2. The spiritual sense must he based on the literal sense; that is the symbolic sense must not be in conflict with the literal meaning of the text.
3. The only guarantee that a given text has a spiritual sense is the use of that text symbolically in the New Testament, in the teaching of the Church. or in the Liturgy.
4. Not everything in the Old Testament can he claimed to have a symbolic value or spiritual sense.