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The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores:
“Thomas on the Literalness of Christ and the Interpretation of Scripture”

Posted: January 29, 2019

St. Thomas Day Lecture, 2019
prepared text


By the Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores
Bishop of Brownsville, Texas
Thomas Aquinas College
January 28, 2019
Audio | Podcast


(Some months ago when asked to send the projected title for this lecture, I knew what I wanted to talk about, but I hadn’t even sketched it out yet. So I titled it “Prophets and Kings Longed to See what you See”: St. Thomas on the Prophetic Character of the Scriptural Revelation. I had in mind putting together some elements of St Thomas’ teaching I have been thinking about for a while. They were disparate elements in my mind at that time, and the writing has sought to put them in closer relation. Once I finished writing it (this last Saturday) I realized the projected title, while adequate, did not quite name with succinctness what has emerged. This happens to me a lot when preparing a talk. So I revised the title so as to better name what I offer you: Thomas on the Literalness of Christ and the Interpretation of Scripture. It is true what Paschal says: The last thing one settles in writing a work is what one should put in first.[i])

I would like to dedicate this time together to exploring some aspects of Saint Thomas’ work as a commentator on Scripture. This is not a topic often broached in courses on Saint Thomas’s thought. And if it is discussed it is usually in a passing nod to article 10 of the first question of the Summa. Now that is a very interesting article, but I do not think we can grasp its significance within the overall aims of the Summa Theologiae nor within the overall work of Thomas the theologian without looking at how Thomas actually handled Scripture in his Scriptural lectures and commentaries. It is always good to remember that lecturing on Scripture texts was Thomas’ main occupation, his day job if you will.

My modest aim today is to encourage you to look to the commentaries on Scripture in order to better understand the vision of Saint Thomas. Thomas’s vision was profoundly Christological, and his Christology was profoundly Scriptural. One of the things we will see today is Thomas’ intense interest in the literal sense of the Scriptures. This must be understood as more than an academic and interpretive exercise. It is directly related to the wider ecclesial interest, especially noteworthy in the mendicant movements, in the literal following of Christ. This was part of the reform movements of the 12th and 13th Centuries, and a hallmark of the charismatic influence of both Saint Francis and Saint Dominic.

I. The Literalness of Christ the WORD:

I will start with Thomas’ commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews. His exposition of that letter is a beautiful expression of Thomas’ robust exegetical mind. It is also a text that had been somewhat neglected by both philosophers and theologians. This may have to do with the fact that within the commentaries on the Pauline corpus, Thomas’ commentary on Hebrews presents unique textual difficulties; it is transmitted to us through two interpolated reportationes.[ii] This is vexing to the reader for reasons I need not go into here. The first lecture on chapter one, the received text reports Thomas commenting on the sense of the first verse:

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our fathers through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe […]

Thomas uses the occasion to explain that God’s speaking is first of all the Father’s eternal generation of the Word. This eternal conceptum is, in fact, further expressed in three ways: First in creation, secondly in the revelations to the angels, the saints and the prophets of what lays hidden in the WORD, and thirdly in the Incarnation itself. Within this three-fold movement of expression that issues from the eternal WORD, only the latter two, Thomas says, revelation and Incarnation, have the character of a word, properly speaking.

Thomas says explicitly that this is because the latter two are ordered ad manifestationem. Both are a kind of opening up of what is inside the mind and heart of God; and both are directed to knowers capable of receiving the manifestation.

The first expression, he says, namely creation, is not ordered to manifestation but rather to being, and thus does not have the character of a word spoken. It is never said in Scripture, Thomas notes, that God speaks by creating creatures, but rather that he is known by creating them: numquam dicitur, quod Deus loquatur creando creaturas, sed quod cognoscatur. Rom. I, 20: invisibilia Dei etc,...[iii] In short, creation is an act of the Word, but it is a speaking (Let there be light) producing something that is not quite a word.

This way of describing reality puts into play the existence of knowers other than God, namely angels and human beings. Because even if Scripture does not ever say God produced a kind of word by creating creatures, it does say that he is known in this creative act. Creation is capable, and in the divine wisdom was meant to convey something beyond itself, to other knowers. We might say that this expressive power of created being, in the long run, is fairly meager, for although it can express beyond itself, it never quite allows us to know the who behind all the whats of creation.

When moving from expression to word, Thomas describes how God’s speaking ad manifestationem makes known more about the speaker than what his created works convey. What characterizes this “more” made known by words is the manifestation of God’s own interior intentionality. This is equivalent to saying that God’s speaking to angels and prophets is variously ordered ad cognitionem sapientiae divinae.

Thomas thus preserves the word “word” as an intentional revelation of a prior intellectual understanding, by its nature interior to the speaker, to another intellectual being. Thomas, not surprisingly, refers in this context to Augustine’s discussion of the verbum vocis being a manifestation of the prior Verbum cordis. The Incarnation, of course, is the singularly perfect self-expression to us of the Verbum cordis of the Father.[iv]

What is implicit in this account, unspoken we could say, is that we human beings are capable of putting words together to describe expressions, that is to say, realities that are not words. This is the primordial grandeur of the human creation. Our first words are words about what is. And when it comes to other persons, our words are about who the what is.

Apparently, when speaking to human beings, the only way available to God is that of adaptation to our mode of understanding things. And this involves adaptation to the way signaled by our own prior exercise of the speaking power, which in turn derives from our interaction with created things and other speaking human beings.

But to speak of God having to adapt to our way of speaking, while true, is not the most fortuitous way to say this. It is more accurate to describe Thomas’ wisdom here by saying creation was conceived originally in the WORD precisely to serve as the gentle medium of God’s speaking to us about what lies hidden in his heart, the verbum cordis. Creation is the language God conveniently uses to address us because he made us word capable beings who already interact and put words on creation.

Now then, the sensible, intelligible and imaginal species granted to the prophets are communications conveyed by God using images drawn from our experience of creation and specified by Him to say something about Himself, God the speaker. Part of what God speaks has to do with the deeper rationes governing creation (ad esse) in the first place.

