4 Senses of Scripture

Scripture is a critical element in the life of a Christian, but it does not take much effort to see the abuse and twisting that the Bible has endured at the hands of well meaning and not-so well meaning people over the centuries.  

To protect against such error, the Bible should be read within the context of the Church.  This means many things but one aspect of context is a particular approach to reading Scripture.  

This approach can be summarized as the Four Senses of Scripture.  From early times times, the faithful approached Scripture this way.  Faithful Jews prior to Christ used this method, and it became incorporated into the life of the Church from the beginning.  

Later in history these 4 Senses were listed and categorized with helpful labels by St. John Cassian (360-435).  The labels stuck and have been used ever since.  

What are they?

  1. Literal:  Another way of stating this is literary.  Obviously not every Scripture is meant literally.  Genre must be considered.  Trees clapping their hands is a poetic metaphor.  However, this sense is the obvious face value meaning of the Scripture.
  2. Typological/Allegorical:  Types are pictures or images that have New Testament meaning, or point to something greater than their literal meaning.  Throughout the Old Testament, multiple people and images are types of Christ because of the role they play.  Their character or action demonstrates an aspect of Christ. A good example is the bronze serpent in Numbers.  The people were dying as a result of venomous snakes invading the camp.  God commands Moses to forge a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole for all to see.  Those who looked up the serpent were saved from the bites of the snakes.  Jesus himself uses this as a type of himself.  God would lift Him up (on the cross), and all who look upon Him in faith are saved from the sting of death.  
  3. Moral:  The moral sense is the practical application of Scripture on an individual or corporate level.  To see this reading of Scripture in action, read through the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete that is prayed during Lent in the Orthodox Church.  The people and stories of the OT are vehicles to reveal one's own heart and lead to repentance.  
  4. Anagogical/Heavenly/Eschatological:  "Anagog"  comes from Greek meaning to go up.  So this sense looks at how a passage points to the end and fulfillment of all things.  How do the images of a passage point us the Kingdom of Heaven?

Let's take the city of Jerusalem for an example.  Jerusalem is featured throughout Scripture, so how would that city be understood through the four senses.  

  • Literal:  the physical city that we find in the Middle East.
  • Typological:  the Christian Church or the people of God.  
  • Moral:  the faithful Christian
  • Anagogical:  the heavenly Kingdom in all its fullness

In the Middle Ages, a catechetical poem was written to help people remember the senses and is good for us to remember today:
The letter shows us what God and our fathers did; The allegory shows us where our faith is hid; The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life; The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.
Questions:  Are any of these understandings new for you?  Which ones are easier to see than others?  
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