A LITTLE-KNOWN MONK living in the Egyptian desert at the end of the fourth century provided one of the most durable interpretive keys in the history of Bible study. The monk, named Nesteros, proposed that all of Holy Scripture is to be understood in four ways or “senses.”
He explained this paradigm by examining the various meanings of “Jerusalem” in the Bible.
Jerusalem in its literal and historical sense, said Nesteros, is simply a city in the Holy Land. That is the Bible’s first sense, its literal and historical meaning.
Besides this, however, Jerusalem is also a symbol (typos) of the Church, God’s redeemed and sanctified people. That is its second or allegorical sense (Gal. 4:24—allegoroumena).
Next, Jerusalem is an image of the redeemed but struggling Christian soul; this is its third or moral sense.
Finally, Jerusalem is that heavenly city on high (Gal. 4:26; Rev. 21:2), the final expectation of our hopes, and this is its fourth or anagogical sense.
Nesteros’s “four senses” became the foundation of all monastic reading of the Bible. It shows up absolutely everywhere in medieval theology. In Dante’s fourteenth-century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, we find the same scheme in use.
The Book that reads us
The history of monasticism owes most to one of these four senses: the moral. When church fathers and medieval interpreters spoke of the Bible’s “moral sense,” they expressed a conviction that God’s unfailing word, precisely because it is fulfilled in Christ the Lord, is intended by the Holy Spirit to address the practical moral lives of those who are “in Christ.” It is especially the Christian believer, they argued, who can most truly tell his heavenly Father, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105), because the Christian has been given, in the person and work of Christ, the Bible’s true interpretive key.
Thus, whether in the pulpit or in other forms of pastoral teaching, teachers of the Bible continued for over a millennium to present the Bible, correctly understood in the light of Christ, as the ready and reliable source of moral guidance for those striving to live godly lives. Indeed, they discovered this interpretive principle explicit in the Bible itself, as when the apostle Paul taught that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4).
Certainly, this approach to Scripture was always understood to be valid for all Christians. But not surprisingly, we find a greater concentration of interest on this subject in the writings of monks, nuns, and other ascetics. These were Christians who felt called to a more intense life of prayer and virtuous striving, and their ancient monastic rules show how thoroughly biblical that quest was for them.
The preeminent example is the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547), which became the dominant monastic code of the entire western half of Christendom. In Benedict’s rule the monk’s entire waking day, roughly seventeen hours, was divided among three activities: manual labor, the prayerful reading of Holy Scripture (lectio divina), and choral prayer, especially the praying of the Psalms. Even while the monk ate his sparse meals each day, he listened to one of his brothers reading Holy Scripture.
The monks and nuns pursued their goals—purity of heart and the gift of constant prayer—by ingesting massive daily dosages of Scripture. They gave themselves totally to God not only by denying themselves and serving others, but by allowing themselves to become saturated in and absorbed by the power of God’s Word. Monks took seriously that principle of Jerome of Bethlehem (347–419), who said, “To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ.”
Consequently, those men and women who centered their entire existence on the study of Holy Scripture, prayer, and ascetic effort, were bound to reflect more closely, and in greater detail, on the internal theological relationship between the understanding of Holy Scripture and ascetical striving for purity of heart. From both East and West, the treatment of this theme in monastic literature, though daunting in its sheer mass, remains instructive for Christians today.
The soul’s mirror
The Bible itself provided the framework of the discussion. For example, Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who lived as a monk after his conversion and prior to his becoming a bishop, was fond of the metaphor in the Epistle of James: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was” (1:23). On many occasions throughout his voluminous writings, Augustine appealed to this verse in order to explain how the Bible functions as a spiritual mirror to reveal believers’ true selves. His interpretation of this verse was taken up hundreds of times in medieval monastic and ascetic literature.
Studied as a “mirror of the soul,” the Scriptures became immediately and directly applicable. To look into the Bible was to look at one’s own inner biography, as it were. Indeed, the ascetics of old, when they read the Bible, perceived it to be a divine word directed to them in the concrete circumstances of their relationship to the Lord. They would have been shocked to hear Scripture described in modern terms as a “record of God’s word.” The monks believed its divine inspiration caused the Bible to be, rather, a living reality in the here and now. Biblical inspiration was not a one-time, over-and-done—with sort of thing; it adhered to the Bible as a permanent, living quality.
The written book was not active by itself, of course—no more than a sheet of printed music. In order to become alive, God’s word had to take the living form of sound. In the patristic and middle ages, therefore, it was common and normal to read the Scriptures out loud, at least loud enough to be heard by the reader, even in private reading. “Faith,” after all, “comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
All Bible reading was perceived to be, of its very nature, a true proclamation of God’s word. The revered twelfth-century monk and teacher Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) reflected this ancient view when he said, “God spoke once, but His speech is continual and perpetual.”
