St. Gregory the Great:
The Spiritual Understanding of the Scriptures
by Father Raniero Cantalamessa
In our attempt to place ourselves under the teaching of the Fathers to give a new impetus and depth to our faith, we cannot omit a reflection on their way of reading the Word of God. It will be Pope St. Gregory the Great who will guide us to the “spiritual understanding” of the Scriptures and a renewed love for them.
The same thing happened to Scripture in the modern world that happened to the person of Jesus. The quest for the exclusively historical and literal sense of the Bible, based on the same presuppositions that dominated during the last two centuries, led to results similar to those in the quest for a historical Jesus opposed to the Christ of faith. Jesus was reduced to being an extraordinary man, a great religious reformer, but nothing more.
Similarly, Scripture is reduced to being an excellent book, and perhaps even the most interesting book in the world, but it is just a book like any other that needs to be studied with the same methods used for all the great works from antiquity. Today things are going even farther than that. A kind of maximalist, militant atheism, which is anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, considers the Bible (and the Old Testament in particular) to be a book “full of wickedness” that should be removed from bookshelves today.
The Church counters this assault on the Scriptures through her doctrine and experience. In Dei Verbum the Second Vatican Council reasserted the perennial validity of the Scriptures as the Word of God to all humanity. The Church’s liturgy reserves a place of honor for Scripture in each of her celebrations. Many scholars, who are more up-to-date on appropriate critical methods, now bring to their work a faith that is even more convinced of the transcendent value of the inspired word.
Perhaps the most convincing proof, however, is that of experience. The argument, as we have seen, that led to the affirmation of the divinity of Christ at Nicea in 325 and of the Holy Spirit at Constantinople in 381 can be fully applied to Scripture as well. We experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in Scripture; Christ still speaks to us through it; its effect on us is different from that of any other word. Therefore, Scripture cannot be simply a human word.
1. The Old Becomes New
The goal of our reflection is to see how the Fathers can help us to rediscover a “virginity” of listening, that freshness and freedom in approaching the Bible that allows us to experience the divine power that flows from it. The Father and Doctor of the Church that we are choosing as a guide, as I said, is St. Gregory the Great, but to understand his importance in this area, we need to go back to the springs of the river he entered into and to trace its course, at least briefly, before it reached him.
In their reading of the Bible, the Fathers were following the path initiated by Jesus and the apostles, so that fact itself should already make us cautious in our judgment of them. A radical rejection of the exegesis of the Fathers would signify a rejection of the exegesis of Jesus himself and of the apostles. Jesus, when he was with the disciples at Emmaus, explains everything that referred to him in the Scriptures. He asserts that the Scriptures are speaking about him (Jn 5:39) and that Abraham saw Jesus’ day (Jn 8:56); many of Jesus’ actions and words occur “so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” His first two disciples initially say about him, “We have found him of whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote” (Jn 1:45).
But these were only partial correspondences. The complete transference has not yet happened. That is accomplished on the cross and is contained in the words of a dying Jesus: “It is finished.” Even within the Old Testament, there were new events that had been foreshadowed by earlier events, new beginnings, and transpositions: for example, the return from Babylon was seen as a renewal of the miracle of the Exodus. These were partial re-interpretations; now a global re-interpretation occurs. Personages, events, institutions, laws, the temple, sacrifices, the priesthood—everything suddenly appears in another light. It is similar to a room being illumined by the light of candle when a powerful neon light is suddenly turned on. Christ who is “the light of the world” is also the light of the Scriptures. When we read that the risen Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45), it means that he opened the minds of the disciples at Emmaus to this new understanding brought about by the Holy Spirit.
