Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Multiple Senses of Scripture and Its Religious Meaning

In order to provide some content during this down time, here is a paper I wrote for my Biblical Foundations class about two years ago. It was in response to this question:

How do the senses of Scripture serve the aim of interpretation as outlined in Chapter 11 from Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001)?

As a Word document, this paper is 8-pages, double spaced. It kinda ends abruptly, but overall, I'm happy with it. When I handed it in, I was worried that I used too many quotations, but my professor didn't seem to mind. I hope you find it useful and informative.

Pax Christi,
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The Multiple Senses of Scripture and Its Religious Meaning

Exegesis is hard work. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger provides this provocative summary of the historical-critical method:
  • On one hand there is the attempt to unravel the various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in one’s hands what is the “really historical,” which means the purely human element in events. On the other hand, one has to try to show how it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. So it is that another “real” history is to be fashioned in place of the one given. Underneath the existing sources—that is to say, the biblical books themselves—we are supposed to find more original sources, which in turn become the criteria for interpretation.1
With all of this untangling of Scripture (as if it were a cacophonous mess that needed to be sorted out), it is no surprise that biblical exegesis often becomes “a veritable fence which blocks access to the Bible for all the uninitiated.”2 Is this really the purpose of interpretation, to make the text inaccessible to the every day reader?

We find a response to this question in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, a document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC). Williamson provides a helpful synthesis:
  • The primary aim of Catholic exegesis is to explain the religious message of the Bible, i.e., its meaning as the word which God continues to address to the Church and to the entire world (IV.a, III.C.1.b) The ultimate purpose of Catholic exegesis is to nourish and build up the body of Christ with the word of God.3
First, it is necessary to explain what is meant by “the religious message [or meaning] of the Bible.” Williamson describes several characteristics. The religious meaning:
  • Is the meaning that Scripture has as the word of God, as a divine communication;
  • Is Scripture’s theological meaning, provided that theological meaning is understood broadly enough;
  • Includes everything Scripture says about God’s relationship with the human race:
    • what it reveals about the Trinitarian God and his plan of salvation (doctrine);
    • the guidance it offers for human life (wisdom and morals);
    • the means it provides of encountering God (texts for worship, prayer and meditation).
  • Is concerned with the present religious significance of the text for Christian faith; as distinguished from the original meaning of the text;
  • Is not subjective, or reducible to whatever religious or spiritual or philosophical ideas someone might find in the Bible, or merely “religious” in a generic sense;
  • Is the meaning that corresponds to the religious tradition which produced and preserved the Christian Bible.4
He goes on to cite many reasons why biblical scholarship has often lost sight of the primary aim of interpretation. One such reason is the tendency towards a singular approach to the text as a result of the placement of interpretation within the academy:
  • Academic exegesis sought an archaeological knowledge of the historical and cultural roots of Scripture and was unable to bring the Bible’s meaning into the present. It set narrow limits to the meaning of Scripture, rejecting the plurality of meaning which traditionally enabled believers to apply Scripture to their lives. It functioned as a literary discipline according to the canons of contemporary research, rather than as a service in the Church aiming at leading the faithful to salvation [emphasis added].5
Implicit in this analysis is a key point: proper emphasis on the other senses of Scripture—besides simply the literal sense—can unlock the religious meaning of the text and make it more relevant to the lives of Christians.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in Article 115 that “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.”6 The PBC adds a third sense, the fuller sense (sensus plenior), categorized as a sub-type of the spiritual sense.7 Each sense has its own impact on the religious meaning of Scripture.

The Literal Sense

The literal sense of Scripture is “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author.”8 Much can be investigated regarding the literal sense, such as its alternative definitions, the role of authorial intent, the way in which one derives the literal sense of a text, and the difference between a literal and a literalistic interpretation.9 However, we are concerned here with what delivers the religious meaning of the text. While one may perhaps be able to accomplish this via the aspects previously mentioned, it is this author’s view that two other characteristics, the plurality of meanings and the dynamic aspect, are key to bringing theological significance to the literal sense.

