Who are the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of Allegorical Bible Reading?
“Allegory is language that says one thing and means either something MORE than what it says or something OTHER than what it says.” — Theologian R.A. Norris, in his article on “Allegory” in THE WESTMINSTER HANDBOOK TO ORIGEN.
In point of fact, the title of this very note is itself an allegory which is to be understood as NOT “literally” referring to the three Hebrew Patriarchs, but rather as a symbolic reference to three OTHER figures. Ironically, to understand the relevance of these three Patriarchs to this note on Allegorical Bible Reading, an allegorical (non-literal) analysis itself is going on in your mind even as you are reading these words.
If Jesus was the fatherly “Abraham” of Allegorical Exegesis on the road to Emmaus, then Paul was clearly the “Isaac” of allegory in his many epistles, while the 3rd century Eastern church father Origen was the “Jacob” of allegory through his voluminous writings.
JESUS AS “THE ABRAHAM OF ALLEGORY”
Jesus frequently allegorized the Old Testament. Using key imagery from Old Testament passages which were ONLY seen as literal, He would then usurp their literal meaning into an allegorical application toward Himself. He referred to Himself as the Temple of God (John 2:19-22), the true manna from heaven (John 6:50), Jacob’s supernatural ladder (John 1:51), the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-40), the great shepherd of Psalm 23 (John 10:11), etc.
God revealed Himself as the great “I Am” In Exodus 3 with Moses at the Burning Bush. Jesus refers to Himself as the “I Am” on at least eight separate occasions, thus now personifying the Burning Bush allegory. In each of those eight occasions, the wording in the original Greek is the same. Jesus refers to Himself not simply as “I am” but literally as “I, I Am”. The phrase could be legitimately translated as “I and I alone” or “I and no one else”. The words He chose are emphatic.
Jesus, again and again, routed Old Testament passages as allegorical prophecies pointing to Him.
“But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:31.
“But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Matt. 26:56.
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself… And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures….” Luke 24:27, 44-45.
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John (the Baptist).” Matthew 11:13.
Jesus in the above passages clearly says that ALL the Old Testament prophesies, or speaks out, about Him. What? The entire Old Testament is to be primarily read as a series of prophecies about Jesus? How can that be?
Sure we have all heard that there are a few prophetic passages in the Books of the Prophets which speak of a coming Messiah. But ALL the prophetic writings? And not only them, but ALL the Books of the Law? All of these Old Testament books were purely prophetic toward Jesus?
How can such a thing be? The Law –also known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, and the Books of Moses– are the five books in the Bible which nearly all Jews and Christians read SOLELY as historical and literal truth. How can these books be called prophetic? Their context is not prophetic, but entirely narrative in that they claim on their face to take us from the creation of the world up and through the death of Moses. They don’t claim in their face to be prophetic, except in a few isolated incidents. They don’t literally mention Jesus by name. The word “Messiah” appears nowhere in the Law, much less any literal promises of the coming kingdom of “the Son of God.”
Now there are certainly several passages where the Lord promises Israel a blessed future, one in which all the nations will be blessed by the seed of Abraham. And some passages can certainly, in retrospect, be applicable to Jesus knowing what we now know. But to say the main thrust of the ENTIRE LAW prophesied about Jesus is mind-blowing. Modern day Jewish scholars take these same passages and apply them to the nation of Israel.
There can be only one explanation. We are NOT reading these Old Testament Bible passages the right way unless and until we read them as allegorical prophecy. To read them properly is to see in WHAT sense they are specifically ALLEGORIZING to us something about Jesus.
All the Old Testament is primarily to be read as an allegorical PROPHECY of the coming life, deity, nature, character, sacrifice, death, resurrection, and victorious glorification of Jesus. But the allegory doesn’t stop there. The Old Testament also prophesies as of the ascended Jesus’ eventual INDWELLING of all of us through the Pentecostal outpouring of His Holy Spirit.
Now, let’s go back and look at where Jesus demonstrated this very dynamic to the Disciples. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told the two disciples “And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, He (Christ) INTERPRETED to them in ALL THE SCRIPTURES the things concerning himself…And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Was not our heart burning within us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Luke 24:26-27, 31-32.
To read it allegorically is NOT to deny it lacks any historical value at all. Rather, it is to say that the primary meaning of Old Testament Scripture is symbolic and non-literal. It is more like a heroic “movie trailer” of Christ and His “coming soon” kingdom. The trailer is not in narrative form but is a series of quickly cut and weaved symbolic snippets which give us exciting flashes of insight into Jesus. But his trailer can only be previewed on a Holy Ghost projector.
Now, we know that Jesus is LITERALLY nowhere explicitly to be found by name in the Old Testament. But, ALLEGORICALLY, He is everywhere to be found. Do you see? Jesus allegorized the Scriptures to these two highly blessed disciples. And their hearts burned within them as they finally understood the true import of the Old Testament.
