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One Text, Four Senses

Understanding the distinctions between the literal and spiritual senses of the Bible

The “four senses of Scripture” are important enough that they have their own section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 115–119), which provides a brief overview of them. It begins by noting:

“According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses” (CCC 115).

This is a rather confusing statement. It says that the four senses actually boil down to just two. It uses unfamiliar terms (what is anagogical supposed to mean?). And it uses terms different than other accounts of the four senses use (for example, some treatments refer to the spiritual sense as the “typical” sense).

The basic distinction, as the Catechism makes clear, is between the literal and spiritual senses of the text. The literal refers to what the human author directly intended the text to mean, while the spiritual refers to what additional meanings God invested in the text that the human author may not have been aware of.

The Literal Sense

The Catechism explains the literal sense by stating that it is “the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal’” (CCC 116, cf. ST I:1:10 ad 1).

The caution that all other senses are based on the literal is intended to exclude errors that have been committed in the history of biblical interpretation.

Some—to avoid problems caused by the apparent literal sense of some passages (such as when God commands the Israelites to kill Canaanites indiscriminately)—have tried to dismiss the literal sense as unimportant and only a vehicle for the spiritual sense, in which more palatable lessons can be seen. Others have proposed highly speculative allegorical interpretations that seem completely detached from the literal sense of the text and may even contradict it. Or sometimes so much attention is paid to the spiritual meaning of a passage that its literal sense is overlooked.

The Catechism thus calls attention to the primacy of the literal sense as the foundation of sound interpretation.

How is the literal sense discerned? What are “the rules of sound interpretation” to which the Catechism refers?

The starting point is the words of Scripture themselves. What do they say?

Here we have a problem. It is clear that people do not always mean what their words say. If I tell you to “roll out the red carpet” because of the imminent arrival of some V.I.P.s, I do not literally mean to unroll a carpet that is red. That phrase is an idiom that is not meant to be taken literally. You have to look beyond what my words themselves say in order to figure out what I mean.

The same thing happens in Scripture, as when the biblical authors refer to God’s power by speaking of “the arm of the Lord.” Apart from the Incarnation at least, God does not have an arm, yet this is a regular Old Testament idiom for God’s power.

Some interpreters—particularly in Fundamentalist Protestantism (which frequently opposes the idea that there is a spiritual sense of the text)—have a marked preference for verbally literal readings. Sometimes they suggest rules of interpretation such as “If the literal sense makes sense then seek no other sense.”

There is a significant degree of truth to this rule. Most of the time we do express ourselves literally, but this perception is not altogether reliable because the idioms of our native language are so second nature to us that we often use them without us or our listeners realizing that something non-literal has been said. The preceding sentence contains an example. None of us really have a “second nature,” but if you are a native English-speaker, you probably didn’t notice the metaphor.

The “if the literal sense makes sense” rule also is unreliable across cultures. Suppose you were from another culture and applied it to the English phrase “roll out the red carpet.” Would a literal reading “make sense” (and not be wildly implausible)? Yes, it would. People do sometimes roll out red carpets—which is why we have the idiom in the first place.

But applying the rule would lead you astray. You would conclude that more red carpets are being rolled out than is actually the case. The fact is that sentences often “make sense” when taken in a literal manner even though this sense does not capture what their author intended. To capture the latter, you need to be familiar with the culture of a people rather than just being able to translate its language.

Because ancient Israel had a different culture than ours, the “if the literal sense makes sense” rule is not always a reliable guide when dealing with the Bible. Further, since God can do anything, many things in the text might “make sense” when talking about God even though they would not make sense if we were talking about anybody else.

This is a regular problem for biblical interpreters. They will be reading along in the text and encounter something strange. “Is it a symbol, or is it a miracle?” they ask themselves. This may not be easy to answer, for when God is involved, things could happen that otherwise would be flagged as clear symbols.

Are the six days of creation really literal twenty-four-hour periods or a symbol of divine work, however long it took? Did Jesus really turn bread and wine into his body and blood, or is it just a figure? Did a great red dragon really sweep a third of the stars out of heaven with his tail, or does that symbolize something else? Are these symbols or miracles?

One cannot simply assume that they are all literal. Neither can one assume that they are all symbols, which is what liberals often do when the text reports something Christians historically have seen as miraculous. God does do miracles—the authors of the Bible recognized this—and you won’t figure out what they mean if you approach the texts expecting to see a symbol whenever something strange is recorded.

We must not prejudice the question one way or the other. We must pay attention to the faith and to try to learn how language was used at the time, in the tongues and cultures of the Bible, and then say to ourselves, “What did the author most likely intend when he said this?”

The Spiritual Sense

By definition, the spiritual sense of a text involves something more than what you could derive from a verbal reading of it. The spiritual sense is discerned by looking past the text itself to the people and events it records.

Thus the Catechism notes: “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117). In other words, the selection of certain things for inclusion in Scripture points toward other spiritual realities that are part of God’s plan.

The Catechism singles out the moral sense as one of the three traditional subdivisions of the spiritual sense and notes that “the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written ‘for our instruction’” (ibid., cf. 1 Cor. 10:11).

In 1 Corinthians 10:11, the apostle is discussing passages from the Pentateuch in which the Israelites sinned and were punished by God. He then says: “Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.”

