Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Four Senses of Scripture

Catholic scriptural hermeneutics from ancient times have consistently distinguished between two senses of scripture: the literal sense, which involves the literal or historical sense of the words on the written page, and the spiritual sense, which looks at the meaning beyond the words written by the sacred authors. This second sense is divided into three subordinate senses: the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. In total, the biblical scholar has four senses by which he or she can interpret Sacred Scripture. Distinct senses of scripture have been described as far back as the second century in the work of Origen, and later in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

While each of the fathers treated scripture in both literal and spiritual fashions, each demonstrated a different understanding of the senses and relied in varying degrees on one sense or the other. A predilection for the grammatico-historical sense, as A.J. Maas points out, was typical of the Antiochene hermeneutical school,[1] while Origen, representing the Alexandrian school, seemed to rely more on the spiritual sense of scripture. Origen applied Plato’s three-fold distinction to the senses—body, soul, and spirit:[2] “For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture, which has been arranged to be given by God for the salvation of men.”[3] The “body” corresponds the letter or the literal sense, while the “soul” represents the moral and the “spirit,” the allegorical and anagogical.[4] Augustine’s divisions—history, analogy, allegory, and etiology—do not correspond as neatly to the four senses as do Origen’s. In Augustine’s own words,

It is a matter of history when deeds done—whether by men or by God—are reported. It is a matter of allegory when things spoken in figures are understood. It is a matter of analogy, when the conformity of the Old and New Testaments is shown. It is a matter of etiology when the causes of what is said or done are reported.[5]

St. Jerome, as Pope Pius X noted in Spiritus Paraclitus, emphasized the importance of the literal sense of scripture as the ground of interpretation.[6] Nonetheless, St. Jerome’s letter to Paulinus included clear references to allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of scripture,[7] even if he made no specific mention of those categories.

While the early Church fathers understood these different senses of scripture in varying degrees, the four senses found their most clear definition during the scholastic period. These four senses were summarized in a well-known couplet in Latin by Augustine of Denmark:

Littera geta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogica…

or as the U.S. English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church renders it,

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.[9]

St. Thomas outlined the four senses in article 10 of question 1 in the first part of Summa Theologica, making reference to Augustine’s four senses and affirming the acceptability of multiple, nonconflicting senses in Sacred Scripture:

Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.[10]

Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points us, in sections 115 through 119, to the richness of Catholic Tradition, which supports and reaffirms the perennial practice of the faithful in these four senses proposed for our hermeneutical use.

The literal sense is also referred to as the historical sense. This sense refers to the meaning of the words of scripture themselves, as opposed to extended metaphor, allegorical meaning, or an otherwise purely symbolic sense that can be taken from written narratives. While common usage would seem to suggest that the literal meaning is simply the meaning of an utterance as we understand it in plain language, this understanding is not correct. The “literal sense” refers instead to the meaning of a passage as immediately intended by the sacred author.[11] Fully understanding this literal sense requires several capacities not common to the average reader of scripture: knowledge of the original languages in which scripture was written, sufficient knowledge of the cultural context in which a book of scripture was written, and sufficient historical and archaeological evidence to inform one’s inquiries. For this reason, Pius XII rightly acknowledged, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, the necessity of the proper use of “history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences, in order to discover what literary forms the writers of those early ages intended to use and did in fact use.”[12] His predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, stressed the importance of going to the original texts as well. Reiterating St. Jerome, he noted that “all interpretation rests on the literal sense, and that we are not to think that there is no literal sense merely because a thing is said metaphorically, for ‘the history itself is often presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively.’”[13]

While the literal sense often admits figurative or metaphorical language, the meaning remains that which was intended by the human author. The spiritual senses go beyond the intentions of the human author and reflect the wisdom of the Divine Author. The spiritual sense is divided into three senses: allegorical, which consists of types or figures that find their parallels in the revealed truth of Christ; the moral or tropological, which treats the claims that scripture makes on us as Christians; and the anagogical, which points heavenward to transcendent truth and our eternal destiny.

