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. ...