Is allegorical interpretation a Good Thing?

6a00e55043abd08834011570c12ed1970c-800wiI just had a fascinating interaction online in the context of discussing the relation of the Old Testament to the New. The conversation went something like this.

Blogger: ‘There is no difference between the OT and the NT. There is nothing in the NT which is not in the OT.’

Me: ‘What about Jesus?’

Blogger: ‘He is all over the Old Testament. You just have to look.’

Me: ‘Really? Where for example?’

He then offered me the following allegorical reading of the Joshua 2 based on the fact that Joshua in Hebrew is the same name as Jesus in Greek (the Hebrew meaning of course ‘God saves’, Matt 1.21):

The conquest of the land is not a prediction of Jesus.  It is a prediction of reclaiming Adam’s or man’s rightful place in the Garden of Eden.  As you know, the Bible starts with Adam or man losing his place in the garden.  The Bible then ends with man reclaiming his rightful and original place in the new earth in the book of Revelation.

Joshua is a type of Christ in the OT.  He leads the Israelites to the promised land just as Jesus leads us to salvation.  Joshua destroys the city of Jericho not by force, but with the representation of the Word of God based on the Law of God through the blowing of the trumpets while walking in front of the Ark.  The family of Rahab is saved by two Israelites who represent the two witnesses or the two books of the Bible.  Rahab makes a covenant with them just as Jesus makes a covenant with us through His Word.  Ultimately, Rahab is saved by a scarlet cord that is draped out of her window.  Obviously the scarlet represents the blood of Christ.

When I responded that I was not persuaded that this was in fact the ‘meaning’ of the text, I was offered further ‘insight’:

The whole story of the gospel is in the story of Joshua and Rahab. In addition to the tidbits I gave you before, I will give you some more spiritual insight on this story. You will notice that throughout the Bible, the church is represented by a woman. I submit to you that Rahab represents the church in this story. Just like God’s true church on earth, Rahab is the only one in the city of Jericho to make a covenant with the two Israelites. In fact, she is told to bring all her family into her household if they want to be saved. Is this not the gospel? Are we as the church, not suppose to bring in every lost soul to be saved? Are we not supposed to spread the gospel? Notice in the story that only those that were with Rahab in her household was saved by hanging the scarlet thread. Now Ian, you should at least agree that the color scarlet is no coincidence here when it represents salvation. It is very obvious that it represents the blood of Christ.

I had not come across this reading before (do I need to get out more?) but I have to say I found it fascinating, and can readily see its appeal. In some ways it appears to come close to Paul’s own reading of the OT (‘the rock was Christ’ 1 Cor 10.4, ‘Hagar stands for Mt Sinai’ Gal 4.25) and in fact Paul uses the word allegoreo in introducing this idea. Perhaps the best known allegorical reading is of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Origen read it allegorically thus:

The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming. (Homily 34.3)

This reading was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement as well as Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine—whose version is perhaps best known:

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead. The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come.

What is wrong with these readings? After all (as another blogger comments) does this not ‘cohere with and flow from the Church’s proclamation of the Cross and Resurrection’? The Reformers had no time for such readings, and Calvin gives this short shrift:

The allegory which is here contrived by the advocates of free will is too absurd to deserve refutation… I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning. And, indeed, any one may see that the curiosity of certain men has led them to contrive these speculations, contrary to the intention of Christ. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke volume 3)

Of course, the great paradox here is that I suspect the person who offered me the allegory of Joshua comes from a Reformed church that esteems Calvin.

So what is wrong with this kind of reading?

Aime-Morot-Le-bon-SamaritainFirstly it functions by pulling the text into the world of the reader, instead of taking the reader into the world of the text. In doing this, as Calvin states, it ‘disguises its natural meaning’, or as I would express it, this approach actually silences the text. We are left not with the text but with the allegory. The main point of Jesus’ parable is a call to ethical action: ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ The main point about the Joshua narrative is that God’s mercy extends to unexpected people (I would argue). Both of these are lost in the allegory.

