I’ve attempted several times to get my head round the (pre-modern) four ‘senses’ of Scripture, but Timothy Ward gives a particularly clear explanation, in an article in a recent edition of The Global Anglican.1

The four ‘senses’ are actually four levels of reference. Ward explains (p. 207):

Here is the best-known example, and one given by the mediaevals themselves. Imagine you are reading Isaiah 4.4: ‘The Lord will … cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.’ You ask yourself: what is this language of ‘Jerusalem’ referring to? The Middle Ages typically answered that: ‘Jerusalem’ here refers to four things:

  1. ‘Jerusalem’ refers to ‘the actual city in history’. This is the literal or historical sense.
  2. ‘Jerusalem’ refers to ‘the church, in whom Christ now dwells’. This is the allegorical sense, by which the passage teaches us ‘about Christ and the church’.
  3. ‘Jerusalem’ refers to ‘each individual believer who makes up the church’. This is the tropological or moral sense, by which the passage teaches us ‘how we should live’.
  4. ‘Jerusalem’ refers to ‘the future new creation’. This is the anagogical sense, by which the passage ‘inspires our hope in the future’.

The last three are known as the spiritual senses.

Ward continues (p. 208):

Thus the word ‘Jerusalem’ found in the OT ought to be seen as referring to four different realities, not because the interpreter is free to apply some fanciful hermeneutics, but because God is the Lord of history and so he is uniquely able to make one thing in the world refer to another thing. He can make the ancient city of Jerusalem a pattern for the reality of the church and for each believer now, and also a pattern for the future reality of new creation.

The recovery of this rich approach to Scripture is part of a movement known as the ‘Theological Interpretation of Scripture’ (TIS), which is essentially a push-back against the post-Enlightenment approach to Scripture known as ‘Historical Criticism’, which insisted ‘that the divine intention in a Bible passage does not go beyond the conscious human intention of the writer but is entirely identical with it’ (and hence that we shouldn’t go beyond the literal sense). But there is no need to insist that the divine intention does not exceed the human intention (p. 211):

As long as the divine-only intentions in a text do not float free from the divine-and-also-human intentions, we can quite reasonably acknowledge that the intentions of the eternal, omniscient and sovereign God exceed the intentions of the creaturely, limited human writer.

  1. Timothy Ward, ‘Mapping the Territory: what is the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”?’ The Global Anglican 136/3 (2022): 201-212.