The two keys to discerning a legitimate allegory: is it “feasible” and is it “beneficial?”
Is it permissible for two Christians to read the same Scripture and legitimately gather two different interpretations?
The church fathers said yes.
Here is the test. Is the interpretation of Scripture both 1) “feasible” and 2) beneficial”? If so, then it is permissible to accept the interpretation, even if it varies with other legitimate interpretations.
1) Such an interpretation is “feasible” if it is consistent with the two essences of Christ–love and light. The love and light of Christ is able transfigure all Scriptures to conform their semantic meaning to God’s flawless goodness.
The great eastern church father Origen, wrote, “Ignorant assertions about God appear to be nothing else but this: that Scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.” (On First Principles 4:2.1-2, 4).
Gregory of Nyssa wrote that “allegory” allowed certain OT Scriptures to be “converted from the raw and indigestible state of their literal meaning into a wholesome and healthy intellectual food.” (Hom., in Cant., prol.).
The great western father Augustine taught that the harmful husk (literal reading) of Scripture had to be removed so that the valuable kernel (allegorical meaning) could be consumed. (On Christian Teaching, 3.12.18). Augustine used the Rule of Divine Character when allegorizing, which essentially holds that the character of God revealed in Jesus cannot EVER be violated by the literal reading of ANY Old Testament Scripture. If the passage “appears on its face” to attribute unworthy motives, brutal behavior, cruel intentions, hypocritical conduct or coercive attributes to God, then it must be read allegorically and NOT literally.
2) Such an interpretation is “beneficial” if it exhorts the reader to greater love for God and/or greater love for neighbor. Saint Augustine said, “If a passage seems to endorse wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid selflessness or kindness, it is figurative and not to be read literally.” He believed that all Scripture must be interpreted through the love of God and neighbor, on which all the law and prophets hang. Matt. 22:37-40. (Source: On Christian Teaching, see 3:10.14; 3:11.17; 3.16.24).
“Wherefore, in the Old Testament there is a veiling of the New, and in the New Testament a revealing of the Old. According to that veiling, carnal men, understanding things in a carnal fashion, have been under the dominion, both then and now, of a penal fear. On the other hand, spiritual men… have a spiritual understanding and have been made free through love which they have been gifted.” Saint Augustine (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 4:8; NPNF 1/3:287).
John Cassian stated the church fathers’ dynamic bottom line against dead letter Bible reading in the following excerpt from Institutes 8.4: “And so, since these things cannot without horrible sacrilege be literally understood of him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, simple, and uncomposite, the disturbance of anger (not to mention wrath) cannot be attributed to that immutable nature without monstrous blasphemy.”
Consider Gregory of Nyssa on this point:
“Since some ecclesiastics deem it right to stand always by the literal meaning of the holy scripture and do not agree that anything in it was said through enigma and allegories for our benefit, I consider it necessary first to speak in defense of these things to those who bring such accusations against us, because in our view there is nothing unreasonable in our seriously studying ALL POSSIBLE MEANS of tracking down the benefit to be had from the divinely inspired Scripture…. We will TURN SUCH WORDS AS THESE OVER AND OVER IN OUR MIND…When it comes to the ‘insightful reading’ of such passages that comes via the ‘elevated sense’, we shall not beg to differ at all about its name whether one wishes to call it tropologia, allegoria, or anything else [type, shadow, anti-type, metonymy, etc.] — but ONLY ABOUT WHETHER IT CONTAINS ‘MEANINGS THAT ARE BENEFICIAL.'” Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, prologue, quoted in PAUL, THE CORINTHIANS AND THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIAN HERMENEUTICS, by Margaret Mitchell, Cambridge Press, pages 1-3, 2010.
Now, let’s look at some specific examples and applications.
“Every man, within himself has Moses and the Israelites, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, [wise and unwise virgins], the Patriarchs and the kingdom of heaven and hell. Thus, the events described in the Bible, and looked upon by the pious as being things of a past history, are actually descriptions of internal processes taking place in the constitution of man himself”. ~Jacob Boehme 1575-1624
By internalizing and allegorizing these types of passages throughout the Old and New Testament, we can see that our inner patterns of thoughts/impulses/desires, both wicked and righteous, are often contrasted and allegorized as careless or careful virgins, faithful or foreign wives, Philistine or Israeli powers, cannibalistic or caring fathers, and faithful or prodigal sons, etc.