Secondly and perhaps more surprising, the allegory actually silences itself. It offers such a systematised way of reading that it precludes any interaction or reflection. Moving over the small point that in one part of the allegory Joshua is Jesus but in another part the scarlet cord is, I wonder what the implications might be of seeing the people of God not just as a woman, but as a racially outcast prostitute? Or that Jesus’ death was like a cord that had been skilfully woven by the hands of such a woman? I think you could defend this notion by looking at the central role of (marginalised) women in the gospels, bearers (literally) of God’s good news at the start of Jesus’ life, the only ones who remained by his cross in his death, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. But I really doubt that this was in the mind of my discussion partner!

Thirdly it eliminates problems and challenges in the text. The Book of Joshua is a prime example of the difficulty of reading about divinely sanctioned violence and even genocide. I consider this problem in another post—but of course the moment you read allegorically, the problem disappears. It is worth noting that the NT never reads Joshua allegorically.

Fourthly this approach ignores a basic feature of the text—its genre. It presents itself as nothing other than a (theologically shaped) historical account of things that happened. If we can read this allegorically or figuratively, then why not do the same to the stories about Jesus? The resurrection was not something that happened, but a way of describing the apostles’ feeling that somehow Jesus had a new significance beyond death.

Fifthly it turns the commentator into a priest—someone who stands between me and the text and mediates the meaning to me. I had not worked out that the thread was the blood of Jesus—how could I? When I was slow to go with the allegory of Joshua, I was enjoined:

The OT is full of stories like this where the gospel and the salvation of Jesus is represented. You just have to open your heart and look through your “spiritual glasses”! Praise God for the wonderful true stories!! I beg of you to pray and ask God to open your heart and mind. The OT is not just a historical record. Every story has deep inspirational and spiritual meaning for us.

Of course, what he really meant was not that the OT is more than a historical record—it is hardly historical at all. And it is not that I have to look through my ‘spiritual glasses’ but that I had to look through his glasses!

In the end, the allegorical approach de-historicizes the text and undermines the idea that texts are bearers of meaning. Instead, they become a sort of code that needs unlocking with a secret key which only belongs to the initiated—which is gnostic rather than rational. Note that this is a very different exercise from reading a text metaphorically, or finding application by seeing parallels in the text with later texts or our own situation.

So generally speaking if you are finding a biblical passage strange, baffling and difficult to understand, this is a good thing. On the other hand, if you read and think it all makes sense, fits perfectly with your theology and there is no challenge here—that’s the time to start worrying!

(First posted in September 2013. Worth another outing.)

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22 thoughts on “Is allegorical interpretation a Good Thing?”

  1. The scarlet cord is Christ but in a roundabout way. The Israelites in Josh 2 had just celebrated Passover, and scarlet cord from window is certainly reminiscent to them of blood on doorposts. Note also that rahab is treated from then onwards as an Israelite…

    • It is naïve to think the Bible is simply a flat text. The Bible from beginning to end is rich with biblical symbolism; if we do not know how to read that particular language, we will inevitably go astray in many areas. Just like Hebrew is a language and Greek is a language, so too, biblical typology is a language that the reader of scripture must understand in order to read the text in all its fullness: there’s a difference between what the Bible says, and what it means by what it says.

  2. If Paul and his readers could cope with both approaches, it seems to me we should be big enough (holding on to the Spirit, and always giving priority to the “straight” text) to find both useful too.
    That there are traces of Christ in the OT isn’t new either – the “three men” who visited Abraham are often suggested as a hint of Trinity, and Jesus Himself appropriated Daniel’s “Son of Man”.
    You are right though on the risks of overcooking it and potentially unmooring from the foundational rock altogether. Your last sentence is an excellent warning!

  3. But for Origen, for Bernard of Clairvaux, for Henri de Lubac, the allegorical reading is not the only reading of Scripture. It is always as one of several senses of Scripture – de Lubac subtitles his magnum opus ‘Medieval Exegesis’ as ‘The Four Senses of Scripture’ – though he actually goes onto describe at least 7 distinct senses. The traditional Christian approach to Scripture, to which de Lubac encouraged the return, was always to accept that, as an inspired text, there is more to the Scriptures than the ‘plain’ meaning (Origen calls it the literal sense – but he implies something much more complex than that usually means in modern parlance).

