PC: Is Allegory OK?

Here’s the next set of material from Psalming Christ. Now—if you thought that the previous two posts on David were building to something important about Jesus, you’re totally right! They are! But this isn’t it…  Indeed, I’m working on three different sections of the book simultaneously as the ability/energy/mood/Spirit direct.

There’s one line of thought on how reading more Scripture helps us pray the psalms better. The section I’m currently working on is how reading the prophets helps us understand the Psalms & vice versa. And yes, Ellen, this is one of the places where I’m tackling the imprecatory psalms with the suggestion that reading them in consonance with the prophetic destruction oracles can actually be a helpful thing.

There’s a second line of thought on how the psalms have been read in the voices of various biblical people, initially David and later Christ and how this is ok based on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. That’s what the previous two posts were leading to.

Then there’s a third line of thought on what modern people could or should do with the rampant allegorization that pervades patristic thought on the Scriptures generally and the Psalms in particular. As you’ve probably guessed from my title, that’s where we are today…

So—take a look, let me know what you think.


One of the biggest hurdles for modern readers of patristic biblical interpretation like Cassiodorus and Augustine is the idea of “allegorical interpretation.” Let me give you an example of what we’re talking about, then I’ll explain why I put that term in quotes and why it’s not nearly as much of a hurdle as we think it is.

Here are the opening lines of Psalm 11:

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. (Ps 11:1-4)

When I look at this text, I see the psalmist speaking as one with a firm trust in God. The unnamed person to whom the psalmist speaks—the “you” in the first verse—lacks the same trust as the speaker. Hence, these lines beginning with “Flee like a bird to the mountains…” are the words of someone who does not have faith that the Lord is going to right all wrongs, especially when the wicked are in power. The rest of the psalm will continue to assert trust in God’s vindication of the righteous from a Wisdom orthodoxy perspective. If you wanted, you could almost see this psalm as a counter-argument from Proverbs against Ecclesiastes.

Now, here is how Cassiodorus reads Psalm 11:1:

This [rhetorical] figure is called caenonema, the divulging of a plan; it frequently occurs when we join words with foes or allies. These words are in fact addressed to persuasive heretics who wish to utter evil to seduce innocent souls with vicious argument. So to them the faithful man says: “Since I am established on the fixed peak of religion, how is it that you seek to persuade me, saying: Get thee away to the mountain, in other words, have recourse to the wickedness of heretics, falsely claiming that Christ is where Truth is known to leave no trace?” In the divine Scriptures, mountain is ambivalent, being applied in comparison to very different things. It is often used in both good and bad senses. When it is used in a good sense, its strength and notable height are regarded; when in a bad sense, its inner stolidness and lofty pride. So the one term is aptly applied to different objects after reflection on their qualities. There are also several types of sparrow. Some take pleasure in holes in walls, while others make for dewy valleys, and others haunt scaly mountains. But here the psalmist speaks of those whose most random inclination bears them off to the loftiest region of earth. So those who in fickleness of wavering mind turn to most wicked doctrines are rightly considered similar to them.[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.135.]

He is taking the image of a bird winging away to the mountains, and is infusing it with theological meaning. As a modern reader, I think that Cassiodorus is over-reading the text. That is, I think that the psalmist is trying to communicate to the reader a certain feeling of escape, giving us a mental picture of a bird swooping off into the distance intended to convey either a physical or emotional distancing of the self from a difficult situation. I see Cassiodorus finding more in the text than what the psalmist intended. He uses his knowledge of rhetoric to identify this passage as a particular figure of thought, caenonema, and then moves into a discussion of the possible deeper meanings of the words “mountain” and “sparrow.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that we are talking about when we refer to “allegorical interpretation.” Over the centuries certain patterns of substitutionary reading built up (“when the text says ‘mountains’ what it really means is X; when it says ‘sparrows’ it really means Y”). By the late medieval period, knowing and understanding these patterns of substitutionary reading were considered necessary for the proper interpretation of the biblical text. This is why the Protestant Reformation insisted so strongly on the perspecuity of the text—that is, that a normal lay person can read a biblical passage and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can understand what it says without needing the layers of additional interpretation to read it rightly. The Reformers objected to the notion that the Bible had to be withheld from those who had not been trained in this extensive system of substitutionary and additional meanings. In their day it was about power, control, and who was allowed to have access to the biblical text. This is a key reason why “allegorical interpretation” gets a bad rap: it was used as a means of keeping the Word of God from the people of God.

