It is becoming popular for Protestant scholars to defend the fourfold sense approach to Scripture interpretation on the grounds that it is a more historic approach to Scripture than modern, historical criticism. However, these defenses tend to underplay the Reformation’s critique of the fourfold sense approach. Here is David Daniell’s characterization of Tyndale’s critique of the fourfold approach.
“The dangers of the Church’s method, however, were twofold. It can become a licence to what is little more than wilder forms of free association, whereby words can mean anything, according to whim; and it automatically suggests something that suited the Church very well at the time—that all Scripture is difficult to interpret, and only the very learned can handle it. […]
Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense: thou canst not but go out of the way. Never the later the scripture useth proverbs, similitude, riddles or allegories as all other speeches do, but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently. As in the English we borrow words and sentences of one thing and apply them to another and give them new significations.
Such use of metaphor he illustrates from common speech, ‘Look ere thou leap’, ‘Cut not the bough that thou standest upon . . . Such common examples soon become barbed. ‘When a thing speedeth not well, we borrow speech and say, the Bishop hath blessed it . . . And of him that is betrayed and wotteth not how, we say, he hath been at shrift. (Even more is conveyed by ‘she is master parson’s sister’s daughter, he is the bishop’s sister’s son, he hath a cardinal to his uncle…’) Scripture uses metaphor, as in ‘Christ is a lamb’; but proper interpretation is not wild, but applies the matter to the basis of Christ and the faith. The literal sense should bear the allegory as the foundation bears the house. Allegories by themselves prove nothing.
Tyndale illustrates how it should properly be done by interpreting the incident where Peter cut off Malchus’s ear (John 18), and showing Paul using the same method with the story of Hagar from Genesis. He continues, in a famous passage:
And likewise do we borrow likenesses or allegories of the scripture, as of Pharaoh and Herod, and of the scribes and Pharisees, to express our miserable captivity and persecution under antichrist the pope. The greatest cause of which captivity and the decay of the faith and this blindness wherein we now are, sprang first of allegories. For Origen and they of his time drew all the scripture unto allegories. Whose ensample they that came after followed so long, till at the last they forgot the order, and process of the text, supposing that the scripture served but to feign allegories upon. Insomuch that twenty doctors expound one text twenty ways, as children make descant upon plain song. Then came our sophisters with their Anagogical and chopological sense, and with an antitheme of half an inch, out of which some of them draw a thread of nine days long. Yea thou shalt find enough that will preach Christ, and prove what some ever point of the faith that thou wilt, as well out of a fable of Ovid or any other Poet, as out of St John’s gospel or Paul’s epistles. Yea they are come into such blindness that they not only say that the literal sense profiteth not, but also that it is hurtful, and noisome and killeth the soul. Which damnable doctrine they prove by a text of Paul, 2 Cor iii where he saith the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life. We must therefore, say they seek out some chopological sense.
(‘Chopological’ is a word of Tyndale’s coinage, for ironic effect.)
David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 239-40.