The "Senses of Scripture"

One of the many things I did not learn much about in seminary was how virtually all Christian clergy were taught to interpret the Bible before about the year 1800.

My seminary education focused upon the approach to Scriptural interpretation called the Historical-Critical method, which attempts to reconstruct the original historical context, the purpose in writing, the original author and audience, and so on to give insight into the meaning of specific books of the Bible.

Historical-Critical method is, in fact, very valuable to understand the original meanings of a Scripture passage, and I still read good Historical-Critical Bible scholarship to this day.

However, this method does have significant shortcomings.  It is (sometimes) great for gaining insight into a single letter, or single book, or single piece of writing, but it does not usually give much attention to the place of these writings within the canon as a whole; and while it is good at treating Gospels as Gospels and Letters as Letters and Poetry as Poetry, it does not always give much attention to treating any of them as Scripture.  The focus is generally on the original purpose of these writings, without attention to their subsequent, canonical use within the life of the church.  The preacher is (hopefully) attuned to scholarship, but also more than a scholar, using the Bible for pastoral purposes.

Another short-coming of Historical-Critical method is that, like so many fields in the humanities, it purports to be a "scientific" endeavor in some respects, but where 2 or 3 Historical-Critical scholars are gathered, you can be sure there are multiple contradictory approaches and conclusions on nearly everything in the field of Scripture study.  There is a great deal of confusion within the field itself at the moment, which lends a degree of uncertainty to almost every assertion about what "modern scholarship has revealed."

I did, however, eventually discover that before the rise of this, distinctively Modern, approach there was another, richer, approach to interpreting Scripture.  Early Church Fathers and Medieval theologians happily spoke of the various different "senses" of Scripture: a single passage could, and did, have more than one meaning.  The most typical approach (but not the only one) spoke of 4 different "senses" of Scripture.

Consider these words of Saint Augustine (pictured):
"In all Sacred Books we should consider eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given." (from De Genesi Ad Litteram 1:1)

The different 'senses' of Scripture have been neglected in Protestant seminaries in part because of the Reformers' reactions to the abuse of non-literal interpretations and in part because of the desire by modern Biblical scholars to present themselves as "scientific" (read: "legitimate") within the modern academic guild.
In fact - despite not being formally taught in Protestant seminaries - these approaches to Bible interpretation have persisted in our churches because they are, for the serious Bible-reader, almost intuitive.  They have now been smuggled back into the seminaries through the Spiritual Formation movement and the rediscovery among Protestants of Lectio Divina.  These other, non-literal, approaches also allow passages of Scripture that would otherwise be obscure or irrelevant to continue to "speak to us" today.

To get a sense of how the different "senses" work, consider the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel.

Historical-Critical exegetes (interpreters) look at the story in historical terms of "the facts that are narrated": an Israelite boy entered into single combat with a Philistine warrior to defend the honor of YHWH.  The Historical-Critical exegete then asks historical questions: what do we know about single-combat in the warfare of the Ancient Near East?  Who were the Philistines and what historical evidence do we have about them or their culture?  What does this story say about the development of kingship in Israel's history?  Is the story we have the original form?  How does the author/editor(s) of this story want us to view David's dynasty, and why (that is, what is the "agenda" behind the text)?
And the always-popular among (modern) Historical-critical exegetes, "did this event actually happen as an historical event?"

In Early Church and Medieval terms, this approach comes closest to what is meant by the "literal" sense of Scripture: as Augustine says above, "the facts as they are narrated."

The literal sense is important, and is the first and most obvious starting point in understanding any passage of Scripture.  But there are other ways to read the story of David and Goliath, other "senses" of the Scripture.  There are, what might loosely be termed, "spiritual readings" of the text.

One is the allegorical sense.  Goliath represents temptation or opposition which we all, in our different ways, face.  David represents faith and reliance upon the God of Israel to bring us victory.  The story is now about "facing the giants" in our own lives.  There are eternal truths here.

Another, closely related, sense is the Typological reading.  Some classify this as a form of allegory, while others treat it separately.  Typology is frequently used and mentioned in the New Testament.  "Type" here is related to our concepts of "prototype" or "archetype."
David is a "type" or a "sign-post" pointing to Christ, who is the "antitype."  David defeats the pagan Goliath and becomes enthroned as king over Israel.  Jesus defeats Satan and Sin in "single combat" and becomes enthroned over Israel and, therefore, over all the world.  As with the allegorical reading above, this is not what the David and Goliath story is "literally and historically" about in the mind of the original audience, but it is one way that this story has been read as the Living and Active Word of God since the days of the Earliest Church (see, for example, 1 Peter 3:20-21 where the flood story of Noah is said to represent Holy Baptism).

Another approach to reading Scripture is the "moral" sense (called the "tropological" sense).  Look at the great virtues exhibited by David who is faithful, courageous, and humble.  Look at the vices of Saul and Goliath and the other characters, and learn from their examples, there is counsel here for how to live a good life, if we pay attention.

Yet another "sense" of Scripture approaches it in eschatological terms: What does this say about the final destiny of the world and humanity?  This approach is classically called the "anagogic sense."  In this reading, David's defeat of Goliath can symbolize and predict the final victory of God's Kingdom over the forces of idolatry that currently enslave so much of his good creation.

These various other "senses" of Scripture, alongside the historical/literal sense, are quite frequently of great importance for the work of a preacher or Bible-teacher as a spiritual shepherd within the living community of the Church, and deserve more attention than they currently get in our seminary training.

HERE is a nice article from a Roman Catholic theologian named Pauline Viviano examining the different "senses" (including the Historical-Critical sense) that have been applied to Bible-interpretation.  It serves as a great introduction to this topic.

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