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Coming to our Senses: The Allegorical Sense

Filed under The Bible

Reading the Bible3

NOTE: Over the past several months, we've had lots of combox discussion about how Catholics read and interpret the Bible. To help us all make sense of this question, we began a multi-part series on the topic. Once a week, for the next several weeks, Mark Shea will unpack how Catholics authentically read the Bible. He began with a general introduction, then he outlined three specific guidelines. Today he'll begin covering the three main spiritual senses (or lenses) through which Catholics interpret the Bible—allegorical, moral, and anagogical.


We noted last week that one of the principal problems of trying to treat Scripture as a purely human book is that, though God can supernaturalize nature, we cannot naturalize the supernatural. God can assume a human nature and join it to His divinity. But we cannot take a supernatural thing and reduce it to mere nature without doing it violence. We cannot reduce Jesus to a mere man, nor man to a mere animal, nor the Bible to a mere book without making incongruous claims.

Proof of this abounds. If we will not receive Scripture on its terms as the word of God, we wind up with a book that is not even human, but merely a patchwork of “sources” stitched together into something unreadable and inhuman. Similarly, natural explanations for the various miracles in Scripture must suppose that all early Christians were preternatural fools. For example, somebody theorizes that Jesus walked on ice sheets, not water, yet he doesn't wonder how professional fishermen who knew the lake like the back of their hand could not figure out that it was that cold (nor why Peter, who also walked on water, didn’t figure it out). Someone else claims that the Resurrection myth is due to ignorant women going to the wrong tomb, but nobody bothers to ask why the people who buried Jesus (or the authorities who persecuted the Church) didn’t just go to the right tomb and produce the corpse. Finally, somebody else argues that Jesus never existed, yet nobody asks why these hundreds of people ran around the first-century world dying for the testimony that they knew Him personally and why thousands and thousands more, including a lot of martyrs, never thought to question that?

I propose, therefore, taking Scripture on its terms: as the word of God. If we do this, Scripture not only makes sense as a divine book, but as a human one. Jesus no longer has to be accounted for by some Latest Real Jesus explanation. He can be the same old Jesus: the Son of God that the actual data always pointed to.

Now one of these early Christians—a gentleman named Augustine of Hippo—tells us something curious about the Bible. He says that the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New. This strikes most moderns as a comment about the bizarre working of Augustine’s psychology, not as a comment about the Bible. That’s because when most of us read the Old Testament with all its battles, strange tales, thundering threats, lyrical poetry, and weird instructions for separating the fat from the kidneys of a goat, we don’t immediately see Jesus of Nazareth as particularly being on the minds of the authors. We tend to assume that Augustine is one of those Dark Ages monks who had too much time on his hands and so began to treat the Old Testament as a sort of Rorschach blot in which he imagined he saw Jesus lurking in the Old Testament the way Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars.

“Now,” we moderns say confidently, “we know better.”

But, of course, by “now” we mean “in an age more biblically and historically illiterate than almost any other."

That should be our first clue that Augustine might be seeing something we are missing. The second clue comes when we look at the biblical text and find Jesus saying:

"'These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'" (Luke 24:44-47)

In short, Augustine and those Dark Age monks got the notion that the Old Testament was about Jesus—from Jesus. He’s the one who put it into the heads of his followers that everything written in the Old Testament was about Him.

Not that they immediately believed that. It turns out they were human beings and not cartoons of preternatural gullibility. So they initially found the suggestion that everything in their most sacred books was about Him to be as plausible as you would think it if I told you that I am the True Meaning of the Torah. In fact, so slow were they to believe this that even when they stood in the very mouth of the empty tomb, gawking at Jesus’ grave clothes, they still “did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). So, far from being credulous fools who believed anything, they were rather slow on the uptake—so slow, that Bible studies personally led by the Risen Christ were kind of a bust due to the thickness of the disciples’ skulls (cf. Luke 24:13-32).

So what did the trick? Well in the Catholic view, the Resurrection helped, but Scripture itself points to something else as the decisive factor: the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, the disciples tended to regard every obvious clue God threw their way via the Scripture in much the same way that your dog sniffs your finger when you are trying to point to something. That’s because the true meaning of the Old Testament is, says St. Paul, “veiled” and the cleverest scholar is powerless to understand what it’s all really about without divine help. As Paul puts it:

"Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed." (2 Cor 3:12-16)

Note how Paul practices what he preaches here. His point—just like Jesus’—is that there is a literal sense to the Old Testament, but also a more-than-literal sense that points us to Christ. This is what the Church calls the “allegorical sense” of Scripture.

The literal sense of the story of Moses’ veiled face is recounted in Exodus 34:29-35, which tells how Moses wore a veil over his radiant face after speaking with God at Sinai. Paul takes the literal sense of this story for granted—and then insists, just as Jesus does, that there is more to this story than meets the eye: that it, in fact, points to the spiritual blindness caused by a hardened heart apart from the Spirit.

This way of reading Scripture for second meanings is all over the place in the New Testament for a very good reason: it is all over the place in the teaching of Christ. Jesus habitually takes images from the Old Testament and applies them to Himself. According to Jesus, the real meaning of the Bronze Serpent, Jacob’s Ladder, the Manna in the Wilderness, the Passover, Hanukkah, the Feast of Booths, and a host of other Old Testament images, stories, and allusions is none other than—Him! It’s like He thinks He’s God or something!

Now the Catholic explanation for this is fairly straightforward: He is God. So it follows that the Word of God is His word and those images, stories and allusions aren’t there by accident, but because the divine Author is at least as competent a craftsman as Hemingway, Tolkien, or Shakespeare. He makes use of foreshadowing so that the richness of what He has to say will be available to us in its fulness. The Lamb that Moses is commanded to sacrifice by God at the first Passover is intended by God to foreshadow the Lamb of God Who will be sacrificed on Calvary at the Last Passover. The Tree of Life lost by the First Adam is not merely a coincidental reminder of the Tree of Life upon which the Last Adam hung. It’s not just a lucky break that Isaiah wrote about the Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, or that the manna in the wilderness is reminiscent of the Eucharist. The New Testament really is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is really looking forward to the New, because that’s what the Author of Scripture intended.

Now some may object that if you open this Pandora’s Box of the allegorical sense of Scripture, there is no way to shut it. People will turn it into a giant Rorshach Blot.

Recall the instructions we discussed last week at Strange Notions:

1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”;
2. Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; and,
3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.

These instructions continue to hold for Catholics. If an allegorical reading is used in Scripture, (as, for instance, when the sacred author allegorizes the meaning of the Old Testament Tabernacle in Hebrews 9) you can rely on it since the Author knows what He’s doing.

Likewise, if the Church connects the allegorical dots in the liturgy, or if a bunch of the early Church Fathers are all seeing the same connections (“Hey! The Ark of the Covenant is a foreshadow of Mary!”), then you are on safe ground.

But you can even find fruitful connections that aren’t in the Fathers or the liturgy too. The only thing the Church asks is “Don’t make allegorical connections that contradict the Church’s teaching on faith and morals.” So, for instance, pulling a Charles Manson and interpreting the Bible to mean you should murder a bunch of people in Southern California and start a race war is right out.

The point is this: reading for both the literal and the spiritual sense of Scripture is still the normative way the Church reads her Bible.

With that in mind, let’s talk next week about the moral sense of Scripture.
Originally posted at Catholic Exchange. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Jim Somerville)

Mark Shea

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Mark Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He has written more than ten books including his most recent works, The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Re-Discovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ (Servant, 2012). Many of Mark's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Mark currently lives in Washington State with his wife, Janet, and their sons. Follow Mark through his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!

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