BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (21) – Are there layers of meaning in Scripture?

Image Caption: Lamb of God, Basilica of Sts Cosmas and Damian, Rome

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

“In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to (1) what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and (2) to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 109). Ordinary human language usually involves several layers of meaning. We can expect the same of Sacred Scripture. How can we be sure about the meaning or sense of Bible passages?

Point 115 of the CCC tells us: “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the (1) literal and the (2) spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the (2a) allegorical,  (2b) moral, and (2c) anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.”

(1) What is the literal sense?

“The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal’ (St Thomas Aquinas, S Th I, q1, a10, ad I)” (CCC 116).

Exegesis? What is that? Exegesis (from Greek exegeisthai, to interpret or explain) is the work of interpreting or explaining Sacred Scripture. Those who carry this work are called “exegetes.”

(2) How about the spiritual sense?

“Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117). Persons, things, and events can symbolize future realities in three ways. CCC 117 also describes these.

(2a) “The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism (cf I Cor 10:2).”

Indeed, if we make a deep study of the Old Testament, we will discover that many things, persons and events there prefigure the Catholic faith: we can use the Old Testament to prove that the Catholic Church is the religion that God has prepared and established.

(2b) “The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St Paul says, they were written ‘for our instruction’ (I Cor 10:11; cf Heb 3:1 – 4:11)” (CCC 117). The Bible does not only impart ideas for our understanding. It moves us to action. It tells us what we ought to do.

(2c) “The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, ‘leading’). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem (cf Rev 21:1 – 22:5)” (CCC 117). The Bible constantly reminds us that our home is not in this fleeting world, but in the afterlife.

Exegetes have to take these meanings into account when explaining Sacred Scripture. The CCC (no 119), quoting Dei Verbum, says: “‘It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God’ [DV 12 #3].”

The Catechism adds some words of St Augustine: “But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me” (St Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei 5, 6: PL 42, 176).

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