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Recovering the fourfold sense of Scripture in John 6

The story recounted in John 6 is both miraculous and sacrificial, two things modernity rejects but to which the Church holds fast.

(Image: Tony Baggett |

This past weekend the lectionary provided St. John’s version of the story of Jesus’ multiplication of the fish and loaves, the famous feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1–15)—the first of five Sunday Gospel readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Many faithful Catholics were fearing beforehand and lamenting afterward a certain, rationalistic interpretation in which the feeding of the five thousand is stripped of any miraculous element and presented as an object lesson in sharing. Supposedly, this line of interpretation goes, the people were hiding food under their tunics, and the force of Jesus’ personality and example got them to share.

Thankfully, unscientific surveys in my Twitter and Facebook feeds revealed that most Catholics avoided that rationalist, reductionist reading. Nevertheless, this line of interpretation abides. I first encountered it in college while working at a Lutheran camp in the north woods of Minnesota; the Bible study materials provided by the denomination (the ELCA) instructed us to talk about the people sharing their hidden food if campers asked about the miracle, and too many Catholic homilists present it today.

Rationalizing the Bible
Denominational bureaucrats didn’t invent in the 1990s, however. The idea goes back at least to H. E. G. Paulus (1761–1851), the great German rationalizer of the Bible. Living in the heyday of historicism, which asserted that history was a closed system of cause and effect and thus that miracles that contravened the laws of nature were simply impossible, Paulus and other rationalizers hypothesized non-miraculous core events that gave rise to the accounts of miraculous happenings in the Bible. And so instead of Moses through God’s power parting the Red Sea, what must have happened is that the Hebrews traversed the Sea of Reeds at a low point, perhaps a sand bar. Or similarly, the Resurrection could not have happened; most likely, Paulus thought, was that Jesus hadn’t died but fainted from the rigors of the crucifixion, and then revived in the cool of the tomb, and so appeared alive to his disciples after the crucifixion, which then got worked up into a miraculous Resurrection. (This has become known as the “Swoon Theory.”) So too, then, with the feeding of the five thousand: since fish and loaves cannot miraculously reproduce, there must have been an abundance somewhere, likely under the tunics worn by members of the crowd, and Jesus’ example shamed all into sharing.

Modernist Christianity, rooted in the Enlightenment, seeks to adapt its understanding of Christian faith to the latest knowledge in secular domains—the sciences hard and soft, as well as philosophy and ethics. It therefore was, and is, embarrassed by the miraculous and the sacrificial, both of which belonged to an unscientific premodern age. And so modernist Christians have sought to save the faith for modernity by purifying it of all that modernity rejects. What is left over is ethics; Jesus is preserved as a great moral teacher of enduring relevance through demythologization, that is, stripping away the miraculous and sacrificial myths that grew up around his legend and going behind the Gospels to find a historical Jesus.

Even in the realm of ethics, however, one finds Enlightenment categories determinative for understanding Jesus. His teaching is stripped of any apocalyptic overtones and understood in a supposedly general, universal way that comports with modern ethics anyway. Enlightenment thinking becomes a total straitjacket to which even Jesus must conform if he is to remain relevant. (The old joke is that Enlightenment scholars believed that Jesus taught “the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.” That is, they were guilty of universalizing their particular liberal perspective by foisting it upon Jesus.) But the result is that even in the field of ethics Jesus becomes ultimately irrelevant, as one encounters a reconstruction of Jesus that looks like he happily anticipated either Kant (if one is German) or Mill (if one is Anglo-American) by about eighteen centuries. If Jesus is made to look like Kant or Mill, then we don’t need him.

Modernity vs. the fourfold sense
One way of understanding modernity is to see it as a simplifying maneuver involving the reduction of categories in a given domain. So modernity, in fleeing traditional metaphysics, drops two of Aristotle’s famous causes, the formal and final, by which things are what they are and for which purpose they exist, and keeps the other two, the material and efficient, reducing them to an understanding in which raw material (the matter), atoms at root, are shaped into some constellation by some outside force, personal or impersonal, and then we apply names to whatever things that happened to result look alike. That’s nominalism, the position that nothing really exists but we slap names (Latin nomen) on particular things that resemble each other as a practical matter. It’s one explanation for how you get the ongoing revolutions concerning the human person. There’s no such metaphysical Thing as Man, or Woman, or Marriage, and so post/moderns see people as constellations of atoms generated by chance and then feel free to define marriage according to will and whim of the most powerful identity groups.