The Lamb breaks the seals, and the book of sacred history can finally be opened and read (see Rev 5: 1ff.). Everything from before is still there, but nothing is as it was before. This is the moment that unites—and at the same time distinguishes—the two testaments and the two covenants. “There, vivid and colored red [in the missal], is the great page that separates the two Testaments. . . . All the doors open up simultaneously, all oppositions fade away, all contradictions are resolved.” The clearest example to help us understand what happens in that moment is the consecration in the Mass, which is in fact a memorial of that event. Nothing apparently seems changed in the bread and wine on the altar, yet we know that after consecration they are completely other than what they were, and we treat them quite differently than we did before.
The apostles continue to do this kind of reading, applying it to the Church as well as to the life of Jesus. All that is written about the Exodus was written for the Church (see 1 Cor 10); the rock that followed the Jews in the desert and quenched their thirst foreshadowed Christ, and the manna foreshadowed the bread that came down from heaven. The prophets spoke of Christ (see 1 Pet 1:10ff); what was said about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is fulfilled in him, etc.
Moving from the New Testament to the time of the Church, we note two different uses of this new understanding of the Scriptures: one is apologetic and the other is theological and spiritual. The first is used in dialogues with those outside the Church and the second for the edification of the community. For the Jews and heretics with whom they share the Scriptures in common, they compose the so-called “testimonies,” collections of biblical verses or passages that produce evidence for faith in Christ. This approach, for example, is found in St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, and in many other works.
The theological and ecclesial use of a spiritual reading begins with Origen, who is rightly considered to be the founder of Christian exegesis. The richness and beauty of his insights into the spiritual sense of the Scriptures and of their practical applications is inexhaustible. His approach will gain followers in the East as well as in the West once it begins to be known during Ambrose’s time. Together with its richness and genius, however, Origen’s exegesis also injects a negative element into the Church’s exegetical tradition that is due to his enthusiasm for a Platonic kind of spiritualism. We can take his following statement as a description of his methodology:
We must not suppose that historical things are types of historical things, and corporeal of corporeal. Quite the contrary; corporeal things are types of spiritual things, and historical of intellectual things.
In Origen’s approach, the horizontal and historical correspondence—by which a personage, an event, or a saying from the Old Testament is seen as a prophecy and a figure (typos) of something that is fulfilled in the New Testament by Christ or by the Church—is replaced by a vertical Platonic perspective in which an historical, visible event (either in the Old Testament or the New) becomes a symbol of a universal and eternal idea. The relationship between prophecy and its fulfillment tends to be transformed into the relationship between history and spirit.
2. The Scriptures: Four-sided Stones
Through Ambrose and others who translated his works into Latin, Origen’s methodology and content fully enter into the veins of Latin Christianity and will continue to flow through them during all of the Middle Ages. So what, then, was the contribution of the Latin Fathers to explaining the Scriptures? The answer can be given in one word, a word that best expresses their genius: organization!
It is true that there is a contribution by another genius who is no less creative and bold than Origen, namely, Augustine, who enriched the reading of the Bible with new insights and applications. However, the most important contribution of the Latin Fathers is not along the line of discovering new and hidden meanings in the Word of God so much as it is in their systematizing the immense amount of exegetical material that was accumulating in the Church. They marked out a kind map by which to use that material.
This organizing effort, begun by Augustine, was brought into its definitive form by Gregory the Great and consisted in the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture. In this area he is considered “one of the principal initiators and one of the greatest patrons of the medieval doctrine of the fourfold sense,” to the point that we can speak of the Middle Ages as being “the Gregorian age.”
The doctrine of the four senses of Scripture is a like a grid, a way of organizing the explanations of a biblical text or of a reality in salvation history and categorizing it into four different areas or levels of application: 1) the literal, historical level; 2) the allegorical level (often referred to today as typological),which relates to faith in Christ; 3) the moral level, which relates to the behavior of a Christian; and 4) the eschatological (or anagogical) level, which relates to final fulfillment in heaven. Gregory writes,
The words of Scripture are four-sided stones. . . . In regard to every past event the words recount [the literal sense], in regard to every future thing they announce [the anagogical sense], in regard to every moral duty they preach [moral sense], in regard to every spiritual reality they proclaim [allegorical or christological sense]—on every level the words of Scripture stand and are beyond reproach.
