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Coming to our Senses: The Anagogical Sense of Scripture

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Last Things

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. For the last several weeks, Mark Shea unpacked how Catholics authentically read the Bible. He began with a general introduction, then he outlined three specific guidelines. Next he launched into the three main spiritual senses (or lenses) through which Catholics interpret the Bible, focusing on the allegorical sense and the moral sense. Today, he wraps up the series with the anagogical sense.


Bound up with the biblical understanding of God from the get-go is the conviction (one almost wants to call it the foregone conclusion) that God knows the future.

This isn’t always necessarily the case with those delightful works of pagan imagination called “the gods”. In some pagan myths, one gets the impression that the gods are as clueless about the various twists and turns of the story as the human actors and are struggling to keep up just as much as we mortals are.

But in Scripture, though God is acting and reacting to the choices made by His creatures, it is not so much stated as taken for granted that God also knows everything, including the future. The “testing” of people like Abraham that periodically occurs is done, not because God is wondering how the lab rats will respond to the stress test, but in order to purify and/or show the creature what he is made of. Similarly, though God periodically “changes His mind” in response to some impassioned intercession from Moses or Jonah, the sense is always that this is a case of the prophet chasing God till God catches him. Down deep, we know the author believes God is sovereign and in charge of the whole story.

And so, early on, God is constantly telling the future through His prophets with no sense from the author that this needs an explanation. Rather, as revelation proceeds, the prophets simply become more and more emphatic that God knows (and determines) the end from the beginning. And He often does so in a way that blithely breezes past questions which we plodding humans are still squabbling about. For instance, our entire culture is (still!) consumed with the tedious debate about design vs. chance. In 1 Kings 22 we learn that God has ordained that Ahab be killed in battle as punishment for his wickedness. Yet the whole thing turns on God’s knowledge that Ahab is so full of himself he will march straight into folly with both eyes open. And the crowning irony is that the archer who slays Ahab is described as having drawn his bow “at random”. So was the death of Ahab due to divine design, human choice or random chance? The answer appears to be “yes”.

Given this great ease with mystery, it’s not a surprise that Scripture is open to the fact of prophecy, including good old-fashioned “predict the future” kind. An all-knowing God who doesn’t know the end from the beginning seems to have hardly been worth considering for ancient Jews. Indeed, it has taken modernity great intellectual pains to train itself into believing in the God of Process Theology, who is eating popcorn on the cosmic sofa and wondering as much as you or me how it’s all going to end. The God of the Bible, in contrast, is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, Who was and Who is and Who is to come.

Because of this, the Jews basically invented (and then handed to Christians) a conception of time that was as unique in antiquity as it is taken for granted today: that is, the notion that time is a line and not a circle. It was common in pagan antiquity to think, as the characters in Peter Pan and Battlestar Galactica think: “All this has happened before and it will all happen again.” Pagan antiquity learned well the lesson of the crops and seasons: that time had a cyclical quality. But it took supernatural revelation for the Jews to conceive of history as going somewhere and having, therefore, a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, there are the circling “times and seasons” as the Jews understood. But the great wheel of history was not just spinning in a void, idiotically repeating itself. Instead, for the ancient Jew, history did not so much repeat as rhyme. Certain themes come up again and again in the Old Testament: creation, fall, redemption, fidelity (and infidelity) to the covenant, birth, death, resurrection and so forth. But the whole magillah is going somewhere. The wheel is rolling down a road and hurtling toward That Day—the great and terrible Day of the Lord when Final Judgment shall dawn and the whole universe is laid bare and renewed.

Because of this conception of history and of God’s sovereign guidance of it toward That Day, it should not be very surprising that the fourth sense of Scripture—the anagogical sense—pertains to our destiny. If the purpose of Scripture is to reveal God, then it only stands to reason that part of what is revealed will be the matter of Where We Are Going. And since the Christian revelation tells us that Christ is not only Where We Are Going but The Way to Get There, it therefore naturally follows that the Church will mine Scripture for imagery about our destiny in Him.

