Hermeneutics 101: Reading Through a Catholic Lens

January 26, 2021

Hermeneutics is a great word to know but can cause feelings of inadequacy when you hear it and have no idea what it means. Do not worry EVERYONE has been there. It is not like we grow up in households hearing our parents say it regularly over their morning coffee. “Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation” (SEP). When we read a text for its meaning(s), hermeneutics steps back and asks questions such as: What did the authors intend to say? How did they express their meaning? From what cultural, linguistic, and historical contexts are they writing and how might these influence the writing? What literary devices are being used? Genre? and an array of other related questions. And hermeneutics does not just concern scripture. The philosophical study that is hermeneutics is applicable in the studies of literature, translation, history, art criticism, archaeology, anthropological disciplines, and education. Basically, how are we to understand what another has expressed given the environment of the writer, and what we tend to “bring with us” as we read?

Having a well developed hermeneutic is important for reading scripture because not all interpretations are created equal, and, as history has shown, different philosophies of interpretation have led to a multitude of Christian denominations much to our own dismay (cf. Ephesians 4:3-6 and Acts 4:32). The Catholic hermeneutic is not an arbitrary method of drawing interpretations biased toward our ideological preferences. It was developed to ensure that we “get out of our own way” and truly hear God’s voice in the experiences and images composed by the human writers. Contrary to the criticisms levied against her for centuries, the Catholic Church is careful to draw God’s every intended meaning and directive found in scripture and not “invent” meanings that are not really there. And this is because the Church has not only been careful in the study of scripture itself but also careful in reflecting on the way she has studied scripture, especially in relatively recent times (see Dei Verbum, Vatican II). A good sign of the veracity of our interpretations is how much it challenges us. Like the prophets Jonah, Elijah, or Jeremiah, the Church has on numerous occasions interpreted and applied the meanings of scripture in ways that the Church knows are unpopular to, difficult for, and going to draw hostility from the rest of the world. The Church has even been known to even elicit this response from her own members (the history surrounding Humanae Vitae is a case in point). But, in or out of season as the popular saying goes, the Church must express interpretations of scripture in the ways given by the promised Spirit of understanding.

Senses of Scripture

In light of the tendency of humanity to see multiple meanings in scripture, more than one of which being true, the Church has developed a tradition of reading scripture to help ensure we grasp the meanings God intended us to hear. Today, there is a common tendency to read scripture immediately mining it for answering the question: “What is God asking me to do?” The question itself is not a bad question and eagerness to do God’s will is a good sign. But there are prior steps that must be taken to arrive at a secure answer to this particular question. The Church has discerned the different senses of scripture which are primarily the literal sense and the spiritual senses. Since scripture has two main categories of causes, human and divine, there are two main sources of intended meaning. Just as in English we use the common phrase “in a sense…”, when applied to scripture in one sense we draw a meaning and in another sense we draw another meaning. It is much like how we might apply critical theories to a classic fiction novel. The author in one sense is just telling a story. There are made up characters, who act out a plot designed by the author. However, in another sense, the author is saying something about human nature, implying a philosophical opinion about the world and how it turns. Dostevksy’s masterful work, Crime and Punishment, is a story in which an assuming man commits the crime of murder and the story is played out in the choices that follow. On the surface, it is just a story. However, as human beings, we tend to wrestle with deeper questions of our being through art such as this. “Would I do the same?” “Would most act this way?” “Was there a better way to handle it?” “What does this say about human beings in general?”

Similarly, scripture can be read with such meanings in mind because God willfully intended for us to read it in such a way. The major difference between God and a human novelist is that God has “authored” history such that the seasoned eye can pick up on patterns and rhythms that are reflected in scripture. History (literally “his story,” the story of mankind) is precisely that. Each member of the human race lives out their lives as a thread in the tapestry of history. However, there is a deeper meaning that God wishes to indicate in the world beyond. By analogy, just as a fictional novel points to the realities of human nature and the workings of the world, human history is being “written” to indicate to us the realities of God, heaven, and our role in the kingdom of God. To speak plainly about the reality of scripture in this regard the Church has articulated the senses of scripture. The literal sense primarily revolves around the human causes of scripture and include questions of historicity, genre, and literary criticisms. The spiritual sense revolves around divinely intended meanings pointing to the heaven, the ways of the Spirit, and to God himself and the spiritual sense is broken up into three kinds: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses.