There was a famous couplet in the Middle Ages that summarized this doctrine: “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, / Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia”: “The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe. / Morality teaches what you should do, anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.” Perhaps the clearest application of this approach can be seen in regard to Passover. According to the letter or history, the Passover is the rite that the Jews performed in Egypt. According to allegory, which relates to faith, Passover indicates the sacrifice of Christ, the true Passover lamb. According to the moral sense, it indicates moving from vice to virtue, from sin to holiness. According to anagogy or eschatology, it indicates the passage from the things here below to the things above, or to the eternal Passover that will be celebrated in heaven.
This is not a rigid or mechanical system; it is flexible and open to infinite variations, starting from the order in which the various senses are listed. In the following text from Gregory, we see how freely he uses the system of the fourfold senses and how he is able to derive a variety of corresponding meanings from the Scripture through it. Commenting on the image in Ezekiel 2:10 of the scroll with writing “on the front and on the back” (Vulgate: intus et foris), he says,
The book of the Bible is written on the inside through allegory and the outside through history; on the inside through a spiritual understanding, on the outside through a mere literal sense suited to those who are still weak; on the inside because it promises things which cannot be seen, on the outside because it lays down visible things through its upright precepts; on the inside, because it promises heavenly things, on the outside because it orders in which way earthly things are worthy of contempt, whether we put them to use or flee from desiring them.
3. Why We Still Need the Fathers in Reading the Bible
What can we still retain from such a bold and open-ended way of putting oneself before the Word of God? Even an admirer of patristic and medieval exegesis like Father Henri de Lubac admits that we can neither return to it nor mechanically imitate it today. It would be an artificial procedure doomed to fail because we no longer share the presuppositions the Fathers began with and the spiritual universe in which they moved.
Gregory the Great and the Fathers were generally right about the fundamental point of reading the Scriptures in reference to Christ and the Church. Jesus and the apostles, as we have seen, were already reading it that way before them. The weakness in the Fathers’ exegesis was in their belief that they could apply this approach to every single saying in the Bible, often in an improbable way, pushing symbolism (for example, the symbolism of numbers) to excesses that sometimes make us smile today.
We can be certain, however, as de Lubac notes, that if they were alive today, they would be the exegetes who were the most enthusiastic about using the critical resources at our disposal for the advancement of research. In this regard, Origen carried out a herculean task in his time, procuring the various available Greek translations of the Bible and comparing them with the Hebrew text (the Hexapla), and Augustine did not hesitate to correct some of his explanations in light of the new translation of the Bible that Jerome was in the process of doing.
So what is still valid, then, in the legacy from the Fathers in the field of biblical interpretation? Perhaps here more than anywhere else, they have a decisive word to deliver to the Church today that we must try to discover. Apart from their ingenious allegories, their bold applications, and the doctrine of the four senses of Scripture, what characterizes the Fathers’ reading of the Bible? It is that—from beginning to end, and at each step of the way—it is a reading done in faith; it started from faith and led to faith. All their distinctions between the historical, allegorical, moral, and eschatological readings can be narrowed down to a single distinction today: reading Scripture with faith or reading it without faith, or at least without a certain quality of faith.
Let us leave aside the Bible scholars who are non-believers whom I spoke about at the beginning because for them the Bible is an interesting but merely human book. The distinction I want to highlight here is more subtle and applies to believers. It is the distinction between a personal reading and an impersonal reading of the Word of God. I will try to explain what I mean. The Fathers approached the Word of God with a recurring question: What is it saying here and now to the Church and to me personally?
They were persuaded that—in addition to its objective content of faith and morals, always and for all valid – Scripture always has new light to shed and new tasks to point out for everyone personally.
