In a previous post, I discussed the practice of allegorizing the Bible. The practice of allegorizing is common in many pulpits today and it raised its ugly head recently when I was involved in a dialogue with a reader from another blog who claimed that allegorizing is a proper way of interpreting the Bible.
His issue was the interpretation of a verse in the book of Hosea in which God said he would make a covenant with the animals (Hosea 2:18). According to him, the animals are the Gentile nations.
This interpretation is unacceptable, and I will return to it in the near future and show why this interpretation does not fit the historical context in which Hosea proclaimed his message.
In discussing the allegorical interpretation of the biblical text, it is good to quote what Emil Brunner said about allegorizing the biblical text:
Their [the early church fathers] uncritical method of exposition cannot be our example or our norm any more than their view of the world. To some extent they were not afraid of the wildest methods of allegorical exposition because they knew as little about a critical method as about a scientific view of the world (1952: 211).
Today I want to provide a few examples of how the church fathers allegorized the parables of Christ. All the examples below were taken from the book by Archibald M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 24-30.
In his study of the parables, Hunter does not quote the sermons in their entirety. Rather, he provides a summary of what the writers said about the parables. For this post I made minor revisions to what Hunter wrote in order to make his summaries more comprehensible for the context of this post.
Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) on the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”
The Elder Son in the story is the Jew; the Younger, the Christian. The patrimony of which the Younger claimed his share is that knowledge of God which a man has by his birthright. The citizen in the far country to whom he hired himself is the devil. The robe bestowed on the returning prodigal is that sonship which Adam lost at the Fall; the ring is the sign and seal of baptism; the feast is the Lord’s Supper. The fatted calf, slain for the feast, is the Jesus Christ.
Origen (185-254 A.D.) on the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”
The man who fell among thieves is Adam. As Jerusalem represents heaven, so Jericho, to which the traveller journeyed is the world. The robbers are man’s enemies, the devil and his minions. The priest stands for the Law, the Levite for the prophets. The good Samaritan is Christ himself. The beast on which the wounded man was set, is Christ’s body which bears the fallen Adam. The inn is the Church; the two pence, the Father and the Son; and the Samaritan’s promise to come again, Christ’s Second Advent.
Augustin (354-430 A.D.) on “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”
The wounded traveller is fallen man, half alive in his knowledge of God and half dead in his slavery to sin; the binding up of his wounds signifies Christ’s restraint of sin; the pouring in of oil and wine, the comfort of good hope and the exhortation to spirited work. The innkeeper, dropping his incognito, is revealed as the Apostle Paul; and the two pence are the two commandments of love.
Augustin on “The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree”
The fig tree is the human race, for when man first sinned, he covered his limbs with fig leaves! The three years signify the time before the giving of the Law, the time under the Law, and the time of Gospel grace. The gardener is any saint who prays God to spare all sinners. The digging about and dunging of the tree mean the teaching of repentance and lowliness.
An English preacher (1150 A.D.) on “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”
It was the human race who went down from Jericho when Adam sinned and fell among demons. The priest passed down the same way, when the order of patriarchs followed the path of mortality. The priest left him wounded, having no power to aid the human race while himself wounded with sins. The Levite went that way, in as much as the order of prophets also had to tread the path of death. The Lord was The Good Samaritan. He went down this way when he came from heaven into this world. Two pence are given to the innkeeper when the doctors are raised on high by scriptural knowledge and temporal honour.
By allegorizing the biblical text the preacher can preach a great sermon and make the congregation be astonished at the way the preacher interprets the Bible. What the congregation does not realize is that most of the preacher’s interpretation is pure fantasy.
Emil Brunner described what happens to the members of the church when they are exposed to the allegorical interpretation of the biblical text. He said:
The effect on the members of the Church is disastrous; they have no clue to the interpretation of the Bible. They will say: “We cannot explain the Bible like our Minister, he is so clever, and so ingenious-he can ‘find Christ’ in every part of the Bible!” This means that such people will probably do one thing or the other: either they will give up their own private Bible reading altogether, or they will try to imitate their Minister; then they will indeed fall into a pit, and indulge in flights of the wildest allegory! They too will see a reference to the `Blood’ of Christ every time anything `red’ is mentioned, and they will feel highly edified! But they will have lost one blessing: they will have ceased to read the Old Testament; for they will be reading into the Old Testament either the views of their Minister, or their own fantasies (1952: 212-13).
I always encourage my students not to use allegories when interpreting the Bible. I hope they have learned that this is a poor way of interpreting the biblical text.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Hunter, Archibald M. Interpreting the Parables. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.
Brunner, Emil. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952.