“Coming to Our Senses: Rediscover the Lost Art of Spiritual Exegesis”

by Scott Hahn

(Lay Witness, September 1998)

Faithful and fruitful Bible study, writes Scott Hahn, professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, “requires critical and contemplative study, by which the intended meaning of the scriptural authors, both human and divine, may be discovered in two stages: first, by distinguishing the literal and spiritual senses; second, through discerning the three spiritual senses — that is, allegorical, moral (or tropological), and anagogical.”

“In speaking of the literal sense of Scripture,” Hahn says, “Catholic tradition does not necessarily mean the same thing as Fundamentalists, who … generally seek the ‘literal’ meaning of a text without sufficient consideration of literary genres or adequate study of the figurative use of language by the human writers. Consequently, they equate the ‘literal sense’ with a rather flat and wooden interpretation. Not surprisingly, Fundamentalists also end up rejecting the classical notion of the three spiritual senses altogether.”

Hahn notes that “because Scripture is uniquely inspired by God, other meanings — namely, the spiritual senses — may be conveyed by those things that are signified by the words themselves. … In other words, God not only communicates through the words of Scripture but, as the Creator and the Lord of history, he also gives special meaning to the things, people, and events mentioned in Scripture and uses them as signs to tell us something about his plan of salvation.

“For example, when the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, its literal-historical meaning refers to the magnificent building in ancient Jerusalem. However … God intended it to serve not only as a place of worship but also as a sign of other higher realities. The New Testament applies it to: first, Christ's body (John 2:21); second, the Mystical Body of the Church and individual believers (1 Corinthians 3:16–17, 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16); and third, the ‘heavenly dwelling’ of the saints in eternal beatitude (2 Corinthians 5:1–2; Revelation 21:9–22).

The theory of the sense of Scripture is not a curiosity of the history of theology but an instrument for seeking out the most profound articulations of salvation history.

“These three signify the allegorical, tropological (or moral), and anagogical senses. The Catechism … explains them by quoting the thirteenth-century Danish theologian Augustine of Dacia: 'The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Hahn traces the historical course of spiritual exegesis through the age of the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages, until “as a result of the Protestant Reformation and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and the consequent dissolution of the medieval synthesis, spiritual exegesis fell into neglect and disuse, even in the Church….

“[But] the last four decades are witness to a rising tide of Catholic theologians and exegetes (e.g., Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, Louis Bouyer, Joseph Ratzinger …).”

Hahn writes that “spiritual exegesis attempts to steer a middle way between two opposite extremes: that of historicism on the one hand, which invalidates the New Testament writers’ ‘pre-critical’ exegesis, and fundamentalism on the other, which tends to interpret the New Testament spiritual sense in an exclusively literalistic manner. Both extremes may be traced to a rejection of the Church's living tradition and its normative roles in guiding scriptural interpretation.”

But, Hahn concludes, “faithful exegetes such as de Lubac have demonstrated that 'the theory of the sense of Scripture is not a curiosity of the history of theology but an instrument for seeking out the most profound articulations of salvation history’ for ‘when exegesis is understood in this way, it includes all of theology, from its historical foundation to its most spiritual summits.’”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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