This particular parable of The Ten Virgins in Matthew 25 is an allegory exhorting us to ensure that all our inner desires are wholeheartedly focused on the Lord, while simultaneously warning us that whatever lukewarm and neglectful attitudes and mindsets which we allow to operate within us will never make it into the bridal chamber of divine union.
Simply put, the lukewarm parts of us will never enter into the kingdom of God. This battle of internal processes is similarly described in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5. Lukewarm desires (wood, hay, stubble) in us will be purged away by the refiner’s fire, leaving only pure bridal desires (gold, silver, and precious stones) remaining.
So then, this parable is about the rich reward of devotional vigilance and the tragic cost of devotional neglect. The point of the Parable is a clarion call for us to vigilantly police our own inner thoughts and motives. The careless virgins represent the unrenewed, lukewarm, and neglect-infested part of our soul, the “wood, hay and stubble” described in the below passage.
“For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if any man buildeth on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work shall abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. IF ANY MAN’S WORK SHALL BE BURNED, HE SHALL SUFFER LOSS: BUT HE HIMSELF SHALL BE SAVED YET SO AS BY FIRE.” 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
This and other parables of exclusion, then, don’t speak of eternal exclusion, but instead of a aionios/season of purgation. To read them any other way would not be “feasible” because it contradicts the revealed nature of God through Jesus as “Salvador Mundi” (the savior of the world entire). Nor would other wrath-infested interpretations be “beneficial” if they don’t enhance our love for God or neighbor.
The church fathers were really on to something wonderful here.
Let me close with one more example from Origen in how to allegorically deal with the violent stories in the Promised Land battles of Joshua.
Commenting on the brutal wars in which Joshua was involved, Origen says:
“The Jews who read these events, I am speaking of the Jews according to the appearance, who is circumcised in his body, and ignores the true Jew who is circumcised in his heart; this [physical] Jew does not find ought except description of wars, killing of enemies, and victory of the Israelites who plundered the possession of the foreigners and pagans, under the guidance of Joshua….
While the Jew according to the heart, that is the Christian who follows Jesus, the Son of God, and NOT Joshua the Son of Nun, understands these events as representing the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He says, ‘Today also my master Jesus Christ fights the powers of the evil and drives them out from the towns which they occupied before. He drives them out of our souls. He kills the kings who reigned over them, so that sin will not reign over us. As our souls become free from the reign of sin they become a temple of the Lord and of the God’s Kingdom, hearing the words, ‘The kingdom of God is within you'”…. Homilies on Joshua 13.1
“Unless those carnal wars (of the Old Testament) were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches… Thus, the apostle, being aware that physical wars have become personal battles of the soul against spiritual adversaries, gives orders to the soldiers of Christ like a military commander when he says, ‘Put on the armor of God so as to be able to hold your ground against the wiles of the devil'” (Eph. 6:11). (Hom 15.1 ).
“[A Christian] affirms that even now my Lord Jesus Christ wars against opposing powers and casts out of their cities, that is, out of our souls, those who used to occupy them. And he destroys the kings who were ruling in our souls ‘that sin may no longer reign in us,’ [citing Rom. 6:12] so that, after he abolishes the king of sin from the city of our soul, our soul may become the city of God and God may reign in it, and it may be proclaimed to us, ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you'” [citing Luke 17:21] (Hom 13.1 .
“This warfare must be conducted by the Christian not with physical weapons, but with prayers, meditation on the Word of God, good deeds and good thoughts. Only in this way is the Christian able to withstand the works of the Devil, all the while invoking the help of Jesus Christ” (Hom 16.5).
Origen repeatedly stresses that a Christian reads with circumcised heart and thus ‘understands that all these things are mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’ (Hom 13.1 .
Origen says that literal (dead letter) Bible readings, at least in these warfare texts, is equivalent to heresy. Origen charges that reading Joshua’s warfare texts literally is “teaching cruelty” (Hom 11.6 ). Literalists “make malicious charges against our Lord and Savior, who commands the kingdom of heaven, which he had promised to those who believe in him, to be seized through violence” (Hom. 12.2 ). Without the “deeper understanding” of an allegorical reading, literalists, in Origen’s view, produce “perverse doctrines beautified by the assertions of a splendid discourse. . . [that]. . . . introduce into the churches sects not fitting to us, and to pollute all the church of the Lord” (Hom 7.7 ).