Another key reason why both the Reformers and modern readers don’t like it is because it seems so arbitrary. Why, for instance, in the next verse of the psalm does Cassiodorus insist that: “We must interpret the bow as the divine commands which the heretic wields and orders according to his own wickedness[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.136.]”? Do we really have to use the word “must” here? Surely there are other ways that we can read this. Why does Cassiodorus fix upon this particular meaning to the exclusion of others?

In defense of Cassiodorus, there is a reason why he reads this psalm in this way. From his reading of the whole psalm and his theological context within the doctrinal disputes on the nature of Christ, he has decided that this psalm as a whole speaks about and against heretics who are troubling the church. Coming at it from this angle, he is going to interpret the details that he sees in ways that fit this reading.

The question that we need to ask is, what is prompting him to read this psalm in this way? Why does he believe that the psalm needs to be read in this way? And what are the limits on this kind of interpretive model? Furthermore, is there anything that we can take away from this model to assist our praying of the Psalms?

 

The first place we need to start is getting clear on terminology—specifically around allegory. As we’ve mentioned, the art of rhetoric involves quite a number of figures of speech and figures of thought. Allegory in its technical sense is simply one of these, one among many. According to the formal definition, an allegory is a statement or narrative that is intended to be read in a substitutionary way, where the actors or characters or references are intended to refer to something other than their literal referent. It’s usually a deliberate and conscious choice on the part of the author. Hence, when George Orwell sat down to write his barnyard classic Animal Farm he did so with a solid working knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union and its relationships to the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe. An uninformed reader will find a story about how the animals tried to free themselves from human control but then—slowly but surely—the leadership began acting in more and more human ways until the situation of the workers were no better under the new management than they were under the old. The story makes sense on its own. An informed reader having the allegorical key (“this story is actually about the progress of Communism in the Soviet Union”), though, will have no problem matching up certain characters with certain historical figures: Farmer Jones is Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Joseph Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, etc. This is intentional allegory.

Allegory in this technical sense is not foreign to the Bible itself. Allegory as a compositional technique is found in many places in the Old Testament. The image of the vineyard as a representation for Israel is used creatively by several authors in an intentionally allegorical way. The ancient Song of Moses alludes to it, concluding with this image: “[God] brought [the people] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession” (Exodus 15:17). Psalm 80 makes explicit use of the allegory, using it in the same way as the Song of Moses:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. (Ps 80:8-15)

The allegory is clear: Israel is the vineyard, the wild boar and other beasts are the enemies of Israel. Another classic adaptation of this image is the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 5. It starts in the same place as the Song of Moses and Psalm 80:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. (Isa 5:1-2)

Instead of moving into lament like the psalm does, Isaiah does something unexpected and slips into the prophetic courtroom accusation mode taking on his own lips the voice of God (that is, making a propospological move himself):

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it. (Isa 5:3-6)

Psalm 80 expects God to tend the vineyard; to strengthen its wall and secure its boundaries. He is the owner and the planter, therefore it is his job to care for the vineyard and protect it. But Isaiah takes this conventional image and turns it on its head. The issue here isn’t with God/the owner—it’s with the vineyard and its crop! Isaiah finishes the oracle by both making its allegorical character exceedingly clear and clarifying the fruit:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7)

Isaiah acknowledges his use of allegory by identifying the beloved farmer as “the Lord of hosts” and the vineyard as “the house of Israel /and the people of Judah.” The wild grapes produced by the people are “bloodshed” and “a cry”—violations of Israel’s covenant responsibilities rather than the fruit that God intends of his people, “justice” and “righteousness.”

As if that weren’t enough, a later author writing in the same tradition as Isaiah reclaims the vineyard image from God’s perspective in Isaiah 27:1-6 to speak of the future victory of God and the full restoration of Israel concluding with a mix of allegory and its interpretive key:

In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit.

It’s not just Isaiah either in the prophetic literature. Jeremiah 12 uses this same agricultural image for Israel and the nations with regard to planting and plucking up (“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, /they have trampled down my portion, /they have made my pleasant portion /a desolate wilderness” Jer 12:10). So too does Ezekiel 19:10-14. Thus, the Old Testament itself uses allegory as a compositional tool.

