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John Cassian

John Cassian
John Cassian

John Cassian’s Mystical Pathway

Hi Friends,

The Threefold Sense of Scripture. People who came up through mainstream Christianity most likely learned of three ways to interpret scripture: literally, morally and allegorically. This is known in the Judean-Christian tradition as the “threefold sense of scripture”. What it says is that when reading a Bible passage, we can assume the writer is telling us an historical fact (a literal interpretation), how we should behave (a moral interpretation) or what we should believe about God and heaven (an analogy of something on earth that points to something in heaven or of God).

We got this from Jewish theologians who had been using the forumula for centuries. They likely got it from Greek philosophers. Jews and Greeks were looking for a better way to understand stories about gods and prophets that rub us the wrong way. Shifting from literal understanding to moral and allegorical understanding allows us to extract spiritual truth from troublesome stories without accepting the earthly facts as “the way it should be.”

John Cassian is important because he added a fourth way to interpret scripture: the “mystical” sense (also known as the “anagogical” sense). This post introduces what he did and explores what that has meant for metaphysical Christianity.

Cassian lived about the same time as Augustine (360-435 CE). He was fluent in Greek and Latin and he traveled widely in the greek-speaking eastern region of the Mediterranean (Egypt and Palestine) and then settled in the latin-speaking region (Italy and France). He is best known for bringing to the Latin West the radical teachings of Origen and the monastic writings of the ancient monks of the Egyptian desert. He is also known as a “semipelagian”, which stresses the role of the human will in moving towards salvation, as opposed to Augustine’s stress on the depravity of the human will and the totality of grace. The John Cassian page on Wikipedia is somewhat inconsistent but generally accurate and easy to read.

The Four Senses of Scripture. Carole Monica C. Burnett has written that the fourth sense of scripture “had originated in late antiquity with the fifth-century monk John Cassian. Thanks to its dissemination by Bede and others, it persisted throughout the Middle Ages as the standard methodology of biblical interpretation.”1 Wikipedia has a nice summary of the Four Senses of Scripture.

The following passages are from the best-known writing of Cassian about the four senses of scripture—Chapter 8 of his “Conferences.” Many thanks to The Christian Classics Ethereal Library for making them freely available on the Internet.

He begins by stating that all who are “with the Church” (capitalized as such by Cassian) are “clothed with double garments”—a capacity to interpret Scripture literally and spiritually. He explains that spiritual interpretation reads the literal text and then reveals “knowledge of things past and visible” “according to the largeness of your heart”:

“But do you describe these things to yourself in three ways according to the largeness of your heart.” And so the history embraces the knowledge of things past and visible, as it is repeated in this way by the Apostle: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondwoman, the other by a free: but he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he who was of the free was by promise.”

Let me point out right here that Cassian is not saying that spiritual interpretation comes from the church (lower case), nor the literal word of Scripture, but rather from the state of the heart of those who are “with the Church”. And “the Church”, as we understand it, is, like the kingdom of God, an inner state of being.

Cassian’s four sense model has adopted the moral and allegorical senses from the earlier threefold model, reversed them in order and renamed them “allegorical” and “tropological”.

Allegorical Interpretation. Here is what Cassian has to say about how allegorical interpretation would understand the old and new covenants:

But to the allegory belongs what follows, for what actually happened is said to have prefigured the form of some mystery “For these,” says he, “are the two covenants the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth into bondage, which is Agar. For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, which is compared to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.”

Allegorical understanding comes right out of Greek teaching. According to Wikipedia, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoría), "veiled language, figurative",[4] which in turn comes from both ἄλλος (allos), "another, different"[5] and ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly",[6] which originates from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly".[7]

If this sounds like something Charles Fillmore and his students might have said in the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, you’re right. Allegorical interpretation is metaphysical; it uses allegory of historical and earthly things to explain spiritual ways of the cosmos. It is, according to many in mainstream Christianity, the authority for our beliefs.

Tropological (moral) Interpretation. Once we are able to understand the metaphysical (allegorical) story, we can see Jerusalem as representing the human soul. At that point the human heart is expanded enough to comprehend the moral, or tropological sense:

The tropological sense is the moral explanation which has to do with improvement of life and practical teaching, as if we were to understand by these two covenants practical and theoretical instruction, or at any rate as if we were to want to take Jerusalem or Sion as the soul of man, according to this: “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem: praise thy God, O Sion.”