    I guess also one must consider this in light of more recent philosophical ideas, where the meaning in language does not rest simply with the author but with the recipient. The meaning is not fixed by what the author has said – though to understand fully what is being conveyed one needs to understand what the author intended as well as the contextualised meaning, in this case, in the Church.

    There is a problem when we only recognise an allegorical reading, but it diminishes our Sacred Scriptures when we refuse to recognise that, in her own mysterious way, the Holy Spirit gives us much more.

  4. As the other comments have said above, the problem is not the allegory itself (a useful and often helpful approach to interpreting scripture), the problem is when we have allegory only. A great example is song of songs: it can and does work as allegory up to a point (for Jesus and the church) but it can never work as just that and attempts to make it do so are often painful, especially with sexual/erotic language.

    I therefore agree with Karen completely:

    “If Paul and his readers could cope with both approaches, it seems to me we should be big enough (holding on to the Spirit, and always giving priority to the “straight” text) to find both useful too.”

  5. hi Paul,

    Wrote my Moore College thesis on the hermeneutical use of tupos in the NT. That doesn’t make me an expert, of course, but it will lead to me adding a small comment!

    Your piece contains examples of both typology and allegory. As you note, allegory is nonsensical since it imports an entirely new meaning into words and events. But typology is more difficult to reject. For mine, I’d argue that at least some of the reading of Joshua that you relate is correct, although it veers into allegory at the end. The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, is a story whose allegorical mis-readings are legion (and even the great Augustine of Hippo had a go at that one).

    Yes you’re right – allegory dehistoricises the text. But typology shows the greater intended meaning – how the Spirit used persons and events in order to point forward to Christ. Happy to chat more if you want. Great topic!

    • David – that doesn’t justify why we can’t have both an allegorical and a typological and an historical reading (and ethical, anagogical, eschatological – and strictly speaking I’d want to separate historical into two: the genuinely, verifiable historical, and the literal that is the historical filtered through the lens of the author). Yes, we must recognise the meaning in its proper historico-critical context, but how can we presume that the Holy Spirit does not speak though an allegorical reading, when it is one that is tested in accordance with that which has been handed on to us?

      • “how can we presume that the Holy Spirit does not speak though an allegorical reading, when it is one that is tested in accordance with that which has been handed on to us?”

        Yes, that’s the key question and not one that’s easy to answer. Here’s what two relative experts on the subject say. First Goppelt
        “An allegory is a narrative that was composed originally for the
        single purpose of presenting certain truths not found in the literal sense, or
        when facts are reported for that same reason. Allegorical interpretation,
        therefore, is not concerned with the truthfulness of factuality of the things
        described. For typological interpretation, however, the reality of the things
        described is indispensible. The typical meaning is not really a different or
        higher meaning, but a different or higher use of the same meaning that is
        comprehended in type and antitype.”

        then Goldingay:

        Allegorical interpretation involves attributing to a text a meaning which is
        extrinsic to the text itself, in that it is not the apparent meaning it would have
        had for writer and readers. It is brought to the text from elsewhere. […] the
        best way to formulate a distinction between typology and allegory is to see the
        former as an approach to theology and the latter as an approach to
        interpretation. Typology, that is, studies events, while allegory is a method of
        interpreting words’

        Happy to provide fuller citations if it helps. I think that distinction is critical. When looking at types there’s a sense we can say “in the same way” or “in an even fuller way” of the antitype it points towards.

        With allegory there’s more a sense of “I don’t know how you got there”!

  6. Ian,

    In response to those who interpreted Lord of the Rings as allegorical, J.R.R. Tolkein stated: “…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    Surely, this is the chief danger of allegorical view: that instead of the text inspiring rich insight into the applicability of scripture, an explicit correlation is imposed in order to advance a particular spiritual metaphor ‘given’ to those with ‘spiritual eyes’.