Bernard described the Bible as the liber experientiae, “the book of experience,” because the Christian discerned in its pages the history of his own personal relationship to God. Adam’s fall was the believer’s own, but so too was David’s repentance. God’s choice of Isaac was the narrative of the Christian’s own election. The Exodus was the account of his personal deliverance. The very sins of the Israelites in the desert were described in detail, so that Christ’s striving servant would better avoid them. Indeed, “all of these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11).
Both Augustine and Bernard agreed with Jerome that “whatever was promised in a carnal manner to the people of Israel, we show that it is fulfilled in us in a spiritual manner and is fulfilled today.” Did the Bible speak of a law, a manna, a holy city, a clean oblation, and a land flowing with milk and honey? These were but elements of the believer’s daily life in Christ. Did it warn against the assault of Philistines, the invasion of Ammonites, and the siege of the Assyrians? These were the enemies Christ’s struggling servant encountered each day, prowling through the recesses of his own heart. Did the Bible present a covenant to be ratified by the personal consent rendered in faith? That consent was required every time the believer opened its pages.
Origins in Origen
Although it was the monks and other ascetics who left us the greatest body of literature on this subject, there is nothing intrinsically “monastic” about this approach to Scripture. In fact, the monks themselves were aware of their debt, in this respect, to the non-monk Origen (185–254), teacher at the famed catechetical school at Alexandria.
The early monks, though they knew their debt to Origen, were often reluctant to admit it. Origen also dabbled excessively in certain philosophical questions and thereby got himself in trouble with the Church. For all that, however, he was recognized as an outstanding interpreter of the Scriptures, and even those monks who were careful never to mention his name were among his most ardent readers (Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance). For a long time, in fact, some of Origen’s best works circulated from monastery to monastery under pseudonyms.
Origen never thought of himself as writing for monks, since monastic life in the third century was only beginning to take shape. He wrote, rather, for all Christians with a keen sense of their baptismal commitment to “put to death” those passions in their souls and bodies that would impede the new life of Christ within them. Such believers were determined to “seek those things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” Having died and hidden their lives with Christ in God, they set their “mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” They were resolved to “put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:1–10). Where better to go for guidance, therefore, than to the Scriptures?
Over and over in his catechetical instructions, which were simply lessons based on biblical texts, Origen exhorted such Christians to go to the well of the Scriptures every day in order to draw the living water. His favorite metaphor for this daily discipline was found in those biblical stories where various women (Zipporah, for instance) met their bridegrooms at the well. If we go to draw from the biblical waters every day, said Origen, we will meet him. He will keep his appointment there with us.
Not an “easy read”
And how do we keep open and accessible the well of Holy Scripture, asked Origen, which is continually being stopped up and obstructed by the Philistines? We do it, he answered, by removing the vicious and selfish obstacles in our own souls. To dig into the Scriptures, he insisted, it is necessary to dig into our hearts, ridding them of darkness, purging them of vices, maintaining our minds in purity. Reading the Bible, therefore, involved a strenuous asceticism, because the understanding of God’s word would certainly be distorted in a dark heart.
Without great ascetic effort, the Bible reader’s understanding would remain at the level of the “letter,” and we have it on good authority that “the letter kills” (Rom. 3:6). What was needed, then, was an ever deeper conversion of heart, a removal of the soul’s veil, in order to disclose the inner Spirit of the Holy Scriptures (2 Cor. 3:12–4:6). Only the pure of heart could penetrate to this more profound level of biblical understanding, for only they can see God (Matt. 5:8).
The greatest advantage of that spiritual approach to Scripture was that it recognized no real distinction between praying and Bible reading. “When you pray,” Jerome had written, “you talk to God. When you read the Bible, God talks to you.” Prayer and Bible reading were to be done simultaneously, like a conversation between friends. For several hours each day, the monk was to read Scripture in a meditative way called lectio divina, literally “divine reading.” Slowly, with loving repetition, he pondered the power of God’s word, tasting it in the palate of the heart.
Some monks literally learned the entire Bible “by heart,” not only in the simple sense of memorizing it, but also in the richer sense of putting the whole content of the Scriptures into the treasury of his heart.
Day by day, as he chanted the Psalms with his brothers in church, the monk’s conversation with the Lord continued, employing God’s own inspired expressions in order to speak to Him. Praying through the entire Book of Psalms in this way each week, as the Rule of St. Benedict required, the monk kneaded the leaven of the Psalter into his mind.
As he walked from place to place, he brought up from his heart a favorite psalm and recited it once again. The monks compared this exercise to the cow’s serene chewing of the cud. There was simply no such thing as too much Bible.
In this way, concentrating all of the spiritual life on the Holy Scriptures, the monk of old avoided those dichotomies that have become such distractions in modern life, like the separation of worship from study (especially theological study!) and the alienation of prayer from moral striving. Such dichotomies are clearly neither necessary nor especially healthy. Perhaps the example of the ancient monk provides us a fine model of how to correct these more recent problems. CH
By Patrick Henry Reardon
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]Patrick Henry Reardon is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com) and the author of Christ in the Psalms (Conciliar Press).
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