The Bible teachers of the Western Middle Ages used an interpretive method known as the “quadriga,” or the “fourfold sense” of Scripture. The Bible, they believed, literally refers to real people, places, and events, but those “facts” are replete with spiritual significance. Thus, each Scripture passage also points “allegorically” or “typologically” to Christ and his church. Because believers are members of Christ’s body, the Scriptures that point to Christ also apply “tropologically” to individual Christians and church life. Because the Jesus who has come will come again, passages about Jesus “anagogically” anticipate the end of all things. Scripture teaches us what to believe, what to do, and what to hope for. Every Scripture is a pedagogy in faith, hope, and love.
Today, most Christians retain only shards and fragments of this integrated scheme. Modern biblical scholarship has focused on the literal sense, intensively studying grammar and the cultural-political contexts of biblical records. Preachers fasten on Jesus’s breathtaking claim that the whole Bible is about his suffering and glory, and deliver redemptive-historical or typological sermons that sometimes deliberately exclude tropological exhortation. Many read the Bible for its ethical lessons, and risk falling into a Christ-less moralism. In some sectors of American Christianity, many read huge swaths of the Bible as prophecies of the last days. Literalists, allegorists, tropologists, and anagogists abound, but few follow the four-dimensional example of medieval readers.
Yet the hermeneutical ground is shifting. One of the heartening developments of recent years is a renewed appreciation of typological interpretation among Protestants who have traditionally majored on the literal and the moral senses. Christocentric typology is making a comeback. All to the good, but I have a quadrigal caution. Typological interpretation can become as flat as literalism or moralism. It can become a self-enclosed operation that focuses exclusively on patterns of promise and fulfillment, shadow and reality. Readers link passages of Scripture to other passages of Scripture and discover the suffering and glory of Jesus everywhere, but never move out of the Bible to touch the world.
The quadriga eludes this kind of closure. Allegory opens out into tropology. What foreshadowed Christ in the Old Testament doesn’t merely foreshadow Christ; it foreshadows the church, her members, and her history; it foreshadows me. Allegory also opens into anagogy, reaching forward to the end. Read quadrigally, the Bible becomes a lens for reading everything else. It’s a book about Jesus, yes; it’s also a book about life, the universe, and everything.
Following the quadriga, we can see how the one story Scripture tells is the master story that haunts all stories and rituals and myths. A beautiful princess eats a poisoned apple and falls asleep for ten thousand years. Or she’s put under a curse, locked in a mountain castle that’s protected by a thicket of thorns and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, or kept far beneath the earth in an underground dungeon. At long last, a handsome prince breaks through the castle walls and fights his way through the thorns, tearing his flesh. He defeats the fire-breathing dragon, indifferent to the wounds and burns he suffers in the battle. He descends to the underworld to bring the princess up from the grave. The prince is willing to endure anything to rescue his beloved so they can live happily ever after.
The myths of the ancient world are full of stories of dying gods, and heroes who sometimes rise again. Osiris in Egypt, the Sumerian goddess Tammuz, Adonis and Orpheus among the Greeks. Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue Eurydice, who has been killed by vipers, his song charming the underworld god, Hades, so he can pass through unharmed. Odysseus and Aeneas go to the underworld and return refreshed to continue their journeys. Myths are enacted in festivals that mourn the dying of the earth every autumn and celebrate its rebirth every spring, rituals to mark the daily death and resurrection of the sun.
From ancient myths to the latest Marvel blockbuster to the quarterback who rescues victory from defeat with a last-second scramble and touchdown pass, suffering and glory shapes the hero’s journey. Nature itself is a living parable, for a seed must go into the ground and die before it can bear fruit, and the decaying bodies of animals fertilize the earth. As C. S. Lewis said, in the Gospels, for the first and only time in history, “the myth must have become fact.” Jesus fulfills God’s promises to Israel, but he’s also the hope of the Gentiles, the desire of nations.
Scripture is about everything because the Jesus at the center of Scripture is creation’s Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6; 22:13). Jesus is “before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). When we know Jesus, we know something about everything, and it’s the most important thing we can know. In the quadriga, this expansive, cosmic Christology becomes a hermeneutical method. Four-dimensional Bible reading recognizes that Christ’s suffering and glory isn’t merely the story of the Bible. It’s the story of the world.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
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