The Literal Sense

The literal sense of scripture requires a bit of homework but is the fundamental sense of scripture. All senses of scripture are based on the literal (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 1, 10, ad I). This means that before one can go on to the deeper spiritual truths such as how one is to live and act today, we must first grasp what the text is plainly saying. Often, the best way to the literal sense is to draw from the human author’s intention. This requires homework because the writers of antiquity were writing in categories of literary genre that we do not typically write in today. They had poetry and the fictional novelette much like what we have today, albeit under different names. But the way in which the ancients wrote history is very different from the way in which we write history today. Same is true of legal code, letters/epistles, and epic poetry. It is important to approach any given piece of scripture with this awareness. Otherwise, an interpretation is susceptible to the error of literalism and fundamentalism. Reading the first chapters of Genesis without an awareness of the genre of mythos and believing that the creation of the world was a matter of God creating in six twenty-four hour periods misunderstands the point of the creation accounts–namely that God created. The author was not intending a strict timeline of the events of creation and that fact is important when tending to the true literal meaning of scripture as opposed to a literalist reading.

The tendency to read it like a scientific narrative is telling of our own biases or what theologian, Sandra Schneiders, calls the “World in front of” the text. In addition to learning more about the world behind and of the text (that is the historical context of the writing as well as the world “created” by what the words of scripture actually say), it is important not to inject anachronisms from our own mind. There are times we need to put on “antiquity goggles” draw out the proper literal sense of the text. For example, when scripture describes people travelling from one place to another, we tend not to make a big deal out of it because many people travel upwards of forty miles in a single day by car, train, or boat. By plane, that figure multiplies hundreds of times over. Forty miles today is a trip to a neighboring city and back–an hour in the car. At the time of writing scripture, however, most had to walk. Maybe one had a donkey or a camel but it did not make it much faster. Forty miles was roughly a two-day trip. Travel took serious planning and effort in antiquity. It is important to keep that in mind when reading scripture stories that involve travel because important details mentioned by the author may pass the reader by. This is just an example. This does not mention the multitude of other concerns of the ancient world that we take for granted today, things like hospitals, legal codes and law enforcement, the concept of human and civil rights, freedom and liberty, indoor plumbing, lightbulbs–all such things as we understand them today are foreign to or nonexistent in antiquity.

The literal sense asks the reader to get into the mindset of the writer. When gathering background information to form a better literal sense of the text some important questions to ask are how seemingly familiar practices were practiced in antiquity (e.g. marriage, fishing, daily chores), how did the author understand the genre in which they were writing, what kinds of things were important to people like the writer and to the audience for whom the writer wrote. Prima Facie, this sounds tedious, but even the smallest detail or word study can draw out profound meanings.

The Spiritual Senses of Scripture

The deeper senses of scripture can be characterized by their divine causes and intentions, oftentimes going beyond the intentions of the human author. God, through the expressed experiences of His interactions with His people, conveys perennial and eternal truths about grace, life in the Spirit, heaven, and above all, about God’s own inner life. It is in the sphere of the spiritual senses that the distinctions between historiography and poetry become blurred. Mark Twain once remarked, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” which suggests that a comprehensive survey of history would reveal discernible patterns. Scripture, which contains the history of a people, contains these patterns as well. But these particular writings have the particular privilege of being inspired by God. It is by this principle that God elevates the particular history and cultural memory of a people to become the story of the whole of humanity.

Given this understanding, it is then possible to read scripture with the purpose of yielding eternal truths, knowledge that is reliable for all people at all times and in all cultural contexts. This knowledge is immutable because their objects are immutable, that is, unchanging. Having reflected on content of the knowledge revealed in scripture known as divine revelation for centuries, the Church has observed families of spiritual interpretations revolving about broad topics in revelation. These spiritual senses are known as the allegorical, moral, and anagogical and have traditionally been understood to revolve around Christ and the Church, the inner life of the individual, and about heaven respectively. And as I mentioned before, the spiritual sense are based one the meaning found in the literal sense. The expressed, say, faith of Abraham will spiritually exhort readers to a similar fidelity, one that trusts in the providence of God. Each of the spiritual senses relies upon metaphor, typology, and analogy to convey its meaning.

