During the Patristic Period in the Middle Ages practiced an exegetical tactic known as the fourfold sense of Scripture. What are these four senses and do these ideas about the nature of Scripture still serve as the underpinning for modern Biblical Hermeneutics?

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    When was the "Patristic Period" during the Middle Ages?
    – user33515
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 23:00
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    @user20490, I think it is on topic. I just never heard of any "Patristic Period" that occurred in the Middle Ages, assuming "Patristic" refers to the Church Fathers. I think most people who think about such things more or less take the "Patristic Period" to have ended by the end of the 5th century, which is more or less when the Middle Ages began.
    – user33515
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 3:34

4 Answers 4


This hermeneutic was developed in the early church, and primarily related to understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. Each passage in Scripture is understood to have four meanings:

  • Literal: What the passage says about past events
  • Allegorical: What the passage can tell us about Christ
  • Moral: What the passage can teach us about how to live
  • Anagogical: What the passage tells us about our ultimate fate

Always remember that to effectively use the Quadriga, you must start with the literal (i.e. grammatical-historical methodology) first. If one cannot apply a literal method then you are automatically forced to use a spiritual (allegorical) methodology. The allegorical method is then further divided into topological and anagogical where a text not only gives a spiritual meaning but has a moral and eschatological message as well.

Example: The Crossing of the Re(e)d Sea.

  1. It was literal because Moses and Israel actually crossed it.
  2. It was spiritual because it represents our baptism and new life.
  3. It was moral because we cross-over life's difficulties (Egypt) into our personal earthly blessings (Promise Lands).
  4. It was eschatological because we look forward to the final crossing-over from death to eternal life in heaven.

Hope it helps.

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    Welcome to BH! I like how you addressed how we can apply it today. I changed your square brackets to parentheses (the two have different meanings and parens work with what you are trying to say). I also placed your example into the numbered list to show the four levels more clearly. I hope you stay around and answer more!
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 20:03

The method referenced above is called the "Quadriga". You may find that the Quadriga is a faint memory of sensus plenior where God speaks in four voices: Prophet, Priest, King, Judge.

The voice of King speaks literally and historically. The voice of Judge speaks God's moral view upon the literal-historical. The voice of Prophet speaks of Jesus's literal life. And the voice of Priest speaks of the esoteric Son of God as second person of the Trinity.

When Moses jumped back from the rod which had been turned to snake: The King speaks literally of Moses and the rod. The Judge says that Moses was guilty of murder in wielding his authority in Egypt, but that he was forgiven and was given God's authority again. The prophet speaks of Jesus facing Gethsemane and being made to be sin on the cross. He prayed "remove this cup" then "thy will be done". The priest speaks of the moment in eternity when the second person of the Trinity decided to become incarnate and endure the cross. At first the idea of being made to be sin was so abhorrent that he refused, then submitted to the will of the Father. This is also reflected in the parable of the two sons, one said he wouldn't but did.

You can see that sensus plenior is parallel to Quadriga but not exactly the same.

  • Interesting comment, but I'm confused about the timeline. Did the 'Quadriga' (four-horsed chariot metaphor) come about in the 12th C with Hugh of St Victor, or was it used by Christians from the early days of the Church? If the latter, what might the practices have been prior to Augustine? How can it be a faint memory of 'sensus plenior' if the phrase was only coined in 1925? (Hayes, Dict. of Bibl. Interp, v2 p 355) Can one argue that the Christian approach was based on the medieval (Ibid) Jewish 'Pardas' approach to scriptural hermeneutics? Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 15:42
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    @Leon the four-fold sense of scripture need not have been called by the same name. I would say that Pardes is closer, since it uses many of the same methods. However, the rabbinic practice of Pardes goes beyond the NT author usage. The additions to it add confusion and obfuscate Christ. But then what would we expect from disbelieving Jews who did not want their own children to see Christ in the scriptures. Obviously the Bereans could.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 1:20

During the Patristic period, Origen became convinced that certain parts of the literal narrative of Scripture were inconsistent with one another or even contradicted each other. At the same time Origen held to a high view of the inspiration of Scripture. He concluded that these inconsistencies must be deliberate on the part of the inspired authors, intended to be understood in a spiritual sense beyond their mere flesh appearance. He thus divided the sense of Scripture into three parts: the "flesh", the "soul" and the "spirit". If Scripture was false in one of these senses, the thoughtful reader would be alerted to look for a deeper sense of meaning. The Alexandrian school continued to view Scripture along split letter/Spirit lines even after Origen.

In the medieval period, John Cassian picked up these three sense and added a fourth sense of Scripture essentially by separating Origen's "spiritual" sense into allegorical and anagogical senses. Together with the literal and moral senses, these form the fourfold sense of Scripture you allude to in your question: the narrative, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses.

Narrative (Literal/Historical) Sense The narrative sense is the literal surface sense of the text. It is the record of what Cassian calls "things past and visible." This is the sense in which when Scripture speaks about the tabernacle, it is talking about a physical tent built by the ancient Israelites, which housed the table of presence, the ark of the covenant, etc... Whatever further spiritual senses are understood from the text, the literal/historical sense was considered the foundational sense.

Allegorical (Christological/Typological) Sense In addition to the historical events, medeival theologians also said the text was talking allegorically about Jesus (and/or his church). The tabernacle was a physical dwelling, but the dwelling is symbolic of God's tabernacling presence in the person of Jesus.

Tropological (Ethical/Moral) Sense The tropological sense looks for an ethical or moral dimension to the text. Scripture was believed to be pedagogical at every point, teaching not only the indicatives of the historical events and their significance as symbols of Christ, but also teaching imperatives as to how to live. The Christian believer is the tabernacle/temple of God, and as such Christians are to consider how to live in that light.

Anagogical (Eschatological) Sense This sense looks forward to a fulfillment in the kingdom to come. The taberacle, in this example, looks forward to the heavenly city where, "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple."

Luther was influential among Protestants in rejecting this method of interpretation. While initially he followed the practiced, gradually he became disenchanted with it and began to regard practitioners as those "who tear the Scriptures to pieces as they please." Increasingly he came to focus on the grammatical-historical sense in his interpretations.

In modern times, Protestant interpretation of the text has similarly focused largely on the narrative sense of the text. However, there has lately been a renewed interest in typological readings of the Old Testament and even in the Quadriga as a method of interpretation, particularly among those in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement.

  1. Gleason, R. C. (2000). "Letter" and "Spirit" in Luther’s Hermeneutics. Bibliotheca Sacra, 157, 470-475.

  2. Leithart, P. J. (2016). BI111 Typological Hermeneutics: Finding Christ in the Whole Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

  3. Litfin, B. (2016). Getting to Know the Church Fathers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

  4. Thompson, J. L. (2003). Scripture, Tradition, and the Formation of Christian Culture: The Theological and Pastoral Function of the History of Interpretation. Ex Auditu: An International Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, p 24-26.

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