Jesus Himself is the principal reason for this because He is the source of the insistence that our obedience or disobedience to Him will have immense and eternal consequences. A word, a cup of water, a seemingly minor thing done or not done can spell the difference between everlasting ecstasy or unending horror, loss, and pain. To be sure, the Old Testament prophets announce huge and dreadful themes of choice and destiny for Israel (“Multitudes! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision!”). But the Old Testament has only a dim idea of the contours of the afterlife. Early Old Testament literature seems only to have a notion of the grave as a dim pit filled with shadows. As late as Ecclesiastes, we still find Old Testament writers who basically have no notion of eternal life. It is not till late in the Old Testament period that something like a faith in the resurrection begins to be clearly articulated. And it is not until Christ reveals it that we are clearly informed that the stake for which we are playing—have always been playing—is nothing less than Heaven or Hell.

And so the early Church looks back at the Old Testament texts and sees them with new eyes. Earthly things take on an eternal significance in the stark light of the gospel. John, looking at Jerusalem, realizes that it signifies not simply a Jebusite citadel that David was lucky enough to conquer, but the eternal Zion, the New Jerusalem, the Bride come down out of Heaven, the homeland we’ve all been seeking ever since Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees 2,000 years before and went in search of the true God and His promise. Marriage stops being just Ralph and Alice and the bills and kids and is revealed as a token of the Cosmic Marriage of Christ and the Bride—a tiny foretaste of Heaven. The universe turns upside down and God is no longer a projection on the big screen of the universe called “Zeus” or “Odin”. Instead, your dad with his bad breath, funny stories from the army, fishing hat, and cubicle job becomes a dim reflection of the Father “from whom all fatherhood on earth takes its name” (Ephesians 3:15). The story of Israel becomes littered with signs and hints from the God who has led Israel a merry chase through the centuries to the moment where He took human flesh and conquered death itself, thereby opening the stunning possibility that we can share in that conquest and quite literally live forever in a whole new creation.

Because of the Risen Christ, the New Testament writers and their disciples come to regard every detail of the Old Testament as fraught with possibilities since they now know it was all leading up to Him. Signs and portents of our destiny peep out everywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. The heroes of old we thought were dead are all around us in the cloud of witnesses. The Tabernacle bears testimony to our entry into the true Tabernacle which is Heaven. The accursed valley of Hinnom (where Manasseh sacrificed children to Moloch) becomes, not merely a nasty piece of real estate, but a sign of the destiny awaiting all those who freely refuse the life of God: Gehenna. Hell. Where their worm dieth not and their fire is not quenched.

The curious thing about the anagogical sense of Scripture is the “now and not yet” quality of it. When Lazarus dies, Jesus reassures Martha that her brother will rise. Martha dutifully and faithfully parrots the common Jewish piety of her time: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Christians today often say something similar about Heaven and all that stuff in a certain tone of voice, but then return to “reality” with a sort of jerk and resume the worries about peak oil, the economy, and all the other “real” stuff that is hermetically sealed off from religious stuff like the resurrection.

Jesus barges into history and rudely announces to Martha that the Last Day is standing in her parlor and the Apocalypse is right here, talking to her. Because that is what “I am the Resurrection and the Life” means. He is where history is going. He’s the Omega. And to back it up, He raises Lazarus from the grave in a temporary resuscitation and then goes off to conquer death with a glorious resurrection that the New Testament writers will spend their lives trying (and failing) to describe in words.

So the New Testament will instead ransack the Old for images of it, because their Risen Lord has assured them that He is hidden there and that everything they have read all these years was actually about Him. He is the Sabbath of God in the ancient story of Creation. He is the Second Adam and His Bride the New Eve. The baptism He offers is what the Flood was all about and the Church is the real Ark. He is the Promised Land Abraham sought, the true Melchizedek offering the real sacrifice of bread and wine, the Lamb Moses sacrificed, the Heavenly Manna, our Captain Joshua Who conquers the Canaanites who are the Seven Deadly Sins. He is the true Son of David building the true Temple that is His body so that we can go to the Heavenly Zion and worship Him without fear. The Song of Songs is His wedding ode. He is the One the prophets await (even if they didn’t know it) to judge the world and separate the sheep from the goats according to their works.

So when we read the Old Testament, we aren’t just seeing things when we see foreshadows of our heavenly reward in the tales of humility exalted, virtue rewarded, wickedness punished, and pride cast down and weakness strengthened by mercy. In these little pictures, from Abraham’s offering of Isaac, to Jacob’s purgatorial transformation from lying jerk to humble man, to the fall of Saul and the rise of David, to the thousand other tales the Old Testament has to tell, we are given images that throw shadows and reflections that reach all the way to eternity. Crowns become tokens of heaven, thorns of purgatory, ignominious death a dark warning of the Second Death awaiting the impenitent.

