The Four Senses of Scripture: Recovering an Ancient Way of Reading for Today

Of late there has been much written on the hermeneutics of the church fathers, reviving the Great Tradition, the superiority of precritical exegesis, or the sensibilities of premodern interpreters. Fewer, however, have demonstrated precisely what this looks like. This is somewhat surprising because though diversity exists in premodern interpretation, the fourfold sense (or the quadriga) is the general arrangement of their exegesis.

In this paper I will argue we ought recover the four senses because for all of the strengths of grammatical historical interpretation it also has its weaknesses. The modern “meaning-application” paradigm is both too narrow and too wide, the modern method can be unsuited to the nature of the Bible as a divine book, and the modern hermeneutic rests, at least partially, on a faulty foundation. In contrast, I will describe the philosophy of language behind the four senses, give definitions of each sense, and then provide examples from the Scriptures and the history of interpretation of what this form of interpretation looks like and how it can be abused.