The Senses of Scripture

The Senses of Scripture February 20, 2022

“Three basic questions may be asked of any text: What does it say? What does it mean? How does it impact me?” – Edward L. Hayes.

The Bible is not a book. Rather, the Bible is a library containing seventy-three books. Like any library, the books of the Bible are written by several authors writing at different times and for various reasons. In addition, the Bible contains many different genres of literature, such as history, prophecy, and poetry. All of this makes interpreting and understanding Scripture difficult and complex. One, therefore, cannot be surprised that Biblical interpretation has a long and occasionally controversial history. 

The following work aims to introduce the different forms of biblical interpretation. I will define and discuss exegesis and hermeneutics. Finally, I will review the four senses of biblical interpretation.

Exegesis

Exegesis is a Greek word meaning explanation and refers to the process whereby a text is analyzed. This process of interpretation provides theology with a framework for critically examining and understanding Scripture. 

Under the umbrella of exegesis, one can identify six methods of interpretation. The first three methods are used to interpret the spiritual meaning of the text. These are the canonical, liturgical, and magisterial methods. 

The rhetorical, grammatical, and historical methods convey the text’s literal meaning. I will briefly discuss all six ways.

The canonical stage of analysis considers the role of the text within the canon as a whole. It begins by analyzing the immediate textual context. Then the canonical approach analyzes the text within the more extensive section of the book of which it is a part. In turn, the role of the book is interpreted within the context of the entire canon of Scripture.

Since the Catholic Church’s liturgy transmits the message of the Bible, the liturgical method focuses on the study of public prayer. This form of interpretation includes the liturgical prayers and the lectionary readings. 

The purpose of the magisterial method is to interpret Scripture within the context of the Church’s tradition. The magisterial process requires reviewing the teachings of the Church fathers, saints, and the doctors of the Church. The magisterial method also takes into account pontifical and conciliar documents.

The rhetorical level of exegesis analyzes language and rhetorical devices. It may also investigate the genres and structures of the text.

A grammatical method of interpretation analyzes the semantics (words and phrases) and the arrangement (syntax) of a particular text.

Finally, the historical method interprets Scripture by considering the culture that a particular text is written in, as well as the types of literature involved. Also considered within the historical method is the historical context and location of the text.

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics (Greek for interpretation) shares many of the same principles as exegesis. However, where exegesis seeks to understand the author’s original intent, hermeneutics seeks to apply Scripture to the contemporary situation. 

Hermeneutics allows Scripture to be interpreted using four methods or senses; the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical. 

Before proceeding to the four senses, it is helpful to categorize them. While the literal sense is, as the name suggests, focused on the surface meaning of the text, the other three methods concern themselves with different aspects of spiritual interpretation.

The Literal Sense

As the term suggests, a literal method refers to the literal meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture. The literal sense of Scripture focuses on the historical nature of the Bible. Indeed, this method is essential to establishing the historical record contained within the Bible. As such, it provides the “data” of Scripture and is, therefore, the foundation for using the other three methods of interpretation. 

An example of the literal sense would be to accept the creation stories of Genesis as descriptive of how God created the universe. God really did create the world in six days, and He really did rest on the seventh day.

The significance of the literal sense transcends the historical data of the Bible in that it also provides the basis for Divine pedagogy (the manner in which God teaches). The inspired nature of Scripture means that the words of the text are of value in understanding what God intends to teach. 

The Moral Sense

The moral sense is also called the tropological (from the Greek word trepein, meaning “to turn”). This method seeks to turn the text back on the reader by drawing moral lessons from Scripture. Since it is certain that events and teachings of the Bible “Were written down to instruct us” (1 Corinthians 10:11), much of the text can serve to provide the reader with a moral foundation. 

There are two ways of understanding the moral sense. In the first way, we can use the moral sense to incorporate the Ten Commandments into one’s life. In the second way, the moral sense can be understood by adapting the text to our lives. For example, in Luke 17:12-19, we read of Jesus healing the ten lepers, yet only one of the ten thanks Jesus. It is that one who is “made well.” This verse can help us see the importance of gratitude in our spiritual lives. This is particularly true if we interpret “made well” as the healing of the soul.

The Allegorical Sense

The allegorical sense seeks to identify and understand archetypes within the text. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas referred to this method as typology. The allegorical meaning is symbolic because it shows how aspects of the Old Testament are meant to foreshadow events in the New Testament.

As an example, I will use 1 Corinthians 15:45, “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” Using the allegorical sense, we interpret this passage to refer to Christ (as the last Adam or life-giving spirit). It is interpreting a portion of Genesis in light of the Gospels. 

Significantly, the allegorical sense allows for understanding many of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah in light of Jesus. For instance, a reading of Isaiah 53:1-5 can be seen to prophesize the Crucifixion of Christ. 

The Anagogical Sense

The last sense to address is the anagogical sense. This interpretation seeks to relate events or teachings of the text to Heaven or eternal realities. Because of this, it is the method most concerned with a spiritual interpretation. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission describes the spiritual sense, it is the “meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ.” 

Understood this way, the anagogical sense views Genesis in light of Revelation. For example, an anagogical interpretation of the “Feeding of the Multitudes” in Matthew 14:15-21 foreshadows the Eucharist.

This paper has endeavored to provide a fundamental review of biblical interpretation. I have provided definitions for exegesis and hermeneutics. I have indicated that biblical interpretation can be understood using four “senses”: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and anagogical. 

 


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