“All Scripture is inspired by God” (1 Tim 3:16). The phrase that is translated “inspired by God” or “divinely inspired” is a unique word in the original language, theopneustos, which combines two words, God (Theos) and Spirit (Pneuma). This word has two fundamental meanings. The most familiar is the passive one, which is used in all modern translations: Scripture is “inspired by God.” Another passage in the New Testament explains that concept this way: “Men moved by the Holy Spirit [prophets] spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). This is, in a word, the classical doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture that we proclaim as an article of faith in the Credo when we say that the Holy Spirit is the one who “has spoken through the prophets.”
The aspect of biblical inspiration that generally gets attention is biblical inerrancy, the fact that the Bible contains no errors, if we correctly understand by “error” the absence of a truth that was humanly knowable by the writer in his particular cultural context. However, biblical inspiration is the basis for far more than the mere inerrancy of the Word of God (which is its negative aspect, something Scripture does not have). On the positive side it establishes Scripture’s inexhaustibility, its divine power and vitality. Scripture, said Ambrose, is theopneustos, not only because it is “inspired by God” but also because it is “breathing forth God,” it breathes out God! God is now being breathed forth from it. St. Gregory writes,
To what can we compare the word of Sacred Scripture if not to a rock in which fire is hidden? It is cold if you just hold it in your hand, but when it is struck by iron it gives off sparks and shoots out fire.
Scripture contains not only God’s thinking fixed once and forever, it also contains God’s heart and his on-going will that indicates to you what he wants from you at a certain moment, and perhaps from only you. The conciliar constitution Dei Verbum also takes up this line of tradition when it says,
Since they [the Scriptures] are inspired by God [passive inspiration] and committed to writing once and for all time, they present God’s own word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the holy Spirit [active inspiration!] sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles.
This means not only reading the Word of God but also our being read by it, not only probing the Scriptures but also letting ourselves be probed by them. It means not approaching the Scriptures the way firefighters used to when they would go into a fire wearing asbestos suits that allowed them to pass untouched through the flames.
Taking up an image from St. James, many Fathers, including Gregory the Great, compare Scripture to a mirror. What do we think about a man who spends all his time examining the mirror’s shape and its materials, the time period it belongs to, and many other details about it but does not ever look at himself in it? This is precisely what people do when they spend their time resolving all the critical issues that Scripture presents, its sources, its literary genres, and so on, but never look in the mirror, or worse yet, do not allow the mirror to gaze at them and probe them in depth to the point at which joints and marrow are divided. The most important thing about Scripture is not to resolve its most obscure points but to put into practice the points that are clear! Our Gregory, says, “we understand it when putting it into practice.”
A strong faith in the Word of God is indispensable not only for a Christian’s spiritual life but also for every form of evangelization. There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any proclamation of faith, whether it is oral or written. I can first sit at my desk and choose, on my own, the word to proclaim and the theme to develop based on my understanding, my preferences, etc. Then once the sermon is ready, I can kneel down and hastily ask God to bless what I have written and to make my words effective. This is acceptable, but it is not the prophetic way. It is necessary to reverse the order for that: first on my knees and then to my desk.
In every circumstance one needs to begin with the certainty of faith that the risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants his people to hear. He does not fail to reveal it to his minister who humbly and insistently asks him for it. At the beginning there is a nearly imperceptible movement in your heart. A small light goes on in your mind, a word from the Bible that begins to draw attention to itself and shed light on a situation. At first it is “the smallest of seeds,” but afterwards you realize that everything was contained inside it; in it there was a thunderous roar that could shake the cedars of Lebanon. After that, you go to your desk, you open your books, you look through your notes, you consult the Church Fathers, experts, poets. . . . At this point it has already become something altogether different. It is no longer the Word of God in service to your knowledge but your knowledge in service to the Word of God.