  • Allegorical – The allegorical sense of scripture speaks of the mysteries surrounding Christ and the Church. Scott Hahn in his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, does well in making plain to see the trajectory of salvation history. At each stage of this history there is an elect, a chosen people of God that gets progressively more inclusive. This pattern points to the divine intention of choosing the whole world. The name “catholic” means universal. That is, through Christ, God has opened the doors of his assembly to every people of all time. Scripture at various times points to the plan to do this explicitly (i.e. in the literal sense) at various points in scripture. For example, the second chapter of Isaiah begins with the “mountain of the Lord’s house” being a point of God’s emphasis and that “All nations shall stream toward it” (Isaiah 2:2). This future insight is also implicitly mentioned throughout scripture, when admirable outsiders and foreigners get to share in the benefits of God’s people. Some examples would include Hagar, her son and the promise God makes to them (cf. Genesis 21:18 and the surrounding verses); the immunity given to Rahab in the conquest of Jericho (cf. Joshua 2:14), or the visit of the men from the East to the newborn Jesus (cf. Matthew 2). These are implicit signs of the universality of God’s call and providence, fulfilled in the Church of today. This is but an example of what can be found in this regard throughout the various stories of scripture.
  • Moral – The moral sense of scripture concerns individuals and their souls in relation to God and His grace. While including behavior and actions to emulate, the moral sense includes a much broader set of moral categories: virtues to cultivate, vices to unlearn, the dynamics of the soul and its cooperation with grace, and the spiritual life in general. One way to read the story of humanity is to see it as a macrocosm of the individual soul. Our lives as infants is a distant memory of a paradise where we did not have to worry about food or clothes–we simply did not have the capacity for it at the time. We were completely innocent. But once we reached the age of reason, able to know the difference between good and evil, our lives were no longer a “paradise.” We became responsible and culpable for our actions. Our lives mirror the story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden. Again, this is but an example of a method that can be applied to other stories in scripture (Samson and Delilah, Babylonian exile, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem are some examples to explore).
  • Anagogical – Anagogy speaks of transcendent–heavenly–realities. To read scripture through this particular lens is to see how the passage reflects the “political structure” and “economy” of heaven. Stories involving the ark of the covenant and the holy of holies lend themselves well to this particular way of reading. David’s act of dancing before the Ark of the Covenant in procession, despite being king of Israel (traditionally, in earthly kingdoms, the king doesn’t dance but is the one danced before) speaks of and reflects the greatness of God (cf. 2 Samuel 14:16). Similar images have been depicted of the highest of the heavenly courts of angels in relation to God (cf. Psalm 150 and Psalm 47). It is by this analogy that we can hope to realize the utter transcendence of God. The dignity of the greatest of God’s angels who far surpass the honor and prestige this world can offer, is rightfully and overwhelmingly overshadowed by the glory of the Most High. Jesus will frequently allude to the honor due to Him from creation (cf. Matthew 26:53 and Luke 19:40)
God the Father and Angel by Guercino
This painting depicts God as a distinguished elder in comparison to an infant-like angel. In comparison to human beings, angels are ancient and surpassingly great, but to God angels are but little children whom He teaches. This is meant to highlight the utter transcendence of God.

The scriptures express a deeply Christological character. Materially speaking it is very human. It is composed by human beings, in a human language employing human cultural images and idioms to express a human history of experiences. However, there are causes of scripture at work that cannot be accounted for purely by human standards. The unity of scripture, its rhythms and patterns, language and imagery, and the layers upon layers of meaning surpass what is normally possible by human means. The explanation from faith is that the Holy Spirit, the one believed to have “spoken through the prophets” is the same Spirit breathed upon the Apostles, who enlightened the saints their reading of the scriptures, and whom we call upon today to help us in our understanding. Given this understanding, it is important that we do not read the scriptures “on our own.” Without the Spirit of Unity guiding our understanding through our decision to read with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, one is in effect trying to start their own self-led church. This is how Christianity has become fractured 10,000 times over. The Catholic hermeneutic of scripture can be characterized in the word, Christological. It is both human and divine. As human it can and should be read with historiographical concerns in mind. The human authors are writing in history through the language, idiom, and cultural imagery available to them at their given time and place. Students of scripture need this sensitivity to read it properly. However, those of faith should see the divine causes and authorship at work in scripture as well. God composes the scripture to reflect his masterpiece which is human history itself. The Bible is a collection, an album if you will, of the memories of the experiences of God’s people with God. Through them we can come to experience anew those memories. However, like a family photo album sitting on the coffee table, unless you have a family member there with you who can give context and meaning to each photo we won’t be able to comprehend the whole picture and family history. That is what the Church does for us.

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