PAUL AS “THE ISAAC OF ALLEGORY”
For those who advocate allegorical reading, the apostle Paul is the key. He continually did it. When he cited Old Testament Scriptures, he always expanded them to either mean something MORE or something OTHER than what they literally said. Paul both approved and modeled the allegorical reading of the Old Testament for us.
In 1 Cor. 14:21, Paul took an Old Testament passage which on its face had nothing to do with New Testament tongues (Is. 28:11-12), and transformed, enhanced and enriched it to make it a prophetic passage for the spiritual gift of tongues.
Paul did the same thing by excavating the concept of circumcision from an empty and meaningless ritual to a spiritual transformation of the heart.
“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” 1 Cor. 7:19.
“For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” Gal. 5:6.
“But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Rom. 2:29.
Paul, who I believe authored Hebrews, also elevated animal sacrifices from being useless rituals under the bare letter of the law to a wonderful prophetic image of Christ’s perfect ransom paid for all under the spiritual reading of the passage. Heb. 10:1-10.
Paul also transformed the Sabbath from a letter of the law weekly ritual to an ongoing lifestyle state of being under the spiritual reading. Heb. 4:1-11.
Peter and Paul both renovated Old Testament dietary laws by integrating faith and thanksgiving into the true spiritual diet. (Acts. 11:5-10; Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Tim. 4:3-4).
Peter did the same thing in taking Joel 2:28-29 and excavating, renovating and elevating it to prophesy the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is beyond dispute that the Old Testament scholars of their day would have accused Paul and Peter (and the other New Testament writers) of butchering and misusing scriptures. They didn’t see that the Old Testament scriptures needed to be transformed, enhanced and enriched.
They failed to understand the key to Old Testament translation Jesus gave us in Matt. 11:13. “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” In other words, the Old Testament scriptures are all prophetic seeds waiting to be activated by New Covenant anointing. Without the anointing, Old Testament scriptures are dark and mysterious when read by the dead letter. But, when we add the water of the New Covenant Spirit and the light of Jesus, these hard seeds break open and sprout prophetic life.
Paul used the term “allegory,” (Galatians 4:24) like many other Church Fathers, to describe a particular scripture in which one thing is said but another is intended. The text taken literally does have meaning, but there is also another meaning, which is the more important one. The discovery of the allegorical meaning can also be described as “removing the veil” (2 Corinthians 3:16), for which Holy Spirit illumination is required.
Remember, as you read the passages below, remember this key point. It is NOT that the LITERAL reading of the Old Testament NEVER has ANY historical value or moral truth, for it does. But the literal reading is NOT spiritual.
Modern day Jews know the “literal” Old Testament passages far better than most Christians, but they still are oblivious to what the verses “spiritually mean” with regard to the coming Kingdom of Jesus. Their eyes remain blind to Jesus, despite the fact Jesus said the entire Old Testament spoke of Him.
Other key passages on allegorical reading are included below:
Galatians 4:21-31 (The “allegorical” reading of the Old Testament here is both modeled and approved by Paul, as he completely reinterprets the meaning of the story of Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael to refer rather to the current relationship between Old and New Covenants).
1 Corinthians 10:1-11( Paul “allegorizes” the whole Exodus journey of Israel as a type of the Christian walk, reading it non-literally in other words).
2 Corinthians 3:6-18 (Paul here says we are to be “ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter, for the LETTER KILLS, but of the Spirit, for the Spirit gives life,” and that Moses, as a symbol of Old Testament understanding, “veiled” the true meaning of OT Scripture by reading it with blind literalism).
Hebrews 8:1-5 (The voluminous OT passages about the “tabernacle” and “priesthood” and “sacrifices” are all “shadows of heavenly things” rather than literal realities on earth).
Hebrews 10:1 (Here, we see the law itself is to be read allegorically: “the law, having a shadow of good things to come, and NOT the very image of the things”).
Colossians 2:17 (The OT festivals, holy days and dietary laws are all called “shadows” of “the body of Christ” to come, again not the literal thing itself but a prophetic shadow of the Kingdom of God).
Matthew 11:13 (“ALL the OT law and prophets prophesied until John the Baptist,” the clear implication being that the OT is one big prophetic allegory of Christ to come).
Luke 11:27 (“ALL” the OT Scriptures, when properly read, speak ONLY of Christ).
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, was deeply intuitive, as was the Apostle Paul. When Luther was in his prime, he eloquently described his Spiritual Exegesis in the quotes below, which are included here because of how similar they sound to Paul’s writings. But, unfortunately, Luther moved toward a more literal reading toward the end of his life, but this is when he became bitter and fiercely anti-Semitic and needed “the dead letter” of Scripture to attack his enemies.
Consider these following Pauline-sounding quotes which all stress the absolute need for the Holy Spirit to be the interpretive agent to all non-literal Bible interpretation:
“If God does not open and explain Holy Writ, none else can understand it; it will remain a closed book, enveloped in darkness.” M. Luther, Works, ed. J. Pelikan, XIII, p. 17.
