Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Allegory not Myth, Figure not Fable

When I go back home to visit my parents over Christmas I usually attend a little Anglican parish.  For a few Christmases now I have heard a very similar sermon.  What makes me uncomfortable with this sermon is the same thing that makes many people uncomfortable with the symbolic interpretation of Scripture, namely, that it is used as an alternative to the historical sense of the text.  He begins with the lack of historical evidence in other sources for the story of the slaughter of the innocents and seems to waffle between whether the event simply didn't happen and a more moderate agnosticism about the event.  In any case, he proceeds, what the Gospel writer intended to do was make a spiritual point about Jesus' correspondence to Moses, whose birth was also the occasion for the slaughter of innocents.  Given that a literary correspondence is what the author meant, we can take this point to heart (that Jesus is the new Moses) without worrying ourselves about the history.  It is this kind of move that every critic of Origen ever had in mind. 

I think there is a very basic distinction between this kind of spiritualization of the text and a more traditional allegorical interpretation that comes down to who you think the author is.  As Peter Harrison has noted in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science, the Early Modern period saw a shift away from understanding the things, persons, and events of the natural world as having an intrinsic Christological referent.  Harrison argues that with the breakup of Christendom the Reformers had to deny the symbolic nature of creatures in order to forge the Bible into a polemical weapon.  For traditionally the words of Scripture were understood to refer to created things that themselves referred to God.  Deny that creatures signify, however, and the weight of meaning rests on the Biblical words alone--all the better for air-tight proof-texts.  Whether one agrees with Harrison's assignment of causes or not, what one finds in the Early Modern period is an increased emphasis on the human author's intention rather than on God's intention behind the Bible.  It is the human author who creates literary figures and allegories.  The things, persons, and events that God has authored are not intrinsically figural.  But this is precisely the difference between pre-modern and modern exegesis.  The only way that moderns can justify to themselves a figural reading of Scripture is if they can prove to themselves that the human author intended it.  They never consider whether things themselves might bear the marks of their Author, in which case the created things of nature and history have an importance that they cannot have when the figural is limited to the human author's intentionality.  So ironically despite the caricatures, the Patristic method of interpretation ends up granting a higher importance to nature and history (the literal) than much modern exegesis is capable of.  If modern biblical exegetes want a spiritual interpretation of Scripture, more often than not it is decoupled from history and is justified by literary considerations of genre (myth, fable, saga, drama, poetry).  The question inevitably raised is whose discernment of genre counts? 

I am not arguing that the Bible is un-problematically historical (my money is on biblical history being archetypal over against all other history).  Just that a hermeneutic of human intentionality doesn't even explain how inner-biblical exegesis works ("latter prophets" interpreting "former prophets," OT interpretation of NT) let alone how the Fathers and their theological heirs did exegesis.  In short, us moderns look at the allegory in Origen's eye and do not pay attention to the mythologizing in our own eye.


  1. How do you understand "authorial intent" here? A lot of my own problems with allegorical readings are that they often have little to nothing to do with literary context. Working through the literary meaning (what the text seems plainly to mean in its book context) and extending this within the wider canon is well and good, but to completely disregard the immediate literary meaning seems dishonest.

    For example, if you read the Chronicles of Narnia in the published order you read about the lamppost in Narnia in the middle of a forest, maybe taking note of it, but it's meaning is still mysterious. Later in the series you are told why the post is there, and so your reading of the Lion Witch and Wardrobe will never be the same again. This is a secondary meaning that may change the interpretation of the book, but it's one that the Author (Lewis) purposefully intended so that your reading experience is, well, better. So, if you are reading LWW to your kids, what do you do when first reach the lamp post? Do you pause and give the fuller meaning, or let the story stand, allowing your second reading of the book to be that much more meaningful?

    By allegorically reading the OT, don't we risk veiling the OT's own discrete witness to Jesus Christ? Isn't the assumption that the OT can only refer to Christ allegorically? Can the OT refer to Christ by creating its own types which leave room for extension, but are still meaningful in and of themselves in the OT?

  2. I'm talking about an approach that takes seriously a classic doctrine of creation in which created things ontologically refer to their Creator, not just human words. This goes beyond literary context and takes up human intentions into divine intentions. A "two books" approach (Nature and Scripture) is universal to Latin, Greek, and Syriac traditions and is nicely summarized by Aquinas' teaching that words refer to things and things refer to God. Minus the mediation of things between words and God a lot of problems arise such as the one I mentioned above where you can throw out the historical innocents (maybe the Exodus and the Resurrection too). I wouldn't want to separate words and things too much (Augustine says that words are just another kind of thing). It is important and illuminating to know when the biblical writers intend to refer to a created thing that has a spiritual significance, say, Paul talking about Eve who consistently symbolizes the Church. Yet I wouldn't want to confuse words and things so much that one would be prevented from attributing that God-intended spiritual significance to Eve in a passage where it is more difficult to discern the human author's intentions. In other words, one should be able to collect all the references to Eve in the Bible in order to find out what she as a divinely-intended creature means. This is of course a method of interpretation that is off limits when we are artificially confined to human intentions alone. It doesn't have to be that way, though, provided we take seriously a doctrine of Creation.

  3. I don't think the way I would teach people to read the Bible would be much different from yours. I would definitely start with the literal because I don't think one can get to the spiritual meaning of a literal thing/person/event without first knowing what that thing is in itself. Conversely, though, things aren't known in themselves without knowing that they are created by and returning to God. To stop short of this is not to know that created thing at all.

    I think what a doctrine of creation adds to a doctrine of Scripture is an additional place to see divine intentionality. Instead of having to explain how the writers' intentions are nested within God's intentions as secondary causes (which I would no doubt want to say), God's creative intention is conceptually uncluttered with having to include any human participation and is that much simpler an explanation of Scripture.

  4. Thanks Jeff, this clarifies much. Perhaps in a later post you can offer some examples of what you think is responsible allegory versus something more suspect. That might be helpful (at least for me!).