The Spiritual Interpretation of the Bible – Part 3

Note: While this three part reflection was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – editor

3. “The Spirit gives life”

When we don’t use a limb for a long while, it needs to undergo rehabilitation exercises before it can be used properly again. For all too long, Christians have been without the use of this vital “limb,” the Bible, and now they need to be retrained in how to use it.

 For some people, retraining will consist at first in picking up the Bible and reading it, since perhaps they have never seriously approached it before, or not at full length. For others who know the Bible and have even perhaps studied it for some time, retraining will consist in re-accustoming oneself to that spiritual interpretation of Scripture which throughout the patristic and medieval periods constituted the main source of the Church’s wisdom and spirituality.

A very hopeful sign is that several eminent exegetes are already becoming aware of this need. One recently wrote: “It is a matter of urgency that anyone studying and interpreting Scripture should give serious thought to the exegesis of the Fathers, so as behind their methods to rediscover the spirit that inspired them, the depth of soul that inspired their exegesis; we should learn to interpret Scripture at their school, not merely from the historical and critical point of view, but equally within the Church and for the Church” (I. de a Potterie). Henri de Lubac, in a justly famous work on medieval exegesis, has revealed the consistency, soundness, and extraordinary fecundity of the spiritual exegesis practiced by the ancient and medieval Fathers.

All the Scriptures speaks of Christ

But it must be said that the Fathers, in this field, only applied (with the imperfect instruments then at their disposal) the straightforward lesson of the New Testament. In other words, they were not the initiators but the bearers of a tradition which had for its founders John, Paul, and Jesus himself. These latter had always not only practiced a spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures (ie., a reading with reference to Christ), but had even provided the justification for reading the Scriptures like this by declaring that all the Scriptures speak of Christ (cf. John 5:39), that “the Spirit of Christ” was already at work in them, expressing himself through the prophets (cf. 1 Peter 1:11) and that everything in the Old Testament is said by way of allegory, with reference to the Church (cf. Galatians 4:24). 

Reading the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit would be like opening a book in the dark. 

Objective spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures

However, by “spiritual interpretation” of the Bible we do not mean an edifying, mystical, subjective or, even worse, a fanciful interpretation, as opposed to a scientific interpretation which would, by contrast, be objective. Not at all: the spiritual interpretation is the most objective there can be, since it is based on the Spirit of God and not on human wit. The subjective interpretation of Scripture (based on free examination) has run riot precisely when spiritual interpretation has been given up and most blatantly abandoned. 

Spiritual interpretation is very precise and objective; it is interpretation done under the guidance, or by the light, of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures in the first place. It is based on an historical event, that is, the redemptive act of Christ, who by his death and resurrection completes the plan of salvation, fulfills all types and prophecies, unveils all hidden mysteries, and offers us the true key for interpreting the whole Bible. 

Anyone choosing to read the Scriptures after Christ’s life while disregarding his act would be like someone persistently reading a musical score in the key of G when the composer has already moved into the key of B; every single note after the shift would sound false and out of tune. The New Testament calls the new key “the Spirit,” while it defines the old key as “the letter,” saying that “the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Reading the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit would be like opening a book in the dark. 

Antithesis between the two different ways of reading the Scriptures

To erect an antithesis between “letter” and “Spirit” does not mean erecting one between Old and New Testaments, as though the former merely represented the letter and the latter only the Spirit. It means, rather, to make an antithesis between the two different ways of reading either the Old Testament or the New: between the way which disregards Christ, and the way which, by contrast, evaluates everything by the light of Christ. 

This is why the Church prizes both Testaments, for both speak to her of Christ. When the Word of God is read like this, a sort of transfiguration of Scripture occurs, analogous to Christ’s transfiguration on Tabor. The Spirit hidden within the Scriptures sets them ablaze from within, making him known whom they were foreshadowing.