Thus, the interpersonal use of wordy images to say something to each other makes it possible for God to specify created knowables to say something about Himself to us. Think of Hosea 11:4:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.

We have to have had some interaction with cords and bands to understand their relation to love, and we have to have some concept of familial fostering to understand that God is saying something about himself beyond what our human interactions can express. Again, in the divine wisdom, creation is the medium through which God can speak this word to us.

Which brings us at length to how Thomas describes the Incarnation in this context. He reserves a particular phrase for describing the Word Incarnate, viewed precisely as Word. His coming in the flesh is ordered ad expressam manifestationem. With delightful austerity of words, Thomas says of the WORD: Et se nobis expresse manifestavit.[v] The adverb expresse for Thomas implies a kind of literal directness. We will see this word again later. God expressed Himself literally; Jesus is the historically literal expression of the divine wisdom. Thus, it is essential to Catholic Christology to profess that the Second Person of the Trinity literally acts and expresses himself through his sanctified humanity. Thus, for example, when Scripture says Jesus was angry at the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, it is true to say that God’s anger was literally manifested in and through the Son’s humanity. Traduxit se nobis, we could say: He translated Himself to us, in a language we could understand. That literal language is the humanity of Christ.

Human nature is a created expression of image and likeness, but by the Incarnation the human creation is elevated to become a word. And the concrete human nature of Christ becomes the word addressed by God to us. Indeed, the whole of Christ’s living, dying and rising (the acta et passa mentioned in the Summa) is creation becoming the most expressive, literal word from God to us.

In short, we could say that neither things nor persons could ever tell us how much love sustains the existence of all that is were it not for the WORD made flesh who in the flesh and in time showed us his heart.

II. A Literal Sense Controversy

At this point I would draw your attention to Thomas’ commentary on the Psalms, probably the last work of his teaching life.[vi] The prologue to this commentary shows us Thomas devoting not a little effort to deal with an errant understanding of the literal sense of Scripture. I hope to show that his interest here is directly related to protecting the literalness of Christ’s teaching and example, and to accounting for the Old Testament as primarily prophetic and intentionally preparatory in nature. The principal antagonist in this dense discussion of erroneous expositional procedure is Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Concerning the mode of exposition, it must be noted that in the Psalter, as in [the exposition of] the other prophets, we ought to avoid one error condemned in the Fifth Synod. Theodore of Mopsuestia, indeed, said that in Sacred Scripture and the Prophets, nothing is expressly said about Christ, but rather [these words were said] about certain other things, and, in fact, they [i.e. these words said about certain other things] adapted to Christ. Like, [that text of] Psalm 21, [19]:they divided among themselves my vestments, etc.[is said] not about Christ, but literally said about David. This mode [of exposition] was condemned in that Council, and whoever asserts such a thing in expounding the Scriptures is a heretic.[vii]

Now this is fascinating. Theodore of Mopsuestia’s teaching on Scriptural interpretation was sparsely and vaguely known in Thomas’ time. In fact, Thomas may be the first theologian of the High Middle Ages to reference it at all, or in such detail. His references to it were likely made possible by his personal quest for reliable texts stemming from the patristic period; that personal quest is well attested to in the abundant citations of the Greek Fathers in such works as the Catena Aurea, the Contra Errorum Graecorum, and the Summa Theologiae itself. Some were probably Greek texts recently translated into Latin, others older Latin translations discovered in monastic, papal or episcopal archives. In addition to the description of Theodore in the commentary on the Psalms, Thomas references Theodore’s error also in his expositions of the Gospel of Matthew and of the Gospel of John, both late commentaries. In other words, Thomas’ awareness of and his concerns about Theodore of Mopsuestia are late elements in his teaching career.

The reference to the determinations of “the fifth synod” clearly identifies the authority for the question at hand with the Second Council of Constantinople. Thomas likely reviewed documents surrounding Constantinople II and documents prepared by Pope Vigilius both before and after the Council’s decrees. In addition to the Acta of the Council, with the accompanying excerpts from Theodore’s writings, the Latin tradition preserved particular texts of Theodore’s writings about the prophets, together with point by point anathemas by Pope Vigilius in the Constitutum Vigilii.[viii]

In the history leading up to the Council, the Constitutum Vigilii was issued by the Pope in 553 in an effort to condemn certain errors in Theodore’s writings, without condemning him personally in posthumous fashion. The Council did, in fact, condemn him posthumously, and anathematized his writings; the Pope subsequently recognized the Council’s decrees. The Constitutum of Pope Vigilius contains some sixty Latin excerpts from the writings of Theodore, and includes texts from his notes on particular Psalm verses.[ix] The Latin texts certainly derive from the same source as those contained in the Council’s acta. Leontius of Byzantium is recognized as the translator.[x] The Constitutum Vigilii proves singularly important, however, because the Pope offers a point by point explication and condemnation of Theodore’s texts, something not found in the Conciliar decrees themselves. Similarities between the Pope’s characterization of the texts before him, and Thomas’s characterization of Theodore’s teaching on adaptation can be discerned. To go into this discernible similarity would be different and much longer lecture.

The error attributed to Theodore involves two major aspects: First that he denied the prophets ever intended to say anything literally about Christ. (nihil expresse dicitur). To say this in terms related to what we saw earlier in the commentary on Hebrews chapter 1: Nothing was expressly said in the Old Testament about the One who is the Incarnate and thus expressly manifested WORD of the Father. As you can imagine this undermines any understanding of the Old Testament as words from the Word, preparing for the Word’s expressed manifestation.

Thus, Theodore accounts for New Testament references to the prophets as a work of textual adaptations. “Adaptation” is a bad word for Thomas, if it is used to describe how Old Testament texts can be made to refer to New Testament realities. What is adaptation? The short answer is that it implies that the Old Testament authors did not intend to refer to New Testament things, rather, New Testament authors appropriated the words at will: they made them fit.

