Literal and Spiritual (still more)

Okay, so here’s how I see it. Now that I’ve thought about it, I realise that all I’m doing is re-phrasing Hans Frei’s work on the sensus literalis – and, indeed, stuff I’ve said about him already – but, hey, originality is overrated.

Let’s say that the Bible is read within some weave of ecclesial practices, habits, institutions, worldview, ethos. Within that, over time, for readers thoroughly woven in to that context, there will be an ‘obvious’ way of approaching biblical texts – a sensus communis or ‘plain sense’.

Note that this ‘obvious way’

  • will almost certainly be slowly evolving;
  • won’t necessarily cover all biblical texts – simply those which feel most familiar and usable to this group;
  • won’t necessarily lead to consensus about meaning: it might, instead, simply be a consensus about the kind of argument it makes sense to have about the meaning of a particular passage in this group;
  • will shade off into other plain senses at the edges as this group is messily mixed in with other groups in a wider social setting; and
  • may, in fact, not be a single ‘plain sense’ at all, but a set of differing approaches to the Bible which manage, at least temporarily in this setting, to reinforce one another – to be held in some kind of stable equilibrium.

Now, it is only within such a practice that we can talk about ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ readings – because the practices by which the Bible is approached in this ‘obvious way’/’plain sense’ will be such that the Bible is both made grist for the group’s mill, sustaining and supporting its existing shape, and also in some ways (perhaps only vestigial) allowed a certain objectivity over against the needs, desires and projects of the group. And so we’re back to ‘use’ and ‘resistance to use’, and so to my earlier discussion. The term ‘literal sense’ can be used to mean either ‘plain sense’ simpliciter, or ‘that side of the plain sense that stands in objectivity over against the readers’.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation