Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Four Senses of Scripture

There have been several different situations that have converged to make me think a blog on this may be helpful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church #133 states:

The Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

We all want the Lord to speak to us, to encourage us, to tell us that he loves us. He does. He speaks to us through the Scriptures:

Let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for "we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying." (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum #25 - quoting St. Ambrose.)

The same theme is repeated earlier in Dei Verbum:

For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. (#21, emphasis mine)

Thus, the place that we must turn when seeking the Lord's voice is the Sacred Scriptures approaching them in an attitude of prayer, docility, and careful listening. We must keep in mind what the Scriptures tells us about listening to the Lord's voice:

And he [God] said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before Jehovah. And, behold, Jehovah passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before Jehovah; but Jehovah was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but Jehovah was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but Jehovah was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave... 1 Kings 19:11-13a

This "still small voice" can only be heard through perseverance, silence, and listening. We don't hear God with our ears; we hear him with our heart. Listening to God requires faith and a sensitivity to the Spirit that must be cultivated through prayer. It also demands docility to what God wants to say not necessarily what we want to hear. I know in my own life that there were many times I claimed that the Lord wasn't speaking to me. The fact was he was telling me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear. I just didn't want to hear. There have been, however, a multitude of times where he has deeply consoled me with the exact words I needed to hear through the Scriptures, other spiritual books, homilies, or loved ones. The Lord has even spoken directly to my heart but never to my ears. We learn to discern to hear the lord's voice in other places through hearing his voice in the Scriptures.

It is clear, then, that we must steep ourselves in the Holy Writ, but how to start? There are many resources available to study the Scriptures. However, it can be difficult to find a good Catholic commentaries (the Ignatius Study Bibles and the Navarre Bible are excellent, although no commentary is complete). In these next blogs, I would like to discuss the Four Senses of Scripture as one means of penetrating the Biblical text. The Sacred Scriptures are not just for a few elite linguists to understand. The Lord intended it for all. St. Thomas indicates it thusly:

It is thus that the sacred text not only adapts itself to man's various intelligence, so that each one marvels to finds his thoughts expressed in the words of Holy Writ...(St. Thomas Aquinas On the Power of God question 4 article 1)

It is also befitting Holy Scripture which is proposed to all without distinction of persons - to the wise and to the unwise I am a debtor (Rom 1:14) - that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it. (St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae I question 1 article 9.

All of us can understand the Scriptures. We first need to pray for the assistance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and then roll up our sleeves and dig in! The four senses help us in this regard.

The four senses can be divided into the literal and spiritual sense. The literal sense can be defined as 'what the words themselves signify', whereas the spiritual sense is the 'things themselves signifying other things'. (cf. St. Thomas Summa I q1. a10) The spiritual sense can then be divided into three: allegorical (or typical), moral (or tropological), and anagogical. For a simple definition of each nothing is better than the Catechism.

The senses of Scripture

115 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. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense 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."

117 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.

2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".

3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). 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.

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.
119 "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."
But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.

Next time, we'll define the literal sense in more detail, examine the four different literal senses, and see examples for them. One of the important things here is not to be afraid or intimidated. Seek the assistance of the Holy Spirit and dive in!

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