Part I: Three Rules
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives 3 principles for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Any time you come upon a passage that makes you ask “Huh?”, simply:
- Be attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.
- Read it within the living Tradition of the whole Church.
- Be attentive to the analogy of faith.
The first one is easy: whatever interpretation you give a passage can’t contradict other passages of Scripture. No matter how many human authors are involved in the composition of the sacred books, God is the primary author of Scripture. It has a divine unity that transcends its human multiplicity; God does not contradict Himself. If your interpretation of I Samuel 15 makes God out to be a bloodthirsty moral monster, you’ve got to somehow reconcile that with things like John 3:16 or I John 4:8.
The second one is also easy: Catholics recognize two modes of transmitting the truths of revelation, not just one. In addition to Sacred Scripture, God has arranged for revelation to be passed on in Sacred Tradition. God does not contradict Himself in either mode. Your interpretation of Matthew 12:46 or Romans 3:23 must be reconciled with the Church’s Tradition on the Perpetual Virginity or Immaculate Conception of Mary.
The third one is less clear, because analogia fidei is a phrase closely associated with Sacred Tradition. It means the proportion of all the truths of the faith, how they all fit together. The Catechism is woefully unclear on this point, sadly, but it does hint briefly that any interpretation of Scripture must cohere with the overall plan of revelation. This would be the broadest and most general of the rules: don’t forget why God is revealing and how He has done so. One of the key components of this rule is general revelation and our knowledge of it in natural theology. Your interpretation of the anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament must be reconciled with the certain conclusions of reason we can reach about the Divine Nature (say, divine simplicity).
So there’s your three:
- don’t contradict Scripture
- don’t contradict Tradition
- don’t jank up the whole plan of Revelation (general and special).
Other than that, have at it. The Magisterium will get involved if you screw up too badly.
Part II: Four Senses
Using those three rules, we can plumb four different levels or kinds of meaning in Scripture:
Where levels 2-4 are collectively known as the “spiritual” senses of Scripture.
The literal sense is pretty much what it sounds like. It is the plain meaning, intended by both God and the human authors. It includes figures of speech and its meaning depends on things like genre. We bring all legitimate historical-critical tools to bear at this level.
The spiritual senses all flow directly from the fact that God is the primary author of Scripture and, as mentioned above in the rules section, it has a transcendent unity. These would not necessarily be known or intended by the human author, although in some cases they could be.
In the allegorical sense, we read the events of the Old Testament as prefigurements of Christ and his saving work. When someone or something from the Old Testament prefigures Christ directly this is often called typology. An example would be the Red Sea representing the forces of sin and death that Christ “holds back” by his saving work, and the armies of Pharaoh representing the forces of Satan trying to drive us into it. Christ can be seen in Moses, so we would call Moses a type.
In the moral sense, we learn how to live. Often times the literal sense contains a moral lesson, like “Don’t swear stupid oaths” or “Lying never pays.” The moral sense goes beyond that; in events we learn how to conduct our own spiritual life. The moral sense may not necessarily correspond with a literal sense “moral.” An example would be the David and Goliath story, in which we learn to confront sin or temptation bravely with the divine assistance (Goliath representing sin or temptation would be an allegorical interpretation; the spiritual senses usually all go together).
The anagogical sense concerns our heavenly destiny. Things and events of Scripture can be understood as foreshadowing the beatific vision. The most famous of all anagogical senses is so common that we don’t think of it as an interpretation anymore: “The Promised Land” as meaning heaven. In the literal sense, it’s a strip of land on the eastern end of the Mediterranean that God promised to His people. Anagogically, it represents the heaven which God has promised us, toward which we strive through the toils and hardships of life (allegorical sense: the wandering in the desert is our life on earth), which we will attain if we remain faithful to God (moral sense: the Israelites would have attained their reward faster and more easily if they had simply obeyed God).
Part III: A Tiny Example
For illustration, here’s a short Gospel passage that is susceptible of a nice spiritual interpretation (Luke 19:3-6):
“And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today. So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully.”
Allegorical: Zacchaeus is the soul; his smallness of stature is the soul’s weakness due to the impairments of original sin. Because of that “shortness” the soul is unable to see Jesus on its own; but there is a sycamore tree placed by God, that is, the Church and her sacraments, by which the soul may ascend to see Jesus. And when this is done, Jesus does truly come and dwell in the soul and brings much joy.
Moral: The zeal and striving of Zacchaeus, in spite of how silly he looks in the eyes of the world, is our model for the entire spiritual life. The towering of the tree over the multitude reminds us of how sure and necessary the Church is for our salvation, and how grave our fault if we do not avail ourselves of it.
Anagogical: Our last end is to see Jesus, the living and true God. But how much more will that seeing be on that day when every tear will be wiped away and we see not in a mirror but face to face? One day the great crowd will not separate us from Jesus, but all will be one in praise of Him.
From time to time I will blog samples, typically ones that I use in school to illustrate the above points or to teach a particular unit. This is not a techno-theoretical exercise, but a work of wisdom. To an outsider or a beginner, the interpretations of the masters can seem to be exceedingly fanciful. It is through prayer and practice that these hidden treasures of Scripture disclose themselves to us. I’m not very good at it, but I have come to see it as an–perhaps the–essential part of the spiritual life.