Thomas gives an interesting elaboration on this point in his commentary on Matthew. Probably his earliest reference to Theodore the exegete, Thomas says the following about what adaptation implies:

And another was [the error] of Theodore saying that nothing of those things which are brought forth from the Old Testament are literally said about Christ, but they are adapted, as [for example] when they bring forth that [text] of Virgil: recalling such things, he hung suspended, and affixed he remained.[xi] Now, this [text of Virgil] is adapted concerning Christ; and next [it is said], that [the text of Matthew] that it might be fulfilled, ought to be thus exposed, as if the Evangelist were saying and this can be adapted. Against which [can be adduced the text] from the last chapter of Luke: It was fitting that all those things which were written in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms about me be fulfilled.[xii]

Now, stick with me here: Thomas is saying that adaptation involves appropriating words away from the author’s intention, like when some people read in the Aeneid that Anchises’ “pendebat and fixusque” (he hung suspended and was affixed) can be applied it to Christ. Martin Morard has identified the source of Thomas’s example.[xiii] Thomas seems to be making a passing reference (probably from memory) of a letter from Saint Jerome to Saint Paulinus of Nola. In that letter St Jerome severely rebukes those who manipulate classical pagan texts to make them refer to Christ. The following appears in Jerome’s Epistola LIII to Paulinus of Nola:

[Those] who come boldly to the Sacred Scriptures after secular letters, [...] whatever might be said there they think to be the Law of God, nor do they think it worthwhile what the prophets or what the Apostles think, but rather they fit (aptant) the incongruous testimonies to their own sense, as if it were a great thing, and not a most vicious thing to deprive a way of speaking of its sense, and to drag a writing according to their own will to a repugnant sense. As if we could not read Homeric verses and Virgilian verses and not also call Maronus a Christian without Christ, because he wrote [...] the words of the Savior on the Cross: talia perstabat memorans fixusque manebat. These are childish things, and similar to a game of circles.[xiv]

Interestingly, Jerome’s letter censures the adaptations of Proba, the well known Roman matron and convert who herself received lengthy responses to her letters from Augustine. Jerome rebukes any attempt to offer as legitimate a reading of a secular text which prescinds completely from the intention of a classical author; the activity is an active one, involving imposing (by will of the reader) something at variance with the original author’s intentional use of words. Jerome of course knows the context of Anchises’ statement, and is quite sure that there was no intention to speak-- even in a vague way-- about crucifixion. Thus, for Jerome, the practice of reading Virgil in this way involves a re-figuration of the words’ contextual sense away from one of Anchises’ resoluteness. The words used by Virgil take on a significantly different meaning through the transfer of context.

Through this example Thomas understands that adaptation involves a radical manipulation of words based upon verbal ambiguities and the equivocal use of language. When “they” adjust the text of Virgil to signify something about Christ, they do something at variance with what Virgil himself intended to signify through the words he used. The text is adjusted with no real reference to what the poet intended. To say, therefore, that the Apostles and Evangelists adapted prophetic texts to Christ implicates them in a falsification of textual integrity of the kind Jerome attributed to Proba and her circle.

Ok, so clearly a Scripture reader, in this case an Apostle, cannot expose a prior prophetic text by prescinding from the intention of the author. To do so does violence to the text because it separates words from the things the author wanted to talk about. But here is the point: when the New Testament speaks of the prophets, it cannot be doing so in the way Jerome ascribes to childish Roman matrons reading Christ into Virgil. So what are the New Testament authors doing when they quote the Old Testament and use the common NT phrase: “This was to fulfill what was said by the prophet,... etc.” ?

Countering the claim that the New Testament authors intended to say that the prophetic words of Isaiah could conveniently be adapted to signify something about Christ, Thomas (in the commentary on Matthew) offers the text from Luke 24, 44:

[...] Against which [can be adduced the text] from the last chapter of Luke: It was fitting that all those things which were written in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms about me be fulfilled. And it should be known that in the Old Testament there are certain things which refer to Christ, and are said about him alone, like that [text which says] Behold a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and bear a son, Isaiah 7, [14]; and also that [text] Psalm 21, [2]: God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me? etc. And if anyone should put a different literal sense, he would be a heretic, and the heresy is condemned.[...][xv]

The sense of this citation moves the argument to another level: Matthew could not have intended to say that “the text can be thus adapted,” because he only conveyed what he learned from Christ, namely that “all these things” written in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were written about Him. The argument against Theodore thus is reduced to a Christological error. The Lord Jesus knows what the intentions of the Old Testament authors are, and it is his knowledge, confided to the authors of the New Testament, that sustains the propriety of New Testament citation of the Old. It is the literal historicity of the WORD made flesh (expresse manifestavit se), the One who spoke through the prophets prior to his Incarnation, that gives the Apostles (and the Church) access to Old Testament intentions.

III. The Rule of Saint Jerome:

After addressing the error attributed to Theodore of Mopsuestia, Thomas turns to a principle of exposition he calls the Rule of Saint Jerome. Bear with me as I read it to you in full:

Blessed Jerome, therefore, [in his commentary] on Ezechiel handed on to us a rule which we will use in the Psalms: namely that concerning things done, they are to be exposed thus, as figuring something about Christ or the Church. As, indeed, it is said in 1 Cor. 10, [11]: all these things happened to them in figure. Prophecies, moreover, were sometimes said about things which were of the time then, but [the prophecies] were not principally said about those things, but, in fact, [the prophecies were said about those things] inasmuch as they are figures of future things: and thus the Holy Spirit ordered that when such things are said, certain things are inserted which exceed the condition of that thing done, so that the soul might be raised to the thing figured. Like in [the book of] Daniel many things are said about Antiochus in the figure of the anti-Christ: hence, there certain things are read which were not completed in him, they will be fulfilled, indeed in the anti-Christ; as also certain things are read about the kingdom of David and Solomon, which were not to be fulfilled in the reign of such men, but were to be fulfilled in the kingdom of Christ, in whose figure they were said: as [for example] Psalm 71, [2]: God, your judgment etc. which is according to the title about the reign of David and Solomon; and [the author] places something in it that exceeds its capacity, namely [in verses 7] justice will arise in his days and abundance of peace, until the moon be taken away: and again [in verse 8], he will rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends [of the earth] etc. Therefore, this Psalm is expounded about the reign of Solomon, inasmuch as it is a figure of the reign of Christ, in which all the things there said will be completed.[xvi]

This proposed regula has two distinct parts and is designed to counter Theodore’s principal errors by re-casting the issue of signification. Thomas here aims to address the wider issue of authorial intent by discussing how both the words and deeds in the Old Testament intentionally refer to realities in the New Testament. He explicitly links this account to the tradition of the Fathers, specifically through the authority of Saint Jerome. The mode of exposition appropriate to the sacred text, therefore, has its own kind of authority, rooted in Thomas’s sense of the consuetudo ecclesiae. Thomas works here to integrate the newly discovered determinations of Constantinople II into the distinctly developed tradition of Latin Scriptural exposition.