Origen accurately describes the process that leads to this discovery. Before finding nourishment in Scripture, he says, we need to undergo a kind of “poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded by darkness on every side, and it comes upon paths that have no exit. Then suddenly, after a difficult search and prayer, the voice of the Word resonates and all at once something is illuminated. The One your soul was seeking comes ‘leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills’ [Songs 2:8], that is, opening up your mind to receive his powerful word full of light.” Great joy accompanies this moment. It made Jeremiah say, “Your words were found, and I ate them, / and your words became to me a joy / and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16).
Usually God’s answer comes in the form of a word from Scripture that reveals its extraordinary relevance at that moment for the situation or the problem that needs to be addressed, as if it were written precisely for it. The minister then speaks as “one speaking the very words of God” (see 1 Pet 4:11). This method is valid in all instances—as much for great documents as for a teacher’s lesson to his or her novices, as much for the scholarly conference as for the humble Sunday homily.
We have all had the experience of how much effect a single word from God can have when it is profoundly believed and lived by the person who says it to us, sometimes without that person even knowing it. It must be acknowledged that often this is the word, among so many other words, that touched hearts and led more than one listener to the confessional. Human experience, images, our past history—none of this is excluded from gospel preaching, but it all needs be submitted to the Word of God, which must stand out above everything else. Pope Francis has reminded us of this in the pages of Evangelii gaudium dedicated to the homily, and it is almost presumptuous on my part to think I can add anything to it.
I would like to conclude this meditation with an expression of gratitude to our Jewish brethren and a wish for them on the occasion of the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to Israel. If our interpretation of the Scriptures separates us from them, we are united in our shared love for the Scriptures. In a museum in Tel Aviv, there is a painting by Reuben Rubin in which rabbis are clasping scrolls of the Word of God to their chests or to their cheeks, and they are kissing them the way a man would kiss his wife. With our Jewish brothers and sisters we can—in a way that is analogous to the spiritual ecumenism occurring among Christians—share together what unites us in an atmosphere of dialogue and mutual respect, without ignoring or covering up the things that separate us. We cannot forget that it is from the Jews that we received the two most precious things we have in life: Jesus and the Scriptures.
Once again this year, the Jewish Passover falls on the same week as the Christian one. Let us wish ourselves and them a holy and happy Passover.
[Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson]
 Paul Claudel, L’épée et le miroir: Les sept douleurs de la Sainte Vierge [The Sword and the Mirror: The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary] (Paris: Gallimard, 1939), 74-75.
 Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 10, 110, trans. Ronald E. Heine, vol. 80, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1989), 279.
 See Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (1950; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).
 Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 1, trans. Mark Siebanc (1959; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 134.
 Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 2, trans. E. M. Macierowski (1959; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 117ff.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, II, 9, 8.
 Generally credited to Augustine of Dacia (12th c.), qtd. in de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, vol. 1, 1.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, I, 9, 30, qtd. in John Moorhead, Gregory the Great (New York: Routledge, 2005), 50.
 de Lubac, History and Spirit, 489ff.
 Augustine (CC 40, p. 1791) does this, for example, about the meaning of the word pasch in Expositions of the Psalms 99-120, 120, 6 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 514-515.
 See Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto, III, 112. English trans., On the Holy Spirit, vol. 10, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Cosimo 2007), 151.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, II, 10, 1.
 Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation], 21, in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, gen. ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello, 1995), 112.
 See Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 2, 1 (PL 75, 553D). English trans., Morals on the Book of Job (London: Walter Smith, 1883), 67.
 Ibid., I, 10, 31.
 This quote conflates ideas found in passages from two of Origen’s works: Commentary on Matthew, 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7), English trans., Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Wrtings, trans. Robert J. Daly (1938; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 106-107; and In Canticum canticorum,3 (GCS, 1925, p. 202), English trans., Origen: “The Song of Songs,” Commentary and Homilies, 3, 11, vol. 26, Ancient Christian Writers, ed. R. P. Lawson (New York: Paulist Press, 1957), 209-210.
5th Lent Homily 2014