Know the Faith: The Four Senses of Sacred Scripture

by Michael Lofton  •  •  April 30, 2015   

Reading Scripture in Its Entirety

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Over the last few centuries, it has become common to come across biblical scholars and even clergy who interpret Scripture according to its literal/historical sense alone. These individuals deliberately ignore the other senses of Scripture, which prevents many from seeing its beauty. To comprehend the full richness of Sacred Scripture, it's necessary to read it in light of its four senses.

What are the four senses of Scripture?

The Catechism explains:

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.

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.”

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.

“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” (Dei Verbum, 12 §3). (Catechism, 115–117)

Another brief but excellent description of the different senses of Scripture can be found in the writings of St. Bonaventure:

[S]cripture has depth, which consists in its having many mystical understandings. Besides its literal meaning, in many places it can be interpreted in three ways: allegorically, morally, and anagogically. Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief. The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else that we should do. The anagogical meaning, a kind of “lifting upwards,” occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed.(Mystic of God's Word, 39)

Why must we accept all of the senses of Scripture?

Some may wonder why we must accept the teaching that Scripture has more than one sense. In addition to the fact that it is the teaching of the Magisterium, we should note that the Apostles often used the spiritual sense of Scripture to prove that Jesus was the Messiah (see St. Matthew's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 as a classic example). If we read Scripture according to its literal/historical sense alone, we weaken the foundation for our belief in Christ.

Further Reading

Medieval Exegesis in Translation: Commentaries on the Book of Ruth, by Lesley M. Smith


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