    Nevertheless, why shouldn’t scarlet have merely made Rahab’s cord conspicuous, rather than representative of blood? And, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, why should Jerusalem represent the heavenly city of peace, instead of being, as Christ later described, ‘you that stone the prophets and kill those who are sent to you’?

    Although mistaken, these notions are still fairly innocuous. Nevertheless, the danger in such an approach is a lot more obvious when we consider how many 17th and 18th century Europeans understood the curse of Ham to symbolize the subjugation of the entire black race and to justify their enslavement!

    • David, you (or Tolkein) thereby capture another flaw in Ian’s portrayal of the allegorical reading of Scripture: that it is a once for all reading. There can be many readings made, those that have value and cohere with the deposit of the faith – those that bear fruit – will endure, those that don’t, won’t. In his writings, Origen spends a significant amount of time (particularly for someone who can come across as very certain of his own correctness!) noting how his allegorical readings are just provisional. His principle is certainly a wise one!

      • Tom,

        My response would be to ask at what point does the allegorical approach descend into baseless speculation.

        And the reality is that there is no evolutionary principle ensuring the ‘survival of the fittest’ allegorical interpretations. Far from provisional, there are false archetypes which are surprisingly difficult to eradicate; not because they cohere with the deposit of faith, but because they spring from the collective unconscious.

  7. This strikes me as a rather caricatured understanding of allegory that is rooted in the assumptions of the Enlightenment and the Reformation. I would recommend Chapter Five of Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology for a more grounded understanding of the patristic use of allegory. He writes, “allegory is a way of holding us before the mystery which is the ultimate ‘difficulty’ of the Scriptures – a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning; a difficulty, a mystery, which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance.”

  8. There is no tidy distinction between allegorical and typological interpretation of Scripture. However, there are good and not so good allegorical/typological/figural readings. The sort of typology that proposes various binary type/antitype relations has various problems with it. Even when such a relationship obtains, it is invariably more complicated in key respects. For instance, Peter teaches that baptism is an antitype of the ark, but this doesn’t exhaust the figural meaning of the ark.

    Reading Scripture figurally is like reading Scripture ‘musically’, recognizing the divine orchestration of history in a beautiful and richly interconnected manner (both the events and the recording of them). The blogger you were engaging with is not mistaken in hearing snatches of the ‘Saviour’s Theme’ in the Rahab story, anticipations of the full presentation of that theme in the later movement of the New Testament. However, he risks overstating the relationship between the Rahab story and the story of Christ in a manner that will obscure the many other themes that are at play there, for the ‘Saviour’s Theme’ is not the only motif that is present in that text.

    Rahab represents something greater than herself and plays into broader narrative themes. The entire Exodus narrative is bookended on one side by destruction of Egypt-Passover-Water Crossing and on the other side by Water Crossing-Passover-destruction of Jericho. Rahab’s story is a Passover narrative, as Peter Leithart makes clear. The display of the scarlet cord at the entrance to the dwelling in order that the building and its inhabitants might be passed over when judgment occurs is a Passover theme.

    However, there is much more going on there. Many will read the story and instantly recall the story of the destruction of Sodom. In the destruction of Sodom, two visitors come to a city to scout it out in preparation for judgment. They are taken in by Lot, while the men of the city seek to attack the visitors. Lot makes a night time meal of unleavened bread(!), there is a threat at the doorway. The visitors later escape, rescuing those in the house, and they are charged to flee to the mountain. Both are Exodus style narratives, though each with key variations. Much the same pattern plays out in the story of the spies and Rahab, but now it isn’t angels but Israelites who act as the agents of divine judgment.

    The Rahab story also recalls the fundamental conflict between the serpent and the woman. The serpent deceived the woman, but thereafter the woman repeatedly deceives the ‘serpent’ figures, often to save the seed from being destroyed. Sarah deceives Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rebekah deceives Abimelech, Rachel deceives Laban, the Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh, Rahab deceives the men of Jericho, Jael deceives Sisera, Michal deceives Saul, Esther deceives Haman, etc. In each case, we see a sort of poetic justice, as the shrewd woman outwits the serpent at his own game.

