St. Jerome states, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (CCC 112). In other words, we come to know the reality of Jesus Christ by reading Holy Scripture. Yet, what if we read the Bible incorrectly? If the Scriptures are a source of knowledge about our Lord, would not a wrong reading of the text twist our understanding of Christ? We, especially as moderns, are always in danger of distorting the Gospel to meet our own ideological standards. As Bishop Konderla teaches, “We are called to measure ourselves against the teaching of Christ and His Church, not our own imaginations or standards.” He continues, “We must receive the Jesus Christ who came two-thousand years ago, not create a ‘Jesus’ who meets the fashions and fads of this age” (God Builds a House, 6). If we are to discipline ourselves to receive Jesus—and not manufacture a “Jesus”—then a vital part of that reception is a proper understanding of how to know Christ in Holy Scripture. How then does the Church teach us to read Holy Scripture?
In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a letter to his patron, Lord Cangrande della Scala, regarding how one should read the Divine Comedy. His answer was simple: you read the Comedy the same way you read the Bible. In summary of Sacred Tradition, Dante explains that there are four senses or ways to read Holy Scripture: literal and three spiritual ways, i.e., allegorical, moral, and anagogical. These four senses were also taught by St. Thomas Aquinas (STI.1.10) and are contained in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC” 115-19). They represent the time-tested wisdom of the Church on how to come to know and love Jesus Christ through the Holy Scriptures.
Let us examine each “sense” of biblical interpretation, how it relates to the others, and how they all draw us into a deeper relationship with our Lord.
The literal sense of Scripture is also known as the “historical sense.” St. Thomas notes the literal sense is the meaning the author intended. For example, Dante gives the simple illustration of the passage: “When Israel went out of Egypt.” He observes, “If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses.” The literal is simply the intended, historical meaning of a text. It is important, however, to interpret the literal correctly, because “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116). Similarly, Aquinas states that the spiritual sense of Scripture—allegorical, moral, and anagogical—is “based on the literal and presupposes it.” The importance of the literal sense of Scripture as foundational to all other senses emphasizes how vital it is that Catholics read commentaries that are faithful to the magisterium. Like a broken foundation of a home, a slanted literal sense can distort the greater spiritual senses built upon it.
The allegorical sense is the first of the three types of the “spiritual sense.” In the allegorical sense, Dante teaches that the aforementioned verse about Israel exiting Egypt “means for us our redemption done by Christ.” But what does the exodus of Israel have to do with Christ? A lot. In the allegorical sense, the reader is always looking for types or signs of how one thing in Scripture signifies another. For example, Israel in bondage to Egypt is similar to us in bondage to sin. Here, Moses would be a type of Christ. He leads the People of God out of Egypt to the Promise Land, as Christ leads us out from sin and into grace and salvation. Moses serves as a sign pointing forward to the reality of Christ. Moreover, both Israel and the Christian faithful find the portal of their salvation through water: the Red Sea and Holy Baptism (CCC 117). In their journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites are given bread from heaven, mana; and in our earthly journey toward our Promised Land, heaven, we are given the Bread of Angels, the Holy Eucharist. Christ himself makes this allegorical comparison in the Eucharist Discourse (John 6). The relationship between the allegorical and the literal gives rise to a fundamental principle of reading the Bible: the Old Testament foreshadows the New, and the New Testament perfects the Old. This dynamic between the Old and New Testament, as expressed in signs, serves as an allegorical foundation to both the moral sense and the anagogical sense.
The moral sense answers the question: how should I act? It is arguably the spiritual sense with which we are most familiar when trying to read Scripture. The Church teaches, “The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly” (CCC 117). What moral lesson does Dante draw from Israel leaving Egypt? As noted, the moral sense is informed by the allegorical. For example, Dante presents Israel leaving Egypt as “the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace.” We take the comparisons drawn from the allegorical sense and apply them to our own pursuit of holiness. If Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt is like humanity being delivered by Christ, then how can I apply this lesson to my own moral life? How can I leave behind sin and pursue holiness? St. Thomas says the moral sense focuses on “things done in Christ,” and “what we ought to do.” The allegorical can help the moral dimension of Scripture unfold into a beautiful guide to our earthly pilgrimage.
The anagogical sense is arguably the most foreign to modern readers of Scripture. The Catechism expresses that the term anagogical comes from the Greek term anagoge which means “leading” (CCC 117). What is the Scripture ultimately leading us toward? The Church teaches that in the anagogical sense: “We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland” (CCC 117). If the moral is how should I act? then the anagogical is what does this teach me about my final end, i.e., eternal happiness with God in heaven? Like the moral, the anagogical draws from the allegorical to find types and signs. As St. Thomas observes, the anagogical looks for signs that “signify what relates to eternal glory.” For example, Dante notes that the anagogical lesson of Israel leaving Egypt is the final salvation of “the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” The anagogical sense always points us toward our heavenly home.
“Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The four senses of Holy Scripture are a gift from our Sacred Tradition to delve deeper into the mystery of the Bible and thus, in turn, into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Interpreting Scripture aright allows us, as Bishop Konderla instructed, to receive the Jesus Christ that entered into history and not manufacture a “Jesus” out of the fads and fashions of our age. The literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical senses are an invitation to configure ourselves to Jesus Christ and inoculate us against the errors of the present. May we, like Aquinas and Dante, come to love Jesus Christ in the Holy Bible.
Dcn. Harrison Garlick serves as a Great Books Tutor for the Alcuin Institute, and is the Chancellor of the Diocese of Tulsa.