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In Defense of Premodern Exegesis

August 11th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Brandon D. Smith

During my early training as a pastor and theologian, many of my mentors warned me that emulating the exegetical method of the Church Fathers is a dangerous game. The concerns were typically twofold. First, there is the concern that the Church Fathers were forerunners to Roman Catholicism, and so their exegetical method and theological conclusions are inherently opposed to the tenets of the Protestant Reformation. Secondly, they are concerned about the so-called “allegorical” elements of patristic exegesis, which are seen as dangerously unbound from the biblical text, enabling the interpreter to make Scripture say whatever he or she wants it to say.

These concerns are legitimate. Certainly, most Protestants would disagree with many of the Fathers’ conclusions, especially with respect to ecclesiology (which, of course, is largely informed by exegesis). Further, we see in certain patristic writers an “allegorical” tendency that might seem wild or just plain speculative. However, the overly modernistic approach to the sensus literalis (the “literal” sense) of Scripture that was handed to me tasted like stale bread while I was supposed to be feasting on the bread of life; in particular, the insistence in particular on recreating the historical background and a painstaking psychoanalysis of the human author left me wanting more. As a reaction, I found comfort in pairing these important literary and historical concerns with the sensus plenior (the “fuller” sense) that recognizes the divine inspiration of Scripture and the larger theological themes present in the biblical storyline.[1]

Thus, when I was introduced to the Church Fathers and their writings on Scripture, my love for God and Scripture was revived in a way I couldn’t have imagined because of their clear insistence on God as not only the source but the point of Scripture. To my surprise, they cared about both elements of the text—the human authorial intent and the divine Author’s larger story. No longer did I treat the Bible as just another piece of ancient literature—though a special piece, of course!—but instead began to view it as God’s special and unique word to his people, with a story centered on the saving work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The division between the literal and fuller sense in modern hermeneutics was overtaken by premodern exegesis’s unified method. Thus, in my experience, premodern exegesis, particularly what has been called the Quadriga or the fourfold method, is a method that enables evangelicals to stay tethered to the biblical text, while also rigorously mining the depths of Scripture’s divine inspiration and canonical unity.

Indeed, for any evangelical, exegetical concerns should always be rooted in what I would call a theological-canonical method of interpretation. The concerns are theological because we affirm that the triune God is the author of Scripture, and therefore we have canonical concerns because we know that Scripture is a unified witness to God’s revelation of himself. Put another way, the unity of the Godhead (3-in-1) necessarily entails the unity of Scripture (66-in-1). The fourfold method, then, is a helpful way for evangelicals to exegete Scripture according to our own theological and canonical commitments.

I am not arguing that every evangelical should use the fourfold method or that the fourfold method is the true way to do evangelical exegesis; rather, I hope to encourage evangelicals to push aside the false concerns listed above and consider this patristic exegetical method as a helpful way to faithfully read, preach, and teach the Bible. Let us now survey the fourfold method.

The Fourfold Method

It is important to remember that premodern exegesis is not entirely monolithic. Indeed, from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Origen to Athanasius to Aquinas and everyone in between, ancient theologians used different terminology, rhetorical strategies, and biblical texts in their engagement particularly with false teachers. Much of what they wrote and how they articulated the Christian faith came as a response to unique situations. That said, the “rule of faith” laid out by Irenaeus served as a foundation for patristic exegesis for centuries to come.

In his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, we find a summary of this rule:

And this is the order of our faith, the foundation of [the] edifice and the support of [our] conduct: God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, on God, the Creator of all: this is the first article of our faith. And the second article: the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man. And the third article: the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God.[2]

In sum, Irenaeus asserted that the unity of the Godhead necessarily entails the unity of Scripture. Thus, we read Scripture as a unified whole (a “story,” if you like) because it is authored by and points to a unified God and his work in the world. This rule helped Irenaeus combat Gnostics, for example, when they sought to unhitch Jesus from the Old Testament or place biblical authors at odds with one another.

Over time, the rule of faith set a trajectory for biblical exegesis among the Church Fathers, eventually resulting in the fourfold method. This method, though unsurprisingly employed differently by different authors in different passages, can be boiled down to four basic tenets.

