We may be tempted to treat the Bible as a family memory book. We can pour over the stories contained therein and receive a fuller sense of who our ancestors were and who we ourselves are as their heirs. This is true enough, by praying over the stories of prophets and apostles, we see icons of holiness and encounter invitations to happiness and holiness in our own lives.
Further, as a photo album captures snippets and stories, we come to know about God himself. The glimpses he offers of his own wisdom, power, and might help us to understand more about God. He tells us things we never would have guessed: like that he is a Trinity, a union of Father, and, Holy Spirit or that he offers us outpourings of his grace in the sacraments.
But it would be a mistake if we thought that’s all the Scriptures are. They are not a one-dimensional book. They are not a mere repetition of history; they are more than the sharing of memories. The Bible is God’s Holy Word, living and true.
By telling us about himself, God invites us into a dialogue with him. Pope Benedict XVI teaches, “The word of God draws each of us into a conversation with the Lord: the God who speaks teaches us how to speak to him.” God wants us to know the deepest, most authentic love. By pouring over the Scriptures we begin to discover the fullness of who God is, and in so doing we illuminate the mystery of who we ourselves are.
Because the Bible is not flat, because the words of salvation on its holy pages are living words, we cannot simply recite and pass over it. There is a richness to every verse, a harmony of meaning to be found.
Our forebears knew this. Scripture has historical and spiritual meanings. A wealth of symbolism and meaning can be hidden in just a single verse.
The Four Senses of Scripture
The medievals had a little Latin rhyme which says “Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.” Translated poetically, it means: “The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did, / The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid, / The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life, / The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.”
These four dimensions of interpretation offer just one set of keys to help Catholics mine the hidden meaning of the Sacred Page.
The Literal Meaning
The literal meaning of a verse asks: what is the meaning of past events as reported in the sacred text. Here we can think of something like the historical meaning. The literal meaning of a verse is more or less what happened (On a more technical note, some theologians like Aquinas think the literal meaning can be literary. This is how Aquinas allows for a literal meaning in poetic passages like the Psalms). John Cassian says the literal meaning, or narrative record, relays “things past and visible.”
The Allegorical Meaning
The allegorical meaning is sometimes called the Christological or typological meaning. The idea here is that events and symbols can refer to Christ. References to Jesus can even be found in the Old Testament. For example, when Moses places a golden serpent on a pole to cure the Israelites’ snakebites (Numbers 21), Christians see it as a type for Christ who saves us from our sins on the cross. St. Paul himself offers us this method of interpreting the Bible, when he writes, “The rock was Christ” in 1 Corinthians 10. St. Paul sees in the story of a rock offering water to quench the thirst of the Isrealites in the desert Christ, who gives living water (John 7:37-39).
The Moral Meaning
The Bible, though, also offers us a way to live here and now. Some verses expound moral codes familiar to us all (such as the 10 Commandments in Exodus or the Beatitudes in Matthew 5). But many of Jesus’ parables also have a moral. They instruct us on how to live. We can think too of the many words of wisdom of the prophets or of the advice given in books like Proverbs and Sirach. The Bible offers a guide to life, offering us real courses of action to carry out in our own day.
The Anagogical Meaning
Finally, the Bible is also a book about what is to come. Not only does the Bible relay past events, but it speaks to us of God’s promises for the future. These future things (eschatological things to use the technical theological term) are as real in the story of Christian salvation as past events: death, judgment, purgatory, heaven, or hell. Jesus reveals to us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like a wedding feast (among other images) and that he is the key to arriving there.
An Application of theFour Senses
So what does this look like in practice? Let’s consider Mark 1:16-20:
As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.
The literal – Jesus walked along the shores of the sea and called Simon, Andrew, James and John to be apostles.
The allegorical – By following Jesus and becoming apostles, they become fishers of men, that is men who announce the Gospel of Jesus.By saying I will make you, Jesus reveals that his own person is the key to their vocation.
The moral – We should, like Simon and Andrew, and James and John, listen to the voice of Jesus. We should obey the Lord’s promptings without delay. We should not allow anything to be an obstacle to discipleship.
The anagogical – Jesus calls us together. Just as the first disciples are not called alone—they are called two by two—we shall be united in the Kingdom of Heaven. There Jesus will give us a new fraternity. We shall love as brothers and sisters, but the bond of charity that unites us will not be blood or family ties, but will be the person of Christ himself.