Many people mistake the literal sense as carrying with it only one meaning. But, the PBC tells us that there can actually be more than one literal sense of a text.10 This is for two reasons. First, sometimes a human author intends to refer to more than one level of reality at the same time. “This is especially true in poetry, but also in other kinds of writing, especially when symbolism or irony is employed.”11 A few examples of this would be “the meaning of a;nwqen in John 3:3,4,7; of ‘living water’ in 4:10-14; of ‘going up’ in 7:8.”12 Secondly, divine inspiration can cause a human utterance with only one intended meaning to have another meaning. The following, from John’s Gospel, is an “extreme”13 example:
  • When the high priest Caiaphas says in John 11:50 that, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish,” he is advocating Jesus’ execution. But the Evangelist informs us that, at the same time, God was speaking through Caiaphas about his redemptive plan. Both meanings to Caiaphas’ words are literal senses, because they are both made clear by the context, in this case, by the direct explanation of the evangelist.14
To the plural meanings of the literal sense is added a dynamic aspect: “The literal meanings of many texts posses a dynamic aspect that enables them to be re-read later in new circumstances.”15 This is an intriguing, and frequently neglected dimension of the literal sense. “Historical-critical exegesis has too often tended to limit the meaning of texts by tying it too rigidly to precise historical circumstances.”16 The dynamic aspect frees the exegete from this limitation by emphasizing directions of thought (or, as Brown calls them, “lines of development”17) in the text. The PBC provides an example:
  • The meaning of the royal psalms, for example, should not be limited strictly to the historical circumstances of their production. In speaking of the king, the psalmist evokes at one and the same time both the institution as it actually was and an idealized vision of kingship as God intended it to be; in this way the text carries the reader beyond the institution of kingship in its actual historical manifestation.18
But how does all of this help us to identify the religious meaning of Scripture? “This dynamic aspect, this open-endedness, is an extremely important characteristic of the literal sense, because it provides the opening which all re-readings, including the spiritual sense, make use of.”19 Any spiritual sense or deeper meaning of the biblical text must still have some solid connection with the literal sense, with what the human author expressed in the text. As St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”20 The plurality of the literal sense, and its dynamic aspect, opens the door for legitimate interpretations of the text that bridge the gap between what the text meant to the original author and what it means for us today.

The Spiritual Sense
  • The spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture is the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the context of the paschal mystery and the new life which flows from it (II.B.2.b).21
As we have already noted from the Catechism, there are three sub-types of the spiritual sense: the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. To these the PBC adds the sensus plenior. Just as there are multiple literal senses of Scripture, there are multiple spiritual senses as well. Knowing the distinctions between these spiritual senses will help us to unpack the religious meaning of Scripture even further.

Williamson defines the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as:
  • Interpretation in which persons, objects and actions depicted in a text are taken as representing other things not present in the text. The Fathers of the Church were fond of employing allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament to show how the entire Jewish Scriptures pointed to Christ, to explain texts that might otherwise seem scandalous (e.g., questionable actions of Old Testament heroes), and to give a pastoral application to texts that might otherwise seem obsolete. The terms “allegory” or “allegorical interpretation” have also been used more broadly to refer to interpretation of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ.22
If we are concerned here with the religious meaning of Scripture, with “the present religious significance of the text for Christian faith; as distinguished from the original meaning of the text” and “the meaning that corresponds to the religious tradition which produced and preserved the Christian Bible,” then it should be easy to see how the allegorical sense of Scripture achieves this end. Everything in Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular, becomes more relevant to mankind when it is seen in the light of Jesus Christ and the paschal mystery. Moses is more than just a holy man of God. With the allegorical sense, he becomes a type of Christ in his intercessory role for the people. The snake he raised up to heal them becomes an image of Christ crucified. The crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land prefigures our sanctification through baptism.

From here we move to the moral sense. This is the sense of Scripture that leads us to act justly.23 The PBC gives the following description of Scripture’s moral dimension:
  • The Bible closely links many instructions about proper conduct—commandments, prohibitions, legal prescriptions, prophetic exhortations and accusations, counsels of wisdom, and so forth—to the stories concerning the history of salvation. One of the tasks of exegesis consists in preparing the way for the work of moralists by assessing the significance of this wealth of material.24
One example of Scripture’s own use of the moral sense is its application of God’s dealings with Israel after the Exodus. The account of their wondering in the wilderness is more than just a record of something that happened a long time ago. Paul, recognizing the moral sense of the account, uses it to teach the Corinthians a lesson in acting justly and with faith.25 “Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.”26

The moral sense is definitely conducive to imparting the religious meaning of Scripture, for it reveals in various ways what is good and proper for man. Christians can turn to the Scriptures to learn how to live rightly, and priests and catechists can use the moral sense of Scripture to convict an audience and to lead them towards conversion.

