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Jane Korvemaker explains how to use the two keys to understanding Scripture.

The Bible. Seventy-three books. Nearly as many authors. Even ghost-writing in authors’ names … and so. Many. Words. How do we make sense of it? How do we know if we’re reading it the way it’s supposed to be read? Well, my friend, I’m glad you’re asking those questions! Or if you’re not, you’re willing at least to entertain a short breakdown of how we’re meant to read Scripture according to the Church. 

There are two aspects to understanding Scripture -- learning the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The spiritual sense of Scripture consists of three sense: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #115-118; cf. Providentissumus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu). Let’s break it down. 

2020 1102 JKorvemaker CC BY NC SA 40

The Literal Sense 

First and foremost, the literal sense is the antithesis of literalism! It does not mean that we read and interpret the text in a fundamentalist, literalist way. Even so far back as St. Jerome we find writings in opposition of reading the Bible this way (see Spiritus Paraclitus art. 50-51). Instead, it is an honest assessment, analysis, and professional critique, if you will, about the specific text in the Bible and its context. 

It is here we ask questions of a historical, cultural, and economic nature, ask what type of literature it is (was it a historical account or poetic?), use textual criticism and the historical-critical method, and other sciences that contribute to understanding better what the author literally meant to say (and to whom!) in the writing of the inspired text. This is a large chunk of work to do, which may never end! The development of the sciences used continues today (just think of the archaeological discoveries we’ve had) and they are a tool that serves Biblical studies in an absolutely essential way. The better we understand this literal sense of the text, the more authentic our interpretation of it becomes, and the stronger our foundation. 

We also consult how our Tradition has understood the texts, read the Church Fathers and those who were close to the disciples of Jesus, and understand how they learnt to understand the Scriptures. 

The Spiritual Sense 

This sense is not apart from the literal, but based upon it. It is here that we look at the allegorical sense, which is looking at the texts with the Light of Christ on our minds. It is how we understand Jesus as the second Adam and how Eve prefigured Mary, it is how we understand Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as prefiguring Christ on the Cross. We look at the text’s moral sense, and how our actions have a profound effect on our relationship with God. Here we take our guidance from Scripture, especially Jesus, for how to live a holy life so that we may approach God clothed in holiness. And the anagogical sense, which is how we interpret the Sacred Writings in light of our eternal homeland and final resting place. 

As Catholics, we do not interpret the spiritual sense of Scripture without understanding the literal sense. While insights outside of the context of the literal sense may provide opportunity to become closer to God, it has no basis, no evidence, in Scripture. We honour the Bible by taking from it what was meant to be passed on to us -- given through understanding what the author intended (through using the tools of science) and through the interpretation of the New Testament writers and early Church Fathers. I only highlight this as it is so often repeated in official Catholic teaching on interpretation of the Bible. I suspect that this might be more common with our Protestant brothers and sisters, and so reading the Bible this way differentiates us significantly. 


Their Unity 

In no way does learning more about Scripture’s origins detract from the unity of Scripture; they exist together and it is through the scope of learning more about their senses that we can better understand that which God gives us to know of our salvation. What this is called, coined by John Paul II, is an Incarnational reading of Scripture (The Scripture Documents edited and translated by Richard Béchard, page 174-175). We do not ignore the human origins of the text; to do so denies the humanity in which God clothed himself. Nor do we ignore the divine nature of the text, ignoring the author from whom we received the Scriptures. I like this image, it is so very fitting an image for how we approach Scripture and denying the humanity or the divinity has dire consequences. 

There is much, much more to Scripture study than just these, but a good solid footing is essential. I recently read through the entire book of Deuteronomy and was enthralled! Who knew! Having a commentary along with it helped to break open the book for me to understand the background of the text better and see its influence on the Jewish people and our Christian heritage. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt was that there was more than one covenant made between the Israelites and God while they were wandering in the desert! Deuteronomy reads much like a lamentation of the people’s inability to keep the covenant -- and this is even before they enter the Promised Land. But Moses gives them hope on the cusp of entering the land promised to them, with a command to ratify the new covenant and to render their hearts to God. 

His message is continually one of that covenant relationship, calling us to sacrifice our pride and give our whole selves to Him. 

What has been your most recent insight into a Biblical passage? 

We honour the Bible by taking from it what was meant to be passed on to us. #catholicmom

For further reading:

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible Volume 1: The Old Testament by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre.

Dei Verbum. Documents of Vatican II.

The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Divino Afflante Spiritu. Pope Pius XI.

Copyright 2020 Jane Korvemaker
Images (top to bottom): Tina Miroshnichenko (2020), Pexels; Jane Korvemaker (CC BY NC-SA 4.0); Unsplash (2018)