By way of quick summary of the regula, we should first note that not every signifier in the Old Testament signifies the New through the literal sense. The Pauline teaching in 1 Corinthians 10, (All these things happened to them in figure), opens the issue by noting that the great bulk of the pre-New Testament Canon is a narrative of literal history and is embedded in that history. As it unfolds, the history itself aims to Christ and, and at the same time the history figures his identity and mission. The general figuration is prophetic and applies to the literal history. This is what we could call the classic spiritual sense of the Old Testament: persons and events in the OT bear an anticipatory likeness to NT persons and events.

Thus, for example, the literal accounts of Moses interceding with God for Israel’s sake after the incident of the Golden calf literally and historically prepares for Christ’s coming by divine pedagogical action at that time: God, after all, desires a people free from idolatry, and this in itself prepared for Christ. Yet the history also pre-figures what Christ’s mission will entail. Christ the mediator once revealed is revealed to have been figured in Moses. The text is literally intended of Moses; and Moses Himself figures, shows likeness, to the coming Christ.

This initial principle encompasses the whole of the intentional signification found in things done, that is to say the entirety of those res recounted in the Old Testament. The articulation accounts for the relation of res ut figura to res figurata established through the Lord God’s expansive and significant accommodation of Israel’s history toward the Incarnation.[xvii]

The “Rule of Jerome”, though, extends also to address prophetic events and discourses that have both an Old Testament historical referent and a literal sense extending to Christ. First, let me point out that I am persuaded that in the received text on the Psalms, the reference to Jerome on Ezekiel is incorrect. There is internal evidence to support this, evidence I cannot go into here.[xviii] Instead, I would argue that what Thomas says here ,..

[...] Prophecies, moreover, were sometimes said about things which were of the time then, but [the prophecies] were not principally said about those things, but, in fact, [the prophecies were said about those things] inasmuch as they are figures of future things: [...][xix]

… corresponds more precisely the following text from Jerome’s exposition of Hosea 1, 3:[xx]

The prophets promised about the coming of Christ after many centuries and the calling of the gentiles in this way, in order that they might not overlook the present time, lest they seem not to teach the convoked assembly [of their time] about the things that occur through their fault, on account of the other [future realities], but instead seem to [neglect the present] and rejoice about obscure and future things.[xxi]

This particular text from Jerome focuses specifically upon the prophet’s intention to signify both the present historical res and the future historical res with the same words. In Osee, 1, 3, in fact, enunciates a principle quite decisive in determining the modus exponendi of prophetic texts that involve reference to OT history and yet are understood by the New Testament as literally referring to Christ.

To do justice to Old Testament history and to avoid the error of Theodore, Thomas thus articulates a specific principle by which this kind of signification can be discerned. Call it the principle of exceeded conditions. Speaking summarily, if the words attendant to the OT history exceede the condition of the histories, then the exceeded description itself extends to a literal application to later realities. Thomas’s intention here is to permit this aspect of Jerome’s rule to counter Theodore’s nihil expresse dicitur in a way that allows for literal reference to Christ yet does not altogether preclude a genuine OT historical res at play in the prophecy.

The verbal description exceeding the condition of an Old Testament reality corresponds more exactly to that which the history figures; this does not, however, suggest that the figure is itself superfluous to the mode of signification. For one thing, Solomon or Antiochus do not cease being historical res simply because they are presented to us on occasion through descriptions verbally designed to set in relief how much they-- considered as figures-- fall historically short of the future reality they signify. The immediate historical res addressed by the prophet requires the expositor’s attention because without knowledge of it, the very fact that the prophetic description exceeds the context would escape significant notice.

That the prophetic description does in fact exceed the condition of the earlier history indicates to the reader that the littera of the description-- at least in those parts exceeding local circumstances-- intentionally signify New Testament history expresse through the words. By means of this kind of inspection of the words and the Old Testament res, discernment of expresse and ad litteram signification is possible. In the end, this is Thomas’s most sophisticated analysis of textual signification; it amplifies the traditional categorization according to literal and spiritual significations, for it contains elements of both. The OT history signifies, but the description expressly points beyond the OT history.

Why does Thomas think it necessary to expand the discussion of Theodore’s error beyond the immediate affirmation that some Old Testament texts do in fact signify Christ ad litteram? Partly, I think, because Thomas understands Theodore to have focused his interpretation of the Old Testament texts solely in terms of the immediate historical context surrounding the articulated words. There appears to be no room for any other kind of signification in Theodore’s teaching: in Psalm 21, either David spoke about his persecution by Absolom, or he spoke about Christ. Since for Theodore it was obvious that David had Absolom on his mind when composing Psalm 21, it could not be that Christ could be understood in that text except through an adaptation. Theodore views Old Testament intentionality to be confined to one historical thing only.

