Allegorical Exegesis, Critical Exegesis

ark.jpgI’ve been thinking for awhile about writing a blog about the tangled and troubled relationship between historical-critical exegesis and allegorical or premodern or precritical exegesis. The issue is too large and complex to write about in one night, so I haven’t undertaken the venture, but I just want to register my frustration with the current state of affairs. Proponents of both tend to lob grenades at each other rather than to take each other seriously. As somebody who’s waded in both areas and appreciates major aspects of both, I’m interested in real dialogue going on. I want to distinguish but not separate; I want to respect the integrity of both without collapsing one into the other; and I want to see fewer straw men constructed by people on both sides. Personally, and maybe this reveals my bias, I tend to hear more dismissive and unfounded comments come from the historical-critical camp, but I’m willing to listen. And to further reveal my bias, it seems like premodern exegesis can easily assimilate most of the findings of historical-critical exegesis but that proponents of historical-critical exegesis often go out of their way to exclude, by definition, any sort of allegorical exegesis. Here are a few things that especially frustrate me.

1. Many biblical interpreters want to do away with all patristic and medieval exegesis (much of it allegorical) but still want to maintain the Christian doctrines as they have been historically expressed in the ecumenical Creeds (though maybe in a qualified sense). In other words, I am saying that I think it is very difficult to draw a line straight from Scripture to orthodox Christian dogma via historical-critical interpretive methods. The church fathers were in fact using much allegorical exegesis to develop and defend those doctrines (see, for instance, Proverbs 8, where the “wisdom of God” is identified as Christ).

2. I don’t find much purchase in the argument that even though Paul interpreted the Old Testament allegorically in various places, he had a “special dispensation” or some such to do so and that other, later attempts are misguided and wrong. The theologians who did a lot of allegorical interpretation saw themselves in continuity with the Apostles, not in contrast to them. I’m not arguing that if Paul did it, that gives us license to allegorize any and every Old Testament text at our whim, but I certainly think it odd that based on our current hermeneutical methods we should not follow in his footsteps. It seems that this implicitly suggests that directly after the New Testament period, God became deus absconditus, a notion for which we probably have Adolf Von Harnack to thank and that Paul Gavrilyuk, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, shows to be more than a little flawed.

3. Critics of allegory tend to forget that it is one aspect of a fourfold sense of Scripture. Most if not all theologians readily accept the literal meaning of Scripture, but many historical-critical scholars take it for the entire meaning. I came across a critic of allegory this week who seemed to think that patristic and medieval theologians were embarrassed by Song of Songs and therefore “explained away” the meaning of the book by means of allegory. No! They were taking the literal meaning for granted, not trying to find an alternative meaning! As a professor of mine at Regent often said, the fourfold sense of Scripture allows one to hear it stereophonically rather than in simple mono. This chap that I was reading on Song of Songs took his method and projected it onto the church fathers, thinking they only had room for one meaning, when theirs, in my opinion, was much richer.

Speak to me! Especially those of you who disagree with me (and I know who you are). Is there a way to conceptualize biblical interpretation that doesn’t necessarily rule out one or the other of these methods? Or do you think they are mutually exclusive? If so, why? Let’s discuss!


11 comments so far

  1. MJS on

    You’ve framed the issue perfectly, Jeff. I’ve never had the opportunity to see it from the historical-critical point of view, and despite your acknowledged “bias,” you’ve made me more sympathetic to that side of the discussion. As a result, the contemporary scene comes nicely into focus.

    The problem with allegorical, anagogical and any more-than-literal/historical exegetical method is that it claims to transcend rational analysis. If allegory can’t be checked by reason, we have to rediscover the pre-modern and non-rational limits and balances to allegorizing willy-nilly and on a whim.

    The only checks that rise to the supra-rational level are spiritual and “intellectual”: the “intellectus agens,” according to the Scholastics, or the “intellectus possibilis” in Dante. In Saint Thomas, the agent intellect allows the human being to participate directly with the “light of God’s own intelligence.” Pre-modern hermeneutics acknowledged that allegorical and anagogical interpretations must be tethered to these faculties.

