FIRST STEPS TO INTERPRETING THE BIBLE SPIRITUALLY
The Bible was not written to be understood only in the literal or historical sense but, particularly in some texts, in a spiritual way. Its authors were inspired to write in such a way that what they said contained layer after layer of spiritual instruction, so that their words contained nourishment which would give sustenance at all levels, or degrees, of spiritual development. Indeed, since ancient times it has been recognized that there are four primary level of interpretation with each leading to progressively deeper spiritual understanding. These are the literal or historical, the allegorical, (which sometimes includes the typological), the moral or tropological and the mystical or anagogical. These are further explained in the course, Engaging with the Rationale, because Durandus does make extensive use of them in the RATIONALE DIVINORUM OFFICIORUM.
However if you are looking for a simple explanation of them Robert Grant, in his book A Short History of Biblical Interpretation, quotes a short Latin rhyme from the Middle Ages which was designed to help scholars remember them. The verse is:
Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.
And he gives a roughly translation of it as:
The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,
The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.
It is, of course, helpful to be aware of these different levels, particularly as they can assist us in understanding the basis on which a theologian presents a spiritual interpretation. Yet knowing about them and even understanding what they are is not, in itself, particularly useful when we come across a passage of scripture which is difficult to understand.
So how can we approach a difficult text in order to understand it in a more spiritual way? Here are two ways, which ultimately relate to each other.
The first is by looking up the Hebrew or Greek for particular words found in a text, and a good place to find these is in Strong’s concordance with Hebrew and Greek lexicons. What you will find is that quite often the Hebrew or Greek words can have more than one meaning in English. One example of this is the word ‘charity’, often found in the New Testament, comes from the Greek agape. Agape, however, does not mean doing a kind act or otherwise helping someone in need. It is much more than this. It speaks of a very deep and profound spiritual love for both God and for one’s neighbour. It transcends emotional love and is universal, unconditional love. It should not be confused with philia, brotherly love, or philautia, self-love.
Like many other words in the Bible agape is sometimes translated by another English word, in this case, ‘love’. An example of this is when Jesus says, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ (Mark 12:31)
Once we come to a better understanding of a word in one text we can move on to see how it sheds light on other texts where it is used. However you need to ensure that other texts are using the same Hebrew or Greek work. You should also be careful that you do not read an understanding into a text which is not really there.
The second way in which we can begin to explore the Bible from a more spiritual perspective is by using symbols. Many Christian symbols have meanings based on biblical texts. A simple example of this is the dove signifying the Holy Spirit. There are many Christian symbols and, unfortunately, today we tend to be familiar with only a few of them, and with the simple meanings of these. There are numerous symbols which have very profound meanings and if we became more familiar with these we would recognize how they help us to gain many spiritual insights into the scriptures.
Using these two methods to seek out more spiritual meanings in the Bible can take a bit if time to get the hang of, but the results are well worth the effort. Then, once you have become familiar with them, you can move to more advance methods of interpretation, which can produce even more astounding results.
copyright Janet Gentles