PIUS XII 1939-1958

The Literal and Mystical Sense of Holy Scripture *

[From the same Encyclical, “Divino afflante Spiritu,”, September 30, 1943]


2293 Well equipped with a knowledge of ancient languages and with the help of critical scholarship, let the Catholic exegete approach that task which of all those imposed upon him is the highest, namely, to discover and set forth the true meaning of the Sacred Scriptures. In this work let interpreters keep in mind that their greatest care should be to discern and define what the so-called literal sense of the language of the Bible is. Let them bring out this literal meaning of the words with all diligence through a knowledge of languages, employing the aid of the context and of comparison with similar passages; indeed, all these are customarily used for assistance in the interpretation of profane writers also, so that the mind of the author may become quite clear. Moreover, let the exegetes of Sacred Scriptures, mindful of the fact that they are dealing with the divinely inspired word, no less diligently take into account the explanations and declarations of the magisterium of the Church, and likewise the explanation given by the Holy Fathers, and also the “analogy of faith,” as Leo XIII in the Encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus, very wisely notes.* Indeed, let them see to this with special zeal, that they explain not only those matters which are of concern to history, archaeology, philology, and other such disciplines as we grieve to say is done in certain commentaries, but, after bringing in such matters opportunely, insofar as they can contribute to exegesis, point out especially what is the theological doctrine on matters of faith and morals in the individual books and texts, so that this explanation of theirs may not only help teachers of theology to set forth and confirm the dogmas of faith, but also be of assistance to priests in clarifying Christian doctrine to the people, and finally serve all the faithful to lead holy lives worthy of a Christian.


When they have given such an interpretation, especially, as we have said, theological interpretation, let them effectively silence those who assert that with difficulty do they find anything by way of Biblical commentary to raise the mind to God, nourish the soul, and promote the interior life, and declare that recourse must be had to a certain spiritual and so-called mystical interpretation. How far from rightly they profess this the experience of many shows, who frequently considering and meditating upon the word of God, perfect their souls, and are moved by a strong love toward God; and this is clearly proved by the everlasting institution of the Church and the admonitions of the most eminent Doctors. Surely, all spiritual meaning is not excluded from Sacred Scripture. For what was said and done in the Old Testament, was most wisely so ordered and disposed by God that past events in a spiritual manner presignified what would take place in the new covenant of grace. So the exegete, just as he should find and expound the so-called literal significance of the words, which the sacred writer intended and expressed, so also he should the spiritual significance, provided it can be rightly established that it was given by God. For God alone could know this spiritual significance and reveal it to us. Indeed, the divine Savior Himself indicates such a sense to us in the Holy Gospels and teaches us; the apostles, also, imitating the example of the Master, in speaking and writing profess this; so does the teaching handed down by the Church; finally, the ancient practice of the liturgy declares, wherever that famous pronouncement can rightly be applied: The law of praying is the law of believing. So, let Catholic exegetes make clear and set forth this spiritual sense, intended and ordained by God Himself, with that diligence which the dignity of the divine Word demands; but let them beware religiously lest they proclaim other transferred meanings of things as the genuine sense of Sacred Scripture.


Denzinger Menu