Theodore thus sounds to Thomas like a strict Aristotelian when it comes to textual signification. Indeed, Theodore sounds a lot like the fifth objector in Quodlibetum VII, q. 6, a. 1, that is to say, an Aristotelian that cannot admit of more than a single referent per signifier. Thomas dealt then (the late 1250’s) with the issue by noting that Jerome on Hosea rightly says that nothing prohibits a single deed or thing from having several related senses, inasmuch as one is a figure of the other.[xxii]

Ironically, Theodore reads Psalm 21 the way Jerome says Virgil should be read: solely in terms of the immediate historical intentionality. The point Thomas makes, though, is that the Christian cannot read Isaiah or David the way Jerome reads Virgil for the simple reason that God can do what Virgil cannot, namely accommodate history to signify his intentions. Related figurative senses are present in the thing described. Thus, Theodore, in addition to having erred in his appreciation for the intentionality of prophetic texts uttered about Christ alone, also lacks an understanding of the unified intentionality governing the whole of the Old Testament aimed toward Christ. Doubtless, Thomas saw Theodore’s reading of Scripture as ultimately rooted in a Christological error. Theodore has no room for a real relation between the facta of the Old Testament and the facta of the New; he has no room for the intentional governance of history by the WORD.

IV. CHRIST in Figure and the Figure in CHRIST

Figuration is an essential element within the Scriptural tradition, and in the Catholic tradition of Scriptural interpretation. Figuration is built into the Scriptural self-understanding itself. It concerns events that are intelligible in light of other events. “Moses, with his arms upheld”; “Israel, with unmoistened foot”; “As at Meribah, when they hardened their hearts”. The Old Testament itself depends on these kinds of historical invocations in order to understand its later historical moments. In the last books of the Old Testament, the invocation of the Exodus event in remarkably nuanced ways both interpret the later moments of Israel’s history, and expand Israel’s perception of the meaning of Israel’s foundational historical events. Later events are figured in the foundational event. The WORD, who authored the first Word-Event, guides the later prophetic tradition to its figurative amplifications. The self-understanding of the New Testament reads the prior figurative tradition as brought to clarity in the Paschal Mystery. At the Easter Vigil this interpretive dynamic is on full display.

Now then, throughout the commentary on the Psalms, Thomas respects and shows remarkable dexterity in locating, or in wanting to locate, the historical references in the Psalms: anything from the Exodus, to troubles with Absalom, thanksgiving for victory in battle, to psalms composed to accompany cultic worship, etc. After locating the history, Thomas then usually goes on to read those events as prefiguring something having to do with Christ. We could call this a discernment of the spiritual sense of the OT. This is not an exercise in seeking out fanciful allegories; rather it is rooted in a pre-critical theological conviction that Israel’s history was governed by a special providence, a grace that orders its signification in a way that is anticipatory of the final revelation of God’s historical intent in Christ. This serves as the basis for a Christian reading of the psalms that respects the history of the psalmists. Figuration, in this tradition, (and here I must insist Thomas is very much in the spirit of the Fathers) is rooted in history, not in words; in events understood a certain way, not in poetic allusions.

So what does it really mean to say that there is a literal historical New Testament sense in OT prophecy which also involves reference to OT historical events? To get a sense of Thomas’ response to such a question, let’s look at his particular commentary on Psalm 21, the celebrated Passion Psalm, the one cited by Christ himself from the Cross. Exposing the text, Thomas will not say that the history of David’s sufferings there expressed are a prefiguration of Christ. Nor will he allow that the literal sense refers to David, and the spiritual sense of the text refers to Christ. Given all we have seen in the treatment of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Rule of Saint Jerome, this should not surprise us. Here is what Thomas says:

As was said above, as in the other prophets, also this one treats of certain things then present inasmuch as [those certain things] were figures of Christ, and which pertained to the prophecy itself. And thus, sometimes some things are put forth [in the text] which pertain to Christ, which exceed, so to speak, the condition of the histories. And among others, specifically this psalm treats about the Passion of Christ. And thus, this is its literal sense. Hence, specifically He spoke this Psalm in the passion when He cried out Heli Heli Lammasabactani: which is the same as God, my God, etc. as this Psalm begins. And thus, granted this Psalm is said figuratively about David, nevertheless specifically it refers to Christ ad litteram. And in the Synod of Toledo a certain Theodore of Mopsuestia, who exposed this Psalm about David ad litteram was condemned, and [he was condemned] on account of this and many other things. And, thus, [this Psalm] is to be exposed about Christ. [xxiii]

Thomas explicitly places the issue of Psalm 21 within the same context governing the exposition of Psalm 71, as explained in the Prologue to the Psalter commentary; both involve discerning words which describe realities exceeding the immediate historical condition. Neither text can be exposed primarily about the Old Testament figure. The history narrated in the Psalm is not about David, it is about Christ. This is its literal sense. On this reading, David (the psalmist) has a vision of the Passion, and wrote of it. The psalmists own sufferings are secondarily referenced in the psalm, but only to the extent they are figured within Christ’s sufferings. David saw himself in Christ; he did not see Christ in himself.

Now, you may think this is a distinction without a difference. But in fact, it sustains a whole Catholic understanding of spiritual progress. It is more perfect to see oneself figured in Christ than it is to see Christ figured in oneself. This is because Christ is the supreme locus of intelligibility, and I understand myself better if I see myself figured in him. This is the distinction Thomas wishes to preserve: Israel’s history pre-figures New Testament events, yet the prophets had moments of imaginative vision with understanding that saw from afar the Christian history: they read the contemporary events they lived figured within the history of Christ: Prophets and Kings longed to see what you see, but did not see it.

Thomas is a theological witness to a truth of Catholic Faith, namely that after the full revelation of Christ’s historical appearance, the Church has access to the aim of history. Hence, all the faithful now have the capacity by spiritual instinct and knowledge of the Gospel to see themselves figured in Christ. This, together with the gift of the Spirit guiding our reception of the history of Christ, is what is new about the New Testament revelation. And this is why the Fathers of the Church, following Saint Paul, call the definitive revelation in Christ an “unveiling”. What is unveiled? The aim of human living and all of history. This is a datum in the tradition which witnesses to what then Cardinal Ratzinger called the laying bare of the intelligibility of history by the revelation of its end in Christ.[xxiv] For us who live after the foundational events of the Christian revelation, the figurations are clearer, though not yet perfectly so. The enigmas of the Apocalypse, for example, will remain until the end.

