Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 9. Middle Ages (II)

by | May 13, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Four-fold method (quadriga): Of the many things the era of the Middle Ages is known for, one of its most important contributions to biblical interpretation came from John Cassian (circa 360-435). Cassian inherited the theory of the three senses of Scripture from his Patristic predecessors. Origen had developed the three-fold sense of Scripture – the literal (historical or somatic), the tropological (moral or pneumatic), and the allegorical (doctrinal or psychical). Cassian added a fourth – the mystical, analogical or ultimate/eschatological sense.[1] Augustine (circa 354-430) utilized a form of the four-fold method and his book On Christian Doctrine became “the volume which was to be the basic hermeneutical manual of the Middle Ages.”[2]

The medieval quadriga or fourfold pattern of meaning was comprised of the following: the literal or historical, the tropological or moral, the allegorical or doctrinal, and the anagogical or ultimate/eschatological.[3] Muller comments on the quadriga:


The carefully enunciated fourfold pattern of the Middle Ages was based upon the association, already made by Augustine and Gregory the Great, between the three Christian virtues, faith (fides…), hope (spes), and love (caritas…), and the meaning of the text of Scripture as it speaks to Christians. The church does not, then, disdain the sensus literalis or sensus historicus, the literal or historical meaning, but learns of it and uses it as the point of departure for searching out the relation of the text to the Christian virtues. When the literal or historical sense includes details concerning human conduct, it bears a lesson for caritas and issues forth in the sensus tropologicus, or tropological meaning. The trope, related to caritas, manifests the Christian agenda…, work to be done. Similarly, the literal sense may include details which point toward Christian faith: thus, the sensus allegoricus, or allegorical meaning, which has reference to fides and to the credenda… or things to be believed, by the church. Finally, the literal sense may point beyond the history it narrates to the future of the church. This is the sensus anagogicus, the anagogical sense, which relates to spes and teaches of speranda…, things to be hoped for. Although this fourfold pattern was subject to abuse and excess, the medieval doctors generally used it in such a way as to find all meanings of a text expressed literally somewhere in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. In addition, the method did not ignore the literal meaning of the text, as sometimes alleged, but used it as the basis for each of the other meanings… The method, moreover, did not demand that all four meanings be found in each text. The quadriga was summed up in the following mnemonic couplet taught in the medieval schools: Litera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria;/moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia (“The letter teaches of deeds, allegory of what is believed;/morality of what is done, anagoge of things to come.”).[4]

Muller goes on to point out that the fourfold method, prior to the Reformation, began to be slowly put aside for a simpler method. What the Reformers and the post-Reformation Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) orthodox both retained from the fourfold method was its “concern for the direct address of the text to the church…”[5] This is a concern shared with the New Testament itself, the Apostolic Fathers, the Patristics, and all Evangelicals today. This basic concern may be answered in diverse ways, but it follows all Christian interpreters through the ages.

[1] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 133.

[2] Muller, Dictionary, 254.

[3] Cf. Muller, Dictionary, 254-55; Muller, PRRD, II:469ff.; and Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 30ff.

[4] Muller, Dictionary, 254-55.

[5] Muller, Dictionary, 255.

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