In the end, it’s where we are going that ultimately matters.
Originally posted at Catholic Exchange. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Class Connection)

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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  • llllanillo

    Amen to your article, Mark. It's well said, well described and properly documented. God knows the truth, for HE is the truth. God is in the heart of every faithful, no matter what religion they belong to. Anyway this my honest belief.

  • Loreen Lee

    Thank you Mark Shea for this interesting and indeed complete in the sense of an attempted fully explained synopsis of the three modes of interpretation. I also understand that specific books within the old testament are regarded as other kinds of figurative narrative. Am I correct in saying that in this context The Book of Job is regarded as a kind of 'parable'. I am attempting to understand the use of this word in greater depth as used within another blog on the New Advent site. But you give me hope that as time unfolds, I may understand such things better.

  • David Nickol

    A word, a cup of water, a seemingly minor thing done or not done can
    spell the difference between everlasting ecstasy or unending horror,
    loss, and pain.

    I don't want to start the debate about hell and eternal punishment again, but something so egregious as this sentence deserves to be noted.

    • Loreen Lee

      Thank you David Nickol. I too have great difficulty some time in understanding the 'threatening nature' of these passages in scripture. Especially when I am most often 'unaware' of my 'inadequacies'.

    • DAVID

      Mark might have been speaking a little hyperbolically. But I think there's still a valid point. My reading of that quote is that our lives are nothing to be complacent about. A person can sleep their way to Hell thinking that nothing is a "big deal." Instead, we would have to "wake up" and see that even our throw-away moments contain an implicit decision to embrace Heaven or Hell.

    • Peter Piper

      Also the following:

      And it is not until Christ reveals it that we are clearly informed that the stake for which we are playing—have always been playing—is nothing less than Heaven or Hell.

  • David Nickol

    This post seems to me largely to describe what the "anagogical" sense of history is, doing very little to illustrate the practice and nothing at all to justify it. It is certainly true that New Testament authors find all kinds of meanings in the Old Testament that they can make use of to claim Jesus carried out some kind of "fulfillment," and that Christians (especially early in the Church) purported to find hidden meanings in both the Old and New Testaments. But it seems to me a rather extravagant claim that God caused historical events to happen so that they might later be used as symbols. For example, when God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could escape Pharaoh's army, was he also really setting up something in scripture that could be used to claim baptism was foreshadowed in the Old Testament? And when he ordered the building of the Ark of the Covenant, did he really say to himself, "Later, Christians will see this as a symbol of Mary?"

    Of course, I suppose we can imagine a world in which God "overdetermined" events so that they did not just occur but had a significance for those alive when they took place and numerous (or endless) other significances for later times. But what is the evidence that this really is the case. It is not as if the Old and New Testament authors were writing factual, bare-bones accounts that later were seen to be filled with symbols and foreshadowings. They were writing complex religious literature that already was rich enough to be interpreted symbolically and have multiple meanings.

    Anyone who has studied literature has come across numerous examples of Christ figures in novels and plays. But it would be a bizarre claim that Jesus came in order that Melville could make Billy Budd a Christ figure.

    I have read more than the average person about biblical criticism and interpretation, and yet the only time I come across the "anagogical sense" of scripture is in noncommittal notes in the form, "The early Christians (or the Fathers of the Church, etc.) saw in this . . . ." I don't think I have ever seen an argument made that what these interpreters saw was actually there. I am unaware that serious contemporary biblical scholars (including Catholic ones) take this kind of thing seriously other than acknowledging that many great figures in the early Church approached scripture this way.

  • Paul Boillot

    It seems that Mr. Shea is incorrect in his assertion:

    Because of this, the Jews basically invented (and then handed to Christians) a conception of time that was as unique in antiquity as it is taken for granted today: that is, the notion that time is a line and not a circle... of history as going somewhere and having, therefore, a beginning, middle, and end.

    The ancient Hebraic peoples of Mesopotamia believed in a disk-world floating on water, with a fixed dome of heaven above, and a neutral underworld below. They believed that YHWH created this world out of the chaos, the contemporary Meosopotamian idea for primeval, formless matter.

    The Greeks came up with the idea of matter itself having a 'beginning,' and that concept, along with a spherical earth, only got incorporated into Judaism much later.

