The Literal Sense and the Senses of Scripture

Authored by: Gerard Loughlin

The Routledge Companion to the Practice of Christian Theology

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415617369
eBook ISBN: 9781315724799
Adobe ISBN: 9781317532026


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St Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously said that he knew what ‘time’ was until someone asked him about it. For then, on enquiry, the meaning of time slipped away, its nature becoming ever more perplexing and unreal. 1 Augustine admitted to such ignorance in his Confessions of 397–98, and his subsequent meditation on temporality occurs in the course of reflecting on the story of the world’s beginning in the book of Genesis. ‘Let me hear and understand’ – he beseeches God – ‘the meaning of the words: In the beginning you made heaven and earth.’ 2 He implores to know their meaning – not their literal meaning, but just their meaning. If Moses were still around, Augustine would ‘lay hold of him … and beg and beseech him to explain those words’. We might have given up thinking that Moses wrote Genesis, and we might suppose that the meaning of the text is its ‘literal sense’. But we might also have to admit, as does Augustine of time, that we know what the literal sense means until someone asks us to explain it.

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