    The flavor of Platonism and other Hellenistic influences (especially in the bit from Saint Thomas above) is distinct. Indeed, non-literal methods require mystical, spiritual and symbolic interpretations from the start: the “light of God’s face” in Psalm 4, for example, must be read as a divine emanation.

    Modern, academic, post-enlightenment hermeneutics can’t be expected to tolerate, let alone integrate, an interpretive intellect as “a power of the soul.”

    . . .
    Two sources for the Aquinas and Dante stuff: J. A. Scott, “Dante’s Use of the Word Intelletto,” Italica, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 215-224, and Vivian Boland, Ideas in God According to Saint Thomas Aquinas (Brill, 1996), p.281.

  2. jeffreimer on


    Interesting thoughts. You said, “we have to rediscover the pre-modern and non-rational limits and balances to allegorizing willy-nilly and on a whim.” This may not speak to exactly what you’re getting at, but I think the main thing that kept the Fathers’ allegorical exegesis in check (and it wasn’t always in check) was that, at it’s best, it was christological. They interpreted the Old Testament in light of the New, and Christ was the interpretive key to this hermeneutic. This is especially what gets historical-critical scholars riled up. The Fathers find Christ in every nook and cranny of the Old Testament. Of course, there’s a ton of allegorical exegesis that’s not christological, but Christ was central; he was (or is) the trunk of the tree that was allegorical exegesis, off of which there are many branches.

  3. Matt Smith on

    Hmm. So Christian Fathers acted like Christians. I can see how that would be a problem for Harnack. My problem with it is that it’s a little obvious.

    If, instead, we set aside both pious, Christological allegory and reductionistic Modernism for a moment, there’s a third way that will inform both. I don’t think I’m changing the subject.

    Christ may very well have been central to the Fathers’ allegorical interpretation, but anagogy preceded allegory in almost every case. You can’t have the second without the first. My favorite source is Maximus the Confessor in the Philokalia, but I’m sure it’s in Origen and all the usual allegorizing suspects.

  4. jeffreimer on


    “anagogy preceded allegory in almost every case.”

    Care to elaborate a little on this? I’m not sure I’m on board, but I’d like to hear more before I lay into you. (Just kidding)

  5. Dan Ray on

    Unfortunately, I just basically agree with you. So I’m useless.

  6. derekryanbrown on


    1. I agree that many scholars from several camps (including theologians who want to uphold the ecumenical creeds and a quasi-historical understanding of biblical events and other matters such as, say, authorship of various biblical books) are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

    2. I see the point that you want to make here and I want to agree with you in principle, but I’m not sure if I can due to my knowledge of Paul’s self-understanding. Paul certainly thought of himself as a significant, possibly even unique, figure in salvation history. He was not just another apostle or early Christian missionary. He very clearly saw himself as well within the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew prophets (Gal 1:13-17; cf. Jeremiah 1:5 as well as Gen 25:23 and Ps 71:6) and, and as some have argued (e.g., J. Munck, J. Christiaan Beker, and more recently M. Gignilliat), identified himself and his role to the nations with that of the Isaianic servants (Isa 44:2; 49:1-6). He was the apostle sent to the nations for the sake of Israel, that is, to provoke them to jealousy (Rom 10:19; 11:11-16). There is, therefore, good evidence to suggest that Paul may very well had a ‘special dispensation’ as a unique, apostolic figure within God’s plan to fulfill his promises to Israel. Accordingly, Paul believed that God spoke directly through him, both through his preaching to the crowds around the Mediterranean basin and through his interpretation of the scriptures.

    Now I say all this to address your disbelief in a special dispensation given to Paul. For if Paul was indeed a special, and even perhaps unique, figure within salvation history, then surely his knowledge of the mystery of gospel would be in some way reflective of his status as the apostle to the gentiles. (I think this point could be expanded to the other NT writers to a certain extent, but for now I’ll only address Paul since he was your sole example.) But does this imply a deus absconditus theology of inspiration or a cessationist understanding of biblical interpretation? As the apostle himself would undoubtedly reply, and I would agree, ‘by no means’!

