HomeHistoryThe three ‘levels of interpretation’ of Scripture
September 20, 2017
The three ‘levels of interpretation’ of Scripture
The early Christian theologians frequently interpreted Scripture in multiple different senses.
For example, they often draw the distinction between the plain meaning of a passage, and its ‘spiritual’ sense.
What’s important to realize is that any passage of Scripture can be interpreted in both senses. There is not a mutual exclusivity between the plain sense of a passage and its ‘spiritual’ sense. Indeed, the different senses always go together: any passage of Scripture is susceptible to both levels of interpretation.
Nevertheless, we discuss his ‘system of interpretation’ here as being a typical example of how the Christian theologians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. understood the inspired writings.
The three levels of interpretation of a passage, then, were:—
1. The ‘bodily’ or ‘somatic’ sense
“For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture.”
Origen derived his three levels of interpretation from the threefold division of man into body, soul and spirit. Thus,
“The individual ought, then, to portray the ideas of holy Scripture in a threefold manner upon his own soul; in order that the simple man may be edified by the ‘flesh,’ as it were, of the Scripture. For so we name the obvious sense. While he who has ascended a certain way may be edified by the ‘soul,’ as it were. The perfect man, again, […] may receive edification from the spiritual law […]. For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture […].”
The ‘bodily’ or ‘somatic’ sense of a Scripture passage, then, is simply its plain sense. (‘Somatic’ just means, “Of the body,” from the Greek word sōma, ‘body.’)
Example of the ‘bodily’ sense:
“You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Deuteronomy 25:4
This passage understood in its ‘bodily’ sense is simply the command as it stands.
2. The ‘soulish’ or ‘psychic’ sense
The ‘soulish’, or ‘psychic’, sense of a Scripture passage takes the plain meaning of a passage and applies it to the Christian. (‘Psychic’ just means, “Of the soul,” from the Greek word psuchē, ‘soul.’)
Example of the ‘soulish’ sense:
“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the ploughman should plough in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.” 1 Corinthians 9:9-10
Paul here interprets the literal command of Deuteronomy 25:4 to draw out the intention (the ‘soul’) of the command.
3. The ‘spiritual’ sense
The ‘spiritual’ sense of a Scripture passage was— well, let me refer you to Origen himself:
“But the interpretation is ‘spiritual,’ when one is able to show of what heavenly things the Jews ‘according to the flesh’ served as an example and a shadow, and of what future blessings the law contains a shadow.”
He then gives the example of the earthly Tabernacle prefiguring the heavenly one in Hebrews 8:1-7:
“And in another epistle, when sketching the various matters relating to the tabernacle, [Paul] used the words: ‘You shall make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’”
This shows how events in the Old Testament prefigured Christ in the New Testament, and is therefore the ‘spiritual’ sense of the passage.
What does this tell us about the ‘literal’ vs. ‘allegorical’ interpretation of Scripture?
In contemporary (certainly popular) discussion on the interpretation of the Bible, the ‘literal’ interpretation is often presented as a polar opposite, a mutual exclusive, of the ‘allegorical’ interpretation. See, for example, my article here.
“The three senses of Scripture are not to be understood as mutually exclusive: rather, we can expect a given passage of Scripture to bear a bodily (or obvious) sense; a soul (or ‘ethical’) sense; and a spiritual (or allegorical) sense — all at the same time.”
As a very rough approximation, we may map Origen’s system of the ‘body,’ ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ levels of interpretation of a passage onto the more familiar modern-day equivalents:
the ‘bodily’ sense = the literal sense;
the ‘soul’ sense = the ethical sense;
the ‘spiritual’ sense = the allegorical sense.
Referring to Galatians 4:21-24, Origen indeed identifies the ‘spiritual’ sense of a Scripture passage with its ‘allegorical’ sense when he says:—
“Moreover, in the Epistle to the Galatians, as if upbraiding those who think that they read the law, and yet do not understand it, judging that those do not understand it who do not reflect that allegories are contained under what is written, he says: ‘Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, Abraham had two sons; the one by the bond-maid, the other by the free woman. But he who was by the bond-maid was born according to the flesh; but he of the free woman was by promise. Which things are an allegory [Greek allēgoroumena], for these are the two covenants,’ and so on.”
