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Reading the Bible

The field of methods of interpreting and studying texts, particlurly religious ones, is called hermeneutics. The following method took the lead from how Paul’s epistles read Hebrew scripture in the light of Christ, but developed into a more systematic approach. One could partly explain it as ‘theological analysis deriving from lectio divina.’ This traditional fourfold hermeneutic is called the ‘Quadriga’ (a word which originally meant a chariot drawn by four horses).

Literal: 1. Literal
Spiritual: 2. Allegorical (Reflections)

3. Tropological (Moral)

4. Anagogical (Mystical)

The purpose of the Quadriga is to help us to consciously approach the text in different ways: intellectually, imaginatively and emotionally, practically, and eschatologically. The method was popularised by Pope Gregory the Great (see for instance his Moral Commentary on Job), and was the basic framework for Biblical theology c. 600-1600 AD.

At this time it was a background assumption that the Bible isn’t just another text but of a different order to other texts. One doesn’t merely read it, but listens to the voice of the living Spirit. Hence the traditional summary: “The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.” As divinely inspired, the Bible is uniquely imbued with meaning. Yet for the greatest theologian of the era, St. Thomas Aquinas, we must always keep in mind that the only purpose of Scripture is for our salvation (the Catholic church reaffirmed this position at the Second Vatican Council).

How to do it:

  • Read a short (perhaps only a couple of verses) piece of text slowly, maybe out loud.
  • Do this four times, each time listening out for one of the four senses.
  • In a devotional context, offer the time to God beforehand and ask for illumination. Afterwards give thanks. Perhaps make notes in a spiritual journal; maybe resolve to do something differently.

1. The Literal sense:

  • What do the words mean in their plain sense? What is there etymology?
  • What is the tone of the language?
  • What are the historical/geographical details?
  • How does the narrative work?

2. The Allegorical sense:

  • How does it speak to your emotion and imagination?
  • What religious metaphors and idioms are used?
  • Does it bring to mind any other stories, perhaps in the other testament t the passage your are reading, especially ones to do with Christ? (Literary theorists refer to this as intertextuality.)
  • What message could be underneath or parallel to the plain sense here?
  • For example, in the medieval Church the popular interpretation of the plagues sent against the Egyptians was that they were allegorical representations of the idolatries they had leading to their downfall. The killing of the first born sons symbolises how the righteous do not idolise their of eldest sons, which is particularly directed the children of the Pharaoh who were seen as demi-gods. Likewise the permission given to destroy the seven tribes inhabiting Canaan if they didn’t leave was interpreted as an allegory about waging war on the Seven Deadly Sins.

3. The Tropological sense:

  • This term comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to turn’. It turns the meaning back onto the reader so that they apply it their own behaviour. As such this can often be rather personal.
  • How would you use this text to preach to people, to encourage them to live their lives better?

4. The Anagogical sense:

  • This term comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to lead up’. It points forward with our souls towards salvation, not just to the ‘last things’ (eschatology) but to the whole process leading up to it. It leads us up to the grandest features of theology such as the Trinity and the Last Judgement.
  • While the allegorical sense listens to normal metaphors which use the faculty of understanding, only the anagogical sense listens to those which depend upon the virtue of faith- being seen through the faithful eyes of the Christian tradition.
  • For example, listening to the Genesis story God walking with the humans might make us meditate on our partial experiences of Paradise and of God being close to us now, or of Paradise and closeness to God in the future. In Scripture Paul uses this sense himself when he talks about a rock following the Israelites through the desert and states that “the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:14). This is because the manna and water prefigure the body and blood of Jesus. An example of using this sense to interpret Jesus’ sayings is that planting a mulberry tree in the sea (Matt 21:21b/Lk 17:6) symbolises Jesus’ sacrifice being established among the pagans. The sea represented paganism to the Jews, while the tree represents the cross.

Using it for doctrinal theology:

  • Because, unlike the literal sense, the spiritual senses are necessarily subjective, they cannot be used to provide a definitive proof of a doctrine.
  • Perhaps the best use of the spiritual senses are for providing us with typologies for theology.
  • The most popular hermeneutic since the early 19th century is what’s called the historico-critical method. This reverses the traditional assumption of the Bible as a divine text to it being a human text that to be criticised on the basis of historical and scientific accuracy. The theologian Aiden Nichols has called the use of this method alone the “Babylonian captivity of scripture”.
  • John Henry Newman argued that criticism of the original sources of Bible passages did not harm their authenticity because the Holy Spirit’s most important work of inspiration was the compilation of the cannon.
  • In Benedict XVI’s 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth he urges Christians to engage with the historico-critical method in a way that is a) limited by not staying to our own individual interpretation but remaining in dialogue with others, and b) purified by beginning from trust, not suspicion. This does, however, create divisions in theology between those who trust the Bible to different degrees.


See the Next Part of Bible For Bluffers.


Comments on: "Reading the Bible" (1)

  1. […] important worl of inspiration was the compilation of the cannon. … Originally posted here: Reading the Bible « The University of Reading Chaplaincy ← 8 Ways the Religious Right Wins Converts – to Atheism | Away Point Which Is the […]

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