By Scott Hahn
Spiritual interpretation is a science that is not just analytical, but also spiritual. And it is not just a science, but an art, one that is rooted in contemplation. Some typology is the fruit of scientific exegesis in the Spirit; other typology represents the fruit of personal contemplation. Not all types are created equal.
In order to clarify the discernment of spiritual senses, the Fathers distinguished three spiritual senses: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Thus, in addition to its literal sense, a given passage could also convey a moral truth, about how a Christian should live; an allegorical truth, about the life or person of Jesus Christ; and an anagogical truth, about heaven. Ephrem, Athansius, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Cassian all used spiritual exegesis to draw doctrinal and mystical riches from the Bible. Augustine went so far as to say he couldn’t have become a Christian without first learning the spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament—so scandalized had he been by the wrongdoings of the Hebrew patriarchs.
Of course, not all spiritual exegetes were as brilliant and artful as Augustine. Some allegorical commentary is overwrought, some is weird, and some is just plain wrong, based on mistranslations or misunderstandings of the biblical books. A few early commentators habitually applied the allegorical method to the exclusion of the literal, historical sense. This made for some unfortunate results in spiritual exegesis that flatly contradicted historical fact. Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke against such abuses when he argued for the primacy of the literal sense: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”
The excesses tended to give spiritual exegesis a bad name. As a result, among scholars, its popularity has had ups and downs throughout history. The twentieth century tended to be a downer, when commentators, by and large, overly concerned themselves with the literal sense of Scripture. Among some, this played out in rationalism run amok: a slavishly historical reading of the Bible, ignoring the action of a God who transcends history. At the opposite extreme, the overemphasis of the literal became a fundamentalist pursuit of the “plain sense” of Scripture, forgetting that what seems “plain” to us moderns might seem perfectly wrong to a long-ago Israelite or Christian.
Yet the Catholic Church has never thrown out the proverbial baby with the allegorical bathwater of some commentaries. The Church has consistently encouraged an integral reading of Scripture, which includes the literal and spiritual senses.
This integral meaning, according to Tradition, is reading Scripture as if God mattered. Or, in the gentler words of Vatican II, it’s reading the Bible “with its divine authorship in mind” (DV, 12).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church unhesitatingly endorses the spiritual exegesis of the Bible: “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church” (no. 115, emphasis omitted). The Bible in “all its richness.” Now, that’s some guarantee!
The Catechism follows up its guarantee with specifics: “By this re-reading in the Spirit of Truth, starting from Christ, the figures are unveiled (cf. 2 Cor 3:14–16). Thus, the flood and Noah’s ark prefigured salvation by Baptism (cf. 1 Pet 3:21), as did the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Water from the rock was the figure of the spiritual gifts of Christ, and manna in the desert prefigured the Eucharist, ‘the true bread from heaven’ (John 6:32; cf. 1 Cor 10:1–6)” (no. 1094).
Practically speaking, what does all this mean? Jesus wants you and me to read the Bible in its fullest sense. He wants us to see what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things”—not just the surface beauty, though that, too, can be delightful. He wants us to have it all.
Learning to read the Bible this way means learning to read, and even to see, all over again. Yet this is not merely a technique. It’s a grace, and we’ll never gain it on our own steam. So we must begin with prayer. Such was the advice of Origen, the third-century Scripture scholar, who wrote that “the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge.” That’s why most of the old Catholic Bibles came with the “Prayer to the Holy Spirit” printed up front.
In the Spirit, we’ll learn to do more than look at the things of this world; together, we’ll learn to look through them to God.
Dr. Scott Hahn is a world-renowned biblical scholar, author of over forty books on Scripture and the faith. His book Scripture Matters: Essays on Reading the Bible from the Heart of the Church offers just what the title implies: an accessible and comprehensive introduction to reading the Bible from the heart of the Church.