Because of this fact, it’s therefore no surprise at all to see the use of allegory proper pop up in the New Testament. Indeed, knowing this allegory of the vineyard from the Song of Moses, Psalm 80, and the Prophets is essential to understanding the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 12:1-12 (and its parallels in Matthew 21:33-44 and Luke 20:9-18) that begins “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower…” (Mark 12:1). Anybody who knows Isaiah 5 will immediately recognize what’s going on here. Matthew’s telling in particular wants to be sure that the allegorical connection is made by concluding his passage with a focus on the fruits just like Isaiah 5 does: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43).

With these kinds of scriptural antecedents rolling around in our heads, then, what are we to make of the familiar passage from John 15 where Jesus begins speaking like this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…” (John 15:1-2)? Shouldn’t this address to the disciples at the Last Supper be heard as an allegory informed by Psalm 80 and Isaiah and the prophets where Jesus himself is the vine that God plants and all those connected into him are the people of God, called to bear fruit worthy of God’s kingdom?

The point I’m making here is that allegorical composition is not foreign to the Bible. To deny the legitimacy of allegory as a whole is an inaccurate reading of Scripture itself. However, what Cassiodorus and Augustine are doing goes far beyond recognizing allegorical composition. We need to make a distinction between allegorical composition which is something that a writer does, and allegorical interpretation which is something that a reader does. But here again, we have to look at the New Testament itself and how it teaches Scriptural reading.

The place where we must start to understand the role of allegorical reading in the Christian tradition is with St. Paul. Informed readers recognize that there is allegorical composition in the Bible—but Paul takes that and kicks it up several notches. In Galatians 4 he turns to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to contrast those who live by the law and those who live by the promise. After introducing the two children (Ishmael and Isaac), he says this:

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. (Gal 4:24-6)

Paul is doing something different than what we saw before. He has gone to a narrative text which does not contain any signals that it is allegorical in nature and asserts that there is, in fact, an allegory at work here—one that has bearing on Christian faith and practice. Nor is this the only time that he will do this.

First Corinthians 10 is an important text for understanding how Paul reads and for how he expects us to read as well. He begins the chapter by focusing his readers attention on what happened in and after the Exodus:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

This is different from what he says in Galatians; he is not claiming that this narrative is an allegory, nor does he inform us exactly how he is reading. His use of the term “spiritual” is important though. It points to the fact that he sees a deeper theological meaning embedded within the narrative and that there are certain meanings and identifications that have to be made in order to get the fullest meaning out of the text with one central hermeneutical key: “…and the rock was Christ.”

Within this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their moral and ethical lapses. Despite the fact that they are baptized people, souls incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, they persist in immorality that would make pagans blush. He introduces the generation of the Exodus and the pre-figurement of Baptism in the Red Sea to go on to chronicle both the ethical lapses of that generation and also the punishments that they received. He frames this material with an appeal to the utility of the scriptural text: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:6, 11). Paul is not saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the Exodus generation wandering in the wilderness and his Corinthian flock. Rather, he indicates that the biblical material has a bearing on and was intended to inform this present generation. These past events were written for our present instruction.

He makes this point again in a different way near the end of Romans where he explains to the Roman congregation his fundamental philosophy of reading:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[Ps 69:9] For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:1-6)

Paul’s emphasis is that the purpose of reading Scripture is to give hope and to constructively build up the community in Christ. That’s why we read: for the spiritual advancement of us all through the building up of the neighbor. Furthermore, whatever was written in Scripture is there in order to advance this purpose—to build up one another in love so that we may glorify God together in both our words and our works.

This, then, is the full and proper intention of the Pauline injunction in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. While the first verse of this passage is often proof-texted to make non-biblical assertions about inspiration, seeing it from this perspective helps us hear what Paul was intending:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Paul’s point is that all scripture bears a spiritual meaning and that the purpose of that spiritual meaning is to build up the community so that we are equipped to do acts of love and service. This is what the Scriptures are for and how they ought to be read: they are God’s self-revelation intended to build the Church up through an understand of how God wills us to live in love and reconciliation with one another.

At this point, let’s take a step back and summarize what we’ve been up to here. Why have we been spending so much time talking about Paul in a book about the Psalms and Jesus? What we’ve established here is that:

  1. Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers read the Psalms in an extra-literal way often referred to as “allegorical interpretation.”
  2. There is a suspicion of allegorical interpretation in the modern church.
  3. That suspicion is warranted because of the ways that substitutionary readings became a way to keep the biblical text out of the hands of the laity.
  4. However, certain texts of the Bible are demonstrably allegorical in composition.
  5. Sparked by this recognition, Paul taught allegorical or spiritual reading to the Church for a specific purpose—the upbuilding of the Church for acts of love and service.

