In Catechism of the Catholic Church we read the following, pertaining to Biblical Hermeneutics:

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

This was cited in another answer to show that in Catholic hermeneutics there are four layers to Scripture.

My question is, in Catholic hermeneutics, are the allegorical, moral and anagogical actually separate layers of the text, or are they three different ways that the spiritual meaning may be expressed?

  • If the former were true, I would expect each passage to have four senses.

  • If the latter were true, I would expect each passage to have two senses (literal and spiritual), and would attempt to discern whether the spiritual sense was allegorical, moral, or anagogical.

Also, if any examples could be given from Scripture to support your answer, that would be awesome!

  • or are layers and ways analogous?
    – Bob Jones
    Jul 15, 2012 at 18:28
  • @BobJones What I was driving at with my distinction is this: does every passage have an allegorical and moral and anagogical sense, or does every passage have a Spiritual sense which could be allegorical or moral or anagogical? If the latter, we might try to discern which "type" of Spiritual sense a given passage has; if the former, we would always try to discern all of the "layers" of Spiritual truth, in every case.
    – Jas 3.1
    Jul 15, 2012 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


I am not a Catholic so I may not provide the full or best answer but from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as far as I can tell, implies that these 'four distinct layers' are potential there for any scripture. In the Protestant reformation there was a clear 'break away' from this method. So it is certainly not the case of your second option 'each passage to have two senses', rather the three kinds of spiritual senses are all potentially existing at the same time under the Catholic model.

Here is an example of how these 'four layers' are worked out in Medieval Christianity. John Cassian, a 5th-century monk, applied the four layers of Jerusalem as:

"according to history (secundum historiam) the city of the Jews, according to allegory (secundum allegoriam) the Church of Christ, according to anagogy (secundum anagogen) that celestial city of God, which is the mother of us all, according to tropology (secundum tropologiam) the human soul (source here).

A brief summary of the Catholic four layers can be found here, Ancient Faith for the Church's Future, if you are still interested.

We are definitely taking here about four Catholic Traditional layers (not two). This four layer system is not part of the Protestant Tradition, and so more or less opposed by most Protestant Bible Colleges. Yet as usual the waters are always murky on such things as the article I linked to is actually an InterVarsity Press publication, which seems to be an Evangelical Publication based on their statement of faith. In this IVP publication the author is kind of promoting a return to a “layer like-ish’ view but more along typical evangelical lines. However, I do not know if many Catholics believe that these layers are always there, or just potentially there. Maybe the answer is not that important because once you say 'always potentially there' as in the Catechism, its juts a matter of finding them.

Possibly what is causing the confusion and so much discussion recently on this topic is that the term SP frequently used among our members is not really in accordance with any tradition, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant. The discussion has been based on a proposed 'heaven' and 'earth' four layer combination (HH, HE, EE, EH) which is not to be found in any historical book, Jewish, Catholic or Protestant. 'Sensus plenior’ as an academic real term is basically a Catholic asserted Latin phrase and the meaning of 'sensus plenior' according to that definition is explained here sensus plenior.


I only offer a partial solution/thought This was all worked out after we had Scripture and at the most general would only mean that there is more than the literal meaning, which of course you can tell from prophetic texts and the reporting of long-past historical events.

What I think is key is what St Thomas makes a point of: There is nothing necessary to faith contained in the spiritual sense which Scripture does not teach plainly elsewhere in the literal sense. (Summa Theologica I, q. 1, art. 10, reply to objection 1.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.