So, spiritual interpretation confers new and hitherto unknown force and influence on the Old Testament, but this only comes about once we realize that it is talking about something else; that besides having a concrete and literal meaning, it also has a symbolic one leading us beyond it. In other, more traditional, words, the text becomes powerful once we discover that it is speaking “by allegory” (Galatians 4:24). St. Augustine says,

Anything that is suggested by means of symbols strikes and kindles our affection much more forcefully than the truth itself would do if presented unadorned with mysterious symbols …  Our sensibility is less easily kindled when still involved in purely concrete realities, but if it is first turned towards symbols drawn from the corporeal world, and thence again to the plane of those spiritual realities signified by those symbols, it gathers strength by the mere act of passing from one to the other and, like the flame of a burning torch, is made by the motion to burn all the brighter.9

Something similar happens for the Christian in passing from the Old Testament to the New, from prophecy to reality. In this passing, the mind “flares up” like a moving torch. The description of the sufferings of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53 has its own way of speaking to us about the passion of Christ, which no historical narrative in the Gospels can replace. Similarly, the words in Proverbs: “Wisdom has built her house … she has spread her table; she has sent out her handmaidens, she calls … ‘Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed’” (Proverbs 9:5) have an evocative power that no discourse on the Eucharist can make necessary.

Indirect language (be it symbolic language of the sacraments or the prophetic language of the Scriptures) is less prone, in a sense, to being exhausted, since it says and does not say: rather than assert, it suggests, brings to mind, and hence, each time, stimulates a different motion of the heart. This is why the Old Testament (e.g., the Song of Songs) has always been so dear to the mystics.

The Old Testament is not scorned in spiritual interpretation; on the contrary, it is exalted to the utmost. When St. Paul says, “The Spirit gives life,” this has to be understood as meaning: gives life to the letter in the Old Testament as well. 

What the Spirit says to the Church

The spiritual interpretation of Scripture is not, however, concerned only with the Old Testament; in a different way it is also concerned with the New, which also should be read in a spiritual sense. Reading the New Testament spiritually means reading it by the light of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost to the Church in order to guide her into all truth (i.e., into a full understanding and practice of the gospel).

Jesus himself explained, in anticipation, the relationship between his Word and the Spirit whom he would send (even if we have some doubt that he used precisely those words quoted in St. John’s Gospel). The Spirit, we read in St. John, “will teach and remind you” of everything Jesus has said (cf. John 14:25f.), that is, will make all this understood in all its implications. He “will not speak on his own,” will not say anything new with regard to what Jesus has already said but, as Jesus himself says, “will take from what is mine and reveal it to you” (John 16:14).

Jesus did not say everything openly; there were matters the full weight of which the disciples were not yet in a state to bear. The Holy Spirit is charged with leading the disciples into the fullness of the as yet unattained truths. These are not, however, completely new things, unpublished sayings, but further, deeper meanings hidden in Christ’s words which the Paraclete will bring to light. To say that the Spirit guides the Church to the discovery of all truth (cf. John 16: 13) means that he guides her to the discovery of all truth hidden in the words and actions of Jesus. In fact, there is no other truth than the Truth which Jesus is! We are living in the midst of this progressive revelation by the Spirit and perhaps much more numerous are the matters of which we as yet are unable to bear the weight, than those which we have so far understood.

We can therefore say that the spiritual interpretation, in the full and comprehensive sense, is the one by which the Holy Spirit teaches us to read the Old Testament as referring to Jesus and

to read the Old and New Testaments together as referring to the Church.

In this we can see how spiritual interpretation presupposes and goes beyond scientific interpretation. Scientific interpretation knows but one direction, which is that of history: in a word, it explains what comes after in the light of what has gone before; it explains the New Testament in the light of the Old, and explains the Church in the light of the New. A great deal of critical effort, as regards Scripture, consists in illustrating the teachings of the gospel in the light of Old Testament traditions, rabbinical exegesis, and so forth; it consists, to be brief, in a search for sources. (This is the principle on which Kittel and a great many other biblical aids are based.)

Spiritual interpretation fully recognizes the validity of this line of research but to it adds another, opposite one, made possible only by the Spirit, not by history; only by faith, not by science. It consists in explaining what goes before in the light of what comes after, prophecy in the light of its fulfilment, the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the Church’s Tradition. In the prophet Isaiah we read these words of God: “’Things of the past I foretold long ago/ they went forth from my mouth, I let you hear of them;/ then suddenly I took action and they came to be” (Isaiah 48:3). Only after God has taken action and carried out his plan can the meaning of what he has prepared and prefigured be fully grasped. Only after the whole mosaic has been mounted on the wall can one fully grasp the significance of each individual tessera, which on its own would mean next to nothing.

