May 28, 2011

The Four Senses of Scripture

In my last post, I briefly covered the Pope's "fundamental criteria" for reading Sacred Scripture as more than a stand-alone, dead, historical text. At the end of the first section of Verbum Domini, the Holy Father also talks about the counsel's biblical hermeneutic. "On the one hand, the Council emphasizes the study of literary genres and historical context... on the other hand... Scripture is being interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written..." Here, the Pope is talking about historical-critical exegesis and what he calls theological exegesis. This theological exegesis goes beyond critical analysis of the historical events, composition, and style of the Biblical books.

Beyond the literal sense of Scripture - the actual events recorded - there is a spiritual sense "subdivided into three senses which deal with the contents of the faith, with the moral life, and with our eschatalogical aspiration." These are often called the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. These senses allow us to take the literal sense that looks back at the past and apply it to present and future meaning.

The allegorical sense helps us understand our faith and how everything is Christocentric (Christ-centered). Jesus Himself teaches with the allegorical sense. For example, He describes the three days He'll spend in the tomb by comparison to the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale (____, ____). Jesus takes an Old Testament story that does not directly refer to Him and shows how it applies to Him or helps us better understand what He has done.

The moral sense is also aimed at the present. In particular, it focuses ther eading of Scripture on our present actions. when we read in the moral sense, we take lessons from Scripture and use them to guide the formation of our conscience and the daily choices we make. We may never be in exactly the same situation as Sts. Peter, or Paul, or Stephen - or even Judas - but we can relate to the overall sense of the situations they were in. We may never have stood beside a charcoal fire and asked if we know Christ, but we've surely been challenged to serve our own interests before serving Christ. We have all had our faith scoffed at. "Surely, you don't believe *that*?" We have probably never been asked to step out of a boat and walk on water, but each of us *has* been challenged by the Spirit to take a leap of faith.

The anagogical sense, lastly, looks to the future and our ultimate destiny. Sacred Scripture tells us about Heaven directly, by parable, and by analogy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church briefly describes these four senses in paragraphs 115-119. If you'd like to read more, Catholics United for the Faith has an article called "Making Sense Out of Scripture: the Four Best Kept Secrets in Biblical Studies Today". You can also read Dr. Sri's book, The Bible Compass or Mark Shea's Making Senses Out of Scripture.

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