    Some of these stories resonate with the story of Rahab in a particular way. For instance, the story of Michal delivering David from Saul is a very ‘musical’ account, subtly playing with a number of themes of deception. Michal disguises a household idol as David using goat’s hair and lets David down through the window. She is like Rachel, who deceived her father Laban concerning the household idol. She is like Rebekah, who deceived her husband using goats’ hair in order to ensure that the right child received the inheritance. She is like Rahab, who let the Hebrew spies escape from the doomed men of the land. Perhaps she is even like the daughter of Pharaoh, who rescued the leader of the people whose life was threatened by her father. These resonances all help us to understand the meaning of that text and help to characterize Saul (as the unfaithful father-in-law, the unjust and disobedient father, the doomed ruler of Canaan, and the arch-enemy of the people of God). In fact, by associating him with all of these characters and playing out the familiar trope of the woman deceiving the tyrant, the text associates Saul with the shadow agency of the serpent. Saul is one of the serpent’s seed.

    There are odd yet significant details in the Rahab story. For instance, the scarlet thread is such a small yet peculiar thing to highlight in the narrative. In the literary structure of the narrative, as Leithart observes, it has an association with blood, but that probably isn’t all that it suggests. It also recalls the presence of the same odd detail in Genesis 38, where the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the hand of the first child to emerge from Tamar’s womb. That story has some interesting resonances with the story of Rahab. Tamar also acted as a harlot in that story. However, like Rahab, Tamar is a shrewd trickster who outwits an unjust man (Judah) and ends up vindicated. Both Tamar and Rahab are highlighted in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. Elsewhere in Scripture, scarlet is associated with harlotry.

    Rahab represents something even greater in the book of Revelation. In Revelation we see a woman arrayed in scarlet, described as the Mother of Harlots. Once again, the colour of scarlet has various resonances. It represents sin, the spilt blood of the martyred saints, and the harlotries of the city. There are also priestly undertones. This is the priestly city, which is why she is to be burned with fire for her harlotry (Revelation 17:16; 18:8; cf. Leviticus 21:9).

    People are called out of the city of the harlot (18:4-5), but these people become the spotless bride. Like Jericho, the great and wicked city of Revelation is defeated by the blowing of seven trumpets and is then burned with fire (like the city in Revelation, Jericho also has associations with Babylon, Joshua 7:21). As in the book of Joshua, where the harlot becomes one of the saints—note that the individual Rahab recapitulates the story of the Passover of the whole nation of Israel—the saints in Revelation are former members of the harlot. Rahab marries the heir of Judah’s line, Salmon; the bride in Revelation marries the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Revelation’s account also has several intertextual plays with the book of John at these points.

    Already within Joshua, Rahab has a figural relation to Israel as a whole. In the New Testament that musical connection is further unfolded and she is discovered to be a type of the Church. All of this can emerge from close and attentive reading of the texts themselves. It is important to emphasize, however, that such a musical or figural reading doesn’t merely collapse Rahab into the Church, obscuring her uniqueness and particularity. Rahab stands for much more than a mere historical individual, but she does not stand for less.

    The blogger you interacted makes some valid connections (e.g. the connection between the scarlet cord and the blood of Christ has merit). However, he wrenches the story from its narrative and canonical context and develops those relations, not through an exploration of the diachronic unfolding of the themes and motifs of the Rahab story, but through a synchronic correlation of elements. He short circuits the relations and fries the narrative as a result. In the reading that I propose, none of the ‘natural meaning’ of Joshua 2 is left behind, but is organically developed and unfolded. Christ is discovered to be integral to the ‘natural meaning’ of Joshua 2 when we hear the fuller expression of the ‘Saviour’s Theme’ in the later movements of the divine symphony. Yet Rahab always retains her distinctness and historical particularity.

    Such figural readings are found throughout the Bible, yet the historical grounding of the text isn’t abandoned. The shipwreck and deliverance of Paul in Acts is figurally related to the death and resurrection of Christ. The freeing of Peter from prison in Acts 12 is another resurrection narrative (read it again and notice the several parallels). The fact that something is figural doesn’t negate the fact that it is also historical.

