Christians today often want to interpret Scripture either completely literally or completely metaphorically: either everything in the Bible is scientific fact, or it is all a myth. Traditionally, the Church has not seen things this way. In the Middle Ages, Christians read Scripture with a method of interpretation called the “Quadriga” (“a four-horse chariot”). The Quadriga has four “yokes,” or ways to interpret, that help you think about every level of truth that Scripture reveals.
Today, I’ll explain each of the four yokes of the Quadriga: literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical interpretation. Then I’ll apply each yoke to a passage of Scripture. Let’s look at Luke 15:1-7, the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The first yoke of the Quadriga asks us to look at what the text is saying in a literal sense. Many people would rather bypass this part and skip straight to analysis, but we can’t. That would be like trying to write an essay about literary images in A Tale of Two Cities without knowing that it takes place during the French Revolution.
In Luke 15:1-7, the Pharisees are annoyed with Jesus because He hobnobs with people they label as “sinners.” Jesus tells them a story about a man who lost a sheep and gave up everything to go look for it. Jesus concludes by saying that God values repentance.
The second yoke of the Quadriga looks at the text for symbolism, parallels between the Old and New Testament, and revelations about God’s character. It’s important to keep the literal sense of the text in mind while you consider its allegorical sense.
In Luke 15:1-7, the man in the parable symbolizes God. He is loving, kind, and forgiving– more than ready to welcome us into His kingdom. The lost sheep represents us, helpless without God. In the Old Testament, Isaiah also compares us to lost sheep:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
-Isaiah 53:6 (ESV)
The tropological (also called “moral”) yoke applies the text to our lives. What does the text say about how we should or shouldn’t act? Does it call us to change our behavior?
In Luke 15:1-7, the man who looks for his sheep embodies self-sacrifice and forgiveness. He’s busy with his other 99 sheep, but he takes the time to search for the lost one. Once he finds it, he doesn’t scold the sheep or say, “It’s your own fault that you got lost. I should have left you to the wolves.” Instead, he throws a party! We should strive to imitate the sheep owner by forgiving those who wrong us and celebrating when they turn to God.
The final yoke of the Quadriga seeks clues about God’s plan for the future, whether that be Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the kingdom of heaven. Some tend to blow this yoke out of proportion, over-analyzing every verse for a possible hidden message revealing that the world is going to end next Tuesday. There’s a reason this yoke is last: we need to be careful and remember everything we’ve learned about the passage from the previous three yokes.
In Luke 15:1-7, we can know that God will forgive us when we repent. Even though we are all sinners,
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
-Romans 8:1 (ESV)
We, the lost sheep, know that angels rejoice every time we confess our sin to God.
So that’s the Quadriga! You can use it at a Bible study, in a theology class, during your personal devotional time–anywhere you need to interpret Scripture, really.
What do you think about the Quadriga? What method do you use to help you read Scripture? Let me know in comments!
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