Like allegory, tropological understanding has its roots in Hellenistic Greek thought. According to Wikipedia, The Ancient Greek word τρόπος (tropos) meant 'turn, way, manner, style'. The term τροπολογία (tropologia) was coined from this word around the second century AD, in Hellenistic Greek, to mean 'allegorical interpretation of scripture' (and also, by the fourth century, 'figurative language' more generally).

Again, we have echoes of Charles Fillmore’s teaching—the natural state of the human soul, when informed by metaphysical truth, is praise and gratitude. And we come to a very important point: metaphysical understanding does not have the power to transform lives. It cannot get drunks out of ditches. What will transform lives is “turning away” from error thinking. That type of thinking is tropological. Tropological understanding teaches us how to behave; it is the basis for our ethical choices.

Anagogical (mystical) Interpretation. Cassian’s contribution to the Four Senses of Scripture is the anagogical, or mystical, experience. Something happens to the human soul when it gives way (or "consents") to the higher moral order. Here is what he says,

But the anagogical sense rises from spiritual mysteries even to still more sublime and sacred secrets of heaven, and is subjoined by the Apostle in these words: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not, break forth and cry, thou that travailest not, for many are the children of the desolate more than of her that hath an husband.”794

With mystical, or anagogical, interpretation, the human soul not only identifies itself as Jerusalem and not only turns away from error thought. It is raised up and finds itself at liberty. Here is how Wikipedia explains anagogical thinking: Anagoge (ἀναγωγή), sometimes spelled anagogy, is a Greek word suggesting a climb or ascent upwards. The anagogical is a method of mystical or spiritual interpretation of statements or events, especially scriptural exegesis, that detects allusions to the afterlife.

I believe the liberty described in anagogical interpretation is the same liberty described by Emilie Cady in Liberty or Bondage, Which? the final chapter of Lessons in Truth. The metaphysical Christian pathway for spiritual development begins with metaphysics and progresses to mysticism. I sense that the popularity of Lessons in Truth has been its message of mysticism and that it has become our “primary textbook” because the mysticism in the lessons offer an important balance to the metaphysical writings of Charles Fillmore. We may not be free in our earthly sense, but our hope—our heart’s desire for union with God—is anagogical.

What We Have in this fourfold model is a pathway for spiritual development using the Bible as a devotional tool. This is nothing new for mainstream Christianity, as Unity minister Barbara Jung recently shared with Post-Evangelicals in South Bend, Indiana: “I think some people may have heard of Lectio Divina, and that’s like when you read your Bible and you take a verse or a story or whatever you take from it and it’s inspiring you and you find yourself pondering that and being uplifted by it and carried by it in a lot of ways. That’s another way that we enter into this kind of presence.” Cassian concludes:

And so these four previously mentioned figures coalesce, if we desire, in one subject, so that one and the same Jerusalem can be taken in four senses: historically as the city of the Jews; allegorically as Church of Christ, anagogically as the heavenly city of God “which is the mother of us all,” tropologically, as the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord under this title. Of these four kinds of interpretation the blessed Apostle speaks as follows: “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation or by knowledge or by prophecy or by doctrine?”796

Carole Monica C. Burnett, referenced above, has said in a footnote: “Some contemporary theological interpreters have proposed the recovery of the fourfold sense by relating it to the literal sense and then to the theological virtues of faith (allegorical), hope (anagogical), and love (tropological).”

Glenn Clark may have had insight into these spiritual understandings of Scripture when he wrote of the fifth dimensional (metaphysical) realm, the sixth dimensional (social) realm and the seventh dimensional (mystical) realm in God’s Reach.

My soul’s sincere desire is that the Fillmore Study Bible, which is filled with literal, metaphysical, moral and mystical annotations, will provide a just such a pathway.

Mark Hicks
Sunday, March 17, 2024

  1. Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible. 2017. Grand Rapids Michigan: Baker Academic a division of Baker Publishing Group, p.177.

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