In a previous installment, I advocated for the retrieval of “spiritual interpretation” in Christian preaching as a method for interpreting and inhabiting the strange new world of the Bible. In particular, I argued for a fourfold reading of scripture as summarized in the medieval distich:
The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe,
Morality teaches what you should do, anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.
The time has come to explore what this all might look like in practice. How might we make use of spiritual exegesis and the “fourfold sense” in our proclamation of the Bible’s strange new world?
Letter. For starters, preaching begins with the letter, with description and analysis of Scripture and the events to which Scripture attests. The readings for a given Sunday are not merely occasions for the preacher to express his/her own inspired thoughts for the day. The text does not exist to support and ornament the homily; the homily exists to explain and apply the text. Preaching the letter means attending to genre – what kind of text is this (history, myth, poetry, prophecy?) and how does its “form” inform the way it should be read? Preaching the letter may also mean attention to matters of authorship, dating, socio-historical context, etc., as a means of explaining the distinctive themes, concepts, and logic of a particular writing. The primary focus of the sermon, however, is not the natural history of a text (its composition, transmission, reception, etc.) but, as Barth provocatively states, the “history of God.” Preaching the letter means patient attention to what the Scriptures say about God, God’s will for his creatures, and the means by which God accomplishes his will in creation.
Allegory. Preaching allegorically means searching the Scriptures for Christ, following the arc of Scripture to its fulfilment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is the revelation of God (Jn. 14:9), the one through whom the will of God is made uniquely transparent to us (Jn. 6:38), and the means by which God reunites all things in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:10). To proclaim the Scriptures allegorically is therefore to submit all of Scripture to the illuminating mystery of Christ.
For much of the tradition, as is already apparent in the writings of the New Testament, spiritual interpretation centered upon figural readings of the Old Testament – explorations of the ways in which persons, places, and events in scripture “prefigure” the saving work of God in Christ. So, for instance, the feeding of the liberated Israelites with manna from heaven (Ex. 16) prefigures the living bread that comes down from heaven to sustain us unto eternal life (Jn. 6). Similarly, the temple, the location where God’s glory dwells and where sacrifices are offered to God on behalf of the people (2 Chron. 7), points forward to “God with us” (Mt. 1:23), the one who offers himself as a sacrifice for all (Heb. 10:10).
In addition to figural readings, special attention is also given in the history of Christian interpretation to the various ways in which Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy. In Matthew’s Gospel especially, we are told repeatedly, “This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet” (cf. Mt. 1:22; 2:15, 17; 21:4). Following in the Evangelists’ footsteps, Athanasius thus devotes a considerable portion of his great work On the Incarnation to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in Christ, concluding, “no one else is found in the scriptures except the Savior common to all, the God Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Finally, reading the Scriptures in search of Christ means reading the Bible as a drama that unfolds over time – not simply as an assortment of signs and prophecies indicating Christ, but as a continuous narrative of God’s reconciling love. God’s covenant with Abram, the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the whole history of judges, kings, and prophets, all belong within a single story to which God in Christ is the decisive climax.
Morality. Only once the preacher has proclaimed the allegorical reading, only once she has explored the text’s transparency to the light of Christ, is she finally in a place to apply that text to the lives of individual believers. As we noted in the previous installment, moving too swiftly to application risks bypassing the very grounds for Christian action/formation and commending an onerous legalism from the pulpit.
The moral reading of Scripture is not simply the straightforward application of the bible’s moral teaching. While we must certainly attend to the commands, principles, and moral paradigms recorded in scripture, Christian action and formation is rooted ultimately in our shared identity in Christ. “[W]e have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Proclaiming the moral sense of Scripture means narrating the shape of one’s new life in Christ. It is a means of affirming and commending our own transparency to the light of Christ.
Anagogy. Spiritual interpretation concludes with anagogy, with the mystical and the eschatological. In one sense, this means reminding our congregations that we are always pilgrims “on the way.” The work accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ awaits its consummation at his Parousia, his coming again “with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:30; Mk. 13:26). Until that day, we remain an Advent people. We continue to cry out, in the face of injustice and our own complicity in the world’s brokenness, Maranatha – Our Lord, Come! (1 Cor. 16:22). We continue to devote ourselves to the work of God’s kingdom until that day when “the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
But preaching anagogically also means locating ourselves already within the heavenly realms. In this sense, the sermon leads naturally to the eucharistic prayer; the pulpit points us in the direction of the altar. The Eucharist is a foretaste of God’s new and transfigured creation, our participation here and now in the future that awaits us. The liturgy moves us by its own internal rhythm from the gift of God’s Word to the gift of the Sacrament. But the sermon, situated between the Gospel and communion, is also an opportunity to make this relation explicit. Having heard the narrative of God’s saving works, we are then incorporated into that story. Having recalled the sacrifice of Christ in history, we are drawn into his eternal self-offering to the Father. It is in the celebration of the holy Eucharist that the sermon finds its place of fulfillment. It is here that we are ushered together into the strange new world of Scripture.
The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is director of formation and tutor of theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).