A similar thing happened, I think, with biblical interpretation. Traditionally, Christians had interpreted Scripture according to its fourfold sense. There was the literal and spiritual level, and then the spiritual level was divided into three, the allegorical (which concerned typological relationships between the Testaments), the tropological (the moral sense), and the anagogical (which concerned the soul’s progress to God in glory). The senses functioned together to the point that “level” is perhaps the wrong word; the letter presented the basic content, and consisted in itself of links between the Testaments, which then had necessary moral import for the living of Christian life, which in turn bore on the soul’s progress to heaven. And so St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both affirmed that all spiritual senses were rooted in the letter and were bound to each other in an organic whole.

One way of understanding the fourfold sense is simply to see it as a delineation of the major ways in which the religious community of the Church used the Bible as Scripture—it’s not some Platonic imposition on the story of the Bible, but rather is demanded by the Bible itself and the Church that treasures it as Scripture. The New Testament requires the Old as the matrix for its understanding, and quotes and alludes to it everywhere; the Old is the ocean in which the New swims. The Bible is full of moral import and imperatives, and contains all sorts of instruction about the means of achieving heaven. And so Christians would find Jesus fulfilling passages of the Old Testament, see in that fulfillment moral import (and Jesus himself as moral exemplar), and in reading and praying the passages have their very souls fitted ever more for heaven forevermore.

The greatest example: The exodus in the Old Testament is the ground of the annual Passover celebration, and Jesus is then crucified as the Passover “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 36). Jesus himself interpreted his sacrificial death using and adapting the sacrificial Passover meal and gave us the Eucharist as his very own body and blood. And so we Catholics observe that pattern every Holy Mass and even ingest it whenever we receive Holy Communion. It’s not simply a matter of content, but a matter of experience, of entering into the very mysteries of salvation history, which in fact culminated in our present in each and every Mass. And so in the Mass, Old Testament and New Testament are united as Passover shades into the Last Supper and Crucifixion of Our Lord, and then we share in Christ and have our souls fitted for heaven by participation in the Mass. And of course there’s moral relevance: we present ourselves in a state of grace for Holy Communion, and grow in grace and righteousness by our participation in Mass and in Holy Communion. That’s how the fourfold sense works: all four senses functioning together, synergistically, organically, and we both know and experience it.

But Enlightenment readings of Scripture miss the very glories of Scripture because the Enlightenment eliminated two of the four senses and dramatically reduced and corrupted the two it kept. The literal sense became historical criticism, which sought events behind the letter and judged the letter by the hypothetical reconstruction of those events. The moral sense lost its grounding in the letter and came to treat Jesus as a mascot for Enlightenment moralities already sketched out by giants like Kant and Mill on rationalist grounds. And so the feeding of the five thousand can be nothing more than a boring object lesson in bourgeois morality fit for a kindergarten people: sharing.

Triple typology and the Eucharist
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sharing’s great, as the earliest Church bears witness in Acts 2:44–45. But it has little, if anything, to do with the feeding of the five thousand. Now it is legitimate, I think, to find a model for sharing in the boy’s surrendering of his fish and loaves. The moral sense of the passage regarding his gifts involves the conviction that God can take what we offer and by his divine power turn it into so much more, doing much with our little, but one cannot take a short cut to that point by short-circuiting the allegorical and anagogical dimensions of the passage. Indeed, John 6, which begins with the feeding of the five thousand, provides a decisive model for how the Church reads Scripture spiritually according to the fourfold sense, as it presents the Old Testament—Jesus—Eucharist sequence clearly in a sort of triple typology.

John is a sacramental Gospel, every word pointing above to spiritual realities, itself being a sacramental item that brings its readers and hearers deeper into God. It’s no surprise, then, that it would present the most profound reflection on the Eucharist, along the lines of what a later Johannine thinker, St. Ignatius of Antioch, had in mind when he called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Eph. 20:2).

In the beginning of John 6, we encounter the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which both looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness and also forward to the Eucharist in the age of the Church—hence it presents not a double but a triple typology. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ interlocutors have the temerity to challenge Jesus for a sign, and they remind him that Moses gave their fathers “bread from heaven” to eat, namely, the manna in the wilderness (John 6:31). Jesus replies that it is his Father who gives the true bread from heaven, Jesus himself, the bread of life (6:32–35). After some grumbling, Jesus reiterates his words:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (6:48­–51)

After his interlocutors put forth a complainant question concerning just how one might eat Jesus’ flesh, Jesus doubles down:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (6:53–58)

What, then, are the parallels in this threefold movement, this triple typology? (1) In the Old Testament, God gives miraculous manna to the people through Moses, and the people eventually die. (2) In the feeding of the five thousand, the Father gives miraculous bread and fish to the people through Jesus (who gave thanks in 6:11, thus involving his Father by invoking him), but the people will eventually die. They were provided with natural food by a supernatural miracle. And so in each case the food provided sustains the people in their biological life, bios, but it is powerless to provide eternal life, zoē; in each case the people ultimately die. But (3) in the case of the Eucharist, the Father has sent the Son, Jesus, in the Incarnation, and then in the Eucharist, a token of the Incarnation, gives the people the true bread of life, and the people who consume it will live forever. It’s supernatural food for supernatural life, presented by the Church’s priestly ministers till kingdom come.

