Anyone who takes Bible study serious needs to understand some basics about the senses of Scripture. Understanding these basics will allow you to understand the Bible in its proper context.
Scripture can be interpreted both literally and spiritually, the Bible itself even does that. Jesus interpreted Jonah in the whale’s belly three days and three nights as being symbolic of Himself, and how He was to go into the heart of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights (Jonah 2:1, Matt. 12:40). Gregory the Great said, “Scripture by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery. (Morals 20.1)
Thomas Aquinas says, “The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it.”
These three – history, etiology, analogy – are grouped under the literal sense.
1) Literal: The things that are handed down according to history, only written as though it were done. Example Matt. 12:3-4
3 But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungered, and they that were with him; 4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
2) Etiology: When the reason is given as to why anything has been done or said. Example Matt. 19:8
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
3) Analogy: When there are similar things that take place between the Old Testament and the New Testament; resemblance. it is called analogy whenever the truth of one text of Scripture is shown not to contradict the truth of another.
“When we examine the story of Jonah, great is the resemblance. Jesus was sent to preach repentance; Jonah also was sent, but fled not knowing what should come to pass; the other of course willingly, to give repentance unto salvation. Jonah was asleep in the ship, and snores during the stormy sea; while Jesus also slept, the sea, according to God’s providence, began to rise, to show the might of Him who slept. The one they said, ‘What, you are snoring? Get up and call upon your God, so that God may bring us safely through;’ but in the other case they say to the Master, ‘Lord, save us (Matthew 25:26).’ Where in Jonah’s case they said, ‘Call upon your God’; with Jesus the disciples said, ‘You save.’ But the one says, ‘Take me, and cast me into the sea; so shall the sea be calm for you; the other, Himself rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” [Cyril of Alexandria, Lectures Letter XIV 17]
Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.
4) Allegory: When a passage is not taken according to the letter, but is understood figuratively, especially when something from the Old Testament prefigures something from the New Testament. Example 1 Cor. 10:1-11, 1 Peter 3:20-21
1 Cor. 10:1 Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. 7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. 8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. 9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. 10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
1 Peter 3:20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. 21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Anagogical: It is much like allegory (something from the Old Testament prefigures something from the New Testament), but the difference is, that is something from the New Testament being a type of something of a future event. Example, the Church on Earth prefigures the eternal glory of the Church in Heaven. Or an evil dictator can prefigure the Antichrist who is to come in the future.
Moral: This can also be considered life application, “things that we ought to do.” The Apostle Paul says, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us.” 1 Cor. 10:11