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Hermeneutics 6 – Allegorical Interpretation

November 5, 2012

In the next two posts I will examine two methods of interpreting the Bible that have been popular throughout church history.  In an earlier post I alluded to the importance of having a basic understanding of how our predecessors have interpreted the Bible.  One of the benefits of this is that we gain perspective  which will help us to avoid their mistakes and build on their successes.  The last post was a segue into the first historical school of interpretation that we will talk about; namely the method of Allegorical Interpretation.

An allegory can be defined as an extended metaphor.  The goal of allegorical interpretation is to seek for the meaning of a text below (or above) the surface of the text*.  This method of interpretation was adopted by Jewish and Christian people who were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.  Because of this influence they did not like OT passages where God is said to have appeared (called theophanies, see Gen 18) and those that described God with human characteristics (called anthropomorphisms).  As a result they sought for various levels of meaning that allowed them to “deal” with these texts.  It was popular to say that every passage of Scripture had three or four levels of meaning.  For example Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, thought that, “the laws of Moses contain a fourfold significance, the natural, the mystical, the moral and the prophetical,” (Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 164).  The idea is that we should understand every commandment in a literal way, in a way that represented heaven, in a moralistic way, and in a way that foreshadowed the coming of Christ.  Other allegorical interpreters used this method of interpretation for every passage of the Bible.  To them there was not one meaning of any given passage but there were three or four meanings.

Perhaps an example is the best way for us to see how this works.  Here is Philo’s interpretation of Genesis 2:10-14, in which Moses described the four rivers that flowed from Eden.  Philo was a Jewish man from Alexandria who was heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy.  Here is what he says:

    “In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues.  And they, also, are four in number, prudence, temperance, courage, and   justice.  Now the greatest river, from which the four branches flow off, is generic virtue, which we have already called goodness; and the four branches are the same number of virtues.  Generic virtue, therefore, derives its beginning from Eden, which is the wisdom of God which rejoices, and exults, and triumphs, being delighted at and honoured on account of nothing else, except its Father, God.  And the four particular virtues are branches from the generic virtue, which, like a river, waters all the good actions of each with an abundant stream of benefits.” (as quoted in Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 163).

A later allegorical interpreter believed that the command to not kill (Ex. 20:13) has two other mystical meanings.  One of which is the prohibition of hating God and His Word (Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 165).

Let me offer a quick qualification and state that there certainly are portions of Scripture that are allegories (normally indicated to be such by the author).  There are also portions of Scripture that teach moral lessons, as well as those of the OT that foreshadow the coming of Christ. But based on everything we have discussed so far, what are some of the dangers that you see in interpreting the Bible in this fashion?  Can the examples given above be tied to any perceivable intention of Moses?  Could the people of Israel at that time have understood any of these various levels of meaning?  What negative effects can this method have on us if we understand a portion of Scripture to be allegorical that is not in fact an allegory?

Thursday we will move on to another popular historical approach to interpretation; namely the method of Dogmatic Interpretation.

*The definitions are taken from Lecture 5 in Hermeneutics taught by Dr. Kenneth Talbot of Whitefield Theological Seminary (see paragraph 2, sentences 1 and 2 above).

From → Hermeneutics

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