The feeding of the five thousand, then, alludes back to the story of the manna in the wilderness while looking forward to the age of the Church, affirming that God is present in the body and blood of his Son who gives his Eucharistic flesh for the life of that world. The story itself is both miraculous and sacrificial, two things modernity rejects but to which the Church holds fast. And so following Scripture itself, the Church teaches, “The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1335).

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).


  1. That a few loaves were miraculously in the hands of thousands of people prefigured Christ in His humanity being completely present in each of those receiving communion at Mass. He is made present to each in His divinity, too, of course, but we seem to be able to grasp God being everywhere easier than we can that a human being can be fully present in multiple places at the same time. Well, God can do that, and demonstrated that He is the Master of matter, time and space by placing a few loaves of bread into the hands of thousands, just as God’s mastery of matter, time and space makes the passion, death and resurrection of Christ present at Holy Mass.

    Another John 6 miracle, Jesus walking on the water, helps us understand how a, say, 170 pound carpenter can be fully present in a host that doesn’t seem to weigh anything: the same way that carpenter walked on water. Again, God can do that. ;o)

  2. It is of vital importance for Catholic people to know that Cardinal Walter Kasper (who is promoted as the favorite theologian Pope Francis) DENIES the miracle accounts in the Gospels, calling them “legends.” He teaches his disbelief in his book “Jesus the Christ,” 1974, pp 90-91. Kasper re-issued his book in 2011, with different pagination, but no change in the denial.

    To clarify what this amounts to, Kasper’s book lists several of the miracle accounts that are “legends:”

    – the feeding of the 5000;
    – the Transfiguration;
    – the command of the storm on the sea;
    – the raising of the widow’s son, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus.

    Kasper’s book has been used as a text in seminaries and colleges across the Catholic world for 40 years.

    For example, Cardinal Cupich, raised to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Francis, just a few years ago praised Kasper’s book, and said it would be used in the Chicago seminary formation under his control.

    It is obvious, since Pope Francis has praised Kasper’s work as “theology on its knees” and Kasper himself as “a great theologian,” that Pope Francis shares Kasper’s disbelief.

    With the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, an election engineered by “Ex-Cardinal” McCarrick (google the video of his conclave talk at Villanova Oct 2013, go to minute 17, listen for 5 minutes), the Church is in the hands of men like the three above who openly (Kasper) or secretly (Pope Francis) disbelieve the Gospels.

    This is the hour of apostasy in The Church. The sex abuse wildfire now spreading across the ranks of Bishops worldwide is all part of a seamless garment – the Church hierarchy all the way to Rome is packed with post-Catholic apostates, men who are impoverished of both faith and morality.

    Evidence A: 50 years ago, in 1967, Theodore McCarrick, the very same unrepentant arch sex abuser and grand scale coverup artist, when President of the University of Puerto Rico, co-signed the Land of Lakes statement, declaring that his university, along with Notre Dame, Fordham, Georgetown, BC etc etc etc, would no longer teach according to the Catholic faith.

    It is all one giant silent apostasy – grown men pretending to be Catholic – and running the Church as a giant parasitic host – on which they feed for their counterfeit “careers” as “professional church bureaucrats.”

    • A huge part of the problem is that the faithless interpretation of the Scriptures among Scripture scholars, which began outside the Catholic Church in the mid-nineteenth century, spread to and infected Catholic seminaries long ago. Today’s bishops were taught when they were young seminarians not to believe in the miraculous events recorded in the Scriptures.

      If one doesn’t believe that God supernaturally intervenes in human history, rewarding those who do the right thing even when it is extremely difficult to do so, and eventually punishing those who don’t, one can’t be an effective apostle, which requires belief in God’s miraculous intervention. We see proof of this ineffectiveness all around us. And just calling it “ineffective” is being very kind.

  3. I’ve heard that in the Middle East that hospitality is very important. The miracle of sharing would call into question the hospitality of the people.
    With the way some people interpret the Scriptures their view appears to be that we are the potters and God is the clay, and He is the work of our hands.

  4. I believe that God can do anything that He wishes to do. 5,000 people fed from 5 loaves of bread and a few fish is nothing compare with the creation of the stars. Why do people want to humanified God is beyond my understanding. We all try to understand God beyond our human understanding and we just do not have that blessing. Let us let God be God and not try to be at His level within a zillion years that can never be.

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