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Interpreting the Holy Bible

How the "Senses" of Scripture Provide the Foundation for a Proper Interpretive Stance

by Eric Sammons

"In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature."[1]

This is revelation: the self-revealing of God. One of the means by which man is able to encounter this divine revelation is through the Sacred Scriptures. This divinely inspired book reveals to man salvation history: from the creation and fall of man to his redemption and salvation and his final end. In order to "come to share in the divine nature", man must understand the revealed Word of God. Thus, the interpretation of Scripture is necessary. This involves discovering the multiple meanings of the Bible’s passages including the intention of both the human and the divine author. Once these senses are detected, the interpreter can relate them to one another, leading to their explanation. However, interpretation goes beyond just explication; an understanding of the Biblical text must also occur. This twofold process of interpretation opens up the Scriptures for man to enter into and in doing so "have access to the Father".

The passages of the Bible have always been seen in the life of the Church as having the potential for more than one meaning. The Patristics, for example, were fond of searching for references to Christ within the pages of the Old Testament. The Middle Ages offer one of the best-known differentiations of these senses of Scripture; the Medieval Fathers ascribed up to four possible meanings to passages from Scripture: the Literal, Moral, Allegorical, and Anagogical. Today the Church recognizes two main distinctions in the senses of Scripture: the Literal and the Spiritual. Further, the Spiritual sense can be distinguished into the ‘more than literal’, typological and fuller (or sensus plenior) senses. These senses should not be thought of as being separate, but rather as being distinct from one another.

The first of the two major senses to consider for understanding the Scriptures is the Literal sense:

"...let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal."[2] The definition of the Literal sense, according to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, is that "which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors."[3]

What the human authors intended to mean in writing the text of the Bible is the Literal sense. For example, the author of Psalm 22 writes his work in order to console Israel by telling her that although they may face extreme sorrow and suffering, God will yet be victorious.

The Literal sense most often renders just one possible meaning, but can sometimes yield more than one. There are two ways by which a single passage can have multiple literal meanings[4]. The first is common to all human writings. Human language is such that an author can intend several meanings with but one set of words[5]. For example, consider Robert Frost’s classic poem "The Road Less Traveled By". This piece describes someone taking a walk in the forest and coming upon a fork where the road separates into different paths. One of them has been taken more than the other and the person takes the "less traveled" path. Frost’s intention — his meaning — in this poem could simply be to describe a pleasant experience he once had in taking an infrequently utilized course in the woods. However, through his use of words, he also illustrates a common situation in life in which someone is confronted with two choices, and opts for the one that not many others had chosen. Both of these meanings of the poem can be considered its ‘Literal sense’. Frost is able to have a double meaning due to the fluidity of human language. So also can the authors of the Sacred Scriptures intend multiple meanings when writing their work.

The other way by which the Literal sense of a text can possess various meanings is unique to the Word of God. Given its inspired nature, the Scriptures have two authors — the human and the divine. Through inspiration, the divine author can intend a different (yet not contradictory) meaning to that which the human author intended. These meanings must "both [be] made clear by the context"[6] in order to be classified as literal. Although the dynamic and fluid nature of language makes multiple meanings possible, all of them must be loyal to the intent of the text. (Note: how to determine a loyal rendering of the text will be discussed later in this paper).

The Scriptures, due to their divine inspiration, as well as their subject matter, can also possess meanings that are beyond the Literal sense. However, these potential meanings too can only be legitimate inasmuch as they are faithful to the Literal sense of the particular passage. The senses that are beyond the Literal can be generally classified under the name "the Spiritual sense". The source of many of the meanings beyond the strict Literal, especially in the case of the Old Testament, is the Paschal Mystery. This eternal, central event places all of salvation history, which the Scriptures relate, into "a radically new historical context"[7]. The three possible senses within the Spiritual are called the ‘more than literal’, the typological, and the fuller.

Like multiple literal meanings, a ‘more than literal’ sense is possible due to the dynamic nature of language which does not restrict a text to one possible meaning. However, now, unlike the multiple meanings possible in the Literal sense, the source of the various meanings classified as ‘more than literal’ is the truly new context of the Paschal mystery and the influence of the Holy Spirit. Referring again to Psalm 22, one sees that it takes on a new meaning with the crucifixion of the Lord. Christ is the preeminent example of one who undergoes immense suffering, but in the end, rejoices in the ultimate victory of God. In fact, Jesus quotes this psalm while hanging on the Cross, giving authority to a Christological interpretation of it. Further, the new meaning that Christ affixes to Psalm 22 does not violate the original meaning of the text; rather, the new brings the old to a higher level.

