The Anagogical Sense of Scripture

And Jesus said unto the theologians: “Who do you say that I am?”

They replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

And Jesus answered them, saying: “Huh?”

It’s hard not to empathize with that old joke when we get into the details of Scripture scholarship.  It’s easy to become intimidated by a question like “What is the point of Bible study?”  Some will tell you that the point is to gain a more thorough grounding in the weltanshaung of the biblical authors in order to penetrate the formative layers upon which subsequent Christological conceptualization were founded.  Others will tell you that the point is to decode the narrative strategies by which the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuterocanonical sources were redacted by later editorial hands in response to pressures exerted on the post-Exilic community by both internal and external political forces in play during the middle of the First Millennium B.C.E.  Still others will say that biblical study is necessary in order to confront the forces of race, class and gender oppression which characterize the Abrahamic cultus at its root and which can only be resolved by a radical revisioning of the sacred narrative.

The Church’s answer to “What is the point of Bible study?” is much simpler and uses much shorter words: The point of Bible study is to get to Heaven.  To some folk, that seems crass, crude, and simplistic.  However, it has the great advantage of being true, nonetheless.  Jesus came, ultimately, that we may have eternal life with God.  That’s where we’re headed.  That’s what all this stuff is about.

Because of this, Scripture does something that is unique in the pagan world: it thinks of time as a line and not a circle.  The Jews conceived of history as an arrow, not as a wheel.  Instead of a myth of endless cycles and repetition, the Jewish Scriptures speak of a Beginning when God made everything.  They see history as going somewhere.  They look not simply to the past, when the covenant was made with Abraham or Moses, but to the future coming of Messiah and ultimately to “That Day” when the Lord will judge the world and set it all right.  Christianity inherits this view of Ultimate Optimism and teaches its flock to cultivate it.

And so, Scripture is found to contain a fourth sense known as the anagogical sense.  This three dollar word refers to the sense of Scripture that has to do with our destiny in Christ and the images in Scripture which prefigure such things as Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  So, for instance, St. John, in his Revelation, sees the city of Jerusalem as an image of our heavenly destiny when he tells us he sees the “New Jerusalem” dressed like a glorious bride.  Likewise, the author of Hebrews sees Mt. Zion as an image of Heaven when he speaks of the “heavenly Zion”.  Paul sees images of royalty such as crowns as signs of our heavenly destiny.  Similarly, when Jesus uses the word “Gehenna” to speak of Hell He is, in fact, doing the same thing, since Gehenna refers, literally speaking, to the Valley of Hinnom, where King Manassas had instituted child sacrifice to Canaanite gods centuries before.  Likewise, when He speaks of the End Times in Matthew 24, not a few readers have noticed that it’s hard to tell when Jesus is talking about the end of the world and when He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple (which would occur in 70 AD).

The reason for that is that the destruction of the Temple is the destruction of a world: the world of the Old Covenant.   And so the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple are likewise invested with ultimate significance as a foretaste of our destiny and of the destiny of the world and the Church.  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” said Jesus.  So the destruction of the Temple is an image of the destruction of Christ’s body on the Cross.  It is also an image of the physical death of each member of the Body of Christ.  It is even an image of the coming suffering of the Church and the world in the final conflict with Antichrist.  But likewise, the Church’s survival of the calamity of 70 AD is an image of the Resurrection, of the hope of eternal life for the believer, and of the Church ultimate victory on the Last Day, when Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead.

Scripture, said St. Thomas More, is a river that an ant can wade in and an elephant can swim in.  All four senses of Scripture highlight this fact and help us see, imitate, and follow Jesus–all the way to Heaven.


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