One Text, Four Senses | Catholic Answers

The fundamental difference, as the Catechism makes clear, is between the literal and the spiritual sense of the text. The literal refers to what the human author intended the text to convey directly, while the spiritual refers to what additional meanings God has placed in the text that the human author may not have been aware of.

The literal sense

The Catechism explains the literal sense, stating that it is “the sense conveyed through the words of Sacred Scripture and discovered through exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation be followed: ‘All other meanings of Scripture are literal’” (CCC 116, cf. ST I:1:10 ad 1).

The warning that all other senses are literal , is intended to eliminate mistakes made in the history of Bible interpretation.

Some have tried to dismiss the literal sense as unimportant and only as a means of avoiding problems caused by the apparent literal sense of some passage n are caused (e.g. B. when God commands the Israelites to kill the Canaanites indiscriminately). for the spiritual sense in which tastier lessons can be seen. Others have proposed highly speculative allegorical interpretations that seem completely divorced from, and may even contradict, the literal meaning of the text. Or sometimes so much attention is paid to the spiritual meaning of a passage that its literal sense is overlooked.

The Catechism thus points to the primacy of the literal sense as the basis of sound interpretation.


How is the literal sense recognized? What are “the rules of sound interpretation” to which the Catechism refers?

The starting point is the words of Scripture itself. What do they say?

Here we have a problem. It is clear that people do not always mean what their words say. When I tell you to “roll out the red carpet” due to the upcoming arrival of some V.I.P.s, I don’t mean to literally roll out a red carpet. This sentence is an idiom that should not be taken literally. You have to look beyond what my words themselves say to find out what I mean.

The same thing happens in Scripture as when the biblical authors refer to God’s power by speaking of “the arm of the Lord.” of God” speak Lord.” Apart from the incarnation, God at least has no arm, yet this is a common Old Testament idiom for God’s power.

Some interpreters – particularly in fundamentalist Protestantism (which often opposes the idea that there is a spiritual understanding of the text) – have a strong preference for literal readings, sometimes proposing rules of interpretation such as “If the literal sense makes sense, then seek no other sense.”

This rule includes a considerable amount of truth. Most of the time we express ourselves literally, but this perception is not entirely reliable because the idioms of our mother tongue are so natural to us that we often misinterpret them turn without us or our listeners realizing that something was not said verbatim. The previous sentence contains an example. None of us really have a “second nature,” but if you’re a native English speaker, you probably haven’t noticed the metaphor.

The “when the literal sense makes sense” rule is also unreliable across cultures . Say you’re from another culture and apply it to the English phrase “roll out the red carpet”. Would a literal reading be “meaningful” (rather than totally implausible)? yes it would People roll out red carpets sometimes – that’s why we have the phrase in the first place.

But applying the rule would mislead you. One would conclude that more red carpets are being rolled out than is actually the case. The fact is, sentences often “make sense” when taken literally, even though that sense does not capture what their author intended. To grasp the latter one must be familiar with a people’s culture and not just be able to translate their language.

Since ancient Israel had a different culture than ours, “if it makes sense literally makes sense” rule is not always a reliable guide when dealing with the Bible. Since God can do anything, many things in the text might “make sense” when talking about God, when they wouldn’t make sense if we were talking about anyone else.

This is a regular problem for biblical interpreters. You will read the text and come across something strange. “Is it a symbol or a miracle?” they wonder. This may not be an easy question to answer, because when God is involved things can happen that would otherwise be marked as clear symbols.

Are the six days of creation really literal 24-hour periods, or a symbol of divine work, no matter how long it lasted? Did Jesus really turn the bread and wine into his body and blood, or is it just a figure? Did a great red dragon really sweep a third of the stars out of the sky with its tail, or does it symbolize something else? Are these symbols or miracles?

You can’t just assume they’re all literal. Nor can one assume that they are all symbols, as liberals often do when the text is reporting something that Christians have historically considered miraculous. God works miracles – the authors of the Bible recognized this – and you will not understand what they mean if you approach the texts and expect to see a symbol whenever something strange is recorded.

We mustn’t be biased on the question either way. We need to look to the faith and try to learn the language and cultures of the time in the Bible, and then say to ourselves, “What was most likely the author’s intention when he said that?”

The spiritual one Sense

By definition, the spiritual sense of a text includes more than what can be derived from an oral reading of it. The spiritual sense is discerned by looking beyond the text to the people and events it records.

As the Catechism states: “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not just the text of Scripture , but also the realities and events it speaks of can be signs” (CCC 117). In other words, the selection of certain things for inclusion in Scripture points to other spiritual realities that are part of God’s plan.

The Catechism emphasizes moral sense as one of the three traditional divisions of spiritual sense and states that “the events recorded in Scripture should cause us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were “written for our instruction” (ibid., cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11).

In 1 Corinthians 10:11 the apostle discusses passages from the Pentateuch , in which the Israelites sinned and were punished by God. He then says, “Now this was done as a warning to them, but it was written for our instruction about which the end of times has come.”

Here Paul recognizes what we (and catechism) would call moral Classify the sense of the text – i.e. that we must not sin or be punished. This message goes beyond what the words of the text say, but it is still likely that the human author intended that very message to be understood by his readers (including his immediate readers, not just those “about whom this the end of the ages has come”).