This is valid not only for the transition from the Old Testament to the New, but also for the transition from the New Testament to the Church, for only by the light of what the Spirit keeps

accomplishing in the Church can we little by little discover the infinite potentialities and implications of the Word of God and the mystery of Christ. Tradition is, as it were, a great sounding box for Scripture. What would be the good of a violin which only had strings to vibrate but not that wondrous cavity of selected, seasoned, and polished wood in which the sound, one might say, takes body? What would be the point of the Song of Songs, read merely as it is found in the biblical manuscripts, without the resonance it has acquired in the liturgy and spirituality of the Church, where it is applied now to the Church herself, now to Mary, and now to the soul in love with God?

If, as Jesus says, every tree is known by its fruits, the Word of God cannot be fully known before we have seen the fruits that it has produced. Studying Scripture in the light of Tradition is somewhat like getting to know the tree by its fruits. This is why Origen says that “the spiritual sense is what the Spirit gives to the Church.”10 This is identical with the Church’s interpretation

or directly with Tradition itself, if by Tradition we mean not only the solemn declarations of the magisterium (which in fact are concerned with very few biblical texts), but also the experience of doctrine and of holy lives in which the Word of God has, as it were, been incarnated anew and unfolded by action of the Holy Spirit in the course of the centuries.

Retraining to a spiritual understanding of Scripture does not in fact mean devaluing critical scholarship, for it remains true that in a theandric reality one can never attain the divine without passing anew by way of the human. What is needed is not a spiritual interpretation that would replace present-day scientific exegesis with a mechanical return to the exegesis of the Fathers, but rather a new kind of spiritual interpretation that would correspond to the immense progress achieved in the study of “the letter.” An interpretation that would have the inspiration and faith of the Fathers and, at the same time, the consistency and earnestness

of present-day biblical science. In the Church we need both scientific and spiritual experts, willing to listen to each other, respecting and valuing what each can offer the other. We need “saintly doctors,” or saints and doctors, if we can’t have the two combined.

The Spirit who blows from the four winds

Looking at the plain of dry bones, the prophet Ezekiel heard the question: “Can these bones come to life?” (Ezekiel 37:3). We might put the same question to ourselves today: Can exegesis,

dried out by a long excess of philology, recover the drive and life it used to have at other periods in the history of the people of God? Henri de Lubac, having studied the long history of Christian exegesis, concluded rather mournfully that the conditions are lacking for us moderns to revive a spiritual method of interpretation like that of the Fathers; that we lack the soaring faith and the sense of fullness and unity that they had; that anyone trying to copy their boldness today would be virtually committing an act of profanation, not having the spirit from which these things proceeded. 11 He does not however completely close the door to hope but says that, “if we want to recover something of the spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures which existed in the early centuries of the Church, we must first produce a new spiritual movement.”’ 12

This is the third of a three part series on The Spiritual Interpretation of the Bible:


 9. St. Augustine, Epistula 55.11.21 (CSEL 34, 1, p. 192)

10. Origen, In Leviticum homilia 5.5 (PG 12, 454).

11. Henri de Lubac, Exegese medieval, 2/2 (Paris, 1964) 79.

12. Henri de Lubac, Histoire et Esprit (Paris, 1950) (Conclusion).

This article is adapted from The Letter Kills, the Spirit Gives Life: The Spiritual Reading of the Bible, fourth in a series of Lenten meditations titled “The Word of God Is Living and Effective”, by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, given in Rome, March 2008. It is excerpted from The Mystery of God’s Word, Chapter 8, by Raniero Cantalamessa, translation by Alan Neame, (c) Copyright © 1994 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota and published by The Liturgical Press. First published in Italian under the title “Ci ha parlato nel Figlio. ” II mistero della parola di Dio by Editrice Ancora in Milan.

1 thought on “The Spiritual Interpretation of the Bible – Part 3”

  1. Thank you for the confirmation brother. You surely are in the midst and your “flow” is as unadulterated by intent of thought as possible. I feel excited to proceed on my journey affirmed by the refueling of the torch

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