Thursday, May 30, 2013

On the Use of Metaphors in Scripture


1.  Having rounded out his discussion of the scientific character of sacred doctrine, St. Thomas concludes the first quaestio of the Summa with two articles on the interpretation of scripture.  Both of them could have been placed later on in the prima pars (e.g., in Question 13, On the Divine Names), or in the secunda pars (either in the treatise on Law, or in the treatise on Faith).  However, since the content of these articles is practically indispensable for the resolution of theological difficulties and the harmonization of scriptural texts, they seem to fit best in the preliminary treatment of the nature and method of theological science.

2.  The first problem St. Thomas takes up is whether scripture ought to use metaphors.  This is closely related to the problem posed in the previous article, as we will see in the character of St. Thomas's replies.  He lists three objections to the use of metaphors.  First, that metaphor is proper to poetry, which (if a science at all) is the least of sciences, and thus should not be employed in the most noble, as it is unfitting.  Second, that metaphor tends to obscure rather than clarify the truths with which it deals, and is thus counterproductive to our progress in understanding.  Third, that metaphors make use of lowly things (animals, plants, and even inanimate objects) to explain higher things, whereas the dignity of the object of theology demands a greater dignity in the things it is compared to.

3.  In the Corpus of the article, St. Thomas tells us that God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.  Thus for human beings, who learn by way of images and sensible realities, divine truths are made known by comparison with sensible things, so that even the uneducated can grasp to some extent the meaning of what is said, and be drawn thereby to a higher contemplation of divine truth.

4.  In response to the first objection, St. Thomas says that it is necessary and expedient for sacred doctrine to employ metaphors, though a clarification of the necessity will come later on.  To the second objection, he points out that truths are concealed in images to different degrees in different parts of scripture, both to hide them from the impious, and to provide occasion for the exercise of understanding in finding a united truth concealed under different aspects and images.  Finally, to the third objection, St. Thomas replies that it is fitting for lower animals and objects to be used in comparisons to God, so that we will be kept mindful of the infinite gulf which divides created nature from the uncreated.  By this means we can remember that in the present life we know God naturally more clearly by what he is not than by what he is.  Furthermore, if God were consistently compared to the best things that we knew, we might mistake those things for divinity (e.g. wise men, or angels), and fall into idolatry.

5.  Briefly note that this article opens up several further questions, which will be discussed later on.  First, why are metaphors necessary for the description of the divine nature?  Second, how is it that images in particular are so useful to the human mind?  Third, what does St. Thomas mean in saying that we know better what God is not?

Outline of Article

–What is proper to the lowest science, poetry, ought not to be employed by the highest science.
–Metaphors and similes obscure the truth.
–In these comparisons lower things are compared to God, instead of the highest things.

–God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.
–Humans learn by way of the senses.

–Metaphors are necessary and useful in theology, though they merely adorn poetry.
–The concealment or elucidation of particular points of doctrine in metaphors is useful for teaching and contemplation.
–Better to compare God to what cannot be mistaken for him, so that we remember our ignorance and the profound dissimilitude between creature and creator.

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