The Four Senses of Scripture
The early Christians very quickly came to see Christ in all the Scripture, under three lenses. Along with the literal sense, conveying the plain meaning, these have come to be called the “Four Senses of Scripture” and remain wonderful lights by which we can have a transformative encounter with the person of Christ in His holy word, thanks to the grace of the Holy Spirit.
As the dejected disciples walked to Emmaus, they unknowingly encountered the Risen Lord, who ‘opened the Scriptures to them’ in a way that made their hearts burn like never before (cf. Lk. 24,32ff). They were familiar with the literal sense, where the prophets had promised a messiah who might deliver them from oppression in this world. But they were not ready for this meeting with Christ, who would completely transform their take on the Scriptures. We are told ‘He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.’ It so happens that Christ fulfils every page of the Scriptures, and not simply by being the Messiah whom the prophets foretold. Indeed, every protagonist and event in the Old Testament in some way foreshadows Christ, who shows forth its deeper meaning. Thus, we can affirm with St Augustine that “the New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” Being the principal author of the Scriptures, God is able to use real events and people as if they were ‘words’ conveying further meaning.
Adam is first of all Adam, but more significantly he prefigures Christ, who, when put to sleep on the cross, comes to behold the Bride formed from His pierced side as truly ‘flesh from his flesh.’ Noah and Moses truly led their people through water to salvation, but they are more significantly figures of Christ who longed for the baptism and Passover of His cross, by which He would lead His people from death to life. Similarly, the life of the psalmist David, who, as a shepherd of Israel, slayed the enemy and became king, truly sings about Christ the King whose reign over the house of David will have no end.
Countless examples like this are familiar to us and these only begin to touch the surface of the spiritual meaning of the Sacred Scriptures, which itself has two further dimensions. The way in which Christ fulfils all the Scripture during his earthly life, constitutes the second sense of the Scripture (the ‘allegorical’). It was perhaps not even the sense that most inflamed the burning hearts of the disciples. The third sense of Scripture is even more dynamic and personalised. It is the way that everything that has come true in Christ ‘the Head’ during His earthly life, must now be fulfilled in ‘His Body the Church’, from Pentecost until He comes again. This is called the ‘moral’ sense of the Scriptures. The whole Church and each soul in the Church, must ‘follow the Lamb, wherever He goes’ and allow Christ’s victory of love to be applied in a personal way. Thus, the deepest meaning of our own earthly life, is the way in which Christ fulfils every word of the Scriptures right now, in our souls and in the whole Church through history, if only we be attentive and available to grace. All must enter into the mystery of spiritual fruitfulness as we embrace the relationship between the new Adam and His Bride the Church. We all must ‘pass over’ from death to life, being fed by the true manna from heaven, as we heed His new law of love. Even the disciples on the way to Emmaus found themselves participating in a personalised way in Christ’s Eucharistic banquet, before they even knew it. He was applying His own mystery to them, even while He was teaching them about Himself.
The final spiritual sense of the Scriptures, the ‘anagogical,’ shows the way in which Christ ultimately and magnificently reveals His fulfilment of all Scripture at the end of time in glory, when God will be ‘all in all’. It is eschatological – in that it shows forth the end as a beacon of hope to spur on our striving. It involves lifting our eyes to the fulness of Christ’s victory on the cross in its full heavenly implications. One day, God willing, we will bear glorious witness to the transformative and victorious work of God’s love in our souls and marvel that the whole Christ, Head and members, fulfils all Scripture for the whole of eternity in splendid bliss.
Living Advent in 3-D – Let there be light
We could begin our Advent adventure with any Scripture, but let us launch with the words: “Let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that it was good.’ (Gen. 1,3). In the literal sense, God is indeed the author of physical light, which has an historical beginning. In the allegorical sense, God is commanding the Incarnation and indeed the Transfiguration and the Resurrection: ‘Let the light of the world come into our darkened world’. ‘Let the light of Christ overcome the darkness of sin on the cross’. In the moral sense, He is commanding the victory of truth and love within each of our souls and within His whole Body the Church:
‘Let the Church become a light for the nations, a city on a hill, shining the light of Christ into the world’s darkness until the Son of Man returns.’ ‘Let Robert (or whatever your name is) enlighten the hearts of those around Him by bearing witness to Christ’s power to understand, transform, forgive, and heal.’ In the ‘anagogical’ sense, God is commanding the fulfilment of all things: ‘Let the whole of Creation come into the light of God, where there will be no need for sun or for moon seeing God and the Lamb will light the city.’
‘The people that walked in darkness have indeed seen a great light.’ Christ has come to earth; He has flooded our souls; He draws us towards eternal life with Him forever in His glorious light. How might we best facilitate this manifestation of light within us as we prepare for Christmas in a few weeks? What darkness must we ourselves emerge from? What forgiveness is needed – to be welcomed within our own repentant hearts or offered by us in order to illuminate the darkness of hurt, brokenness, and sin all around us? What do we need to bring to the light so that it might become, light, through the sacrament of Reconciliation?
Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! – in the Church, in our souls, in every heart, and in heavenly glory. Bless our efforts this Advent, however feeble, and through them, dispose us to be truly ‘with God’, Who has given everything to be ‘God-with-us’.
Dr Robert Loretz
Dr Robert Loretz has recently graduated with
a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of
Auckland specialising in virtue ethics. He has
studied theology and philosophy at Good
Shepherd Theological College in Auckland
and at the Ecole St. Jean in France with the
Community of St. John. He currently devotes
his time to the Sanctuary of Fourviere, in
North Canterbury, working closely with the
Community of the Beatitudes to enhance
the liturgical music and formation offered to
visitors and retreatants.