The Senses of Scripture Pt. 2

29 Jan

Here comes part 2.  This will make no sense if you haven’t read part 1 (  This isn’t a second blog post, it is the second half of a really long blog that I cut in half to make it of a more readable length.  So once you’ve finished the 1st part, enjoy (or not) the following.


While this approach certainly kept me away from less responsible readings of Scripture, it also created a distance between the contemporary Christian life and the Bible for me.  I studied the Bible the way one would study any other historical text.  I sought after the intended meaning of the author in his own context thousands of years ago.  This was helpful in deconstructing certain elements of Evangelical belief, but didn’t always bring the Bible closer to my own life.  But then I recall reading an book that discussed the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament.  When you read the NT in cases where it quotes the OT, and then go back and read the OT in its original context, it’s clear that the NT authors are using the OT Scriptures in ways that are certainly not what the OT authors were originally talking about, especially when the NT authors use OT passages to apply to Jesus.  So what gives?  Are the NT authors twisting the OT to serve their purposes?  How can this be if the ultimate test of a legitimate reading of Scripture is adherence to authorial intent?  The book talked about how the NT authors used a Christological or Christotelic hermaneutic to read the OT (a hermaneutic is the guiding principals one uses to read and interpret a text).  This means that the NT authors began with the belief that Jesus was the Messiah who God raised from the dead, and then went back to read the OT in light of this to see how it foreshadowed this and how the OT story of Israel was headed for this moment all along.  Jesus is the interpretive starting point for the NT authors, not the OT authors’ original intended meaning.  The OT texts take on new meaning when applied to Jesus, meaning not intended by their human authors.  However, this only works if one believes that there is a secondary author at work within the Scriptures who is also the Author of history.  Only God could guide the course of history and of His people in such a way that it would in some ways foreshadow the moment when His Son became man, and did so in ways that were completely beyond what the people at that time would ever comprehend, even the biblical authors.

Around and after this time I discovered that from early in the Church, developing into the middle ages, there was the idea that the Bible had multiple senses of meaning, or ways it could be read, with only one of them bound strictly to authorial intent.  Along with the literal or plain sense of Scripture (what the human author intended, authorial intent), developed the idea of spiritual senses, or interpretations guided by God’s Spirit that were not necessarily what the author intended, but were nonetheless legitimate readings of Scripture.

Here are some of the senses of Scripture:

Allegorical:  This is a way of reading Scripture that treats the objects of the story as symbols for other things.  The text is read as a code, so to speak.  St. Paul himself uses allegory in his letter to the Galatians when using the story about Abraham’s sons as a way of speaking about the covenant.  Clearly Paul’s usage is not what the story of Abraham or the book of Genesis “meant” in its original context, but St. Paul still uses the story to explain a truth not originally intended by Genesis’ author.  He gives the story new meaning and uses the story as a way of explaining a previously unrelated truth or teaching.  This is how allegory works, and allegory is a legitimate way of reading Scripture when the “meaning” it discloses is within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.

Typological:  This is in many ways similar to the allegorical approach, but respects authorial intent a bit more.  Typology is basically seeing how the OT foreshadows the NT.  Just as Israel was saved and reborn as a new people by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, so the Christian is saved by passing through the waters of baptism.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the “whale” (lit. great fish) for  three days before being spewed onto dry land, so Jesus was in the grave for three days before rising from the dead.  An example of this from Scripture is in Jesus’ (/John’s) words in the Gospel of John, chapter 3, vv. 13-15, which says:

“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus/John (Jesus is recorded as saying this in the Gospel written by John) here refers to a story in Numbers chapter 21 where the Hebrew people become impatient with God and with Moses and complain, which God responds to by sending “fiery serpents” among their camp, resulting in many deaths.  This results in the people asking Moses to pray to God on their behalf.  So Moses does, and God tells him to make a bronze serpent on a pole.  When the people who have been bitten look at the serpent, they will live.  Thus in the Gospel of John, this is set as a type of Jesus Himself being lifted up, and all who look to Him/believe in Him will have eternal life.  Typology (especially) allows for the acknowledgement that Moses, nor the author of Numbers (if they are different people) had no intention of saying anything about the person of Jesus or Messiah figure to come centuries later, but that it in a way foreshadows Jesus’ redemptive death.  This sense emphasizes the way in which God is also the “author” of Scripture and the author of history, who can create foreshadowings throughout history and his Scriptures, but emphasizes it without imputing meaning to the human authors completely foreign to their contexts and intended meanings.

