FR. FLATLEY — Journey to the heart of what’s written in the Bible


The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that there are four senses of Sacred Scripture.

It is crucial to understand this, so as to dive deep into their sacred meaning ... into the wisdom God is revealing.

This journey into the heart of the Scripture is a journey into our own hearts.

Once while hiking in the Rocky Mountains with a very wise Trappist abbot, I was droning on and on, trying to discern what the deepest desires of my heart were, whilst searching out God’s will for me ... and the abbot casually responded, “Well, they are one and the same, Matthew.”

His words pierced my heart. I now understand he was speaking words of wisdom. It was actually the Holy Spirit speaking.

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses.

Monastics refer to the last sense as the Unitive Level.

The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis (the critical explanation or interpretation of scripture), as guided by the Church.

All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.

Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, the spiritual sense then allows us to perceive not only what the text of Scripture reveals, but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs, inviting one to go deeper.

With the allegorical sense, we can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ.

Pondering the moral sense, the Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, the Scriptures were written “for our instruction.”

Finally, with the anogogical sense (Greek: anagoge “leading”), we can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland.

A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses: The Literal speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

The classic example to demonstrate the four senses is the Temple. In the literal, it was the actual building — the Holy of Holies in ancient Jerusalem.

The spiritual sense has even higher importance because God has used it as a sign to tell us about greater realities.

Allegorically, the Temple points to Jesus, who said he was the true Temple that would be destroyed and raised up in three days.

Just as the Jerusalem Temple was the place of sacrifice for the Jews, so does Jesus’s body house the everlasting sacrifice on Calvary for all humanity.

The moral sense of the Temple is found in the Christian, whose body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Temple contained the awesome presence of God, so do the bodies of Christians hold the presence of the Holy Spirit by virtue of their Baptism.

Anagogically, the Jerusalem Temple finds its eschatological meaning in the heavenly sanctuary, where God will dwell among us in our eternal home, as described in the Book of Revelation.

This method of uncovering the four senses of Scripture is rooted in Catholic Tradition and has been used by many great saints, doctors, and Fathers of the Church, and even by Jesus and the New Testament writers themselves.

Understanding the four senses of Scripture is bound to transform our reading of the Bible.

By using this Catholic approach to the Word of God, you can more easily overcome the distance of time and discover the intimate solidarity that exists between the people of God in the Bible and our life in the Catholic Church today.

With the four senses in mind, the Biblical narratives become much more than stories from the ancient past. These age-old Biblical narratives can no longer be seen as far removed and detached from our lives today.

Instead, they are intimately bound up with the present.

God who was fathering the ancient Israelites continues to work in similar ways with His children today.

By calling our attention to the profound connections between the biblical world and the Christian life, the four senses of Scripture ultimately should lead us to our knees, to a deeper level of praise and thanksgiving for God’s magnificent story of salvation that He continues to write in the fabric of history and in our very lives ... and in our hearts.

Fr. Flatley is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.