    Mr. Shea's characterization of Christianity as inheritor-of-Judaism's-special-revelation-of-linear-time is false, because the ancient Jews didn't come up with it.

  • Slocum Moe

    Personally, I see God as a trial and error kind of guy, not so much omniscient. Do you think he made Lillith for Adam knowing she wouldn't work out, spawn demons and then have to create Eve, woman 2.0? Did he create Eden knowing that Eve would feed Adam the apple and they would have to flee in shame and disgrace? Did he know Cain would slay Able and have to go into the land of Nod? Did he let mankind flourish, knowing he was going to drown them all in the flood? Nasty!

  • This anagogical sense of the Bible seems a lot like the way some folk treat Nostradamus or the Bible Code – as prophecies that make sense only in retrospect. We’ve all seen how these people imbue Nostradumus’ most obscure verses with prophetic power, but we aren’t convinced. We think, That could be spun to mean anything! If he was such a great prophet then why can’t you give us these interpretations before they come true?

    Which leads the next question: What’s the point? What’s the good of the anagogical foreshadowings if they can only be identified in retrospect? It does no good to modern-day people if we can only interpret these things to mean things that we’ve already learned. And it did no good to the people from Old Testament times because they weren’t didn’t have the needed perspective. So…what’s the point?

    • Sqrat

      The point was to give you an opportunity to ask, "What's the point?" -- as God has always known you would.

    • David Nickol

      Christians seem to believe that the Old Testament is full of references to Jesus, but that they can only be discovered after the fact with the aid of supernatural help. And yet the Jews are blamed for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah because the Old Testament is filled with prophecies of his coming.

      It would seem that the Old Testament did a very poor job of foreshadowing the coming of the Messiah when, as it turned out, nobody expected that kind of Messiah.

      • Argon

        I agree. The Old Testament would seem to suggest that at best, one would expect a Jewish messiah, not an omni-messiah.

        • David Nickol

          Actually, the Old Testament says nothing about a Messiah. The concept arose within Judaism after the Old Testament was completed. Christians, accepting Jesus as the Messiah, go back to the Old Testament and look for what they believe to be references to Jesus (in Isaiah, for example) and then claim to have found references to the Messiah in the Old Testament. But if you use one of the sites that allows you to search the whole Bible, such as Bible Gateway, you can do a search of the entire Bible and see that the word messiah is not found in the Old Testament.

    • It's not just the anagogical foreshadowings that for Catholics can only be identified in retrospect with the aid of the Church. The literal, allegorical, and moral senses of scripture, for Catholics, can also only be identified in retrospect with the aid of the Church. The three other posts on the senses of scripture all took pains to be clear that it's not about what the actual text says, it's about what the Church says. If the Church teaches something, then Catholics are free to find support for it in the Bible wherever they like, as literally or figuratively as they like. If the Church teaches the negation of something, then Catholics are forbidden to find support for it in the Bible, often negating the literal sense of a text by giving it an alternative figurative sense. And if the Church is silent on something, then Catholics are permitted to speculate based on the Bible mostly as they please so long as they don't stray into any interpretive novelty. Many atheists are more familiar with the Protestant approach by which scripture is the primary source, but that familiarity can trip them up when conversing with Catholics.

  • Steven Dillon

    "This isn't always the case with those delightful works of pagan imagination called "the gods"."


    • Let's hope there are no Kerykes or Eumolpidae reading because, boy, is there going to be a flame war!

  • Sqrat

    Because of the Risen Christ, the New Testament writers and their
    disciples come to regard every detail of the Old Testament as fraught
    with possibilities since they now know it was all leading up to Him.

    Indeed, so fraught with possibility were the prophecies that the Messiah would be descended from King David and come from Bethlehem that the New Testament writers made up (or swallowed whole) bogus genealogies tracing Jesus' ancestry back to David, and made up (or swallowed whole) bogus stories of his birth in Bethlehem.

