Piercing The Veil: The Search for Meaning

The Search for Meaning:  Interpreting Scripture


From Detectives of Significance:  Sherlock Holmes, Umberto Eco, and the Search for Meaning, by Dr. Louis Markos,  Touchstone Journal, Sept/Oct 2012 issue:

The key thinkers of the Middle Ages valued stability and tradition in their daily lives, but that did not prevent them from setting forth on spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic quests.

Like the Romantics after them, the Medievals sought to pierce the veil, to discover what lay behind the words, ideas, and images that made up their daily lives . . .

. . . . And that takes us back to the medieval ‘obsession’ with reading poetry in general, and the Bible, in particular, in terms of two or three or four levels of meaning.

 Such a system of reading seems forced and unnatural to us, a mere exercise in obfuscation, but it was not so to them.

 “Interpreting poetry allegorically,” argues Eco, “did not mean  imposing upon it some kind of arid and artificial system.  It meant seeking in it what was felt to be the highest possible pleasure, the pleasure of a revelation ‘per speculum in aenigmate.’ “

Eco borrow the phrase the Latin phrase from 1 Corinthians 13.12:

 ‘For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face:  now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

Perhaps no verse in the Bible better explains the impetus behind the medieval quest for higher truths and essenses.  What waits for us on the other side is not just answers, but also Meaning, Purpose, and Presence.

Patristic and Medieval Interpretation of the Four Senses:

From Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages and Beyond, by Pope Benedict 16, 2012, Ignatius Press, page 31:
  1. Literal or Historical

  2. Allegorical or Christological

  3. Tropological or Moral

  4. Anagogical

The Four Layers of Meaning:  Interpreting Scripture

The Senses of Scripture:

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.  The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees in all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.”  [Catholic Catechism, 115]

“A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

‘The Letter speaks of deeds;  Allegory to faith;

The Moral how to act;  Anagogy our destiny.’ ”  [Catholic Catechsim, 117]

Terms and Definitions are from InterVarsity Press Handbook of Theological Terms, unless otherwise noted.

Note:  OT=Old Testament; NT=New Testament

Letter or Literal Sense [Historical]:

The meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis,  following the rules of sound interpretation:  “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”  [Catholic Catechism: 115]

A strict adherence to the exact word or meaning, either in interpretation or translation, of the Biblical text. 

Attempts to understand the author’s intent by pursuing the most plain, obvious meaning of the text, as judged by the interpreter. 

In translation, the attempt is made to convey with utmost accuracy, through the words of another language, the actual meaning of the biblical text.


Spiritual Sense:  [Allegorical or Christological or Typological]:


An interest or concern for matters of the “spirit,” in contrast to the mere interest and focus on the material.  Christian spirituality, as expressed through participation in certain Christian practices, such as Bible study, prayer, worship, and so forth.


We can aquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.  [Catholic Catechism, 117]

Expression, by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions, of truths or generalizations about human existence; a symbolic representation. [Webster’s].

 A story in which the details correspond to or reveal a “hidden,” “higher,” or “deeper” meaning. 

Method of biblical interpretation [which] assumes that biblical stories should be interpreted by seeking the “spiritual” meaning to which the literal sense points.


Christology is the study devoted to answering two questions:  Who is Jesus? [the question of his identity] and What is the nature and significance of what Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation? [the question of his work].


Differing from a symbol or an allegory, a typology is a representation of an actual, historical reference.  According to Christian exegesis, biblical typology deals with the parallels between actual, historical [usually OT] figures or events in salvation history and their later, analogous fulfillment.  Often NT events and figures are typologically understood and interpreted according to an OT pattern [e.g., Creation and New Creation, Adam and Christ, the Exodus and NT concepts of Salvation.]  On this basis, typology became one of the four prevalent ways [together with the literal, the analogical, and the spiritual] of interpreting Scripture in the Middle Ages.

Moral Sense: [Tropological or Ethical]:

The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly.  As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction.” [Catholic Catechism, 117]

The area of philosophical and theological inquiry into what constitutes right and wrong, that is, morality, as well as what is the good and the good life.  Ethics seeks to provide insight, principles, or even a system or guidance in the quest of the good life or in acting rightly, in either general or specific situations of life. 

Broadly speaking, ethical systems are either deontological [seeking to guide behavior through establishment or discovery of what is intrinsically right and wrong] or teleological [seeking to guide behavior through an understanding of the outcomes or ends that ethical decisions and behavior bring about.]

Anagogical Sense:


[Greek: anagoge, “leading”].  We can view realities and events in terms of eternal signficiance, leading us toward our true homeland:  thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.  [Catholic Catechism, 117]

Greek:  a “climb” or “ascent” upward.  “Leading above” when by a visible act an invisible is declared.  A method of interpretation of literal statements or events, especially Scripture.  [Wikipedia]

Interpretation of a word, passage, or text, that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral sense, a fourth and ultimate spiritual or mystic sense. [Webster’s]

Orients a person toward eternal life. [Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages and Beyond, by Pope Benedict 16, 2012, Ignatius Press.]

Interpreting Scripture: Other Terms & Definitions:

Terms and Definitions are from InterVarsity Press Handbook of Theological Terms, unless otherwise noted.

 Analogy of Faith:

 A principle of interpretation that suggests that clearer passages of Scripture should be used to interpret more obscure or difficult passages. 

 For Augustine, the analogy of faith requires that Scripture never be interpreted in such way that it violates the church’s summary of Christian faith [i.e., The Apostle’s Creed]. 

For Luther, Christ is the analogy of faith, so that Scripture needs always to be interpreted as testifying to Christ.

For Calvin, the analogy of faith assumes that, because the Spirit oversaw its writing, Scripture and the Spirit together interpret other parts of Scripture.

Exegesis, Eisegesis:

Literally, “drawing meaning out of” and “reading meaning into,” respectively. 

 Exegesis is the process of seeking to understand what a text means or communicates on its own. 

Eisegesis is generally a derogatory term, used to designate the practice of imposing a preconceived or foreign meaning onto a text, even if that meaning could not have been originally intended at the time of its writing.


The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly Sacred texts, such as the Scriptures. 

Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text, and the original or subsequent readers.

[Note:  For emphasis, I added italics, bold-face, and other formatting. MBP]


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Filed under Four Levels of Meaning, Interpretation of Scripture, Words & Language

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