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The Senses Of Scripture

January 17, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 2

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that the spiritual sense of interpreting Sacred Scripture can be subdivided into three senses: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Last week, we discussed the allegorical sense in some detail and found that through its use, as expressed by the Catechism, “we can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ” (n. 115). The specific historical event cited as an example of the application of this interpretative technique was the recognition of the hidden, deeper meaning of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites during their flight from Egypt. In light of the coming of Christ, this Old Testament event can be seen “as a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism” (CCC, n. 115).
We also examined the closely related exegetical science of typology, “which discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what He accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of His incarnate Son” (CCC, n. 128). Now, we will examine the moral and anagogic senses of scriptural interpretation.
The moral (or tropological) sense of biblical interpretation, as its name implies, is that which pertains to our moral life; it is the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture that deals with acting justly. In his Summa Theologiae (STh), St. Thomas Aquinas explains the moral sense as follows: “So far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense” (STh, I, Q. 1, art. 1). And St. Paul alludes to how Scripture accomplishes this: by recording events, “written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11), that give us guiding principles for how to live virtuous and upright lives. Fr. John Hardon, SJ, explains the moral sense of a biblical event as one that “teaches us a lesson for our spiritual life” (The Faith, p. 32).
When interpreting in the moral sense, scriptural exegetes attempt to determine how the sacred text, literally and figuratively, provides the faithful with instructions and guidelines on how to live their day-to-day lives in a way that actualizes holiness, or love of God and love of neighbor. As such, just as the allegorical sense works to build up the theological virtue of faith, the moral sense works to build up the virtue of charity.
It is unmistakable that some teachings in Sacred Scripture clearly refer to the moral life. For example, the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue), as handed down to Moses (see Exodus 20:1-17 and Deut. 5:6-22), leave no doubt as to their moral imperative — specific, unambiguous behaviors incumbent upon faithful followers of Christ are explicitly stated. However, anyone who refers to a thorough guide for examining their conscience as they prepare to receive the Sacrament of Penance can’t help but recognize that much more is implied by each commandment than is contained in the written biblical word. When considered in light of other teachings and parables in Sacred Scripture and the natural law that is written on our hearts, use of the moral sense of interpretation will readily identify many additional moral points that correspond to virtuous (or vicious) behavior.
Many accounts in Sacred Scripture teach moral lessons in a more figurative manner. For example, consider the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. Who can miss the moral teaching implied by the eternal end arrived at by the rich man, “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” as compared to that of Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table”? Or the moral teaching contained in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray (see Luke 18:9-14)? The moral maxim that follows the parable is self-explanatory: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The example of interpreting with the moral sense given by Fr. Hardon in his book The Faith is as follows: “Abraham’s faith teaches us the obligation to believe in Christ” (p. 32).
The anagogical (or eschatological) sense of biblical interpretation refers to the future — to the afterlife and our final end. St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this sense as follows: “So far as [the words of Sacred Scripture] signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense” (STh, I, Q. 1, art. 1). And as Fr. Hardon puts it, this sense applies “when realities or events have a meaning for eternity” (The Faith, p. 32). The Catechism refers to a verse in the Book of Revelation to demonstrate this sense: “And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). The anagogical sense can be viewed as pertaining to the “last four things”: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Since it is forward-pointing and applies to our eternal destiny, this spiritual sense can be seen as corresponding to the theological virtue of hope.
But to fully comprehend the deeper, hidden meaning given by the spiritual sense of Scripture, there is an indispensable requirement that far outweighs learning, intelligence, or effort, and that is the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit.
The third-century Scripture scholar Origen expressed this requisite condition as follows: “The Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most….The spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge” (De Principiis, Preface, n. 8).
Having examined each of the four interpretative senses as outlined in the Catechism, it is important also to recognize that accurate interpretation cannot be gained by using individual senses autonomously; to discern the true meaning intended by the Holy Spirit, all must be considered together. Dr. Scott Hahn expresses this interpretative principle as follows: “In exegesis, we distinguish the four senses, not to separate them, but to unite them in the integral meaning of the text. Indeed, the literal and spiritual senses are inseparable and interdependent….Only if we see the literal and spiritual senses together can we discern the unity and integrity of the divinely intended meaning of the Scriptures” (Scripture Matters, pp. 53-54).
And Pope John Paul II called attention to this same standard: “One should not underestimate the danger inherent in seeking to derive the truth of Sacred Scripture from the use of one method alone, ignoring the need for a more comprehensive exegesis which enables the exegete, together with the whole Church, to arrive at the full sense of the texts” (Fides et Ratio, n. 55).
Before leaving this topic, it would be good to affirm that faith and reason work together in faithful interpretation of Scripture. Pope John Paul II, in his 1993 address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (at which time he was presented with The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church), stated that magisterial documents regarding biblical exegesis “reject a split between the human and the divine, between scientific research and respect for the faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. They thus appear to be in perfect harmony with the mystery of the Incarnation” (n. 5).
And as emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI in the foreword of his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, a prior act of faith is indispensable for all interpretative work. His starting point, as it must be for all authentic interpreters of Sacred Scripture, is a firm conviction and trust in the Resurrected Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels (cf. p. xxi).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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