Thomas understands this unveiling of the supreme intelligible precisely in the terms we saw at the outset, namely the expresse manifestavit se of the Incarnation. The eternally generated WORD in the flesh literally and historically expresses what every human life and what all history is really about. What Thomas does here in exposing the text of Psalm 21 as literally about Christ and figuratively about David (effectively reversing the ordinary way of explicating figuration) is grant to David a perspective of vision that is equivalent to ours. We know the history of Christ as literal history, and can see ourselves in it.

Only in this context does the full theological weight of the spiritual or figurative senses of Scripture appear. In the literality of Christ the prior governance of Israel’s history is finally understood; this unveiling guides us to the right reading not just of the books of the OT, but of the history itself. Thomas occasionally uses the term ‘allegory” when referring to the spiritual reading of the OT, but he prefers the term “mystice”; the mystical sense is what is figured within the literal history of Christ. Thus, to state the matter briefly, the ecclesiological sense of a text is the figure of the Church present in the person of Christ; the moral sense of a text is the norm of Christian living present in Christ’s actions; the eschatological sense is the destiny of the Christ as anticipatory of the final destiny of the human race.[xxv] All of this flows from the super-intelligibility of the eternally generated Word, who expressly reveals in the flesh that the intelligibility of history is the Word, a person who creates all things, sustains all things and aims all things to the innermost recesses of the Father’s heart.


Thus, and with this I will conclude, we see the transparency of the ecclesial tradition of reading Scripture to the Eucharistic sacrifice itself. In the Sacred Liturgy the sacramental re-presentation of the historical founding Word-event of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ comes after the reading of the Scriptures. The Paschal Sacrifice is thus positioned to unveil the fundamental ratio through which the Scriptures just read are rightly understood. The literal body of Christ appears after the worded Scriptural explications, just as the Incarnation follows and clarifies the prior Scriptural pedagogy. And yet the Scriptures read prior to the Eucharistic Sacrifice guide our understanding of what is to be enacted, just as the Scriptural record prepared the way for faith in the Incarnation. It is a reciprocal pedagogy of grace. What concerns Saint Thomas throughout his discussions of Scriptural signification is accounting theologically for how this cohesive reciprocating movement towards the literal expressiveness of God in Christ happens textually and historically.

Christian liturgy and theology breathes of figuration or it dies. Figuration flows to Christ and flows from him. And the root of all figurative meaning is the literal Gospel history of Christ, culminating in the Cross. The Cross is the supreme intelligible of God’s heart made literally manifest. It is both plainly visible and at the same time a kind of brightness that comes to us under cover of darkness. The Christological truth revealed in Scripture and enacted—made plain and made present-- in the Eucharistic intervention is the basis for understanding rightly all subsequent figurative readings, be they moral, ecclesial, or eschatological. And the aim is that we see our lives figured within Christ thus plainly manifested. Of the Eucharist as of the Incarnation itself, we can truly say: Se nobis expresse manifestavit.

Thank you for your kind attention.



[i] Pensées, 19: La dernière chose qu'on trouve en faisant un ouvrage, est de savoir celle qu'il faut mettre la première.

[ii] The Marietti printed editions, and the electronic versions of the Corpus Thomisticum (recognovit ac instruxit Enrique Alarcón automato electronico, Pompaelone ad Universitatis Studiorum Navarrensis aedes a MM A.D.) convey this text to us most readily, and make note of this feature of the textual tradition.

[iii] All translations of Thomas’s commentaries on Scripture utilized in this lecture from Latin to English, are my own. Yo soy el culpable. With the exception of the Commentary on the Psalms, the Latin texts used are from the Marietti editions and the Corpus Thomisticum. Super ad Hebraeos, cap. 1, lect. 1: Prima autem expressio, scilicet in creatione, non ordinatur ad manifestationem, sed ad esse, Sap. I creavit Deus ut essent omnia. Cum ergo expressio non habeat rationem locutionis nisi prout ordinatur ad manifestationem, manifestum est, quod illa expressio non potest dici locutio, et ideo numquam dicitur, quod Deus loquatur creando creaturas, sed quod cognoscatur. Rom. I, 20: invisibilia Dei per ea quae facta sunt, intellecta conspiciuntur

[iv]Super ad Hebreos, cap. 1, lect. 1: Tertio per carnis assumptionem, de qua dicitur Io. I, 14: verbum caro factum est, et vidimus gloriam eius, et cetera. Et ideo dicit Augustinus, quod hoc modo se habet verbum incarnatum ad verbum increatum, sicut verbum vocis ad verbum cordis.

[v] Super ad Hebreos, cap. 1, lect. 1: Secunda vero expressio, quae est editio specierum in mente angelica, vel humana, ordinatur tantum ad cognitionem sapientiae divinae, et ideo potest dici locutio. Tertia vero, quae est per assumptionem carnis, ordinatur ad esse, et ad cognitionem, et ad expressam manifestationem, quia per assumptionem carnis, et verbum factum est homo, et nos in cognitionem Dei perfecit. . (Io. XVIII, 37: ad hoc natus sum, ut testimonium perhibeam veritati). Et se nobis expresse manifestavit. Bar. c. III, 38: post haec in terris visus est, et cum hominibus conversatus est. Sic ergo, licet Deus loquatur in novo et veteri testamento, perfectius tamen in novo nobis loquitur, quia ibi per revelationes in mentibus hominum, hic per incarnationem filii.

[vi] The Latin text of the Prologue derives from the Parme edition (In Psalmos, ed. Parmensis, t. XIV, 1863). This is the received text also utilized in the Corpus Thomisticum.

[vii] Super Psalmos, Prologus:  circa modum exponendi sciendum est, quod tam in psalterio quam in aliis prophetiis exponendis evitare debemus unum errorem damnatum in quinta synodo. theodorus enim mopsuestenus dixit, quod in sacra scriptura et prophetiis nihil expresse dicitur de christo, sed de quibusdam aliis rebus, sed adaptaverunt christo: sicut illud psalm. 21: diviserunt sibi vestimenta mea etc., non de christo, sed ad literam dicitur de david. hic autem modus damnatus est in illo concilio: et qui asserit sic exponendas scripturas, haereticus est. 

