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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Read with Luther, literally

He calls attention to the words of the Bible and what they mean

Modern Bible readers fall on a spectrum of beliefs — from accepting that every event in the Bible happened as recorded to considering them as moral tales. Today the term “literalism” applies to the view that biblical events can be verified by history and science. Older literalists like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther hold a different sense of the literal.

By the Middle Ages reading the Bible followed the fourfold method of the quadriga, consisting of the three spiritual senses and the literal, which adds to the three spiritual senses to determine the complex levels of reading and interpreting the Bible.

The three spiritual senses dominate much of the history of the interpretation of the Bible. From time to time the literal sense varies in meaning and in importance. For instance, Augustine understands the literal sense to be love. He thinks clear passages teach love and, through the use of the spiritual senses, obscure passages teach love. Aquinas sees the literal as the meaning God intends in the text. He separates the literal from the historical, believing the historical to be the work of human authors.


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