    At the same time I’m not sure if the absence of a special license for Paul’s use of scripture gives us, or Christians in any period for that matter, freedom to interpret scripture in any way we’d like. (To be sure, I recognize that you aren’t making this exact point.) Paul was not without a interpretive hermeneutic. On the contrary, his remarkable, and at times downright puzzling, exegesis of the Hebrew scriptures was fully motivated and guided by a particular hermeneutic. So the question might be, or, perhaps, one that ought to be raised more, is whether later scriptural exegesis—be it allegorical, figurative, or whatever—is harmonious with what Paul (and the early church) saw as the guiding principal for interpreting the Jewish scriptures: namely, God’s faithfulness (his righteousness) to his promises to Israel in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has now birthed a new, eschatological and messianic community. That is how Paul interprets scripture. Not according to the historical-critical method, not speculative allegorical fashion even when it looks it, and not according to any other way. For Paul, the point is that the word of God is near to the eschatological community of God (Rom 10:8-13). The early church was the new people of God, the new Israel, and the scriptures were meant for them (Rom 15:4). So I think Richard Hays is right when he argues that Paul interpreted his scriptures not christologically, but rather ecclesiologically. (Richard Hays also addresses many questions related to the question of our ability to interpret scripture as Paul did in his The Echoes of Scripture in Paul’s Letters [esp. pp. 154-92]. I think he is more or less right.)

    3. Sure. We can’t deny a multifaceted way of reading scripture. However, I do not think historical-critical scholars (mis?)take the literal meaning of the text as “the entire meaning” of it. Rather, for them it is axiomatic that the literal meaning of the text must not be compromised as part of a multifaceted reading. The problem is that many historical-critical scholars—due to their own inadequate understanding of historical theology and to the lack of constructive dialogue between the two sides—do not have a robust enough idea of how to synthesize various ways of reading the scriptures without seeing it as in somewhat compromising the literal meaning of the text. This, I think we can agree, is problematic. And while I am intrigued by the idea of hearing the text stereophonically, I’m not entirely sure what this means.

    These are all thoughts spewed onto paper more than a rehearsed answer, so I’ll just put them out there for now and let you respond. I look for to your response!


  7. MJS on

    “anagogy preceded allegory in almost every case.”

    Care to elaborate a little on this? I’m not sure I’m on board, but I’d like to hear more before I lay into you. (Just kidding)

    Sure. I look forward to you putting me in my place. You’re certainly a better teacher than any of them dudes I had in school.

    . . . .

    First, let’s be clear. The four steps in the science of exegesis, in ascending importance, are literal, ethical, allegorical and anagogical or parabolic. By “anagogy preceded allegory,” of course I mean that anagogy enjoyed primacy.

    These four steps, or levels, were codified as early as Origen, but elaborated on by the Scholastics (see, for example, Summa Theologica 1.1.10). It’s worth noting, too, that early Buddhist texts (see Anguttara-Nikaya, the Book of Gradual Sayings, 11.160) refer to the moral, literal, hermeneutic and anagogic as “the analytical factors of meaning (attha-atisambihida).” The levels of exegesis are closely connected in all these cases to attaining salvation (most evangelicals would, perhaps, prefer the less precise “sanctification”). For Buddhists, careful exegetical and analytical study leads to Arhatta (the end of craving).

    The steps, or levels, of interpretation are graduated or hierarchical. Huston Smith describes the highest step, the anagogic or parabolic, by quoting Rienhold Niebuhr: “Myth is not history, it is truer than history.” The parabolic alludes to the transcendent, the spiritual meaning of a text. A parabolic reading seeks to understand the text by illumination, participating with the very mind of God—the intellectus agens. This is a goal the fathers, monks and theologians may not have achieved, but it was their highest purpose.

    sources: St. Thomas and the Book of Gradual Sayings cited in Coomaraswamy: Volume 2: Metaphysics, edited by Roger Lipsey (Princeton University Press, 1977), note 93, p. 315; and Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity (HarperSanfransisco, 2005), pp 17-19.