The allegorical sense includes those matters of parallel narrative, parabolic content, prefiguration, or typological imagery that fulfills the Old Testament in the New and reveals the New Testament in the Old. As with the other spiritual senses, the allegorical sense uses a sign that points to a signified, usually but not always Jesus Christ. For example, Moses is frequently viewed as a type or figure of Christ, one who has led his people from captivity, through a baptismal crossing of the Red Sea to a promised land. Likewise, David is the King of Israel in all his human imperfection. However, he points to the true King of the Jews, the coming messiah, Jesus. Other Old Testament figures find parallels in the New Testament. Eliakim, the steward in Isaiah 22: 20–23, prefigures Peter in Matthew 16:18–19. The Passover of the Israelites prefigures the Paschal sacrifice of Our Lord. In every figure, the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament and affirms the truth of Christ. For this reason, the allegorical sense corresponds to the theological virtue of faith,[14] as it reveals Christ in the history of the Chosen People.

The moral or tropological sense addresses matters, here and now, of right behavior and of application to Christian life. When interpreting the moral sense, theologians are attempting to determine how scripture tells people to live their lives. While many readers of the Bible might focus on scripture’s overt moral teachings in, say, the Decalogue, other teachings are present in a more figurative way. For example, Christ’s parables frequently teach lessons about behavior toward a neighbor, as in the stories of the good Samaritan and of Lazarus and the rich man. In other cases, a parable contrasts those behaviors that are pleasing to God to those that are not. The parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as the Pharisee and the tax collector are good examples of these. The Epistles of Paul present us with many tropological images: the body as a temple in 1 Corinthians 6, or the Christian life as a race in 1 Corinthians 9 and Hebrews 12. The moral sense reveals to the Christian what Christ means in Matthew 22: 37–40:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

It is no wonder, then, that this sense corresponds with the theological virtue of love.[15] Ultimately, all of the ten commandments reflect back on these two commandments of love.

The third of the spiritual senses is the anagogical. The anagogical sense is that which points to matters of Heaven and the afterlife or of spiritual realities that transcend earthly existence. While the allegorical sense points to Christ revealed in the Old Testament, and the tropological points to day to day Christian living, the anagogical points to those ends to which Christians aspire. The resurrection of Christ extends to us the promise of bodily resurrection in the end, as Catholics profess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. The healing that Christ offers to the sick and infirm in the gospels points to the ultimate healing and freedom of the faithful from the bonds of sin and death, ultimately an undoing of what the first man caused in his disobedience. In this looking forward, the Christian engages in contemplation of eternal, Heavenly realities. The anagogical compels the believer to seek an experience of God here and now, as well as in the life to come. It is forward pointing, thus corresponding to the theological virtue of hope.[16]

While the literal sense of scripture emphasizes the specific, immediate meaning of the human author, the spiritual sense looks at the meaning of each passage in the context of the whole.[17] It is no surprise, then, to find resonances at many levels. The Lamb of God at the last supper has both allegorical and anagogical representations in the historical Passover lamb of Exodus 12, and the eternal slain lamb of Revelations 5. Catholics live this reality daily in the sacrifice of the Mass. Christ’s healing of the sick and infirm in the gospels points forward to the healing of the Christian faithful from the sickness and death of sin, as well as the healing Catholics gain through the sacrament of reconciliation. All the while, Christ as the new Adam points allegorically back to the first Adam, through whom all humanity became subject to sin and death. Where a single literal sense of scripture might theoretically have an interpretive endpoint, the four senses provide an interplay and dynamism that ensure a scripture of replenishment, a well of inspiration that never runs dry, a source of renewal and instruction that enlightens the first and the last of the faithful, and an inexhaustible source of truth for Christ’s Church.

[1] A.J. Maas, “Biblical Exegesis,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, <>. 17 March 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Origen, De Principiis, from Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, <>. 17 March 2007.

[4] Robert L. Bradshaw, “Origen of Alexandria,”, <>. 17 March 2007.

[5] Saint Augustine, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees; And, on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, an Unfinished Book (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990) 147, Questia, <>. 17 March 2007.

[6] Pius X, Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920, <>. 17 March 2007.

[7] Jerome, The Principal Works of St. Jerome, 8, <>, 17 March 2007.

[8] “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 23, 1993 <>. 17 March 2007.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995) 39.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, <>. 17 March 2007.

[11] Maas, <>.

[12] Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943. <>, 17 March 2007, 35.

[13] Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920, <>, 17 March 2007, 51.

[14] Marcelino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture #5: Senses of Scripture and Hermeneutics,” <>. 17 March 2007.

[15] D’Ambrosio, <>.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.
Post a Comment