Modern evangelicals often assume that the line between canonical and post-canonical life is blurry or non-existent. Making that distinction, however, is essential to knowing God’s will. This isn’t the most popular way of thinking about God’s will, however. After all, why listen to sermons or read Scripture carefully when one can receive direct revelation just like the Apostle Paul or make the text say whatever one needs it to say? In the late patristic and early medieval period there developed a four-fold (quadriga) way of reading Scripture. From the late patristic period the church considered that there were potentially (not necessarily) three or four senses embedded in Scripture. The later fathers and the medievals typically recognized that not every sense should or could be sought in every passage and, contrary to the way the situation is sometimes presented, they were usually more interested in the moral sense of the passage than in the doctrinal (sensus allegoricus). The four senses were said to be:
- the literal sense: What did the passage mean originally?
- the doctrinal sense: What are we to believe?
- the eschatological sense: For what are we to hope?
- the moral sense: How should we then live?
The “eschatological” (sensus anagogicus) was really only a subset of the doctrinal sense. The three senses beyond the literal were not as exotic as they are frequently made to seem since they were really only asking about the theological virtues of 1Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Asking what a passage teaches about faith, hope, and love isn’t wrong.
Nevertheless, because of the ontological (the nature of things) assumptions from within which the quadriga was employed, it was abused. Rather than drawing inferences that were well grounded in the original intention, grammar, and setting, the doctrinal sense was often focused upon the the reader’s soul. This inward turn had more to do with the latent Platonism of the interpreter than it did with the intention or implication of Scripture taken on its own terms.
The great danger that the Reformation saw in this approach to biblical interpretation was subjectivism, i.e., divorcing the use of the text from its original intention and setting. When that happens the text becomes a wax nose, as Machen liked to say, to be twisted this way and that. This is what happens when contemporary evangelicals make every passage to be about “me,” or when the acts of redemption (that actually happened) are reduced to symbols to stand for my personal experience. So, in the modern evangelical use of the quadriga the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, instead of teaching us about divine sovereignty in granting new life (regeneration) one preacher recently talked to his hearers about the “dry bones” in their lives. Chris Rosbrough (Pirate Christian Radio) has a helpful critique of Louis Giglio’s use of Ezekiel 37 at Passion 2013.