By Jordan Hillebert

In a previous installment, we noted an unhappy disparity between the world of Scripture and the world often evoked from the pulpit. On the one side, we have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — a God who acts and speaks, who liberates and redeems. On the other, we have the god of much popular preaching — a mostly dormant deity nestled somewhere beneath a litany of platitudes and personal anecdotes. Rather than acting as a signpost to the strange new world of Scripture, the sermon all-too-often obstructs our view of the Bible’s terrain. We have lost sight of the strange; our pews remain fixed in the familiar.

So much for diagnosis. How might we remedy this disparity? How might we go about imbuing our sermons with a healthy dose of biblical strangeness?

For starters, the sermon ought to be less about the preacher and more about the one to whom the Scriptures bear witness. As helpful as autobiography may be in relating the biblical material to the cares and concerns of today, the preacher’s motto should be that of John the Baptist: “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). The preacher is a tour guide, called upon and (hopefully) equipped to assist others in navigating the biblical landscape. A skilled tour guide can certainly contribute much to our knowledge and enjoyment of a particular location, but we should not mistake the guide for the destination. This is especially true for Christian preaching, where the “destination” is nothing short of a transformative encounter with the creator and sustainer of all things.

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In designating an encounter with God (resulting in the love of God and neighbor) as the ultimate goal of Christian preaching, the “double love” spoken of by St. Augustine (On Christian Teaching, Book 1), we must therefore grant that the task of preaching is as much a spiritual exercise as it is a technical/rhetorical enterprise. The same God who acts and speaks in the pages of Scripture must continue to act and speak in the event of Christian proclamation. The same God who inspired the prophets and apostles must likewise inspire the preacher and illuminate the hearers if the sermon is to accomplish its purpose. For this reason, Augustine insists upon the priority of prayer in Christian preaching:

[The preacher] should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man [sic] of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him. (On Christian Teaching, Book 4).

In prayer, the preacher acknowledges her dependence upon the grace and eloquence of God. In prayer, she submits her words to the Word that spoke all things into existence in the beginning.

None of this, of course, is to deny the important technical work involved in the crafting and delivery of a good sermon. Indeed, Augustine devotes much of his De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching) to the homiletical and hermeneutical skills required for such a task. By the grace of God, our words may indeed become an occasion for others to encounter the Word of God, but they are still our words. It is therefore necessary to work on our own sermons with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work within us, enabling us to preach for his good pleasure (and perhaps, if we’re lucky, the pleasure of our congregations!).

For much of the Christian tradition, this technical work (always closely allied to the primary work of prayer) took the form of “spiritual exegesis,” which sought to interpret a given passage of Scripture in the light of its fulfilment in Christ and its spiritual fecundity in the life of the church and the lives of individual believers. Spiritual interpretation is a means of locating both a particular text and the reader/listener within the larger drama of God’s saving works. It is a framework for interpreting and inhabiting the strange new world of the Bible.

Like any exegetical framework, spiritual interpretation is not immune from the risk of forcing a particular passage/text into conformity to theological assumptions brought in from elsewhere. The history of biblical exegesis is replete with fanciful and impatient readings of the Bible under the banner of “spiritual interpretation,” and no hermeneutic can guarantee the correct interpretation of Scripture. It is ultimately the faithfulness of God, not the ingenuity of the interpreter, that allows the biblical text to serve as an instrument of divine revelation. At its best, however, spiritual interpretation is an attempt to conform one’s theological presuppositions and one’s own pattern of reading to the example of Christ. For it was the risen Christ who, traveling with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, interpreted to them “the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:27).

Spiritual interpretation is, moreover, an attempt to read the Scriptures spiritually – that is, in a manner attentive and receptive to the work of the Spirit in and through the biblical witness. All of Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and thus useful, not simply for right belief, but for “training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The fruit of spiritual interpretation is ultimately the conformity of oneself to Christ.

Traditionally, spiritual exegesis was devoted to exploring the multiple senses of Scripture, the layers of theological meaning and personal application contained in the biblical writings. While the number and ordering of these senses varied among patristic and medieval interpreters, the doctrine of the “fourfold sense” of scripture came to hold an especially important place in the history of Christian preaching and theology. This doctrine is neatly summarized in the medieval distich:

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.

  • Spiritual interpretation begins with “the letter,” with scrupulous attention to the words on the page – the narratives, directives, poetic utterances, etc. contained in the biblical writings.
  • Allegory then relates these words (and the characters and historical events recounted therein) to the Word-made-flesh, exploring the ways in which the letter of Scripture finds its fulfilment in the mystery of Christ.
  • The moral sense applies that mystery to the lives of individual believers, allowing ourselves to be addressed and ultimately transformed by the one to whom the Scriptures bear witness.
  • Finally, the anagogical sense locates us within the tension of the now-and-not-yet, directing us in hope to the future reconciliation of all things in Christ. The anagogical sense is therefore the “eschatological” sense, the sense in which the text awaits its fulfilment at the culmination of history. But it is also the “mystical” sense of Scripture, a foretaste here and now of the heavenly reality that awaits us. In the reading and hearing of Scripture, we do not simply anticipate the fulfilment of Christ’s saving works. We are already “seated with [Christ] in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6).

In advocating for the retrieval of spiritual interpretation and the “fourfold sense” in contemporary preaching, I am not suggesting slavish adherence to a fourfold sermonic structure, nor do I think it necessary to explicitly survey every possible meaning of a given passage from the pulpit. The purpose of spiritual interpretation is not to impose a rigid schema upon the Scriptures but to facilitate our attention to God’s communicative presence therein.

Neither am I suggesting the rejection of modern historical-critical methods of inquiry in favor of exclusively pre-modern forms of exegesis. The writings of Scripture, however inspired by God, are still the works of human hands. As such, our understanding of Scripture can benefit greatly from the same literary, linguistic, social, and historical tools that we devote to other ancient texts. Spiritual interpretation does not deny the humanity of Scripture, but neither does it remain there. Instead, it seeks after the ways in which God employs these human writings to reveal himself and to reconcile us to himself.

In the next installment, I will consider some of the practical implications of the spiritual interpretation of Scripture.

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is director of formation and tutor of theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is Tutor in Residence and Tutor of Theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).

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Paul Zahl

What an obfuscating, over-complicated approach! This must be why the Church required a Reformation.