[viii] See See J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, Florence: 1763. Vol. 9., Collatio IV, cols. 76-79.  These texts were preserved in the Collectio Avellana, Vigilius, Epist. 83, CSEL 35.  See Martin Morard, “Une source de saint Thomas d’Aquin:  le deuxième concile de Constantinople (553).”  Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 81 (1997):  pp. 26 and 33.

[ix] A fair amount of discussion has taken place, and continues, concerning the reliability of the Latin excerpts preserved by the Council and by the Constitutum Vigilii.  Some have argued that the texts do not adequately convey the subtlety of Theodore’s teaching on prophecy, and that reconstructive work on the corpus of Theodore’s writings warrants a reconsideration of his actual teaching, considered distinctly from what Constantinople II ascribed to him.  Robert Devreese did considerable work in this area, as did the J. M. Vosté.  Vosté found confirmation of the Council’s judgement in the Syriac versions of Theodore’s work; Devreese considered the Syriac version not much more reliable, textually speaking, than the Latin excerpts.  De Margerie points out that Devreese seems inexplicably to have overlooked the fact that the Latin excerpts in the Collatio IVand Constitutum Vigilii are taken largely from Theodore’s comments on the Minor Prophets, and not from the Commentary on the Psalter.  He further suggests that the comments on the Minor Prophets are more explicitly errant than those in the Commentary on the Psalter.  For a review of the debate concerning the degree to which the excerpts in the Collatio IVand the Constitutum Vigilii fairly reflect Theodore of Mopsuestia’s teaching on Scriptural exegesis, see the following:  J.M.  Vosté, “L’Oeuvre Exégétique de Théodore de Mopsueste au IIa Concile de Constantinople,” Revue Biblique, 38 (1929), pp. 382-395 et 542-554; Robert Devreesse, “Par Quelles voies Nous sont Parvenus Les Commentaires de Théodore de Mopsueste?”  Revue Biblique 39 (1930) pp. 362-277; Pietro Parente, “Una riabilitazione de Teodoro Mopsuesteno,” Doctor Communis, 1950, pp. 3-15; Bertrand De Margerie, An Introduction to the History of Exegesis. Vol. I: The Greek Fathers, translated by Leonard Maluf, (Petersham, Massachusettes:  St. Bedes Publications, 1993) pp. 165-187.

[x] Vigilius prefaces the excerpts with a letter to the Emperor, from whose court in Constantinople the Latin translations were likely sent to the Pope.  The Latin version of Theodore’s writings in the Constitutum varies only in the most minor degree from that in the Collatio IV.  On Leontius of Byzantium see De Margerie,  The Greek Fathers, p. 177, n. 34.

[xi] Aeneid 2, 650.

[xii] Super Matthaeum, cp. 1, lc. 5,(Marietti no. 148):  alius fuit theodori dicentis, quod nihil eorum quae inducuntur de veteri testamento, sunt ad litteram de christo, sed sunt adaptata, sicut quando inducunt illud virgilii talia pendebat memorans, fixusque manebat hoc enim adaptatum est de christo; et tunc illud ut adimpleretur, debet sic exponi, quasi diceret evangelista: et hoc potest adaptari. contra quod lc. ult., 44: oportet impleri omnia quae scripta sunt in lege moysi, et prophetis, et psalmis de me.

[xiii] Morard locates the reference in Saint Jerome, Epistola LIII, 7, 2-3, to Paulinus of Nola, which, he notes, was variously transmitted through the tradition of the Vulgate manuscripts and the glosses.  See “Une Source,” pp. 32-33.  Morard is aware of Smalley’s reading, though he does not advert to it’s specifics.

[xiv] Jerome, Epistola LIII, 7, 2-3, (CSEL 54, pp. 453-454):  [...] Qui si forte ad scripturas sanctas post saeculares litteras venerint [...] quicquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant nec scire dignantur, quid prophetae, quid apostoli senserint, sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia, quasi grande sit et non vitiosissimum dicendi genus depravare sententias et ad voluntatem suam scripturam trahere repugnantem.  Quasi non legerimus Homerocentonas et Vergiliocentonas ac non sic etiam Maronem sine Christo possimus dicere christianum, quia scripserit [...] verba Salvatoris in cruce:  talia perstabat memorans fixusque manebat.  Puerilia sunt haec et circulatorum ludo similia. [...]  Jerome’s use of the verbs aptant and trahere (almost 200 years before the controversies prompting the Consitutum Vigilii and the Collatio IV) might well have signaled to Thomas the analogy he perceives between the act of adapting Virgil and the way Theodore understood the Evangelists’ act of adapting the Old Testament prophecies.  See Morard, “Une Source,” p. 32.

[xv] Super Matthaeum, cp. 1, lc. 5, (Marietti no. 148): [...] contra quod lc. ult., 44: oportet impleri omnia quae scripta sunt in lege moysi, et prophetis, et psalmis de me. [...]  et sciendum quod in veteri testamento aliqua sunt quae referuntur ad christum, et de eo solo dicuntur, sicut illud ecce virgo in utero concipiet, et pariet filium, is. vii, 14; et illud ps. xxi, 2: deus, deus meus, respice in me, quare me dereliquisti? etc.. et si quis alium sensum litteralem poneret, esset haereticus, et haeresis damnata est.

