Once again I would like to promote my colleague Jordan’s excellent report on Medieval exegesis of Holy Scripture. In my previous report of his first article I focused on the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling us to understand the Bible in a way that ‘mere’ academic study cannot entirely help us, attempting to show how the two are interdependent. Here, I want to look at the four levels of interpretation that can result.
1. Historical Sense – Jordan helpfully points out that despite our biased presuppositions, the medieval scholars actually did care about the literal-historical meaning of Scripture, and considered it the starting point to all other interpretations. For example, Ecclesiastes 24:12 says “he who has created me has rested in my tent (tabernaculum).” Literally, this refers to God’s dwelling in the Temple which Solomon had built, but it also points to God’s presence in other sorts of Temples as well, such as Mary’s womb.
2. Allegorical Sense – Continuing the Body of Christ image of the Bible from the previous post, the allegorical sense of Scripture amounts to how it points to Christ. Sticking with the Ecclesiastes quote, it allegorically shows God’s sacramental presence in the Church.
3. Tropological Sense – All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, so tropology gives us an ethical or personal understanding of Scripture. This is the “what does the passage mean to me?” part of Bible study. The same Ecclesiastes quote could here be received as describing God’s presence (or the Spirit’s indwelling) within each of our hearts.
4. Anagogical Sense – This refers to the coming bodily return of Christ at the end of the age, and the final end-goal to which the Christian life is striving. The Ecclesiastes quote in this sense can be understood to refer to Christ being seated on the heavenly throne from which he will judge the world – one of those crazy images from Revelation that is kind of already in progress, but also not really operating in full force yet.
Despite how cool all this Body of Christ, Jesus the Word, the Bible the Word stuff sounds, many may still be uncomfortable with the idea of allegorical interpretation. Part of this concern may well be addressed in my previous post, where I reflected on the Holy Spirit’s role in helping us to understand Scripture. But there is another issue with wording here: sorting out the difference between “allegory” and “typology.” Strictly speaking, allegory is an understanding of something that transforms the literal text into symbols unrelated from the literal meaning, while typology is an understanding that uses the literal meanings to point to something else beyond them.
Much of the time, when people talk about allegorical meanings of Scripture, they actually mean typological meanings – the words get mixed up in their use an awful lot. Certainly, there are examples of Medieval exegetes (as well as ancient and modern) who do resort to allegory beyond simple typology, and these methods can get out of hand very quickly. But much of the time, what’s called allegory is actually typology, and thus is firmly rooted in the literal-historical understanding of Scripture. Lots of annoying long words = tedious article to read, and I apologize. I wrote this partly to help myself sort through all these terms, too, because I honestly keep forgetting what “anagogical” means, not to mention keep the rest of these straight.