What the above shows us, then, is that the three senses of Scripture are not to be understood as mutually exclusive: rather, we can expect a given passage of Scripture to bear a bodily (or obvious) sense; a soul (or ‘ethical’) sense; and a spiritual (or allegorical) sense — all at the same time.
There is therefore no mutual exclusivity between the ‘literal’ and ‘allegorical’ meaning of a passage.
Does every passage of Scripture carry all three senses?
For Origen (at least), not every passage of Scripture carries all three senses. There are passages for which the literal sense either cannot be true (it is a logical impossibility), or is not true.
Therefore some passages of Scripture only bear the ‘soul’ and the ‘spirit’ sense.
We ought, however, to beware before inferring from this, “The Bible isn’t literally true.”
“[Origen] is not saying that, ‘Therefore, Jesus did no miracles.’ He is not saying that, ‘Therefore, Jesus did not walk on water.’”
When Origen says that not every passage of Scripture carries the literal (or ‘bodily’) sense, he is not saying that, “Therefore, Jesus did no miracles.” He is not saying that, “Therefore, Jesus did not walk on water.” And so on.
He is saying, rather, “There are passages in the Bible which cannot be true as understood literally.”
“As even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. Nor even do the law and the commandments wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars?”
And, referring to the account in the Gospels where the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:5-7),
“For who is there among those who do not read such accounts carelessly, that would not condemn those who think that with the eye of the body—which requires a lofty height in order that the parts lying (immediately) under and adjacent may be seen—the kingdoms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians, and Parthians, were beheld, and the manner in which their princes are glorified among men?”
The above are two of the chief examples which Origen himself gives in On First Principles 4.1.16 of events in Scripture which cannot be said literally to have happened.
“There is no incompatibility between what literally happened in the Scriptures, and the spiritual meaning of what happened; in general both — indeed for Origen all three senses — are perfectly valid and applicable at the same time.”
Notice, however: He does not say that creation didn’t happen; he does not say that the temptation of Jesus didn’t happen. He simply says that these events cannot have happened literally as described, because the literal description is impossible. He allows, in other words, for metaphorical language.
We do this all the time. In the UK we often say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” We don’t literally mean, of course, that actual cats and dogs are falling from the sky — we simply mean that it’s raining heavily.
So Origen isn’t saying that this or that event in Scripture didn’t happen; only that they didn’t happen literally as described.
Indeed he states that for the most part what we are dealing with when we come to an historical narrative is history:
“But that no one may suppose that we assert respecting the whole that no history is real because a certain one is not; and that no law is to be literally observed, because a certain one, understood according to the letter, is absurd or impossible; or that the statements regarding the Saviour are not true in a manner perceptible to the senses; or that no commandment and precept of His ought to be obeyed;—we have to answer that, with regard to certain things, it is perfectly clear to us that the historical account is true; as that Abraham was buried in the double cave at Hebron, as also Isaac and Jacob, and the wives of each of them; and that Shechem was given as a portion to Joseph; and that Jerusalem is the metropolis of Judea, in which the temple of God was built by Solomon; and innumerable other statements.”
There is therefore no incompatibility between what literally happened in the Scriptures, and the spiritual meaning of what happened; in general both — indeed for Origen all three senses — are perfectly valid and applicable at the same time.
Moreover, what Origen sets forth here semi-systematically as a ‘doctrine of Scripture,’ is the regular practice of the Christian theologians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It is perfectly normal for them to expound Scripture literally and/or ‘spiritually,’ as the situation demands.
Hence when theologians say that the Scriptures are to be interpreted ‘spiritually’ or ‘allegorically,’ it is a far cry from saying that “Jesus did not walk on water”, “Jesus did not heal the sick,” “Jesus did not rise from the dead” — as it is often presented in contemporary discussion.
 Origen, On First Principles, Bk. IV, ch. I, sec. 11. Taken from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, which can be found online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.i.html. With this and subsequent quotations, I have slightly adapted the text into more modern English.
 See Origen’s On First Principles, 4.1.13, for all these examples.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.