The second possible Spiritual sense is called the typological. A type is some person, place, object, or event that represents another such thing due to certain similarities or differences. The type is recognized after the fact by the introduction of the thing it represents — the anti-type. For example, Moses is a type of Christ. Moses was the deliverer of the Old Covenant, Christ is the deliverer of the New Covenant; Moses’ establishment of the Old Law involved one nation, Christ’s establishment of the New is for all nations. Before the introduction into history of Christ, the anti-type, the meaning of the text pertaining to Moses did not contain him as a type of Jesus. However, after the life of Christ, a new meaning was created that is not alien to the original Literal sense. A type and anti-type can both be contained within the Old Testament or within the New Testament, or the type may be in the Old and the anti-type in the New. Both the type and the anti-type must be contained within the Scriptures in order for a meaning to be typological.

Salvation History is not limited to the time periods of the Bible, but extends from the creation of Man until the second coming of the Son of Man. The fuller sense, the third category of the Spiritual sense, recognizes this.

"The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text...when [it is] studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation."[8]

Further revelation or development limits this sense to the later revelation that is present in Sacred Scripture or the development that occurs within the life of the Church following the closure of the deposit of revelation. A preeminent example of this would be the doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though very little is said of her in the Bible, years of further reflection on revelation led the Church to define certain dogmas pertaining to her, to which passages of Scripture could then be associated (i.e. the "enmity" in Gen. 3:15 as it relates to the Immaculate Conception).

Thus, due both to divine inspiration and the dynamism of human communication, especially in the written word, the Holy Scriptures contain various meanings. A human author, writing without the influence of the Holy Spirit, can infuse a text with multiple meanings, as can be seen in poetry. In fact, those works called "classics" are usually ones that allow for the possibility of various interpretations. As the Scriptures are truly a human form of communication, they have this ability as well. Further, as they also possess that unique quality of having "God as an author"[9], they are capable of inexhaustible additional meanings, none of which, however, conflict with the original meaning intended by the human writer.

What is the relationship among these various senses of Scripture? This important question must be answered before an attempt to interpret the Sacred Page can be made. The first rule of proper exegesis is adherence to the normative function of the Literal sense. The Literal sense must be "the indispensable foundation" of the Spiritual sense[10]. The meaning intended by the human author, which is discerned through the valuable historical-critical method, must not be violated in searching for meanings beyond it. Language, although it is dynamic and fluid, does also create limits that cannot be crossed without destroying the integrity of the original meaning. To use the example of the Frost poem mentioned previously, one cannot correctly interpret the passage to mean that Frost was condemning all who take the more traveled path. This explanation of the text would be beyond the limits of the words used. These limits of language must be respected when interpreting a passage.

In addition to the necessity for the Spiritual sense of the Scriptures to be faithful to the Literal meaning of a text, it must also cohere with the Living Tradition of the Church, which includes the Magisterium, the liturgy, and the Patristics as well as other aspects. This is since

"both of them [Scripture and Tradition], flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end."[11]

The Holy Spirit, Who inspired the Scriptures and now guides the Church, is the source of any Spiritual meaning ascribed to a text. An interpretation of the Bible that contradicts the Faith of the Church is illegitimate since it attempts to separate the inseparable: the one Word of God.

"Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."[12]

As this deposit is entrusted to the Church, only she possesses the norm against which all possible meanings must be tested.

Once the senses of Scripture are discovered and their relationship understood, the exegete is prepared for the process of interpretation. This operation consists of two interrelated items. First, one must explain the Literal sense of a passage. The other part of interpretation is the process of understanding. This latter part is interpretation proper, and while it must use the Literal sense, it concerns itself greatly with the Spiritual sense of Scripture. And, whereas these two steps are truly distinct, they cannot be separated in a chronological or other fashion. The interpreter takes with him the initial explanation of the text as he begins to search for an explicitation of it. While exploring this understanding he is constantly testing it against the original explication, thereby gaining a deeper knowledge of both.

The explanation of a text is the attempt, through scientific disciplines, to understand what was the intended meaning of the human author. As Francis Martin describes it,

"[Explanation] is the application of the historical and philological disciplines in striving to understand the utterance of the text."[13]

The procedures that have been developed in the past 100 years, called collectively the historical-critical method, have been invaluable in determining more precisely the meaning of Scripture at this level. The exegete during the explication phase of interpretation would ask certain types of questions. Who is the author? To whom is the author writing? What is the historical situation in which the writing is developed? and so forth. This step in the process is invaluable as it serves as a norming guide in the later stages of the interpretive endeavor.

The process of interpretation is not nearly complete after the initial explanation phase. If the Bible only contained one meaning, the Literal, then explication would be sufficient; however, in order for the text to be truly engaged on all levels, another step is necessary. This stage called understanding is guided by three standards, each of which is a level of reality in interpretation. The Pontifical Biblical Commission recognizes these guides when it writes,

"One then holds together three levels of reality: the biblical text, the Paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit."[14]

In order to understand, and therefore interpret, any passage of Scripture, all three of these realities must be present with the exegete as both a norm and a "light". The importance and necessity of the first of these, the text, has already been seen above. However, the other two, life in the Spirit and the Paschal mystery, are both vital for a proper explicitation of the text as well.

