Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Quadriga, Medieval Exegesis, and the Rising Need to Know Hebrew and Greek

There was what we’d call “good sense” in Medieval exegesis, and also some nonsense. Separating the two wasn’t always possible, but some clear thinkers, even in the middle ages, could find their way through to what was important:

The quadriga, or fourfold exegesis, was neatly defined for the high Middle Ages in the Glossa Ordinaria. There we read that the four senses of the text are “historia, which tells what happened (res gestae); allegoria, in which one thing is understood through another; tropologia, which is moral declaration, and which deals with the ordering of behavior; anagoge, through which we are led to higher things that we might be drawn to the highest and heavenly.”

The three latter or spiritual meanings reflect the three Christian virtues, faith, love, and hope: allegory teaches “things to be believed” (credenda), tropology “things to be loved” or “done” (diligenda or agenda), and anagoge “things to be hoped for” (speranda). The speranda, it should be noted, could be understood either in a mystical or in an eschatological sense.

As the history of exegesis in the Middle Ages amply demonstrates, this approach to the text could result either in a movement away from or a gravitation toward the literal sense.

At the beginning of the scholastic era, Hugh of St. Victor could dispute with those among his contemporaries who ignored the letter for the spiritual meanings. This procedure, Hugh contended, was self-defeating inasmuch as the Spirit had given the literal sense as the starting-point for all other meanings: the word of the text or “letter” is, after all, the sign of the initial “thing” (res) that, in its own function as “sign” (signum), directs our attention toward other things.

If the “thing” literally signified by any given word is not understood, the spiritual meanings of the text—which arise not from the words of the text but from the things that they signify—cannot be grasped.

Hugh’s disciple, Andrew of St. Victor, coupled his teacher’s emphasis on the literal meaning of the text with a firm grounding in Hebrew and a profound use of Jewish exegesis of the Old Testament—even to the point of identifying non-messianic readings of the text as the literal sense, without, however, attempting any revision of the quadriga.

In the next century, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were largely responsible for a major shift in the emphasis of medieval exegesis away from Gregorian allegorism toward a greater emphasis on the letter.

Albert assumed that “that there was but one genuine exegesis worthy of the name, that which explains the sense intended by the author and is indicated by the text itself”: the literal sense, therefore, provided the basis for the three spiritual senses, which Albert understood as pedagogical extensions of the letter.

Aquinas built on this assumption and moved away from the method of the postils or annotations toward an analysis of the text in terms of its logical divisions and their relationship to one another.

Mandonnet argues that he originated the basic exegetical procedure of analyzing words and phrases in their context, seeking out units of meaning in the text, and thereby stressing the literal sense as the foundation of theology.

Aquinas’ commentaries are “almost exclusively occupied” with the exposition of the literal sense, which he also identified as the fundamentum historiae.

Indeed, Aquinas commented with some frequency that the primus sensus and prima exposition of Scripture was magis litteralis, and that the purpose of exegesis was to identify the “intention” of the words, of the book, or of the writer.

Aquinas resolved the questions raised by the Victorine exegetes concerning the relationship of the literal to the other senses by emphasizing the connection between the “thing” (res) signified by the word of the text and the res of the spiritual meanings and by insisting that any word in a given text could mean only one thing.

It was not as if a multiplicity of spiritual meanings could be elicited by finding a series of significations for a particular word: each word of the text, given the grammatical context in which it stands, must speak univocally.

The “historical or literal” sense is rooted directly in the “things” that the words signify and is the sense intended by the human author of the text.

All of the senses, therefore, are founded directly on the literal sense—not because the words of the text themselves have multiple meanings, but because the writer and his words belong to a “sacred history” that offers a broader context for understanding the spiritual significance of the text: Aquinas concludes that the literal sense alone is ground for argument and insists that every truth necessary for salvation is offered somewhere in Scripture in the literal sense of the text.

Thus the spiritual senses, although useful and highly enlightening are not absolutely necessary. It must be noted in this connection, however, that while Aquinas considered the various figures and symbols of Christ in the Old Testament as belonging to the spiritual sense, he understood the messianic prophesies as references to Christ in the literal sense.

The literal sense, thus, was gleaned from the text in the larger context of sacred history. Albeit a given text could have only one literal sense, granting that each word must have a single correct significance, that single sense could have a fairly broad frame of reference.

Indeed, Aquinas clearly understood that the “intention” of the author of a text extended beyond the bare letter to figures of speech: his exegesis abounds in discussions of the signs, figures, similitudes, types, and symbols in the text which belong to the broader literal sense construed according to authorial intention.

The methodological contribution of Roger Bacon also demands mention. Bacon argued strongly for the mastery of the original languages of the text as a general principle of study.

Both Scripture and the works of the great philosophers were written in ancient languages—and translations fail to convey the character of the original, the proprietas linguae.

The original languages are necessary, Bacon argued, for careful philological interpretation—and are even significant for the understanding of later languages like Latin, the letters and grammar of which derive from Greek and Hebrew.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation Of Theology (2nd ed., pp. 35–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.


  1. John is the exegisis of scripture that Roman Catholic theologians use the literal one like Aquinas or is it more the spiritual sense? Do Roman Catholic theologians follow Aquinas in the literal sense? I was Reading Aquinas's text on Corinthians and he seems to suggest that Purgatory and venial/mortal sins are literally evident from the text.

    1. Aquinas was limited by the theological sources and ideas in place in his times. If you want a genuine exegesis of 1 Cor 3:15, check a modern commentary. I'm not publishing these things because I think we should slavishly follow Aquinas. I'm publishing them so that we can understand the history of the middle ages, for the further purpose of understanding the discussions that took place during and after the Reformation.

      So yes, I'm sure there are some Roman Catholic theologians who slavishly follow Aquinas in the literal sense. There are others who reject him totally. Why do you ask?