Here, Paul recognizes what we (and the Catechism) would classify as the moral sense of the text—i.e., that we must not sin or we also are liable to be punished. This message goes beyond what the words of the text say, but it is nevertheless likely that the human author intended this very message to be understood by his readers (including his immediate readers, not just those “upon whom the end of the ages have come”).

Reading moral messages from Scripture can be tricky but is fairly non-controversial. The other two traditional divisions of the spiritual sense—the allegorical and the anagogical—are much more controversial. In these cases the meaning seems to go well beyond anything that the human author could be expected to envision. Yet New Testament authors such as Paul clearly draw out such meanings.

The early Christians inherited from late Judaism a tradition of seeing allegorical meanings in the pages of Scripture, meanings that went beyond what the words of the text themselves conveyed.

Paul provides one of the clearest examples of this in Galatians 4:21–31, where he draws an analogy between the Old and the New Covenants and Abraham’s wives Sarah and Hagar. The concubine Hagar was a slave, and Paul saw in her a fitting symbol of the bondage of the Old Covenant, while he found in Sarah, the free woman, a fitting symbol of the liberty of Christ.

The allegorical method of reading the Old Testament was common in contemporary Judaism, though even if it had not been, Paul’s use of it here would have been sufficient to cement its place in Christian biblical interpretation. He even uses the term allegory for what he is doing, saying “these things are allegorized” (Gal. 4:24, my translation).

Elsewhere, Paul finds Old Testament elements that are images of New Testament realities. For example, in Romans 5:14, he notes that Adam “was a type [Greek, tupos] of the one who was to come”—i.e., Christ. This contributed to the development in Christian biblical interpretation of typology, the study of Old Testament things (“types”) that could be seen as images of New Testament things (their “antitypes”).

If one were to read the text of Genesis and simply stick to what it says, he would not conclude that Adam is a foreshadowing of a future Christ. Neither would one conclude that Sarah and Hagar symbolize two covenants, neither of which had yet been made. Christians thus found themselves recognizing more than one sense in the sacred text—the sense of what the text itself says and a greater sense that goes beyond this.

The Catechism notes regarding the allegorical sense: “We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism” (CCC 117).

In cases like these, the Old Testament type in question (the crossing of the Red Sea) already has found its antitypes (Christ’s victory and baptism). In other cases biblical realities seem to be types of things for which the antitype has not yet come.

Thus the Catechism notes regarding the anagogical sense that “we can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem” (ibid.).

Because the allegorical and the anagogical senses both involve typology, it is tempting to see them as fundamentally the same kind of sense, a key difference between them being whether we are living before or after the antitype that the sign points toward.

This points to the fact that the division of the spiritual sense is, to some degree, arbitrary. There are other ways in which it could be divided. The literal sense also could be subdivided. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas considers a number of possible subdivisions for the literal sense (cf. ST I:1:10).

As we saw above, the Catechism stated that “according to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish” the four senses as we have them. It did not say that this is the only way to divide the meanings of Scripture. It is a traditional way of doing so, and a noteworthy and useful way of doing so (or else the Catechism wouldn’t mention it), but not the only one.

Yet this is not the main reason that the division is controversial.

Abuse of the Four Senses

A much more significant reason, particularly in Protestant circles, is the worry that accepting the allegorical and anagogical senses will lead to chaos. It is one thing when Paul or the authors of the Gospels draw out typological meanings from the Old Testament, but to many Protestants the prospect of allowing interpreters to draw out their own meanings is worrying. What limits would keep interpreters from drawing out all kinds of crazy meanings?

Catholics are in a better position. Free of the pressure created by sola scriptura to stick only to the meanings that can be drawn directly from the verbal sense of the text, and guided by limiting factors such as Tradition and the teaching of the magisterium, they have been more comfortable following the example of the apostles in seeking to discern the allegorical and anagogical meanings found in Scripture.

Still, Catholic use of spiritual exegesis has not been free of problems. In an exuberance to explore the spiritual sense of a text, Catholics sometimes see an abundance of meanings, some of which are quite dubious. Other times they operate under the assumption that, because tradition speaks of four senses to Scripture, each passage must have each of the four senses, but this is not easy to establish.

At times Catholic exegetes forget the concrete principles limiting the kind of spiritual interpretations that may be drawn. These principles include: (1) The literal sense must be recognized as the primary sense, (2) Proposed spiritual meanings may not contradict the literal sense, and (3) Spiritual meanings are not used to establish but only to illuminate doctrine.

Apologists in particular are in danger of forgetting the last principle, particularly on the subject of Mary. The reason, understandably, is that Marian doctrine is not explicit in Scripture but only alluded to. Out of a desire to provide explicit warrant for Marian teachings, apologists have a temptation to turn to the spiritual sense of various texts, sometimes placing so much emphasis on it that they lose sight of the literal sense of the passage.

Aquinas warned against situations like this. When considering the objection that a multiplicity of senses could cause confusion and destroy the force of theological argument, he replied: “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” (ST I:1:10 ad 1). Following him, Catholic exegetical tradition has recognized that doctrine can be founded only on the literal sense of a passage. The function of the spiritual sense is to illuminate doctrine but not to prove it.

Apologists would do well to remember this. If they dwell too much on the spiritual sense and present it as proof to non-believers, they run the risk of hampering their credibility. A better strategy is to admit the limits of what can be proven from the literal sense and simply recognize that not every article of the Christian faith can be proven from Scripture alone.

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