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Article Nine

Whether Sacred Doctrine should Use Metaphors

We proceed to the ninth article thus:

1. It seems that sacred doctrine should not use metaphors. What is fitting for lesser doctrines would appear to be inappropriate to this doctrine, which holds the supreme place among the sciences, as was said in the preceding article. Now to proceed by various similies and figures is fitting for poetry, the least of all doctrines. Hence this doctrine should not use metaphors.

2. Again, the purpose of this doctrine is, apparently, to explain the truth, since a reward is promised to those who explain it. “They who explain me shall have eternal life” (Ecclesiasticus 24:21). Now truth is obscured by metaphors. This doctrine should not, therefore, record divine things under the form of corporeal things.

3. Again, the more sublime are creatures, the greater their likeness to God. Hence if any of them are to be used in the manifestation of God, it ought to be the more sublime creatures especially—not the lowest, as is often the case in Scripture.

On the other hand: it is said in Hos. 12:10: “I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets.” Now to declare something by a similitude is to use a metaphor. The use of metaphors therefore befits sacred doctrine.

I answer: it is fitting that sacred Scripture should declare divine and spiritual things by means of material similies. God 47provides for all things according to the capacity of their nature, and it is natural for man to reach intelligible things through sensible things, since all his knowledge begins from sense. Hence spiritual things are appropriately given to us by Scripture in material metaphors. This is what Dionysius is saying in 2 Coel. Hier.: “It is impossible for the divine ray to lighten us unless it is shaded by a variety of sacred veils.” It is also appropriate that the sacred Scriptures which are given for all alike (“I am debtor . . . both to the wise and to the unwise,” Rom. 1:14), should expound spiritual things by means of material similitudes, so that simple people who cannot understand intelligible things as they are should at least be able to understand them in this way.

On the first point: poetry uses metaphors to depict, since men naturally find pictures pleasing. But sacred doctrine uses them because they are necessary and useful.

On the second point: as Dionysius says, the ray of divine revelation is not destroyed by the sensible images which veil it (2 Coel Hier.). It remains in its truth, not allowing the minds of men to rest in the images, but raising them to know intelligible things.77According to the De Adhaerendo Deo, of Albertus Magnus, the mind should strive to pass entirely beyond the images of sensible things in its contemplation of God. It seems to have been acknowledged, however, that the human mind cannot dispense with such images altogether. It instructs others also in intelligible things, through those to whom the revelation is made. Thus what is veiled by metaphor in one passage of Scripture is declared more explicitly in others. This veiling in metaphors is useful for stimulating the thoughtful, and useful also against unbelievers, of whom it is said in Matt. 7:6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs.”

On the third point: as Dionysius says, it is more fitting that Scripture should declare divine things in simple than in higher corporeal forms (2 Coel. Hier.). There are three reasons for this. First, the human mind is the more saved from error when it is abundantly plain that these forms are not a proper signification of divine things. This might be doubtful if divine things were described in terms of higher corporeal forms, especially with those who cannot think beyond higher corporeal things. Secondly, it is better suited to the knowledge of God which we have in this life. We know what God is not, better than we know what he is. Likenesses of things farther removed from him lead us to appreciate the more truly that God transcends 48whatever we say or think about him. Thirdly, divine things are the better hidden from the unworthy.


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