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The Senses Of Scripture

June 21, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Last week’s installment introduced the two main senses which the Church’s Magisterium instructs are to be used for faithful interpretation of Sacred Scripture: the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The spiritual sense can be subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses; thus, the senses of Scripture are classically referred to as fourfold. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains: “The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church” (CCC, n. 115). We ended by embarking on an explanation of the literal sense, which according to St. Thomas Aquinas is the foundation of all the senses of Sacred Scripture.
When one interprets the literal sense of Scripture, he is seeking to discover what the human author intends to convey with his written words. Fr. John Hardon, SJ, explains that the literal sense is, once again, twofold: “The precise literal sense is that which the written words have in their own exact meaning, like the narrative of the Passion. The literal figurative sense is the meaning expressed in a metaphor, as when Christ is spoken of as a lamb, or a lion, or a vine” (The Faith, p. 32). The historical context, then, in which the words were written, plays a key role in their accurate interpretation.
An interpretative approach that has emerged and been quite popular among biblical scholars and scriptural exegetes for the past several decades, and which would be classified under the umbrella of the “literal sense” of Scripture, is the historical-critical methodology (HCM). As expressed in the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (IBC), “the historical-critical method, as its name suggests, is particularly attentive to the historical development of texts or traditions across the passage of time” (Intro-A) and “is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient text” (I-A). However, as Pope Benedict XVI warns in his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (JoN), caution must be observed — it cannot be used in isolation.
The Holy Father clearly asserts that the HCM “is an indispensable tool” in the interpretative task, but that “its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit” (JoN, p. xvi). In other words, it takes one only so far in the interpretative task in that it is not intrinsically open to transcending the human word. The “deeper” meaning of Sacred Scripture is inherently beyond what the scientific, analytical HCM can address. Used in isolation, the method presents a real danger of separating the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith,” who is one and the same figure according to the faith we profess.
Real seekers of the truth, those who see the inspired Word of God in the unity of the Bible as a whole, must be open to the complementarity of other methods. As expressed by Pope Benedict, “the four senses of Scripture are not individual meanings side by side, but dimensions of the one word that reaches beyond the moment [in history]” (JoN, p. xx).
As we now proceed to examine the spiritual sense of Scripture, an analogy put forth by Dr. Scott Hahn superbly expresses its relationship to the literal sense: “What the soul is to the body, the spiritual sense is to the literal. You can distinguish the two; but if you try to separate them, death follows….As St. Augustine taught, the literal sense without the spiritual is not only dead, but deadly” (Scripture Matters, pp. 1-2). The spiritual sense of Scripture, then, expresses its deeper or hidden meaning. As taught by Fr. Hardon, “The spiritual or mystical sense is not in the words themselves but as suggested by the things signified by the words” (The Faith, p. 32).
The significance of the four senses and how they interrelate is summarized in n. 118 of the Catechism by a medieval couplet:
“The Letter [Literal] speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;/ The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”
The allegorical sense, as indicated in the couplet, works to build up the virtue of faith. It comes into play “when some account in the Bible refers to a doctrine of the faith. For example, the story of Jonah refers to Christ’s burial and Resurrection” (The Faith, p. 32). It was the predominant sense of biblical interpretation used by the Early Church Fathers. It is used to unveil the hidden spiritual and prophetic meaning of Sacred Scripture and provides a means for finding meaning for obscure and seemingly inconsistent passages of the Bible. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, gives a scriptural example of the allegorical sense:
“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:22-26).
Closely related to the allegorical sense of Scripture is typology. Fr. Hardon defines scriptural type in his Modern Catholic Dictionary as “a biblical person, thing, action, or event that foreshadows new truths, new actions, or new events….A likeness must exist between the type and the archetype, but the latter is always greater.” What is distinctive about typological interpretation when contrasted to allegorical interpretation is that it maintains a greater respect for the strict literal sense of the text.
Along with his definition, Fr. Hardon gives some examples of typology: “In the Old Testament, Melchizedech and Jonah are types of Jesus Christ; God’s call for the return of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s bondage typifies the return of Jesus Christ from His flight into Egypt; in the New Testament the destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Christ, was the antitype of the end of the world.” Another example is the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites which is seen as a type of Baptism.
Scripture itself speaks of Adam as a type of Jesus in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the One who was to come” (Romans 5:14).

A Little Cloud

An excellent illustration of this interpretative method was given in the homily at daily Mass on the very day I composed this article. Recall the account from the First Book of Kings about the multi-year drought that descended upon the land during the reign of King Ahab (see 1 Kings 17-18). On Mount Carmel, the Prophet Elijah sent his servant seven times to “look toward the sea . . . and on the seventh time, [his servant] said, ‘Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising out of the sea’” (1 Kings 18:43-44).
The Early Church Fathers, especially in the Carmelite tradition, have long held that the little cloud was a foreshadowing of the Blessed Virgin Mary: It is seen as “a symbol of the Virgin Mary who by her divine motherhood brought new life and fruitfulness to an arid world. Like the cloud, Mary was born from the sea of sinful human nature, but even in her conception, she was free from all sin, even as the cloud was vaporous and clean” (Fr. Gabriel Barry, OCD, “The Blessed Mother,” II-G).
We’ll conclude our examination of the spiritual senses of scriptural interpretation in next week’s column by taking a close look at the moral and anagogical senses.

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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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