Tropological/moral:  This sense is a way of reading that sees moral lessons and examples within the stories of Scripture, even if these lessons may not have explicitly been the “point” or intended meaning of the story.  Much of OT history may have been written to tell the story of Israel’s history, and contain the good, the bad, and the ugly, not always intending to set the characters up as figures to emulate or not, but they can be read as examples of good, bad, or (more often) mixed moral examples when one employs this sense of Scripture.

Anagogical:  Anagogical, meaning “looking up,” has to do with looking forward, or looking up to the future hope of heaven for the Christian.  One example that I can think of is how the story of the Hebrew’s crossing of the Jordan river found in Joshua 3 is used in much gospel and folk music as a way of talking about crossing through death into heaven.  Just as the Hebrew people were in danger of death and crossed over into the great life of “the land of milk and honey,”  so the Christian crosses through death into the life that lies beyond, life with Christ.  The anagogical also clearly goes beyond authorial intent, but can be a healthy reading of Scripture at times.

What all of these “Spiritual” readings of Scripture have in common is that they go beyond what the human authors intended to mean in their original context.  They begin (as we always, inevitably do) with certain presuppositions and presupposed beliefs.  The OT is read presupposing the NT, it is read presupposing the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.  The Bible is read with certain moral and ethical beliefs presupposed, such as belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.  These Spiritual readings can be healthy ways of reading the Scripture that enable the production of new meaning in a way that strengthens the faith of the reader.  Because God (as well as humans) is also the author of the Scriptures in some sense, it is legitimate and healthy to find meanings that go beyond what the human author intended, but seem to be intended by the divine author, as one is guided by that author (the Holy Spirit, hence the term “Spiritual” senses of Scripture).  As a word of caution, however, these methods could be dangerous if one operates without any limits on the doctrinal and ethical ideas one finds in Scripture, and could theoretically lead to doctrinal and moral anarchy (although this is already the case in much of Protestantism even where people try to stick to the literal/plain sense).  One must begin with the right presuppositions, such as the divinity and divine/human nature of Christ, the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and sound moral principles, principles and beliefs handed down in the Church for centuries.

So this seems to bring me to my present in my long, evolving journey of how I understand our Sacred Scriptures.  I wanted to tell a bit about my journey to discovering these ways of reading Scripture that engage the Christian’s imagination and respect, but are not confined to, authorial intent while keeping the Scriptures from being relegated to mere historical documents, remaining alive within the community of faith, the Church.  Hopefully this has been helpful, or at least interesting, and please leave thoughts and feedback in the comments section.


The book I mention in the article is Peter Enns Inspiration and Incarnation (  Also check out Enns’ article on biblical interpretation in Second-temple Judaism (

Here’s an article that discusses the senses of Scripture and how they are understood in the Catholic tradition

Also check out (Anglican) N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, which mentions (but not in depth) the idea of the multiple senses of Scripture, and is an all around decent book.


One Response to “The Senses of Scripture Pt. 2”

  1. danielericcummings January 29, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    I want to leave a preemptive comment for those reading this (especially Joel), and say that I hope I haven’t downplayed the importance of the literal/plain sense of scripture and with it the historical-grammatical method. That may be the most important sense of scripture, but what I hoped to accomplish was to show that it is not the only legitimate sense of scripture, and tell about my discovery of other ways of reading scripture.

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