  8. Aubreycs on

    thats it, dude

  9. Steve Bricker on

    I just recently found this piece.

    First, I am uncertain if historical-critical is being equated with historical-grammatical. From my reading, these are distinct hermeneutics.

    Second, were the four interpretation methods considered to be hierarchical or ascending? I will grant that the church fathers understood that anyone could pick up the Bible and get the literal meaning from the text. My question is: Were the other three considered as gradations to a higher level (a la Buddhism) or simply an acknowledgment that the other interpretations were impossible without the Holy Spirit’s enabling?

  10. scott on

    The problem with saying scripture is literal and historical is that it causes people to look outside of themselves for truth. They have to have something tangible to hinge their faith upon and if they cannot find anything tangible, then they are apt to say there is no God and scripture is nothing more than a big book of made-up fairy tales.

    For me, it matters not if anything in scripture actually took place and existed at all or not. God is not a man. God is spirit, His words are spirit, and He must be worshipped in spirit and in truth. So why place our faith on anything seen? The truth is, what matters is what takes place inside of us, not outside of us. We are the temples of God, that means God dwells inside of us! So why are we so caught up on things that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago?

    So called Christians place their claims of salvation on a man they say lived some two thousand years ago. They say one man paid the price of all sins. I say, how can anything external/being outside of yourself, change anything about you? Salvation is a process and the work is not done outside of us, it is done within us. We all have to experience our own trials and tribulations in order to enter into the Kingdom of God, which by the way, is also inside of us. It is like this, say you know someone going through cancer. Because you know someone dealing with that disease, do you know what it is like personally? The answer is no, you don’t and you can’t unless you, yourself, also experience the disease at some point in your own life. What I am getting at is that we cannot chalk scripture up as literal events that have taken place in history and call it a day. What does that do for anyone? How does historical stories change anyone’s life? The answer is they don’t. Sure, there are morals in those stories and we may leave with that feel good feeling such as when you watch a heart-warming movie, but that feeling will fade over time and soon it is forgotten only to be remembered when it is repeated in some sermon in some church somewhere.

    Another problem with saying scripture is literal and historical is that it gives people a foundation to stand on and judge and condemn everyone who they feel is not living up to their and the bible’s standards to hell. Didn’t Christ say not to judge lest we be judged? But it happens in every religion there is, especially in christianity. If you are a homosexual, you are going to hell unless you repent. If you are having sex outside of marriage, you are going to hell unless you repent. If you haven’t been dunked in the baptismal, then you are going to hell unless you repent. If you don’t tithe 10% of your income, then you are going to hell unless you repent. If you don’t come to church every Sunday, then you are going to hell unless you repent. If you are a woman, you are not allowed to function much if any at all in church because that is a man’s place, not a woman’s. And the list can go on seemingly forever. But what about the scripture that states that no one can come to Christ unless the Father who sent Him draws him? That one scripture completely takes away any responsibility we think we have to bring ourselves to Christ. What about the scripture that states that as in Adam all have died, but in Christ all will be made alive. And this one, God’s will is to have all men to be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth. These two scriptures completely destroy the fallacious belief than anyone will burn in some fictitious hell hole for all of so-called eternity.

