At Wheaton College I taught “Biblical Interpretation and Hermeneutics” to exceptionally bright, motivated and faithful students. I approached the course from the perspective of the history of interpretation, for, with Peter of Blois, I was convinced that we stand like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, that premodern interpreters had much to say to us moderns who struggle to approach the Bible as Scripture instead of a random collection of textual artifacts. Desiring to rescue the works of the ancients from time’s oblivion and man’s neglect, each semester we sojourned through twenty-five hundred years of interpretation.
In the class we wrestled with premodern interpreters whose approach was supposedly different from our own. The radical ways New Testament writers appropriate Old Testament material proved especially challenging; the nervous joke was that Paul, or Matthew, or even Jesus himself would fail our class. For instance, St. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) right after the Holy Family’s escape from Israel to Egypt to portray a reverse exodus inverting Egypt, now the promised land of refuge, and Israel, now the house of bondage.
St. Luke tells of two disciples encountering the Risen Christ on Emmaus Road to show that the Old Testament is rightly read through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, who “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). Further, St. Luke then illustrates that the Risen Christ is known precisely in the Eucharist, a datum thus deemed necessary for sound interpretation: “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.” The Christ who is the key to the Scriptures is ever present in the bread and wine.
The textbook example of hermeneutical jujitsu, however, is Paul’s brazen tour de force in Galatians 4:21-31, in which he states that the Hagar and Sarah are allegories (allegoroumena), the former pointing to the slavery of the Judaizers of the earthly Jerusalem and the latter pointing to the freedom of the heavenly Jerusalem. Perhaps that might fly in homiletics, but not in serious exegesis. If one were to hand out grades, it would be F’s all around.
Some Christians therefore have distinguished between typology and allegory, needing to accept the ways in which New Testament authors appropriate Old Testament material but also needing to reject allegory for polemical and confessional reasons. Premodern interpreters, however, made no such distinction, using “typology” and “allegory” interchangeably. (For instance, St. Thomas writes, “Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense.”) We discovered that the Fathers and medievals stood in continuity with the New Testament writers in their interpretation of the Old Testament. If that’s the case, we thought, perhaps the mature medieval “fourfold sense” of Scripture wasn’t risible nonsense after all.
Although the common caricature asserts allegory destroys the literal sense, premodern interpreters like St. Augustine and St. Thomas are adamant that the literal determines the three spiritual senses of allegory (or typology), tropology (morals), and anagogy (eternal destiny). St. Thomas asserts, “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,” and insists that
The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.
Talk of “meaning” often reduces Scripture to a static moral guide and Jesus to a teacher and exemplar who fortuitously but happily anticipated Kant’s Kritik der praktischen Vernunft by about 1758 years. But thinking in terms of the dynamic fourfold sense as functions of Scripture frees it not only to teach us but to damn and save us, to kill us and make us alive, to encourage, challenge, correct, comfort and transform us under the aegis of the Holy Spirit.
Another observation: The literal and allegorical senses are objective, concerning the realities of salvation history both in and out of time. The moral and anagogical are subjective, concerning the moral life and final destiny of individuals and the Church militant now living within the vicissitudes of time. Rooting us in the objective earthly and heavenly realities of salvation history, the fourfold function of Scripture shows us Christ and conforms us to him, to the end of achieving our eternal happiness in God forever and ever.
Most of us were using the Bible in medieval ways already. As the Methodist church historian David Steinmetz once contended in an infamous article, “The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues is false.” Indeed, my students were often shocked and then pleased by realizing just how allegorically evangelicalism treated the Scriptures, for what we evangelicals often called “application” the premoderns would have called allegory, or spiritual exegesis. Recovering our appreciation of the medieval practice of interpretation might then provide us with deep, substantive grounding for the ways in which most practicing Christians read their Bibles today.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.