So, Origen sees “the promised land enemies” not as hostile humans but as carnal and/or Satanic IMPULSES. These enemies represent NOT flesh and blood foes, but rather terroristic thoughts, malicious mentalities, lustful strongholds, deadly ideas, and sinful mindsets. This alone is where ANY level of violence is spiritually permitted– on our own inner toxic impulses and lethal ideas, NEVER on humans made in the image of God.
This allegorical reading also helps us interpret passages like the 2 Corinthians 6:7 passage which says we “brandish weapons of righteousness in our right hand and in our left.”
Here is how that works.
We flood our enemies with forgiveness. We resist them with non-retaliation. We capture them with the love of God. We arm ourselves with disarming.
We brandish weapons of righteousness in our right hand and in our left.
What exactly are those weapons?
We flood our enemies with forgiveness.
We throttle them with tenderness.
We overcome them with an opposite spirit.
We pulverize them with patience.
We maul them with meekness.
We crush them with caring.
We ambush them with the awe of the Lord.
We bombard them with blessings.
We fight with a faith which works only and always through love.
Below is a helpful excerpt from a book called Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible, by John S. Uberax. It reveals how Old Testament Scriptures can still be divinely inspired in their subtextual symbolism, regardless of the human writer’s partial misperceptions about God and/or historical events which appear on the surface of the text. In other words, symbolic archetypes are divinely embedded in the Old Testament for us to plumb for wisdom. These archetypes’ function is to always point us to Christ and His kingdom of light and love. This is the same essential technique used by the church fathers– Augustine, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa.
“We use the term ‘allegory’ in a very broad sense here that means, basically, non-literal interpretation; or interpretation at the level of symbolism. Why psychological allegory? For our purposes, psychological allegorism is understood as the literary symbolization of interior mental processes as human characters and events….
Allegorical interpretation is an ancient tradition, present among the first Christians, and in Jewish and Hellenistic culture before and after Christianity per se emerged. This method is supported by reason and scientific theory.
How does this affect a view of the Bible as divinely inspired? It might enhance ones appreciation for God’s sophistication, as well as for the potential of human intuition and creativity. That is, it acknowledges a myriad of means by which God may inspire human writing. If a passage of Scripture is allegorical, there is no less reason to believe that God has guided the mind of the writer and utilized the creative capacities of the human being…
There are two general guiding rules:
1) Each major person and situation in the Bible corresponds to and symbolizes an inner disposition, state, process or archetypal principle of your mind or soul.
2) No words in the Bible are accidental or superfluous. An unusual word or turn of phrase, or the express mention of a seemingly unimportant detail, suggests presence of an allegorical meaning…
So, under an allegorical reading, one may see figures in the Bible as symbolizing states of mind. By the Philonic method of psychological interpretation, each figure in the Old Testament may be seen as symbolizing some personality disposition. Thus, by this view, you have an inner Adam and an inner Eve, an inner Cain and Abel, an inner Abraham, an inner Moses, and inner Pharaoh, and so on. The struggles and dynamics amongst human characters in the Old Testament mirror the conflicts and dynamics of your psyche.
This view implicitly recognizes the plurality of the human personality. Many modern psychological theories agree that each of us possesses myriad dispositions or divisions of this kind; different theorists refer to them by different names, including sub-egos, part egos, complexes, or ‘archetypes’. However, unlike most psychological theories, the Bible sees this state of affairs as having a definite purpose and, as it were, resolution. There is an alternative to merely being a chaotic assemblage of states and feelings. A higher, integrated level of organization of the personality is possible…
When seeking an allegorical understanding, it helps to read Scripture in a careful and attentive way. The traditional Christian practice of lectio divina , or spiritual reading, is useful for this. The article, A Method for Lectio Divina Based on Jungian Psychology , explains a form of lectio divina in psychological terms: A good general resource for interpreting the Old and New Testament is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. These volumes proceed through the Bible supplying excerpts from Church Fathers, commenting on various chapters and verses.”
~~ Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible: A Brief Explanation of the Principles of Psychological Exegesis of Holy Scripture by John S. Uebersax