3 Replies to “PC: Is Allegory OK?”

  1. Good stuff.

    Since you asked for comments, and reviewing your text from the perspective of a writer and not a theologian, I think you get powerfully close in some of this text to confusing allegory with metaphor. And I, personally, found that both confusing and distracting.

    When John 15 writes about vines, for example, I see that as metaphor… unless it’s involved in a long-running substitutional narrative (of which, due to my lack of theological I knowledge and insight, I am unaware).

    I don’t mean to be critical… but as I read, I kept being distracted by the thought “Is that’s REALLY allegory? What am I missing?”

    Aside from the issue of developmental editing, I found your theses very interesting and instructive.

  2. I had a related but not identical thought as Peter regarding distinction between allegorical and metaphorical. As I understand it the earliest Church Fathers, well into the Middle Ages, interpreted scripture from literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical perspectives. I’ll admit I’ve never mastered a full understanding of how ‘literal’ then does not mean the same as fundamentalist contemporary literal interpretation (“Adam and Eve were real people”…would Church Fathers and contemporary creationists understand such a statement in the same way, with equal weight, etc?). The analogical also is fuzzy for me–it often seems the same as metaphorical as I understand it. But I bet I’m wrong. Anyway, I’m betting that here is a piece of an ongoing discussion to be joined in a larger whole that Derek is working on or has already done in his most recent book, and where such matters are addressed. (I’m going to look into buying that book!) Allegory means a one to one, specific substitution, right? Jesus talking about the seeds that fall on various surfaces he explains later: the seed that falls on the x ground is y (e.g. falls amid rocky soil….plant grows, shallow roots, sun scorches equals those who hear and accept the word but are then distracted and drawn away by the world). So Derek, are you using ‘allegorical’ in the classic interpretive model? How does our sense of metaphor work, or not, with that four-fold interpretive method? BTW I read Psalm 11: 1-4 as a response to a threatening military force. The speaker faces those waffling in their faith, ‘how can they say….?” And then offers words of reassurance that God is paying attention, God will keep the foundation if the people remain faithful (OK, that bit comes from larger context of esp the prophets). I can then move from that allegory to my own life, using the reassurance as metaphor, so that if any seem to be rising up to cause me grief (either people from without or my own doubts within)…and in prayer at any given time I’d be naming/reflecting on that which troubled me…and answering with the words of reassurance that God cares and is paying attention. Now preaching brings an entirely different angle: preachers can often choose one interpretation of a psalm, or parable, or whatever and present it as if it the singular, allegorical way of understanding the text. It takes some intro contextualizing to be clear on distinguishing the ‘what’ from the ‘how I got here’ in the text.

  3. I like this piece; lots of good stuff here.

    I used to find this kind of allegorical interpretation annoying, but have come to like and appreciate it. I first found it in Augustine (who I guess Cassiodorus is following, in a way – but I guess both are taking after Paul, which I had sort of known, but never exactly made that connection!).

    What’s odd is: I don’t think people today SHOULD find this strange. Literary Criticism has for many years been – like, the entire 20th Century! – in the business of disregarding “Authorial Intent.” Perhaps the church is basically stuck in the 18th-19th Century? Always a few hundred years behind…. :-)

    I don’t see why Cassiodorus – or anyone else – shouldn’t offer us that interpretation, in fact. Why not? Why not keep doing this, in fact? It’s creative; it makes use of argumentation and rhetoric; it requires deep knowledge. And it allows us to continue with this open-ended interpretive approach. Maybe the only sticking point is the insistence that this passage MUST be interpreted in the way he proposes, as you point out.

    But there really should be nothing strange about this, IMO. As I said, Augustine’s verbal/mental gymnastics annoyed me for awhile – but then I found them appealing and interesting. Anyway, this kind of thing – extending interpretation beyond the text itself – has always occurred, I think. There’s the Jewish oral Torah, and rabbinic literature. I would say that Eastern Orthodox extend “interpretation” outside of Biblical sources, too (although perhaps not specifically via allegory – would have to look at that).

    Don’t know too much about other traditions, but I would say it’s our own Scientism that is the real problem, mostly! We seem to worship the written word now, and indeed to take everything “literally” – even when it wasn’t meant that way.

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