  • Ben Posin

    "But in Scripture, though God is acting and reacting to the choices made by His creatures, it is not so much stated as taken for granted that God also knows everything, including the future. The “testing” of people like Abraham that periodically occurs is done, not because God is wondering how the lab rats will respond to the stress test, but in order to purify and/or show the creature what he is made of."
    I call shenanigans. I get that many Christians believe that God exists in some way outside of time, knowing the past, present and future all at once (kind of like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, I guess, but on a larger scale). And so I guess, believing that, you might have to interpret all the times God does not appear omniscient in this way in the Old Testament as some sort of trickery. But it seems ludicrous to try to project this belief onto the Jews. The Old Testament certainly doesn't support it, the "sacrifice" of Isaac being a perfectly good example, but hardly unique in this regard. I can tell you that growing up a Jew, no one teaching at my synogogue believed the test of Abraham was anything but an actual test (and one many of us argued Abraham failed, at that).
    So Mr. Shea (or supporters): why do you think the old testament supports this idea of a God who knows all of the future before it happens?

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I'm not a fan of this breezy style of writing for an OP meant to promote dialogue with atheists and agnostics.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a definition of the anagogical sense of Sacred Scripture:

    Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.(CCC 117)

    It is about getting glimpses of heaven (and hell) in various passages in the Bible.

  • David Nickol

    I did some googling on the topic of of the anagogical sense of scripture and came across three items that some might find helpful.

    From A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (Watson, 1849)

    ANAGOGICAL. This is one of the four senses in which Scripture may be interpreted, viz. the literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological. The anagogical sense is given when the test is explained with regard to the end which Christians should have in view, that is, eternal life: for example, the rest of the Sabbath, in the anagogical sense, corresponds to the repose of everlasting blessedness.

    The Biblical Commission's Document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (Fitzmyer, 1995)

    The Commission begins by recalling the distinction between the literal
    and spiritual sense of Scripture. Because "spiritual sense" can be
    understood in various ways, it is important to understand the way in which the
    Comission at first uses it. That refers to the medieval distinction which spoke
    of four senses of Scripture, three of them being aspects or subdivisions of the
    "spiritual sense." These four senses came to be summed up in the late
    thirteenth century distich,

    Littera gest docet, quid credas allegoria,
    Nirakus qyud agas, quid speres anagogia

    The literal teaches the facts; the allegorical, what you are to believe;
    The moral, what you are to do, the anagogical, what you are to hope for.

    According to this way of interpreting Scripture, every verse could have
    four senses: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (or
    eschatological). This way of understanding Scripture grew out of an earlier
    tripartite sense (historia, moralis, allegoria) and from what Origen had called
    the "spiritual" or "mystical" sense of Scripture. The allegorical sense is actually found as early as in the Ep. Barnabas 9.7, where such interpretation is given to the number 318, the number of the men circumcised by Abraham, understood as referring to the cross of Jesus Christ.

    Epistle of Barnabas 9.8

    For [the Scripture] saith, "And Abraham circumcised ten, and eight, and three hundred men of his household." What, then, was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted - Ten by Ι [Greek iota], and Eight by Σ [Greek sigma]. You have [the initials of the, name of] Jesus [Greek ΙΣΟΥΣ]. And because the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter T (Greek tau), he says also, "Three Hundred." He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one.

    The example from the Epistle of Barnabas is the kind of thing that I don't think anyone would take seriously today, although of course I am sure it is by far not the best example of anagogical interpretation one could come up with.

    • Loreen Lee

      My understanding is that the translation in Hebrew proceeds from the alphabet to the number, that the letter represents the number because there is no notation for the latter. This account of Barnabas thus seems to be a bit 'backward'. Yes?

  • As David Nikol has pointed out this post states that Catholics read the Old Testament after accepting the premise that God exists and all of the events discussed were part of his plan.

    The piece neither justifies the premise or the textual analysis nor does it explain how to undertake this form of textual interpretation. Other than the implied premise that if you do not presume God exists and that the Old Testament is harmonious with the New, there will be conflicts.

    Ultimately, this post and the others go to explain how, once you accept God, how you can interpret away the conflicts between the Old and New Testaments that are otherwise obvious indications that there is no unity between these texts. For those who have not accepted that any Gods exist or that Jesus is God, this approach is silly. Jews who met Jesus and fervently believed in Yaweh were not convinced that his story was foretold by the Old Testament are are not to this day.

  • Cubico

    I am very impressed with the author's use of the word "Anagogical" which sent me scurrying to my dictionary. Could he not have said "allusions to the afterlife"? I suppose use of the word "anagogical" is more impressive no doubt. Again the story of the emperor's new clothes come to mind. Speak English will you....or is this a site only for the the philosophical crowd?