Mark Shea: The Four Senses of Scripture: Part 3 The Moral Sense of Scripture

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Part 3 of a series on the Four Senses of Scripture

One of the big things Jesus emphasises is that deeds matter more than words.  He tells the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31) to drive this home.  The father asks his two sons to go and work in the vineyard.  One son says “yes” but doesn’t go.  The other son says “no” but does go.  “Which of the two sons did his father’s will?” asks Jesus in one of the easiest pop quizzes of all time.

Likewise, he remarks:

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

the Moral Sense concerns images of the life of a disciple derived from the stories, people, events, and things of Scripture

Again, the key is obedience to the Father’s will, not pious blabber and not virtue-signaling for the praise of human beings.

In short, it is not enough to say correct things about Jesus. We must do what he commands.  And because Scripture concerns itself not only with telling us about Jesus, but with helping to instruct us to obey Jesus, it therefore has a third sense—the Moral Sense.

Of course, a lot of Scripture’s moral teaching is straightforward and didactic: You shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not commit adultery, love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemy, give drink to the thirsty, etc.

But that is not what is meant by the Moral Sense of Scripture. Rather, the Moral Sense concerns images of the life of a disciple derived from the stories, people, events, and things of Scripture.

So, for instance, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In doing so, he is taking what is, in the Literal Sense, the big stone building in Jerusalem and using it to illustrate an aspect of the life of a disciple of Jesus: namely, treat your body as the dwelling place of God.

Paul is, of course, not the first person to make that connection.  Jesus, as we saw last time, makes the same connection when he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Other examples of the Moral Sense are everywhere in Scripture.  Old Testament imagery of battle and warfare, for example, easily becomes an image of the spiritual struggle.  So Paul will tell the Ephesians, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Therefore take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the Evil One” (Ephesians 6:10-16).

Similarly, Jesus will recapitulate the wandering of Israel in the wilderness during his temptation, living perfectly the fidelity that they failed to render to God, and calling us to do likewise in imitation of him.

Scriptural images of marriage will likewise be read for their Moral Sense as images of the relationship of Christ the Groom and his Bride the Church.  The Song of Songs, a royal wedding ode for a Davidic monarch, will be read by St Bernard of Clairvaux in this way, just as Paul will see in the relationship of Christ and the Church the pattern of love that husbands and wives should show to one another (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).

The point is simply this: in the Old Testament, one of the ways in which Christ is hidden there is in images showing us how to live as he would have us live.

Next time in this space, we will talk about the sense of Scripture that points to our destiny in Christ.

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