The Interpretation of Scripture

— By Luke Heintschel —

Modern Academia and the Historical Critical Method
This blog post began as an answer to a question on the “AcademicBiblical” Reddit community. Reddit advertises itself as “the front page of the internet,” and the Academic Biblical subreddit attempts to be an avenue for academic discussion of the Bible and other relevant topics. They do not, however, welcome much theological discussion. The conversation there is intended by the moderators to be more or less devoid of theological questions. As they note in their description, “discussion on this subreddit should be framed in an academic/historical context, rather than from a (non-academic) confessional/theological one.” Implicit, there, is that theology is not seen as an academic discipline. This is typical of the attitude of many Biblical Academic societies (SBL recently banned a publisher from attending their conference for having a traditional Christian gender and sexuality ideology).  Appropriately, someone on Reddit asked about how a devotional reading of the Bible differs from an academic one. As a Catholic, I do not think the two are mutually exclusive. The answer to why that is, is what I hope to explain in this post.

For the ancients and medievals, academic reading and devotional reading of scripture were largely the same. There was little to no distinction. In modern times, we separate the disciplines of academic biblical studies (which is basically a specialization within Historical and Literary disciplines) and devotional/spiritual/prayerful/theological reading of the Bible. When Thomas Aquinas addressed a question which I see as related to this question, he quoted Gregory the Great, saying,

“Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.” ST 1, 1, 10

He thus understood that there is a science present in the study of Scripture, but recognized our inability to grasp everything the text has to offer. First, I’ll discuss the science, as we moderns understand it. Second, I’ll point in the direction of the “mysteries” which can be found in devotional reading.

Scripture, a Historical Science

In light of the past 600 or so years of philosophical development, all the sciences have undergone radical changes in how they are carried out, the rigor with which we study them, and the significance we place on our conclusions. This is no different in the practice of academic biblical study. Today, biblical scholars scrutinize and criticize the authorship, dates, historical reliability of various texts, etc., in order to find out what the authors of the text were saying. Thomas would call this endeavor the search for the “historical” or “literal” sense of scripture. In it we make our best attempt to figure out what the author meant by what they wrote. This is greatly impacted by who the author was, where they wrote, when they wrote, the historicalpolitical cultural context in which they wrote, and many other factors; but scholars have to be careful not to miss the point of a text by distracting themselves with these historical-critical issues.

Despite the naming of this sense “literal,” Thomas does not intend to interpret in a “literalist” fashion. By this, I mean that exegetes (interpreters) are attempting to understand the message being communicated by the author(s) of the text. If the text says…“it was raining cats and dogs” …a literalist will surmise that felines and canines were falling from the sky. The exegete will take into context popular sayings and metaphors of the culture in which it was written, and interpret it literally as vigorous precipitation. This is important: we’re trying to get to the message of the author, the reality about which they wrote. We should not get distracted by a debate about whether or not felines and canines can fall from the sky.

Underneath the Historical Sense

Many modern academics stop once they get the literal sense. The “AcademicBiblical” page on Reddit (and many modern academic communities) would have the reader stop there. Thomas, on the other hand, discusses three “spiritual” senses of scripture, all of which assume the historical/literal sense. Getting the right meaning of the historical/literal sense(s) of scripture through rigorous academic scholarship opens up the possibility of acessing the three Spiritual senses. Thus, just because a reading is intended to be “devotional” in nature, does not give it license to ignore academia, or to be lazy in its reading. Of course not everyone can access academic secondary literature, so in devotional reading, one must do their best to assess the historical/literal sense, sometimes on their own. But we ought to always learn and improve in our ability to read the scriptures.

The three spiritual senses (which are based on the historical/literal sense and presuppose it) are:

  • Allegorical
  • Tropological (Moral)
  • Anagogical

In modern scholarship, these senses of scripture are sometimes thought of as “unobjective”, “biased”, and that it involves reading one’s theology into the text. These senses reveal the belief that the Bible is not simply human historical texts, but somehow transcends human literature. Often times though, these senses are the same as the literal sense. Scholars will sometimes admit this, but only in a literary way. Take, for example the Allegorical Sense. Thomas defines it as, “…the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” ST 1, 1, 10.  Scholars will often admit that a newer text (e.g. a passage from the New Testament) draws literary allusions to a text from the Hebrew Bible. But many would be hesitant (to say the least) to admit that the older text pointed forward to the newer. In our devotional reading, we don’t have to limit ourselves to this kind of secularization of the text.

The Moral Sense (aka Tropological) is very simple, and is often the same as the literal sense. It answers the question: how should followers of the bible behave? This sense is simple enough.

The Anagogical Sense is described by Thomas as:

“so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.” ST 1, 1, 10

This covers passages which reveal eschatological truths. Again, many scholars will not place much weight on this aspect of scripture, but will sometimes admit its presence in the text. They may admit that Jesus had apocalyptic eschatological expectations, but they will remain agnostic on whether he was right (or some will argue that he was wrong). Here we have yet another depth of meaning lost on the secular scholar, but with aid from scholarship, the confessional christian can attain.

When Dr. Barber teaches about these different senses of scripture, he uses the Old Testament Temple as an example. In 1 Kings 6, Solomon builds a huge elaborate Temple, where the Isrælites would worship God. The Literal sense is that Solomon, son of David actually built a building for the express purpose of worshiping God. The Allegorical sense tells us that Jesus is the true temple builder, and his body the true temple, and Solomon merely pointed forward to Him. The Moral sense takes into account the fact that as the Church, we are the body of Christ and the true Temple: do we glorify God in our bodies? Do we live in such a way that is befitting for a Temple of the Holy Spirit? The Anagogical sense of the Temple is our heavenly homeland: we are destined to live in the heavenly Temple where God is beheld and adored forever in his saints and angels.