In Defense of the Fourfold Method

Allegory gets a bad wrap these days. If you want to charge someone with bad exegesis, just call them an allegorizer. Compare them to Philo or the worst excesses of Augustine and Origen, slap an “allegory” sticker on their essay, and throw them to the wolves or carry them off with pitchforks (ok that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the point).

Here’s the problem: I like allegory. And Paul does too, at least in one instance (Gal. 4:21-31). Further, even when the NT authors aren’t using the term “allegory”, I think they’re still doing it in lots of places. Now, that might get me kicked out of some evangelical hermeneutics classes. But I don’t think it should. I think allegory actually helps evangelicals understand the most difficult of questions concerning inerrancy, the New Testament’s use of the Old. I think allegory actually helps evangelicals understand how it is literarily (as in, literature) true that their (our) claim that Scripture speaks about Christ in all its parts. And I think it helps that we, you know, give Paul credit where credit’s due as an interpreter of the OT and in his use of the term allegoroumena.

I can only do so much in a blog post, so I just want to give two reasons why I like the fourfold method of interpretation. First, I think it helps us understand and interpret the Bible in a way that acknowledges its historical and literary detail without missing its bigger theological purpose. Second, and because of this, I think it helps us understand how the NT authors interpreted the OT (and copy their method!!).

In terms of the big picture of Scripture, evangelicals recognize that Scripture is primarily for two things: revelation and transformation. Through the inspiration of the Spirit it reveals who God is in Christ and through the application by the Spirit it transforms us into the image of God in Christ. The fourfold sense recognizes this. The spiritual sense, which can be broadened out into the latter three senses of the allegorical, the anagogical, and the tropological, understands that the Bible has these two purposes of revelation and transformation. The allegorical sense demands that interpreters recognize the Bible’s purpose of revealing Christ who reveals the Father; the tropological (or moral) sense demands that interpreters recognize the Bible’s purpose of transforming believers into Christ’s image; and the anagogical (or future sense) recognizes that a) the Bible is written as a metanarrative with a telos and b) that the tropological sense has a telos as well (to be completely like Christ; 1 John 3:2).

Second, at least in the theories of the Fathers and Medieval theologians, the spiritual sense MUST be tied to the literal sense. For this reason, the literal sense – historical background information, literary context, intertextuality, and literary features – ought to always be done very carefully and be the foundation for understanding the spiritual sense. This is where people get tripped up, because so often in practice the Fathers and Medieval theologians did not apply this theory evenly. But that doesn’t mean the theory is bad, it just means that we as practitioners mess up its application.

Further, this helps us to understand how the NT authors read the OT. They saw the intertextual connections between OT passages, how the OT authors themselves used other OT passages, and how that entire scriptural web has one primary goal – to reveal Christ and to make us like him. They are seeing the literal sense, but are also doing what the literal sense is supposed to do – reading the details as pointing to and as a part of the larger picture of Christ.

So don’t give allegory such a bad wrap – at least not in theory.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of the Fourfold Method

  1. Pingback: Jesus and Paul were not Literalists when it comes to Genesis 2-3

  2. It all depends on how you define “allegory.” In contemporary usage, I think it has come to mean something very different than what Paul meant by it or even what the Fathers meant by it. There is a category of “bad” allegory that we should rightly avoid, namely, drawing connections that are not historical/literary but are instead suprahistorical/philosophical (a la Philo and, at times, Origen et al.). Jean Danielou makes this kind of distinction between typology and allegory here: Whether or not Danielou’s description of allegory perfectly corresponds to the ways allegoreo and its cognates are used in the ancient literature, his conceptual distinction is still helpful.

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