Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory

This is the 3rd blog in this series, the 1st blog being Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury; the 2nd is Reading the Bible: The Treasury of the Parables.

Allegory is an interpretive way to read a biblical text in which things in the text stand for or mean something other than what they literally are.  The New Testament uses allegory as one means to interpret the Old Testament.  For example St. Paul writes in Galatians 4:22-31,   “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now.  So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”  In the text Paul interprets the real women Hagar and Sarah to stand for two types of covenants; he interprets the real persons, Hagar and Sarah, to mean something other than just being two women.  This method of interpretation does not deny the literal meaning of the text, but says there is a deeper meaning if you read the text with the right understanding.  If you take the time to study Paul’s allegory, you realize it is quite complex, and far beyond that to which the plain reading of the passage leads.  Because the New Testament does use allegory in interpreting the Old, it has been considered by Christians an acceptable interpretive method for other texts as well.  It was abuses of allegory in interpreting scriptures which caused many Reformers to reject it as a legitimate method of reading the Bible.  Some feel the Reformers reaction is an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

 “…whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.  Some of the Fathers, it is true, attack what they call allegory and its use; but what they are attacking are the results (particularly the results that Origen came up with) and not the method.  …  Even the Antiochene Fathers admit of a deeper spiritual meaning (which they call not allegoria but the ‘contemplative’ meaning—kata theorian).   …   the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean—the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event—give us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic. …  (Augustine) takes it for granted that the meaning of a text is what the author intended   (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 96-98)

For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa in looking at a passage from Genesis, writes:

“But let us, if we may, interpret the meaning of the sacred history (Gen 12:1-4) according to the profound insight of the Apostle (Hebr 11:8-10) by transposing the story to an allegorical level, even though we allow the validity of the literal meaning.”     (FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 119)

St. Gregory claims in allegorizing to simply be following the pattern of interpretation already established in the Scriptures themselves.  That texts within the Scriptures are reread and re-interpreted and given new meaning can be seen in how St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 makes use of Exodus 17:1-7

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom, who like many in the Antiochian school of biblical interpretation, downplays allegory in interpreting Scriptures acknowledges:

 “We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that may make use of the allegorical method.”              “This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpreters of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially”   (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 106)

Chrysostom’s claim that the Scriptures are clear about when allegory is needed to interpret the text is not so obvious in St. Paul interpreting Exodus mentioned above, nor in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 or 1 Timothy 5:17-18 where St. Paul takes Deuteronomy 25:4 (a completely straight forward passage which seems certain to be read literally) and gives it an entirely new meaning.

Next:  Reading the Bible Literally