Back to Allegory?

When we moderns read any scripture we tend to read it only one way. We read it as history that is supposed to have some sort of theologically edifying meaning to us. This style of reading fits so well with our modes of thinking that it just seems the blatantly obvious way to read scripture. What could be more obvious than reading a book about the past, which we assert is true, as history?

The only problem is that we moderns also study things critically and scientifically. The results of approaching subjects in scripture scientifically leads us to conclude that some things in scripture cannot be literally true. The easiest example of this is the story of creation in Genesis (and Moses). If you read the story of Genesis as literal history you simply cannot square it with modern research in cosmology, geology, and biology.

The problem of course arises when you try and put the two tendencies together. They both seem the natural and obvious way to do things (they are both the modern way of doing things), but they mix like oil and vinegar. Perhaps the solution is to think about the scriptures more in the way that the ancients and medievals did. Many of them tended to prefer non literal readings of scripture. If they did do a literal reading of scripture they tended to consider it the least enlightening form of reading.

For example, the Jewish philosopher/theologian Philo of Alexandria dedicated a lot of ink and paper to producing an allegorical reading of the Torah. For him Torah was a source of both religious and philosophical truth. Hence his exegesis of the Torah produced something that looked a lot like Platonic philosophy. The way Philo got from Torah to Plato was through allegory, which he considered to be the real meaning of scripture. The literal meaning was only for those who didn’t have the smarts to get allegory.

Non literal interpretations of scripture probably reached a peak with Cassian in the middle ages. For Cassian there were four ways of interpreting scriputre. A classical example is interpreting what is meant by the city of Jerusalem in the Biblical text. For moderns, it is just a city in the geographical area of Palestine. However for someone like Cassian it would mean the following (from Biblical Interpretation):

  1. The Literal Sense: A city in Palestine
  2. The Allegorical or Typological Sense: The church of God on earth
  3. The Moral or Tropological Sense: The soul of the believer
  4. The Mystagogical Sense: The heavenly city; the church in heaven

The beauty of interpreting scripture in this way is that if you lose the literal meaning, you still have three other meanings to edify the believer. Thus after geology and biology tell you that Genesis can’t be literally true, the story still has meanings on multiple levels.

What happened to this style of reading the scripture? Scholasticism, Late Medieval rationalism, and above all the Reformation killed it. Scholasticism emphasized a particular process, for getting at the meaning of a text. The process involved the lectio or the reading of the text, the disputatio or the resolution of difficult points, and the praedicatio or the preaching which tended to emphasize the moral sense of scripture above others. Late Medieval rationalism, such as that espoused by William of Ockham, insisted on an exacting and logical reading of the scripture. Whatever could be shaved off should be shaved off said Ockham and his razor. Thus the literal meaning tended to be emphasized.

However, the Reformation was what really put the nail in the coffin of non-literal readings. Luther summed up his approach to non-literal reading (again from Biblical Interpretation):

It was very difficult for me to break away from my habitual zeal for allegory. And yet I was aware that allegories were empty speculations and the froth, as it were, of the Holy Scriptures. It is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine.

There were practical benefits to only allowing a literal-historical reading of scripture. Philo could allegorize because he knew that the law would keep Jews united. He insisted that Jews still keep the law, even if they understood the allegorical sense of the law. Catholics could allegorize because tradition and sacraments kept them unified, they could afford to be more venturesome and less united in interpreting the Bible. However, if you are starting a church with no law, no traditions, and sola scriptura then everyone had better be on the same page with regards to biblical interpretation, otherwise you don’t have anything keeping the church together. And, it better be something that everyone can understand if you are going to insist that all believers should read the Bible. Insisting on a single literal-historical meaning of the scriptures was the best way of doing that.

Since we Mormons do not rely exclusively on common scripural interpretations to keep us together perhaps some of us could venture into non-literal interpretations. At the very least, it would allow us to read the best book of poetry in the Bible, the Song of Solomon, in church again. I don’t think I have ever heard it quoted from the pulpit, which is a real shame. By the way, the Song of Solomon was the most popular book for commentaries in the middle ages because they could read it allegorically.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Back to Allegory?

  1. Howard

    David,
    An interesting and enlightening lesson, thank you for posting it.

  2. Allegory is back in fashion in certain Protestant circles. Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, Kathleen Greene-McKreight, Frances Young, Andrew Louth, these are all names to look out for if you want to reunite Bible with Patristics. I had a bash at trying to understand the relationship between the spiritual and the literal sense in a series of posts here.