Reading moral messages from Scripture can be difficult, but it is fairly uncontroversial. The other two traditional divisions of the spiritual sense – the allegorical and the anagogic – are much more controversial. In these cases, the meaning seems far beyond anything a human author could imagine. Yet New Testament authors like Paul clearly single out such meanings.

Early Christians inherited from late Judaism a tradition of seeing allegorical meanings in the pages of Scripture, meanings that went beyond the words of the text itself conveyed .

Paul provides one of the clearest examples of this in Galatians 4:21-31, where he draws an analogy between the old and new covenants and Abraham’s wives Sarah and Hagar. The concubine Hagar was a slave, and Paul saw in her a fitting symbol of Old Covenant bondage, while in Sarah, the free woman, he found a fitting symbol of Christ’s liberty.

The Allegorical Method, the Reading the Old Testament was common in contemporary Judaism, although even here Paul would have used it to cement his place in Christian Bible interpretation. He even uses the term allegory for what he is doing, saying, “These things are allegorized” (Gal. 4:24, my translation).

Elsewhere Paul finds Old Testament elements that Images of the New Testament are realities. For example, at Romans 5:14 he states that Adam was “a type [Greek, tupos] of him who was to come”—i.e. H. Christ. This contributed to the development of the Christian biblical interpretation of typology, the study of Old Testament things (‘types’) that might be seen as images of New Testament things (their ‘countertypes’).

If so were to read the text of Genesis and simply go by what he says, he would not conclude that Adam is a foreshadowing of a Christ to come. Nor would one conclude that Sarah and Hagar symbolize two covenants, neither of which had yet been made. Christians found that they found more than one sense in the sacred text—the sense of what the text itself says and a greater sense that goes beyond it.

The Catechism comments on the allegorical sense: “We can gain a deeper understanding of events by recognizing their meaning in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of the victory of Christ and also of Christian baptism” (CCC 117).

In cases like these, the Old Testament type in question is (the crossing of the Red Sea). sea) has already found its counterparts (victory of Christ and baptism). In other cases, biblical realities appear to be types of things for which the antitype has not yet come.

Thus, in relation to the anagogical sense, the Catechism states that “we have realities and events in relation to theirs eternal meaning that leads us to our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem” (ibid.).

Because the allegorical and the anagogical sense both involve a typology, is it tempting to see them as such basically the same kind of meaning, a key difference between them being whether we live before or after the antitype pointed to by the sign.

This points to the fact that the division of spiritual meaning is somewhat arbitrary. There are other ways it could be divided. The literal sense could also be subdivided. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas considers a number of possible divisions for the literal sense (cf. ST I:1:10).

As we have seen above, the Catechism states that “according to an ancient lore, one can distinguish the four senses as we have them. It was not said that this is the only way to share the meanings of Scripture. It is a traditional way of doing this, and a notable and useful way of doing it (otherwise the Catechism would not mention it), but not the only one.

Nevertheless, this is not the main reason that the division is controversial.

Abuse of the Four Senses

A much more significant reason, particularly in Protestant circles, is the concern that acceptance of the allegorical and anagogical senses will lead to chaos. It is one thing for Paul or the Gospel writers to extract typological meanings from the Old Testament, but for many Protestants the prospect of allowing interpreters to carve out their own meanings is unsettling. What boundaries would keep performers from pulling all sorts of crazy meanings?

Catholics are in a better position. Free from the pressure of sola scriptura to stick only to the meanings that can be drawn directly from the verbal sense of the text, and guided by limiting factors such as tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium, they have felt more comfortable to follow the example of the apostles in trying to discern the allegorical and anagogical meanings found in Scripture.

Nevertheless, the Catholic use of spiritual exegesis has not been free from problems. In an exuberance to explore the spiritual meaning of a text, Catholics sometimes see a plethora of meanings, some of which are quite dubious. At other times they assume that because tradition speaks of the four senses of Scripture, every passage must have each of the four senses, but this is not easy to ascertain.

Sometimes Catholic exegetes forget the concrete Principles that limit the kind of spiritual interpretations that can be made. These principles include: (1) the literal sense must be recognized as the primary sense, (2) proposed spiritual meanings must not contradict the literal sense, and (3) spiritual meanings are not used to substantiate teachings, only to to enlighten teachings. p>

Apologists in particular run the risk of forgetting the last principle, especially on the subject of Mary. The reason, understandably, is that the Marian teaching in Scripture is not explicit but only implied. Desiring to explicitly justify the Marian teachings, apologists are tempted to turn to the spiritual sense of various texts, sometimes emphasizing so much that they lose sight of the literal meaning of the passage.

< Thomas Aquinas warned against such situations. Considering the objection that a multiplicity of senses might create confusion and destroy the power of theological argument, he replied: "There is no confusion in Scripture, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone every argument can emanate drawn, and not from those intended in allegory” (ST I:1:10 ad 1). After him, the Catholic exegetical tradition recognized that doctrine can only be founded on the literal sense of a passage. The function of the spiritual sense is to illuminate teachings, not to prove them.

Apologists would do well to remember this. If they delve too deeply into the spiritual sense and present it as evidence to unbelievers, they risk damaging their credibility. A better strategy is to admit the limits of what can be proved from the literal sense and simply acknowledge that not every article of the Christian faith can be proved from Scripture alone.


Content Creator Zaid Butt joined Silsala-e-Azeemia in 2004 as student of spirituality. Mr. Zahid Butt is an IT professional, his expertise include “Web/Graphic Designer, GUI, Visualizer and Web Developer” PH: +92-3217244554

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