The anagogical sense reveals the eternal significance of realities and events in Scripture.27 Mark Shea defines the anagogical sense as “the sense of Scripture that has to do with our destiny in Christ and the images in Scripture which prefigure such things as Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.”28 In acknowledging this sense we are acknowledging the fact that some realities in Scripture have meaning and import far beyond their present context, circumstance, or period in history.

For example, St. John uses the city of Jerusalem as an image of heaven when he speaks of the “new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”29 The author of the letter to the Hebrews sees this same eternal destiny in Mount Zion.30 Perhaps the most popular example is the eschatological discourse in Matthew 24. Here Jesus is at once referring to three different events: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple there, the end of the world, and His own Second Coming. All of these are examples of Scripture’s own use of the anagogical sense.

This sense is an amazing contribution to the religious meaning of Scripture because it shows the reader that Scripture has an end in sight. It not only speaks of the author’s day and of our own circumstance, but also of that final culmination of history, when Jesus Christ will make all things new.31 The anagogical sense helps us realize that the end foreseen in Scripture is our end, and that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”32 In this hope we are saved, and we wait for it with patience.33

The final spiritual sense is the fuller sense. Williamson provides this definition:
  • The fuller sense (sensus plenior) is a deeper meaning of the text, intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author (II.B.3.a). It has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, principle author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of expressions in such a way that the latter will express a truth, the fullest depths of which the authors do not perceive (II.B.3.c).34
This sense is best illustrated by example, and the PBC offers three of them:
  • In Mt 1:23, the Gospel writer presents Jesus’ birth as the fuller sense of the Septuagint version of Isa 7:14.
  • The patristic and conciliar teaching about the Trinity expresses the fuller sense of the teaching of the New Testament regarding God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  • The definition of original sin by the Council of Trent provided the fuller sense of Paul's teaching in Romans 5:12-21 about the consequences of the sin of Adam for humanity.
In each of these cases, a meaning that had “lain hidden in the original context”35 is revealed either by the re-reading of the text by a subsequent biblical author or by “the internal development of revelation”36 in the Tradition of the Church.

This sense adds to the religious meaning of Scripture in that it makes Scripture an actual “living Word” in the lives of Christians. “These words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Heb. 4:12).”37 The fuller sense allows for those “lines of development” previously mentioned in the discussion on the literal sense to find their fulfillment. It also allows for the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into an ever deeper and more robust understanding of the truths revealed in Sacred Scripture. In so doing, the sensus plenior provides a fuller theological insight to Scripture, and with the other senses of Scripture, it helps to ensure that the word of God that first rang out so long ago will continue to be heard by mankind until the end of time.

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[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 2.
[2] ibid.
[3] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001), 148-149.
[4] ibid., 149-151.
[5] ibid., 154-155.
[6] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 38.
[7] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), 87-88.
[8] ibid., 82.
[9] For a treatment of these aspects of the literal sense, cf. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture, 164-168.
[10] PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 82-83.
[11] Williamson, 168.
[12] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Biblical Commission’s Document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church: Text and Commentary,” in Subsidia Biblica (vol. 18), Gen. Ed. James Swetnam (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1995), 122n. Cited in Williamson, 168.
[13] PBC, 83.
[14] Williamson, 168-169.
[15] ibid., 169.
[16] ibid.
[17] Raymond E. Brown, “The Contribution of Historical Biblical Criticism to Ecumenical Church Discussion,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 28.
[18] PBC, 83.
[19] Williamson, 169.
[20] St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 1, 10, ad I. Cited in CCC, 39 (no. 116).
[21] Williamson, 189.
[22] ibid., 391.
[23] CCC, no. 117.
[24] PBC, 113.
[25] cf. 1 Cor 10:1-10; all Scripture citations from the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.
[26] 1 Cor 10:11.
[27] CCC, no. 117.
[28] Mark Shea, “The Anagogical Sense of Scripture,” in Sheavings (online at, accessed on December 8, 2006.
[29] Rev 21:2, cf. 21:1—22:5.
[30] cf. Heb 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
[31] cf. Rev 21:5.
[32] Rom 8:22-23.
[33] Rom 8:24-25.
[34] Williamson, 204.
[35] PBC, 88.
[36] ibid., 87.
[37] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (November 18, 1965), no. 22. Online at Accessed on December 8, 2006.

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