how the Church makes sense of the Bible
What should we look for when we’re reading the Bible? How should we interpret what we read? The tradition of the Catholic Church as neatly summarized and compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes two senses of Scripture — the literal and the spiritual. The spiritual sense is further subdivided into the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (paragraphs 115-117 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). What do these senses mean, and how can we use them in Bible study?
the literal sense
The literal sense of Scripture refers to what the biblical text actually says, to the historical context in which it was written, and to questions of authorship and structure of the text. Coming to understand the literal sense of Scripture uses the same process that’s we’d use to study and understand any other text, and it’s an important process for providing a point of reference for interpretation of the spiritual sense.
“Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. —Book of Isaiah 7:11-14 (RSV)
In this passage, we see part of a conversation between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, king of Judah. Historical context tells us that King Ahaz is about to make a disastrous military alliance with Egypt in an effort to fight the Assyrian power. The religion of the people of Judah prohibits such an alliance, and the prophet is attempting to dissuade the king from his intended action.
The text clearly demonstrates that Ahaz’s false piety is not pleasing to Isaiah, who in return offers God’s rebuke in the form of a prophecy: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In the literal sense of the Book of Isaiah, this prophecy is referring to the birth of king Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, who is remembered as one of the great kings of Judah because he removed idolatry and disobedience from the land. In rejecting Isaiah’s words, Ahaz is rejecting God. This foretelling shows that God also is rejecting Ahaz as king of Judah and is appointing a successor who will listen.
Understanding this sense has an impact on translation. The Hebrew word almah, which is translated as “young woman,” does not necessarily mean virgin. In the literal sense of this passage, properly speaking, almah cannot mean “virgin” as Hezekiah is born in the usual fashion.
Understanding the literal sense of the passage gives us a good idea of what’s going on at this time with God’s people, and it also shows how God is at work through the kingship of Judah at a time when the kings are obeying God and at a time when they aren’t. This understanding anchors the way that we look at the spiritual sense of Scripture.
the allegorical sense
The allegorical sense of Scripture explains how the particular passage points to Jesus Christ. In the case of the above passage from the Book of Isaiah, the Evangelist Matthew gives us some help with this interpretation.
But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).—Gospel According to Matthew 1:20-23 (RSV)
Here the text that foretold the birth of Hezekiah also is being used to describe the virgin birth of Jesus, showing that one prophecy can have multiple fulfillment and one text can be interpreted in multiple senses. What King Hezekiah could only partially accomplish, Jesus can fulfill. The prophecy made in the Book of Isaiah is being reframed to fit a different circumstance. The Gospel According to Matthew uses the Greek word parthenos, which means a virgin rather than a young woman, because in this instance, something more is intended than was meant in Isaiah.
the moral sense
The moral sense refers to the take-away lesson for us that can be found in the Scripture passage we’re reading. In the example from the Book of Isaiah 7:11-14, Ahaz rejects the sign God offers him as proof of divine assistance. The lesson for us is to watch for the opportunities that God is giving us for faith, and to accept them when they are presented.
the anagogical sense
Finally, the anagogical sense describes to how a passage of Scripture refers to heaven or to the end of time. In the case of our passage from the Book of Isaiah, we can see its anagogical fulfillment in the book of Revelation.
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.—book of Revelation 12:1-2 (RSV)
The passage from Revelation shows us that all of heaven can be described in terms of the anticipation and birth of this child that is foretold in the Book of Isaiah 7:11-14. In the anagogical sense, we’re all still waiting for this birth and for its promise of God to be with us. The end of all time and the final consummation of God’s union with humanity will bring the prediction in the Book of Isaiah to its ultimate fulfillment.
Not all senses of Scripture will be found in every biblical text we study. Every passage of Scripture will contain a literal and a spiritual interpretation, though not every passage will contain every aspect of the spiritual interpretation that we saw in our example.
At Turning to God’s Word, our philosophy is that careful Bible study should begin by examining the literal sense of the biblical text and from there lead to building a spiritual interpretation. Our Catholic Bible studies are designed to help guide individuals or groups through this process.