First, there is the literal sense, which explains the basic textual features, historical context, and authorial intent of the passage. This serves as the foundation for the other three senses, because we cannot rightly flesh out the other three senses without digging into the text itself and understanding what the human author is intending to convey. In my early training, this type of literal sense was treated as the only sense. However, some pastors and theologians assert that the literal sense can encompass the three senses that follow, which is fair. So, again, I don’t want to say that the only definition of the literal sense is a flat, modernistic approach that ignores divine inspiration. Instead, I believe the fourfold method is a helpful way to battle against the worst versions of a “literal” reading by keeping the other three senses in mind.

This leads us to the typological or allegorical sense, which brings together the Old and New Testaments into a unified canon centered on Christ. While some forms of allegory in premodern exegesis feel fanciful at best, not all patristic theologians operated this way. In fact, many simply saw Scripture as a unified story centered on Christ, and thus sought to make sense of Jesus’s own claims and biblical authors’ own conviction that all of Scripture speaks about him (e.g. Luke 24:27; John 5:46; Gal. 4:24; Heb. 1). If one reads patristic authors such as Athanasius or Gregory of Nazianzus, they will not find swaths of fanciful interpretations of the text, but rather the impulse to tie any allegorical sense to the scriptural passages and patterns arising from the literal sense.

Third, there is the moral or tropological sense, which pays attention to the “moral of the story” or the ethical and practical implications of the text. While my mentors would downplay the fourfold sense and want to dissect every nugget of literary and historical evidence in the text, their sermons would often reflect one long series of tropological insights. Most evangelical pastors and theologians would agree that application comes after exegesis, but many do not teach hermeneutics this way. The tropological sense, then, reminds us that application is important and dependent a serious engagement with the text first.

Fourth and finally, we note the anagogical sense, which deals with the eschatological implications and “end goal” of the text. This sense, obviously, flows from the other four. It is important to consider this sense separately, however, because the tropological sense may only provide immediate application or response. The immediacy of the text’s implications is important, of course, but we want to also point others to the ultimate hope found in our triune God’s promise to redeem all things.[3]

It bears repeating that the fourfold method, like any exegetical method, can lead to different interpretations and conclusions, both good and bad. So, of course, I do not endorse every use of the Quadriga in church history. Indeed, while I prefer reading patristic authors over any other in church history, I certainly at times scratch my head at some of their interpretations. Overall, however, they are instructive in helping us remember the theological and canonical priorities of interpreting Scripture.

Let’s conclude with one example from the opening chapter of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, in which he addresses various false teachings about salvation, the Son’s divinity, the Father’s activity in creation, and the unity between the Father and Son. In his response, Athanasius ties together several biblical passages to assert the consistency of the biblical witness to the Father and Son’s divinity, unity, and activity in creation.

First, Athanasius asserts that the Gnostics, for example, “shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture” when they say that the Father didn’t create the universe. He makes this argument, in part, by noting Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matt. 19:4-6 explicitly references the Father’s work in creation. He concludes, that if John 1 says that the Son was involved in creation, then how could “someone different, other than the Father of Christ” be there too?

Second, he says that the Epicureans and Plato are wrong for saying that there is no “Mind” behind the universe, or that the universe was merely arranged from pre-existing matter. He makes this argument by going back to Genesis 1 through John 1 and Hebrews 11:

we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

For Athanasius, “He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ” is true theologically because Scripture attests to it clearly.

Third and finally, Athanasius wraps up his point by showing that creation is now in its current state because Adam and Eve’s fall in Genesis 2-3, not because God is an imperfect or misguided creator. Rather, man should be blamed for “the state of death and of corruption,” but this is why the incarnation happened:

You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body.

Here, he summarizes his case by using Scripture to defend some of the basic tenets of orthodox theology: salvation, the Son’s divinity, the Father’s activity in creation, and how this informs their unity and vice versa.

For Athanasius, then, the biblical text drives our theology, and the text was his foundation for arguing against heresy. This is one classic example of premodern exegesis being rooted in the biblical witness and the layers of significance that arise from it. May we follow their example of biblical fidelity and theological orthodoxy.

  1. I readily acknowledge that some have rightly construed the literal sense as encompassing aspects often associated with the fuller sense; however, this division describes how I came to this point. ↑
  2. Epid. 6. English translation is from St Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997). This work is often called On the Apostolic Preaching or Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, but we use the abbreviation Epid. to refer to its original name, Epideixis tou apostolikou kÄ“rygmatos. ↑
  3. For a robust survey of the fourfold sense, see Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis Volume 1: The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). ↑