|BIBLE SUNDAY MESSAGE – 2013
THE SENSES OF SCRIPTURE IN INTERPRETATION
The Fourfold Sense of Scripture
What is the meaning of ‘sense of Scripture’?
The sense of Scripture refers to the meaning (sensus in Latin) of a particular text. It refers to the meaning that is attributed to a text of Scripture by the interpreter. While the middle ages came
to understand that there are mainly four senses of Scripture, we must remember that both the Fathers of the Church and the medieval tradition always brought a religious approach to the reading of the
word of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions the couplet from the middle ages which speaks of the relationship of the literal sense and the spiritual senses of Scripture:
The letter speaks of deeds; allegory about the faith;
The moral about our actions; anagogy about our destiny. (CCC 118)
They thus speak of a literal sense. An allegorical sense, a moral sense and an anagogical sense in the reading of Scripture. St. Thomas says that all senses are based on the literal sense. The
spiritual sense show that we must not remain only on the level of the literal sense, but link to the experience of the Church in the world today.
A. Literal Sense
The literal sense is the meaning that is attached to the ‘letter’, which is the actual text. It is the meaning that is conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by sound interpretation. Once
can arrive at the literal sense by taking an objective look at the passage paying attention to the people acting, references to places, time, etc. One may ask six questions about the text: who, what,
when, where, how and why. The how and why questions help us to get deeper into the texts. With this process and the aid of footnotes in the bible, cross-references, maps and dictionaries, one can
discover the original meaning of a passage. This helps us to see the text as a text from the past.
B. Allegorical Sense
According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, allegory is defined as a story, painting or description in which the characters and events are meant as symbols of purity, truth, patience, etc.
In biblical literature one goes much further than just looking at symbolic meanings. It is a spiritual sense where a passage is read with a vision of faith. We look at a passage within the whole
context of the bible. We see the unity of the whole bible, Old and New Testaments. The New Testament gives a fuller meaning of persons, places, events or objects found in the Old Testament. Prophecies
of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the New. It is a matter of discovering God’s work and Christ’s work.
This sense is derived from looking at the whole living tradition of the Church and how meaning has been applied over the centuries. This is the theological or Christological reading of the text. It is
not a moral reading of the text. An example may help to clarify: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant” (Is 5). In the New Testament
Jesus makes use of the image of the vineyard as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, and Lumen Gentium (art. 6) uses the image of the vineyard to depict the Church.
C. Moral Sense
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. St. Paul reminds us the Scripture is written ‘for our instruction’ (2 Tim. 3:16). This
is another of the spiritual senses and it helps one to seek the understanding of the challenges the Church and the individual face by looking at parallels in sacred Scripture. One becomes aware of the
direction Scripture opens up for our awareness. The text becomes a sort of mirror in which we see our lives in our world.
D. Anagogical Sense
The word anagogical comes from the Greek ‘anagoge’ which means ‘leading’. In this spiritual sense, one looks at the events and realities related in the bible as leading to our eternal destiny. An
eternal significance is given to these realities and events. They lead us to our true homeland, where St. Paul says lies our true citizenship (Phil 3:20). The Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly
Jerusalem of where there is no more chaos (‘sea’) and “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain…” (Rev 21:4. The Church makes use of
this image in its liturgy. This sense gives reasons for hope and encouragement.
The Bible, being the word of God, has to be read with these senses in mind. In this way, the reader will hopefully bring a religious dimension to the reading of the Scriptures.