The Quadriga: Bonaventure’s Hermeneutics of Humility

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 4

In his defense of the Quadriga or four-fold method of interpreting Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropoglocial, and anagogical), Bonaventure argues that this multiplicity of Scripture’s “mystical understandings” is “appropriate to the subject matter of Scripture, its hearer or student, its origin, and its end.” This one-in-many hermeneutic is fitted to the subject matter of Scripture insofar as Scripture gives us a Triune God who is one-in-many, a Christ through whom all things were first made and then re-made (a many-through-one), and a unified body of belief that nevertheless effectively communicates itself to the “differing states of believers” (a from-one-to-many).

As the final point indicates, Bonaventure also believes the Quadriga as a method of interpretation to be uniquely fitted to its hearer. As he explains:

For no one is a suitable hearer of Scripture without being humble, pure, faithful, and attentive. So, as a deterrent to pride, under the husk of the obvious literal meaning are hidden profound mystical understandings. This depth of meaning lying within the humble letter of the text abashes the arrogant, keeps out the unclean, drives away the deceitful, and arouses the idle to an understanding of the mysteries.

As Bonaventure would see it, an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture lends itself to a certain pride, a confidence, that is, that the meaning of Scripture can be limited and so contained by the historical-grammatical intention of the text. Bonaventure’s concern is that, in the interest of chastening human speculation and fanciful readings of the text, such a narrow hermeneutic actually indulges in a different form of human arrogance, the assumption that the meaning and riches of the text are so much manna to be breezily gleaned from the ground, and little more. To Bonaventure’s mind, a recognition of the unfathomable allegorical, tropological, and anagogical depths of Scripture provides a check to such hermeneutical pride, and opens the text to a hermeneutical quest that must be as endless as the eternity  in which we will have to carry it out.

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