On Allegory

One of the things you have to come to terms with when studying early Christianity is allegorical exegesis.  Most academics don’t care for it (or actively despise it), but most of the early Christians had no such inhibitions.  They saw Christ hiding behind every corner of the Old Testament.  Origen was known to embrace apparent contradictions on the surface level to find the eternal meaning of the text.  Of course, it wasn’t just Alexandrian flights of fancy where we find allegory.  Paul tells the Galatians, after doing some OT exposition on the Hagar and Sarah, that “these things may be understood allegorically.”  Likewise, he tells the Corinthians, “these things [the stories of the Israelites in the desert] happened as models for us, so that we wouldn’t desire evil, as they did.”  Hebrews is in many ways, one extended meditation on Psalm 110, Jesus being a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.  Jesus himself, of course, actively modeled his own work after those of the prophets, and employed parables (allegorical stories) in much of his teaching.

So how do we properly appropriate allegory?  There are all sorts of weird pitfalls.  I come from a movement where OT texts are regularly interpreted “prophetically” to say some strange things (ie, whatever the pastor wants the text to say at the moment).  Allegorical exegesis often is far more dependent on the ingenuity of the allegorist than the text as the author construed it.

On the other hand, we are invited, even commanded, to read the Old Testament in light of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean we can’t read them for historical content, or reconstruct what they would meant to their original audience (even if such a reconstruction is terribly fragile most of the time), but can we give these readings (valuable though they are) hermeneutical priority when “the reality, however, if found in Christ” ?  Epistemologically, do we not have to start with Christ and work back into the OT, especially as Gentile believers?

Honestly, I love reading the OT through the eyes of the early Church.  While I might be able to appreciate the history and language of early Christianity without a particularly strong faith, I don’t think I could ever appreciate the Old Testament without faith to spur me on.  The early Church has been my entry way into the Old Testament.  I never understood or enjoyed the Psalms until I started reading them in Greek, with John Chrysostom and Eusebius of Caesarea to guide me.  I know one day I’ll learn Hebrew and be able to appreciate the OT without necessarily reading it along with the early Church.  However, I’m quite content until then to read the OT in Greek, with some of the most brilliant saints of old to teach me.

So I suppose I’m a son in search of an answer.  How do we embrace allegory without going off the deep end?  How do affirm both the “original meaning” (insofar as it can be known), and what Christians down through the ages have seen it pointing to?  What is the relationship between the two, and which has primacy?

Thoughts are welcome!

6 thoughts on “On Allegory

  1. I’m all for embracing allegory, but I also see the danger in “overallegorizing” the OT. I’ve heard pastors, in an attempt to see Christ in every nook and cranny of the OT, insist that the very pegs used to keep the tabernacle down foreshadowed the nails that pierced our Savior! That seems to me to be too much of a stretch and indicative of the how dangerous allegorical interpretation can become.

    I think that Christ is the ultimate exegetical tool for proper interpretation of Scripture. Being two millennia removed from Him, we have the ability to see both the original intent/meaning of the OT writers as addressing a particular audience/situation and the foreshadowing of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here. Ultimately, I think allegorical interpretation must find a place within responsible hermeneutics squarely centered in the the historia salutis.

  2. I also find this difficult… I think at a practical level, you can get away with more in a sermon than you could in an exegesis paper!

  3. Indeed! The funny thing is, even though I’d like to find an appropriate place for allegory, I instinctively cringe when I hear it come up in a sermon.

    It’s something that’s quite easy to abuse. Perhaps I should go read some hermeneutics stuff (Thiselton publishes quite a lot on that topic, right?). I just don’t think I can spare the time at the moment. Primary sources first!

  4. I agree – I love reading Philo, but I just can’t bring myself to imitate his allegorising like the patristics seemed to do.

    Yeah, thiselton would see an openness to pre-critical approaches such as allegory to be a good thing – to an extent! A good place to start one day is his recent “hermeneutics: an introduction”

  5. Good question! I think figurative readings are already there in the scriptures, so there certainly is a legitimate form of allegorising to be done. An unbounded allegorising though, can find points of ‘connection’ in everything, for everything. That’s the kind of excess the Alexandrians get known for.

    I’ve found E. Clowney really helpful in this vein, he does a lot of good work in connecting OT to NT through typology, etc., without losing the intrinsicality of those connections.

  6. Oh, while I think of it, one good example is reading SoS. Lots of the old commentators used to take it as a spiritual analogy of Christ and the soul. But modern exegetes tend to strip all such readings away.

    Taking a step back, though, SoS really is historically grounded and a beautiful poetic depiction of OT ideals of love, sex, and marriage. But what does the Scripture do with marriage? In the OT it positively and negatively applies it figuratively to YHWH and Israel, and in the NT Paul explicitly says it figures for Christ and the Church. See how that creates an allegorical reading, but one that can deal with both the historical setting of the text and one that is generated by the patterns of Scripture itself.

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