The Four Senses of Scripture

There are two basic senses of Holy Scripture: the literal (or historical) and the spiritual. The spiritual sense is further divided into the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical.

St. Thomas cites St. Gregory the Great on the phenomenon of multiple senses in the Bible: “Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.”[1] The Master of Aquino goes on to explain that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification.”[2]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites a medieval couplet which summarizes these four senses: Lettera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. (The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.)[3]

The literal is the plainest sense inasmuch as it “relates deeds” simply. For instance, the literal sense of the creation of Eve out Adam’s side is that this event related in Genesis actually happened. That Eve was literally formed out of the side of Adam is historical fact.[4] No matter what allegorical meanings can be drawn out of the account (and there are many), the literal sense stands as a reliable historical record. The same can be said of all history related in the Bible: the events related in the historical books of the Old Testament, as well as the Gospels and Acts. The literal sense is not merely the meaning given by the human author; it is that, but it is much more. It is God signifying his meaning “by words,” as St. Thomas affirmed. In pointing this out, he also declares, with St. Augustine, that there can be more than one literal sense: “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.”

Another important Thomistic observation on the literal sense is that “nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere.” Thus, in his Catena Aurea, St. Thomas displays his deep erudition of the Bible by cross referencing spiritual interpretations of the Fathers he cites with the literal sense of the inspired word elsewhere in the Scriptures.

Without the literal sense, Holy Scripture would be virtually meaningless, as “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”[5] It is important, then, in the modern milieu – with Biblical Modernism still rampant – that the literal truth of the sacred page be vigorously defended. This would include the historical reality of such things as Creation, the Resurrection of Our Lord, his miracles, the interaction of angels in the lives of men (e.g., Abraham, Tobias, St. Peter), the virgin birth, and Our Lord’s promises to the Church. If God cannot teach reliable truth “by words,” then how can the inspired text be reliable when the same Authority teaches “by things themselves”? If Jonas in the whale’s belly was a fiction, then why is not Jesus’ reference to Jonas[6] also a fiction? For that matter, why is not Jesus’ Resurrection, which was foreshadowed by Jonas, a fiction, too?

The academic specialty to which Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio assigned this sense is “biblical exegesis.”

Next, we consider the allegorical sense. According to St. Thomas, it is present “so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” Considering the creation of Eve out of the sleeping Adam’s side, we can see that it is an allegory of Christ and the Church, which is his Bride. St. Augustine, noting the verb used in his Latin version of John 19, spoke of it as such: “The Evangelist has expressed himself cautiously; not struck, or wounded, but opened His side… To shadow forth this, the woman was made out of the side of the sleeping man; for this second Adam bowed His head and slept on the cross, that out of that which came therefrom, there might be formed a wife for Him.”[7] The Doctor of Grace also sees the water of baptism and the wine of the Eucharist, the two sacraments which, par excellence, form the Mystical Body, coming out of the pierced side our Our Lord.

Dr. D’Ambrosio points out that the popular label for allegory in modern biblical exegesis, “typology,” is not an historical term coming from the Fathers. Of course, this does not mean that something cannot be a “type” of something else; it simply means the term itself is a neologism. St. Paul, after all, called Adam “a figure (typos) of him who was to come.”[8] Some scholars, like Msgr. John Steinmuller, consider the “typical sense” as part of the allegorical sense.

The Old Testament is full of the foreshadowing of New Testament realities. The choosing of a son other than the oldest to receive the inheritance of the firstborn (e.g., Isaac instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau) is taken by many of the Fathers to be allegorical of the Gentile Church receiving the inheritance over the Jews. The Isaac – Ishmael allegory also has the sanction of inspiration.[9] The Ark of the Covenant is seen as an allegory both of Our Lord and of Our Lady. The manna in the desert typifies the Eucharist.[10] These types are manifold.

Many of these allegorical interpretations show up the Church’s liturgy. For example, the Easter Vigil applies the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea to the catechumens being baptized on that day.

It should be pointed out that, while St. Thomas seems to limit the allegorical sense to Old Testament types, there are New Testament passages which admit of allegorical interpretations as well. Dr. D’Ambrosio cites one such exegesis by St. Augustine, who interpreted the parable of the good Samaritan in such a way that the man who fell among robbers was the whole human race to whom Our Lord, the Good Samaritan, gave healing and succor. Further allegorical probing into this passage identifies the faithless Jews with the priest and Levite, the Church with the inn, the sacraments with the oil and wine, and even the donkey as the flesh Our Lord assumed in the incarnation.

Dr. D’Ambrosio assigns this sense to systematic theology as its academic specialty.

The moral or tropological sense (from the Greek word trepein, to turn) “turns” the meaning back on the reader so that he may apply it to his own life. St. Thomas says, “so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense.” Thus the parables have edifying moral lessons which we ought to “turn” upon ourselves. Am I that priest or Levite ignoring the poor unfortunate on the way to Jericho? Have I acted like the prodigal son’s older brother, being envious of the good treatment of my converted brethren? What about the talents God has given me? Can I say that I have invested them wisely by my diligence, or have I simply buried them in a napkin?