    What I am getting at, is whether or not the characters and stories depicted in scripture actually existed and took place or not are of absolutely no importance because everything in all of scripture exists inside of us and takes place inside of us. Trully, it is our story. The problem is that we cannot see the truth in that statement because we see ourselves as Bob, Tom, Kathy, Eric, Sally, and so on. We see ourselves as male, female, black, white, hispanic, buddhist, etc. We see ourselves as our family values, our education, our environment, our career or job title, etc. When we come into this world, all of those things begin to form this false identity and we forget who we really are. We are not bodies of flesh that happen to contain a spirit. No, we are Spirit that experience this physical realm we call life by way of the physical body of flesh. We are all begotten of the spirit of God as children of God. That is who we are. We are sent here to learn of good and evil. Just like in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God said look man has become as one of us. So obviously, knowing good and evil is a pre-requisite to being made into the express image and likeness of God, don’t ya think? You see, we are all eating off that tree by experiencing this physical realm. The only way a person can truly know anything is by directly experiencing it for themselves and this is where we learn good and evil. The purpose for it all is to mature us so that we eventually become sons and daughters of God instead of staying as mere children. But when we eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we become carnally minded, we die, and we no longer know who we truly are. Scripture states that it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes the judgment. The death is not speaking of physical death, it is spiritual death. Again, God is not a man/physical, He is spirit, His words are spirit, and He must be worshipped in spirit and in truth. The death we suffer is spiritual death. That is why Jesus said let the dead bury their dead. Was He telling the people to let the physically dead corpses bury physically dead corpses? Well, a literalist will have to say that is the case, but the answer is no. He was telling the people to let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. Paul said to be carnally-minded is death but to be spiritually minded is life.

    The story of the man named Jesus who was born of a virgin, was crucified, and resurrected is about us. The virgin is our soul/Eve and she gives birth to Christ out of our rebellion. Once this happens, the outer man, who we think we ourselves to be must be crucified. And where does this crucifixion take place? Golgatha, the place of the skull. Hmmm, interesting don’t you think? Who we think we are must be crucified at the place of the skull, our minds so that the truth of who we are, Christ, can be resurrected. It all takes place within us. Again, we are the temples of God. The name Mary actually means man’s rebellion. So, out of our rebellion, Christ is born. This is true salvation, and it is not to be saved from some fictitious hell hold. It is salvation from the lie of who we believe ourselves to be. It is to be brought from death/carnally minded, to life/spiritually minded, and it all happens at Golgatha, the place of the skull.

    As far as hell goes, the correct word is hades or sheol and these words mean the place of the dead or the unseen. So, if being carnally minded is the death scripture speaks of and we are all reckoned dead before being brought to Christ, then the place of the dead is not somewhere we go after our physical bodies perish, it is where we currently are! So, to hell with hell and all of its fallacious, vile teachings and doctrines that go along with it. Once again, the literalist view is far, far from the truth. And the lake of fire, is not literal either. God is called a consuming fire. We are to be baptised not in water, but with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. Not literal fire, you literalists! The fire is God and its purpose is to purge us of all of our carnal mindedness and carnal nature so that all that is left is His express image and likeness which is Christ. Don’t believe me, then why do you suppose God is likened to a blacksmith in scripture? Why do you suppose God likens our refining and perfecting to that of a precious metal. It is because when you purify metal, you hold it over the hottest part of the flame and the impurities soon bubble up to the surface and are blown away. This process continues until the blacksmith can see his reflection in the metal. This is exactly what God does with us!

    Taking scripture literally and historically with considering any deeper meaning causes you to stay blind. What happens is this, carnal men interpret scripture carnally and the result is people believing in a literal and historical interpretation and thus, they remain blinded and dead waiting for a man named Jesus to literally come back to Earth to rapture those who did his will and to set everyone else on literal fire. These people do not know God nor can they. Scripture states that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God nor can it be. And what is the law of God? It is love. But where is the love in believing God will set even one of His creations on literal fire for not living up to His standards when He subjected them to their condition in the first place. Where is the love in condeming anyone you do not feel is pleasing God to a mythical, tortuous hell-hold for all of so called eternity? None of that is love. But do you know what is? God is love and when we have been resurrected to life, we will know that.

    The bottom line is this, regardless of how you or anyone else views scripture, it is our story. We are in bondage to Egypt and Pharoa until God hears our crys and calls us out. We then cross the red sea, we are baptised in the Holy Spirit. Then we come to Sinai where we are placed under the law in the wilderness for a time. It is here we are tried and tested by the devil/our carnal mind. After this, comes our crucifixion, that is, who we believe ourselves to be must die so the truth of who we really are can be resurrected.

  11. Peter W on

    Thank you for initiating this great discussion of hermeneutics Jeff; A lot of what has been said is very helpful for me to hear in my own journey as an exegete.

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