The Allegorical Sense of Scripture

The curious thing about the Bible is the way it reads itself.   Modern and postmodern folk, having talked themselves out of trusting Scripture so that they can more credulously swallow whatever some dimestore novelist tells them, spend most of their energy (should they ever get around to reading the Bible) fretting over the most elementary aspects about the text.  So, if we propose to the modern mind that Mark wrote Mark or Isaiah had something to do with the authorship of Isaiah, this is often greeted with hoots of derision as simplistic fundamentalism and the question “How do you know?” asked by people who, like jesting Pilate, do not stay for an answer.  But if the National Geographic dusts off a piece of parchment styled by some anonymous fourth century scribe as the Gospel of Judas, it is taken as self-evident that this piece of paper was written by Judas and that it, as the saying goes, “shakes Christianity to its very foundations”.

The authors of the Bible, however, are not moving in such a topsy-turvy mental universe.  Nor was the Church that chose the books that we have in our Bible.  They actually had a living contact with the Spirit who inspired the Scripture as well as the community which wrote, edited and collated it by the power of that Spirit.  They didn’t sit around fretting, “What gives the Church the right to decide what goes in the Bible?” any more than you sit around fretting what give you the right to decide what goes in your family photo album.

Instead, they took it for granted that whatever they read in the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that, what was more, it was all about one thing: Jesus Christ and his Church.

This seems odd to us moderns, but it’s a fact nonetheless.  Ancients didn’t waste a lot of time wondering whether Moses really parted the Sea.  They took it for granted that he had (perhaps because they had more recently seen Jesus walk on the Sea).  Likewise, because they had recently seen Jesus multiply loaves and fishes, they had little trouble buying the story of the manna in the wilderness.  So instead of fussing about whether the events of the Old Testament happened, they spent their time pondering what it all meant.

Their big clue was given by our Lord himself, who assured them that everything in “Moses and the Prophets” was actually about him (Luke 24:44-47).  Yet, of course, at no point do Moses and the Prophets say, “In 1300 years, look for a man named Jesus to work miracles, die, rise from the dead, found a Church, and ascend into heaven until his Second Coming.”  So what’s going on?

What’s going on, according to Augustine, is that the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New Testament.  In other words, God didn’t just speak to us using signs called words, he spoke to us using signs ranging from people to miracles, historic events, clothing, furniture, and all the rest of the bric-a-brac of the Old Testament.  The manna in the wilderness was real and filled stomachs.  But that’s not the end of the meaning of manna.  If you want to know what God was pointing toward, says Jesus, look at Him, for he is the Bread of Life (John 6).  If you want to know why God used such a strange mode of exit for the Hebrews escaping from Egypt, then look at the sacrament of baptism, because the waters of the Red Sea that gave new life to Israel and killed their enemies are a foreshadow of the waters by which we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ (1 Corinthians 10).

One handy tool for helping us see these secondary meanings in Scripture is the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass.  Pay attention to the Old Testament reading and the Gospel.  Very frequently you will discover that they are connected by what the Church calls the “allegorical sense” of Scripture.  That is, you will discover that an image of Christ or His Church is hidden in the Old Testament reading and illuminated in the New.  That’s what the author of Revelation is getting at when he speaks of a sealed “scroll” (representing the Old Testament) that cannot be read by any mortal creature, but only by “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6).  Only in light of the crucified and risen Jesus does the full meaning of the depths of the Old Testament become intelligible.

Next week we will continue exploring those depths as they show us, not just Jesus, but our call to discipleship in word and deed.


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