[xvi]Super Psalmos,  Prologus:  beatus ergo hieronymus super ezech. tradidit nobis unam regulam quam servabimus in psalmis: scilicet quod sic sunt exponendi de rebus gestis, ut figurantibus aliquid de christo vel ecclesia. ut enim dicitur 1 cor. 10: omnia in figura contingebant illis. prophetiae autem aliquando dicuntur de rebus quae tunc temporis erant, sed non principaliter dicuntur de eis, sed inquantum figura sunt futurorum: et ideo spiritus sanctus ordinavit quod quando talia dicuntur, inserantur quaedam quae excedunt conditionem illius rei gestae, ut animus elevetur ad figuratum.  et ideo spiritus sanctus ordinavit quod quando talia dicuntur, inserantur quaedam quae excedunt conditionem illius rei gestae, ut animus elevetur ad figuratum.  sicut in daniele multa dicuntur de anthioco in figuram antichristi: unde ibi quaedam leguntur quae non sunt in eo completa, implebuntur autem in antichristo; sicut etiam aliqua de regno david et salomonis leguntur, quae non erant implenda in talium hominum regno, sed impleta fuere in regno christi, in cujus figura dicta sunt: sicut psal. 71: deus judicium etc. qui est secundum titulum de regno david et salomonis; et aliquid ponit in eo quod excedit facultatem ipsius, scilicet, orietur in diebus ejus justitia et abundantia pacis, donec auferatur luna: et iterum, dominabitur a mari usque ad mare, et a flumine usque ad terminos etc.. exponitur ergo psalmus iste de regno salomonis, inquantum est figura regni christi, in quo omnia complebuntur ibi dicta.

[xvii] Thomas often supports the general principal with a reference to 1 Corinthians 10, 11: Omnia in fugura contingebant illis.  See, for example, Secunda Secundae, q. 104, a. 2, c. Super ad Hebraeos 1, 5, articulates this general principle with the phrase [...] quaedam vero etiam secundum quod sunt homines quidam, et istorum dicta de ipsis possunt exponi et de christo; sicut illud: deus, iudicium tuum regi da: quia illud potest convenire salomoni. 

[xviii] It is worth noting that an inquiry into the presence of the two lemma Hieronymus and Ezechiel in Busa.  Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia cum hypertextibus in CD-ROM, secunda editio,  (Milano:  Editoria Elettronica Editel, 1996) does not yield any other reference by Thomas to Jerome on Ezekiel. Yet, numerous references to Jerome on Hosea, in matter closely related to the issue at hand can be found.

[xix] See note 16 above for the Latin.

[xx] See in Quodlibetum VII, q. 6, a. 1, ad 5, a specific text from Jerome on Hosea is referenced. See also the presence of this text from Jerome in Prima Secundae, q. 102, a. 2, c.

[xxi] Jerome, In Osee Prophetam, I, i, 3.4; CCL, 76, p. 10, lines. 148-152:  Prophetae sic multa post saecula de aduentu Christi et uocatione gentium pollicentur, ut praesens tempus non neglegant, ne concionem ob aliud conuocatam non docere de his quae stant, sed de incertis ac futuris ludere uideantur. [...].  De Margerie, writing in a broader context about Jerome’s exegetical approach, finds a similarly expressed principle in Jerome’s in Malachi, 1, 10; PL 25, 1551 B.  See The Latin Fathers, pp. 140-141. 

[xxii]The reference to Saint Jerome here, I think, is the one Thomas is thinking of in articulating the Rule of Jerome in the Psalms commentary. Quodlibetum VII, q. 6, a. 1, ad 5:  ad quintum dicendum, quod auctor principalis sacrae scripturae est spiritus sanctus, qui in uno verbo sacrae scripturae intellexit multo plura quam per expositores sacrae scripturae exponantur, vel discernantur. nec est etiam inconveniens quod homo, qui fuit auctor instrumentalis sacrae scripturae, in uno verbo plura intelligeret: quia prophetae, ut hieronymus dicit super osee, ita loquebantur de factis praesentibus, quod etiam intenderunt futura significare. unde non est impossibile simul plura intelligere, in quantum unum est figura alterius

[xxiii]In Psalmum 21, introduction:  sicut supra dictum est, sicut in aliis prophetis, ita hic agitur de aliquibus tunc praesentibus inquantum erant figura christi et quae ad ipsam prophetiam pertinebant. et ideo quandoque ponuntur aliqua quae ad christum pertinent, quae excedunt quasi virtutem historiarum. Et inter alia specialiter iste Psalmus agit de passione Christi. Et ideo hic est ejus sensus litteralis. Unde specialiter hunc Psalmum in passione dixit cum clamavit, Heli Heli lammasabactani: quod idem est quod Deus Deus meus etc. sicut hic Psalmus incipit. Et ideo licet figuraliter hic Psalmus dicatur de David, tamen specialiter ad litteram refertur ad Christum. Et in synodo Toletana quidam Theodorus Mopsuestenus, qui hunc ad litteram de David exponebat, fuit damnatus, et propter hoc et propter alia multa; et ideo de Christo exponendus est. Sciendum est autem quod quinque Psalmi agunt de passione Christi prolixe: quorum iste Psalmus primus est. Alii enim brevius tangunt passionem Christi. Secundus est, judica domine nocentes me, Ps. 34. Tertius est, ibi, exaudi Deus orationem meam, et ne despexeris deprecationem meam. Quartus, Ps. 68: salvum me fac Deus, quoniam intraverunt aquae. Quintus, Ps. 108: Deus laudem meam ne tacueris. Et hoc propter quinque plagas Christi: vel propter quinque effusiones sanguinis. Et unus est modus procedendi in omnibus, quia incipiunt a gemitu, et terminantur in salutem populorum: quia ex passione facta est salus omnibus hominibus. 

[xxiv] Ratzinger “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict: On the Foundations and Itinerary of Exegesis Today”, in Opening up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation edited by Josë Granados, Carlos Granados, Luis Sánchez-Navarro (Eerdmans, 2008). Electronic format, pos 466: “When things have reached their goal, one can discover cover the true sense that so to say lay hidden in them. This sense appearing at the end of the movement transcends whatever sense might be inferred from any given section of the now completed path. "This new sense thus presupposes the existence of a divine Providence, the existence of a (salvation) history arriving at its destination."" God's action thus appears as the principle of the intelligibility of history. The unifying principle of the whole of past and present "history, which alone confers sense on it, is, however, ever, the historical event of Christ.”

[xxv] See Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, q. 1, a. 10.


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