Interpreting in the life of the Spirit consists of participating in the Faith of the Church, in her worship, her beliefs, and her prayers. It involves being formed by the teachings of the Church. Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholic exegetes to participate in the Spirit while interpreting when he exhorted them that "the analogy of faith should be followed"[15]. Faith, that comes from and is directed to the Spirit, should act as a standard and as a light in the interpretive process. As already stated, exegesis that is guided by faith has the Church and her teachings as a norm. Any interpretation that contradicts the previous doctrines of the Church is invalid. However, this "analogy of faith" is more than a simple norming presence:

"...faith...also functions as a light, as a directive principle within the mind."[16]

By participating in the life and faith of the Church, the interpreter is directed toward the real meanings of the text. The Second Vatican Council Fathers recognized this when they admonished,

"...Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written."[17]

As the inspired writers of the Bible participated in the Spirit and let themselves be guided by Him, so also the exegete must participate in that same Spirit and thereby be guided toward true and deeper understandings of the text.

There is both an objective and a subjective aspect of the final guide for the interpreter in the process of understanding the Biblical text: the (objective) event of the Paschal Mystery and the exegete’s (subjective) encounter with it. Objectively, the Paschal Mystery, as the only truly new event in human history, reconfigures everything else around itself. Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, effects all of salvation history and orders it around himself. The Old Testament account of a people striving and failing to follow the Will of God, and hoping beyond hope that He will send His promised One to save them is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. All of the actions that involve the people of Israel take on a new meaning in light of the coming of the Messiah. Further, all of history after the Paschal Event is affected by its work. The People of God is now a redeemed race attempting to extend His salvation to the entire world. As Christ is the center of salvation history, so the exegete must center his interpretation around the Lord when analyzing the Scriptures, which recount this salvation history. To do this, he must have his own, subjective, encounter with the objective event of the Paschal mystery. Only then will he really know what it is that the text is saying. An analogy to this knowledge would be the knowledge a devoted husband has of his wife. He can tell another person many things about her — her hair color, her height, her hobbies, etc. — and this information will allow the listener to "know" the man’s wife. However, all the information possible about this woman will not permit him to know the wife as the husband does. In the same fashion, the center of the Scriptures, Jesus Christ, must first be personally known by the interpreter in order for him to understand what it is that Biblical passages relate.

Three realities — the text, the faith of the Church, and the Paschal mystery — thus interrelate and combine to produce the aim of interpretation: an understanding of the text. Any lessening or removal of one or more aspects invalidates the interpretive process. All must be vital components in order for true interpretation to take place.

"Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men."[18]

In order to properly interpret the Scriptures, both of these elements — the human and the divine — as well as their relationship to one another, must be respected. Through the use of "historical and philological" methods, especially the historical-critical method, the exegete is enabled to explain the intention of the human author — the Literal sense — within the text. To reduce the interpretive process to this, however, ignores the multi-faceted nature of the Scriptures. Beyond this level of the Literal sense exists the inexhaustible meanings that are possible due to the authorship of the Holy Spirit and the event of the Paschal mystery. In order to reach this level of the Spirit, understanding, not just explanation, is necessary. Separating these two levels would produce a false dichotomy; the exegete must respect the reciprocal relationship that exists between them. Thus, in order to reach an understanding of the Biblical text, it is imperative that the interpreter "places [himself] within the living tradition of the church..."[19] This living tradition is centered around the event of the Paschal mystery and is sustained by faith given by and directed toward the Spirit of God. By immersing himself into this living Faith, the Catholic exegete can discover the true meaning of the Scriptures, which is to assist in the elevation of man "to the participation of the divine nature."[20]


1. Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, Art. 2.

2. Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Art. 23.

3. Pontifical Biblical Commission, "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" Origins ed., p. 512.

4. cf. PBC, p. 512.

5. cf. Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., "Faith, Hermeneutics, and the Literal Sense of Scripture", Theological Studies, p. 731.

6. PBC, p. 512.

7. PBC, p. 512.

8. Raymond E. Brown, "The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture", p. 92.

9. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, "On Revelation"; cf. Dei Verbum, Art. 11.

10. PBC, p. 512.

11. Dei Verbum, Art. 9.

12. Dei Verbum, Art. 10 (emphasis mine).

13. Francis Martin, "Literary Theory, History, and Exegesis", p. 594-595.

14. PBC, p. 512-513 (emphasis mine).

15. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, Section II, Part C, subsection 1, subpart b.

16. Martin, p. 595.

17. Dei Verbum, Art. 12.

18. Dei Verbum, Art. 13; cf. Divino Afflante Spiritu, Art. 37.

19. PBC, p. 513.

20. Providentissimus Deus, Introduction; cf. Dei Verbum, Art. 2.

Feel free to email Eric Sammons at eric@vansam.com with any comments, questions, or criticisms.

©Copyright Eric Sammons 1994

This Version: 1st September 2008

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