Interpreting the Holy Bible


How the "Senses" of Scripture Provide the Foundation for a Proper Interpretive Stance


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Spiritual Sense



The Scriptures, due to their divine inspiration, as well as their subject matter, can also possess meanings that are beyond the Literal sense. However, these potential meanings too can only be legitimate inasmuch as they are faithful to the Literal sense of the particular passage. The senses that are beyond the Literal can be generally classified under the name "the Spiritual sense". The source of many of the meanings beyond the strict Literal, especially in the case of the Old Testament, is the Paschal Mystery. This eternal, central event places all of salvation history, which the Scriptures relate, into "a radically new historical context"(7). The three possible senses within the Spiritual are called the ‘more than literal’, the typological, and the fuller.

Like multiple literal meanings, a ‘more than literal’ sense is possible due to the dynamic nature of language which does not restrict a text to one possible meaning. However, now, unlike the multiple meanings possible in the Literal sense, the source of the various meanings classified as ‘more than literal’ is the truly new context of the Paschal mystery and the influence of the Holy Spirit. Referring again to Psalm 22, one sees that it takes on a new meaning with the crucifixion of the Lord. Christ is the preeminent example of one who undergoes immense suffering, but in the end, rejoices in the ultimate victory of God. In fact, Jesus quotes this psalm while hanging on the Cross, giving authority to a Christological interpretation of it. Further, the new meaning that Christ affixes to Psalm 22 does not violate the original meaning of the text; rather, the new brings the old to a higher level.

The second possible Spiritual sense is called the typological. A type is some person, place, object, or event that represents another such thing due to certain similarities or differences. The type is recognized after the fact by the introduction of the thing it represents- the anti-type. For example, Moses is a type of Christ. Moses was the deliverer of the Old Covenant, Christ is the deliverer of the New Covenant; Moses’ establishment of the Old Law involved one nation, Christ’s establishment of the New is for all nations. Before the introduction into history of Christ, the anti-type, the meaning of the text pertaining to Moses did not contain him as a type of Jesus. However, after the life of Christ, a new meaning was created that is not alien to the original Literal sense. A type and anti-type can both be contained within the Old Testament or within the New Testament, or the type may be in the Old and the anti-type in the New. Both the type and the anti-type must be contained within the Scriptures in order for a meaning to be typological.

Salvation History is not limited to the time periods of the Bible, but extends from the creation of Man until the second coming of the Son of Man. The fuller sense, the third category of the Spiritual sense, recognizes this. "The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text...when [it is] studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation."(8) Further revelation or development limits this sense to the later revelation that is present in Sacred Scripture or the development that occurs within the life of the Church following the closure of the deposit of revelation. A preeminent example of this would be the doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though very little is said of her in the Bible, years of further reflection on revelation led the Church to define certain dogmas pertaining to her, to which passages of Scripture could then be associated (i.e. the "enmity" in Gen. 3:15 as it relates to the Immaculate Conception).

Thus, due both to divine inspiration and the dynamism of human communication, especially in the written word, the Holy Scriptures contain various meanings. A human author, writing without the influence of the Holy Spirit, can infuse a text with multiple meanings, as can be seen in poetry. In fact, those works called "classics" are usually ones that allow for the possibility of various interpretations. As the Scriptures are truly a human form of communication, they have this ability as well. Further, as they also possess that unique quality of having "God as an author"(9), they are capable of inexhaustible additional meanings, none of which, however, conflict with the original meaning intended by the human writer.


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