    This is more than just a matter of parallels, application, or ‘significance’ as distinct from meaning. Scripture is musical and the divinely designed unfolding musical relations of Scripture are integral to the meaning of any passage. Just as the meaning of a given note in a piece of music only emerges through the movement of the musical piece as a whole, so the meaning of Rahab only emerges as we follow the movement of redemptive history. The Rahab story also has direct meaning for us, and not just secondary significance for or application to us. In reflecting upon the deliverance of Rahab in light of the broader scriptural development of her themes, we can come to the surprising realization that her theme is our theme as the Church, something that only becomes apparent as we follow the movement of Scripture all the way to its conclusion and find ourselves in the charged moment that immediately follows it, yet is nonetheless contained by it.

    One of the dangers in the moral reading of Old Testament narrative is that Old Testament meaning is primarily figural in character. I would strongly maintain that the ‘point’ of the Rahab story is considerably greater than the general point that God chooses unlikely people. It is rather a subtle casting of national identity and a tracing of God’s agency in Israel’s history in a manner that reveals the providentially established patterns. There are undoubtedly general lessons about faith and grace to be drawn, but it is the particular details that really matter.

    Reading the Old Testament for such ethical points will tend to stumble at passages such as Genesis 12:10-20. What is the ‘point’ of that passage? God blesses his people when they deceive rulers? Or could it be that God’s people have always been Exodus-shaped, that the Exodus theme is a great theme of God’s salvation throughout Scripture, and that Israel and the Church recapitulate Abram’s experience, manifesting us to be his children?

    I would be cautious of describing the meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in too narrow ethical terms too. Like various other parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a very ‘musical’ account in which some subtle Old Testament themes are notably at play. Attending to these can really help us to unpack its meaning. I’ve written about some of these themes here.

    • “The sort of typology that proposes various binary type/antitype relations has various problems with it.” What, like this?
      “These things are being taken figuratively: the women represent two covenants.”
      I agree with most of the rest of what you say, I just don’t think that polarity is the best test for splitting naughty allegory off from deep spiritual figural reading.

      • Thanks for the response, Alan.

        That statement should have read ‘that merely proposes’. As the sentence that follows it suggests, I believe that such type/antitype relations genuinely exist. My issue is with how we handle them. I was criticizing approaches that rest too much upon synchronic correlation of elements, rather than appreciating their diachronic connectedness.

        I’ve compared this elsewhere to two forms of relation with a territory. The Old Testament can be compared to a long itinerary that must be followed through dense woods or rocky valleys, with a beautiful terrain, but with a short range of vision. This itinerary leads us to the great mountain of the New Testament, where we find a path that steadily leads us up to a great and dizzying height, from which we can see the entirety of the path that we just walked, albeit now from a completely different perspective, laid out before us like a cloth.

        Viewed from the peak, things take on a new aspect and we are awestruck as we see the territory before us, as if for the first time. We relate the points that we see directly to our current vantage point with the immediacy of the gaze. However, in so doing, we can forget that there is a material connection between the points that we are looking at and our own vantage point in the path that we have followed. One cannot move from one to the other apart from that path, even though, once one has attained to the heights, we are enabled to see the path in a different manner.

        We need to hold together the temporal movement of the itinerary, with its patience and suspension of knowledge, with the immediacy of the dazzling vision of the mountain top. Some—those firmly opposed to figural reading—are so concerned to follow the path immediately before them that they pay little attention to the fact that the path exists to lead them to a point where the entire landscape is disclosed. Others are so caught up with the view from the top that they have a limited sense of the exact course of the path that leads to it and enables us to enjoy it. They miss something important too, as the wonder is found in no small measure in the delayed process of disclosure.

        The approach that I advocate places a lot of emphasis upon the way that the point that we see immediately from the mountain top—the OT type that relates to the NT antitype—should be related to primarily through the diachronic process of the itinerary. It is that itinerary that enables us to enjoy the perspective from which we can see the more immediate relation. If we forget this, we risk turning the OT into a mere detached spectacle for us as NT readers, from which we recognize parallels with our story, rather than as intrinsically and inseparably connected with our story and essential to bringing us to the point where we can recognize the associations.

