Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 12: The Four Senses of Scripture, Part II: The Spiritual Senses

Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese  
The Four Senses of Scripture, Part II:  The Spiritual Senses

     In the last post, we discussed the literal sense of a passage of Scripture.  Essentially, the literal sense is the obvious truth the words in the passage intend to convey.  In addition to this literal sense, and based upon it, is the spiritual sense of a passage.  The spiritual sense points to another, deeper meaning which is indicated by the events, people, or actions that the words describe.  Another way to say this is to say that the literal sense is what the words themselves describe (taking into account figurative language), and the spiritual sense is the deeper truths to which those described objects or actions point.  The spiritual sense is a more mystical dimension of meaning which is founded upon the literal sense.  This spiritual sense can be broken down into three separate aspects:  the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.  We will consider each of these separately.

Gregory the Great
Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.  Pope St. Gregory the Great

I.  The Allegorical Sense

The allegorical sense of a passage is also called the typological sense.  In this case, the objects, people, or events stand for other, more profound truths revealed elsewhere in Scripture:

The spiritual sense.  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.
1.  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

So, the words point to the objects and events, and the objects and events themselves are signs that point to other truths. Usually, this occurs in passages where an Old Testament person, object, or event has some fulfillment in the New Testament.

Return of the Prodigal Son, Guercino
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the main objects in the story are the characters of the wayward son, the forgiving Father, and the envious elder brother.  The allegorical sense of this parable is that the younger son signifies or represents the Gentile people, who have wandered far from the one True God, Who is their Creator and Father.  The father of the story of course represents God Himself Who longs for a relationship and communion with His son, and Who rejoices in the return of the Gentile sinners.  The elder brother here signifies the envious Jewish rulers, who were "elder" in the sense that the revelations of God came first to them.  Jesus is warning them with this parable to beware of their envy and admonishing them to rejoice with God in the return of the Gentiles to relationship with Him. 

Model of Herod's Temple
Objects can also stand for spiritual truths.  In our previous example of the building of the Temple, we noted that the literal sense was the truth that the Temple was historically built as a dwelling place for God.  The spiritual sense of the Temple is that it points forward to the body of Christ.  Now, this is not an obvious sign or type at all.  The reason we know this is one meaning of the Temple is that Christ Himself tells us:

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?"  But he spoke of the temple of his body.  When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.  Jn 2:19-22

When an event, object, or person in the Old Testament signifies or points forward to Christ Himself or to an element of the New Testament (such as baptism) in this allegorical way, we call it a "type", and the study of these "types" is called "typology".  As we study Scripture in the future, there will be many times when we discover in an Old Testament passage a "type" of a New Testament reality. I had originally planned a separate post on typology, but as I thought it over I decided it would be easier to understand when we can apply it to actual Scripture texts.

Our word "type" derives from the Latin "typus" which meant an image.  The "-ology" ending means "the study of".  So, "typology" is the "study of types".  The Merriam-Webster definition of type is "a person or thing (as in the Old Testament) believed to foreshadow another (as in the New Testament)."
To determine the allegorical sense, we could ask:
1.  What spiritual truths could the people or events in this passage represent?
2.  Are there other Scriptures that refer to this passage that might explain what the objects or people represent?
3.  What does the Tradition of the Church say about the allegorical meaning of this passage?
4.  Does this passage have a prophetic meaning which was fulfilled in the life, Passion, death, or resurrection of Christ?

Christ calling his apostles
One does need to be careful not to go too far afield in drawing out an allegorical meaning.  Sometimes Peter is just catching fish...not men!

II.  The Moral Sense

     The second kind of spiritual sense is the moral sense. St. Thomas Aquinas describes the moral sense as pertaining to what we ought to do:

...the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and...the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.  Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do.  Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense.  But so far as the things done in Christ, or which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense.

Now, our Parable of the Prodigal Son could also be considered to have a moral sense.  What is it we ought to do?  We ought to repent of our ingratitude and disregard for our Heavenly Father and turn back to serve Him.  For the building of the Temple, the moral sense might be that we ought to render to God just praise and thanksgiving.  When we are thinking about the moral sense, we might ask ourselves questions such as:
1.  What virtue does this passage illustrate?
2.  What vice ought I to avoid in light of this passage?
3.  Is there any righteous action modeled in this passage? (For example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we see modeled the righteous action of caring for the poor and for our enemy).

III.  The Anagogical Sense

Wedding Feast of the Lamb, Van Eyck
    The last spiritual sense is the anagogical sense.  The anagogical sense is the meaning of the passage as it relates to eternal glory, or to the final fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, the return of the prodigal is a type of our return to God and of the rejoicing in Heaven which shall accompany the repentance of one sinner.  The banquet the Father gave is the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in the glory of Heaven.  These are the ways the parable points to our eternal destiny; this is the anagogical sense.

The anagogical meaning of the Temple is that the dwelling place of God will be with men.  As Revelation says:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. --Rev. 21:22

Questions that might help you determine the anagogical meaning of a passage are:
1.  How does this passage point forward to our final destiny in Heaven?
2.  Is any object in this passage infused with other spiritual meanings that relate to heaven, such as water representing the presence of the Holy Spirit?
3.  Does this passage have any reference to Christ (even prophetically) as King, Ruler, Lord, or master?
4.  Does this passage tell anything about one of the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, or hell? 

Looking at the Scripture through these lenses of meaning is one way to have a deeper, richer, and more profound understanding of God's Word.  As we study specific passages of Scripture in the future, we will be using the literal and spiritual senses to help us understand all of the truths God is communicating through His Word for our salvation and sanctification.

Main idea:  The spiritual sense of Scripture points to deeper spiritual realities and can be allegorical, moral, or anagogical.

 This is the last post in the Bible Basics series. The next series will be The Pentateuch.  Thank you for learning along with me!

...for a few days, anyway!




No comments:

Post a Comment