The Four Senses of Scripture: A Byzantine Perspective (An Essay)

“…The letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 118)

We can quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and understand that the Scriptures can be understood in four senses. However, as Dr. Scott Hahn has noted in Worship in Word; Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic. (Letter and Spirit), an important hermeneutical principle is one that has a liturgical perspective. Since the canon of Scripture and its interpretation can be seen so clearly in the selection of the passages used for liturgical purposes, the present essay seeks to describe the four senses of biblical interpretation, and then show how Byzantine Christians can be nourished by all four perspectives of scriptural hermeneutics in their liturgical life of prayer.

First, with regard to the literal sense of Scripture, there are many ways that Eastern Christians can understand the presence of Christ speaking to His Church in the Scriptures from a literal sense. One example is that of the Communion Hymn (Koinonikon) for the Ascension of the Lord, which is celebrated forty days after Pascha. For this hymn, Psalm 46:6 is quoted, which states: “God ascends amid shouts of joy; the Lord amid trumpet blasts.” Here at Communion we are singing from the Psalms, which prophesied that God Himself would ascend amid shouts of joy. One key way in which this verse was fulfilled literally was at the Ascension, which is recorded in the Acts of the Holy Apostles. By choosing a communion hymn from the Psalter that has a literal fulfillment in the feast, the faithful who pray this can learn that the Old Testament foretold our Lord’s glorious Ascension. We put the literal sense of Scripture into practice through this song.

As an example of understanding the allegorical sense of Scripture, the Feast of the Dormition invokes the faithful’s hearts to see Scripture in just such a manner. At the Alleluia verses of the Feast, we read “Go up Lord, to your rest, you and your holy ark”, which is a quotation from Psalm 132. Clearly the literal sense of this passage of Scripture evokes the ark of the covenant, in which the presence of God dwelt among his Old Covenant people. However, the allegorical fulfillment of the ark has been seen through the Fathers to be the Theotokos, who bore God Himself in her most holy womb. At the Feast where we commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord and having her body assumed into heaven, we have this Scriptural passage that literally speaks of the ark of the covenant. However, the spiritual sense goes beyond literal fulfillment, whereby the Theotokos is allegorically seen to be the ark of the Lord. The ascent is more than just a literal and earthly ascent to Jerusalem, but is allegorically an ascent to the presence of God where the Theotokos’ body was assumed. As such, Byzantine Christians sing this Psalm on the feast of the Dormition, which enables them to see Scripture in the allegorical sense, which is ultimately more real than any literal fulfillment could be.

Next, there is the moral sense of Scripture. Focusing upon how one ought to live one’s life, passages that are focused on simple physical realities are transfigured into invisible truths in the liturgical life of Byzantine Christians. As the body can be applied to one’s moral state of affairs, the Byzantine hymnography commemorates certain men afflicted with bodily pain and disease, which is used as a muse for our spiritual condition. In the Sunday of the Paralytic (the Fourth Paschal Sunday), we sing at the Kontakion: “O Lord, with your divine authority, as you once raised the paralytic, now raise my soul, paralyzed dreadfully with all kinds of sin and disgraceful deeds, that being saved, I may cry out to you: Glory to your power, O merciful Christ.”

The healing of the paralytic in a literal sense was a call to see the power of Christ to transform a broken physical body. As we chant on this Sunday, the literal sense of Scripture is transfigured into a moral reading of the passage, whereby our sins that paralyze us are compared to the debilitating effects of our own sin. The Gospel passage that is read on this Sunday (John 5:1-15) is given the moral sense through our singing the kontakion, which elevates us to understand its spiritual application to our own lives in the world today through the moral sense.

Lastly, there is the anagogical sense of Scripture, which looks to the eschatological reality of heaven where the Church as the Bride of Christ is united with God forever in Heaven. In the prayer of the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, the ultimate reality of our divine destiny with Christ is shown in the eternal perspective offered in the priest’s prayer. The celebrant prays in the Anaphora: “Remembering, therefore, this saving command and all that has come to pass in our behalf: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second coming in glory: Offering you, your own, from your own, always and everywhere…” In our liturgical practice, the literal reality of the Second Coming mentioned in Scripture in passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is exalted into an anagogical sense, whereby our contact with God through the Divine Liturgy is so deep that the eschatological future is remembered as though it were not future. Our union with the God who is eternally Present allows us to leave the bonds of time itself, and our liturgical prayer speaks to this anagogical reality.

Many examples of the ways that our liturgical life brings the different senses of Scripture to life can be provided. Through ever deeper reflection on our liturgical life and the senses of Scriptures, we can grow in this understanding as Eastern Christians.

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3 thoughts on “The Four Senses of Scripture: A Byzantine Perspective (An Essay)

  1. Pingback: FRIDAY BYZANTINE EDITION | Big Pulpit

    • Greetings, MPSchneiderLC.

      The liturgical depth of the Apostolic Churches is unending. I strongly believe that the more we can share of this depth with one another, the more we will grow in Christ. My biggest fear in trying to write anything about the subject is that there is so much to share. Part of me wishes I would just follow the liturgical calendar and use the readings and psalms that are sung as a reflection. May God speak to us more as we breathe with both lungs of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church!

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