One very effective use of the tropological sense of a parable is Nathan’s subtle narrative to King David, regarding the latter’s double crime of murder and adultery. Having elicited David’s indignation against the man who was the story’s antagonist, the Prophet uttered those terrible words: “Thou art the man.”[11] During the first Holy Week, our Lord performed a similar “turn” on the priests and ancients when he told them the parable of the householder,[12] alarming them so much that they wanted to kill him.

Not surprisingly, the tropological sense corresponds to the academic specialty of moral theology. It also finds practical application in preaching and moral exhortations of various kinds.

Finally, we come to the anagogical sense, which interprets the things related in Holy Scripture “as they signify what relates to eternal glory.” This meaning is not restricted to the state of glory in Heaven, but also pertains to the contemplative participation in the heavenly realities here and now.

An example of the anagogical sense comes from the introit of the Mass for Laetare Sunday: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exalt and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.(Is. 66:10-11) I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord. (Ps 121:1)” The Prophet Isaias and the Psalmist are referencing a real city, Jerusalem, in some definite historical circumstances: the exile of her children to Babylon and the prospect of their return. This is the literal sense. We can also understand in this prayer allegorical and tropological meanings applied to the Church and ourselves individually. But the principal purpose of this introit is to lift our minds and hearts to the “heavenly [or “new”] Jerusalem.”[13] This is the anagogical sense.

Other examples of the anagogical sense would include the parables of Our Lord which speak of a wedding feast (e.g., Mt. 22). Here, the happiness of heaven is symbolized by the feast, which also typifies the eternal nuptials of Christ with his bride, the Church. The parable of the ten virgins and that of the talents, related in Matthew 25, have obvious anagogical interpretations of the four last things, both from their content, and from their location, sandwiched as they are between our Lord’s eschatological discourse in Chapter 24 and his description of the final judgment later in Chapter 25.

The advantages to the study of the quadriga, as this classical fourfold interpretation is called, are manifold. First, it is traditional. St. Thomas and other scholastics, along with such later scholars of renown as Cornelius A Lapide used it all the time. Its use by such approved authors makes it safe. Second, it reconciles what is the best from schools which were often at variance. In the patristic era, Antioch and Alexandria were often at each others’ throats. The Antiochene authors specialized in the literal sense, often to the deprecation of the other senses, whereas the Alexandrian authors could advance spiritual meanings at the expense of the literal. In reconciling the two the way St. Thomas did, we get the best of both worlds. More than this, studying Scripture according to the quadriga keeps the text living for us, preventing it from dying on the dissecting tables of historical critical scholars who see the sacred page as something to parse, reconstruct, cross reference with pagan fables, check for errors, and otherwise cut up as an historical cadaver.

The fourfold interpretation helps us draw out dogmatic, moral, ascetical, and mystical theology directly from the inspired text, using the analogy of faith, instead of isolating the Scriptures as the subject of a specialty distinct from the rest of theology and Christian life. After all, it was written that we might believe in Jesus Christ “and that believing, [we] may have life in his name.”[14]

Bibliography:

Cyril Gaul, O.S.B., and Conrad Louis, O.S.B., Rome and the Study of Scripture, Sixth Edition. St. Meinrad, Indiana: Grail Publications, 1958.

Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Translated by United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Bloomingdale, Ohio: Apostolate for Family Consecration, 1994.

John F. McCarthy, “Lesson 2: The Four Senses of Sacred Scripture,” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (November 1998) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/study/lesson2.html [accessed 21 March 2006].

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003. Online, available at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/ [accessed 21 March 2006].


[1] Aquinas, Thomas, St., Summa Theologiae, Ia Q. 1, A. 10, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003), http://www.newadvent.org/summa/100110.htm.

[2] Ibid. (Unless otherwise noted all references to St. Thomas come from this same article in the Summa.

[3] CCC No. 118.

[4] This literal sense was defended by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909. Cf. Cyril Gaul, O.S.B., and Conrad Louis, O.S.B., Rome and the Study of Scripture, Sixth Edition (St. Meinrad, Indiana: Grail Publications, 1958), p. 121. [No pun intended, but the professor was beside herself when she read that I actually believed that Eve was taken from Adam’s side.]

[5] Cited in CCC # 117

[6] Mt. 12:38-40.

[7] Tract 120. Online, available at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701120.htm [accessed 22 March 2006].

[8] Rom. 5:14.

[9] Gal. 4:22-30.

[10] John 6:59.

[11] 2 Kings 12:7.

[12] Mt. 21:33-43.

[13] Apoc. 3:12; 21:2; Heb. 12:22.

[14] John 20:31.

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