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Coming to our Senses: The Anagogical Sense of Scripture

Filed under The Bible

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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