        So, for instance, the ark is a type of baptism. But the story of the ark is a decreation and new creation narrative, figurally related with Genesis 1-2 and serving as the culmination of the preceding narrative of the destructive spread of Sin. The story of Noah ends with a fall in a new garden, paralleling Genesis 3 (Genesis 9:20-27). The story of the ark also anticipates the Exodus in some respects. It is explored in the context of prophecies of exile and national judgment. Christ’s baptism plays upon themes of the Flood, with the descent of the dove. When we reach the point of Christian baptism, we can immediately recognize a typological relation with Noah’s ark, connecting point A to point B. However, there is a temporally unfolding ‘musical’ itinerary of symbolism and figuration that has led us from point A to point B along a long path. While we should relate A and B directly, it is essential that we appreciate that we can only relate them in such a manner because those points are related through the temporally extended itinerary.

        Similar things can be said about Paul’s allegorical reading of Genesis in Galatians. Paul isn’t just grasping at arbitrary details. There is very clear biblical logic to which he is alluding. James Jordan makes the case helpfully here and here.

  9. Hi Ian,

    I think you make some very good points in this piece about the dangers of a certain approach towards Biblical interpretation. But in the process, I fear you have gone a little too far.

    The problem with the allegorist in this piece is that he has skipped over the entire history of Israel to get to his conclusion. Instead of a typology grounded in the actual historical context, he skips over the old testament church. Yet as many other commenters have noted, there is actually a valid parallel between the story of Rahab and the passover event which happened 40 years earlier. Such a parallel would easily have been noticed by an ancient firstborn Israelite man who would had heard from their parents and grandparents many times how Yahweh had rescued them from destruction by the blood of a lamb only a generation ago. And at this point, an application to Christ and his future redemption via the Passover is hard not to see.

    But if you miss out Israel and the historical context, your methods will seem weird and “priestly” (because they are). The same point is evident in the story of the good Samaritan. A much more obvious parallel with the beaten man is of course Israel herself, who had fallen from her former glory and was not being helped by the neglectful religious leaders of the time. Much like NT Wright’s interpretation of the lost son parable, this reading is grounded in the history and context into which the original story was told and thus is far from arbitrary.

    Once we see a story like this (whether a parable or a historical event) grounded in history, we are also less prone to ignore the immediate context or the personal issues or exhortations, as you rightly warn us against. Seeing the characters as part of a grander story does not negate their individual story, or the genre and concrete form of the text itself. Rather, it correctly situates it for us, so that we are able to understand and apply it correctly to our own lives.

    As Alastair has noted above, a good typological understanding grounded properly in history can actually help us to make more suitable applications. Appreciating the historical, covenantal and typological background to a passage doesn’t diminish more general applications, rather, it enriches them.

  10. A fascinating discussion. It seems to me that we might be tripping up on our own vocabulary. It also seems to me that there is merit in looking at Scripture as a literary text, which illuminates a number of themes which can then enrich each other. One method of interpreting scripture should not stand alone but be capable of judgement by other methods.

    • Hi Alan,

      Sorry, but how does Hebrews come close to reading Joshua allegorically?

      Its author simply explains through Psalm 95 that the promise of rest, which (as OT history shows) Israel forfeited as a result of repeatedly slurring God’s character through unbelief was not fulfilled by conquest of the Promised Land. Psalm 95 proves that.

      One might say that the fate of those who rebelled at the hardships of the wilderness is figurative of/analogous to the destiny which befalls those who apostatise from the gospel.

      The scriptural analogy still doesn’t make Heb. 4 allegorical.

      If anything, Hebrews 4 dispels the notion that the conquest of the Promised Land was a type of God’s provision of eternal relief from our earthly labours: ‘“Now if Joshua had succeeded in giving them this rest, God would not have spoken about another day of rest still to come.” (Heb. 4:8)


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