“Therefore the first duty is to begin with a prayer of such a nature that God in His great mercy may grant you the true understanding of His words.” Werke, Weimer Auflage , XIII, p. 57.
“The Bible cannot be mastered by study or talent, you must rely solely on the influx of the Spirit.” Dr. Martin Luthers Briefwechsel, eds. E. L. Enders and G. Kawerau, I, p. 141.
“No-one can understand God or His Word who has not received such understanding directly from the Holy Ghost.” Werke, Weimer Auflage, VII, p. 546.
“For nobody understands His precepts unless it be given him from above… You understand them, however, because the Holy Spirit teaches you… Therefore those most sadly err who presume to understand the Holy Scriptures and the law of God by taking hold of them with their own understanding and study.” Werke, Weimer Auflage, LVII, p. 185; cf. XV, p. 565.
ORIGEN AS “THE JACOB OF ALLEGORY”
Origen (3rd Century) was the first Christian Systematic Theologian and is considered the greatest theologian of the early Eastern Church. “There is hardly a major thinker who is not deeply indebted to Origen. Origen was the greatest enemy of Gnosticism (per his Against Celsus). From the middle of the Twentieth Century, focused scholarly symposia of the Greek and Latin Church have once again begun to study and critically expound the rich Origenian legacy.” The Westminister Handbook of Patristic Theology, WJK.
Origen, in his fourth book On First Principles, explains his theory concerning biblical exegesis. Allegorizing Scripture, according to Origen, is based on the realization of its divinely inspired character (Origen, On First Principles IV.I.passim). “For with regard to divine Scripture as a whole we are of the opinion that all of it has a spiritual sense” (ibid.; cf. Homilies on Genesis 1.14). “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.” Origen, On First Principles 4:2.1-2, 4.
The unity of the Bible is predicated on its divine nature. The one God speaks through many different men with one providential voice. Any apparent contradictions within the text reflect problems of human understanding or hints toward an allegorical subtext rather than any real inconsistency in the divine word (Origen, On First Principles IV.I.7; ibid. IV.II.9). For Christianity however, this unity extends FROM the New Testament “light” TO the Old Testament “shadow.” (ibid. IV.I.6).
Origen gives the following example:
“The Jews…understand only this, that ‘the children of Israel departed’ from Egypt and their first departure was ‘from Ramesse’ and they departed from there and came ‘to Socoth,’ and ‘they departed from Socoth’ and came ‘to Etham’ at Epauleus next to the sea. Then, next, they understand that there the cloud preceded them and the ‘rock’ from which they drank water followed; and furthermore, they crossed the Red Sea and came into the desert of Sinai.
Let us see, however, what sort of rule of interpretation the apostle Paul taught us about these matters. Writing to the Corinthians he says in a certain passage, ‘For we know that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all were baptized in Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. And they drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ.’
Do you see how much Paul’s teaching differs from the literal meaning? What the Jews supposed to be a crossing of the sea, Paul calls a baptism; what they supposed to be a cloud, Paul asserts is the Holy Spirit….” Origen, Homily V on Exodus, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 71, trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1982), 276.
Origen’s use of allegory heavily favors the employment of the New Testament to illuminate the old in keeping with his view that “the divine quality and spiritual character of the law of Moses came to light only with the coming of Jesus” (Origen, On First Principles IV.I.6). “What may appear as errors to us are intended by the Holy Spirit, to call the reader’s attention to ‘the impossibility of the literal sense’, and therefore signal the need for ‘an examination of the inner meaning.'” On First Principles IV.II.9, p. 287.
“Allegory enabled him (Origen) to appropriate the Old Testament from the Jews by giving even the most arcane provisions of the Law a Christological interpretation. It also enabled him to purge the Bible of the morally offensive elements which estranged the Gnostics and to demonstrate to pagans that it contained teachings consistent with the deepest insights of Greek philosophy. Since prejudice against the supposed barbarities of Scripture often made Gnosticism more appealing to classically educated persons than was orthodox Christianity, the two latter concerns often merged. Origen won over his patron, Ambrose, from Gnosticism by means of his allegorical interpretation much as the allegorical interpretation of a later Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, weaned the classically educated young Augustine from Manichaeism.” Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988), 25-26. Trigg later notes, “Origen’s work was the single most significant influence on the later development of Patristic biblical interpretation, not only in Alexandria, but in the church as a whole.” Trigg, 26.
Now, I certainly grant you that Spiritual Exegesis can be dangerously wrong if the man doing it isn’t Spiritual, or if the man doing it doesn’t love and revere and carefully study the Scriptures. This explains why many who claim to use Spiritual Exegesis are really engaging in flights of fancy and imagination rather than truly hearing God Himself illuminate the Scriptures in a coherent way.
But, just because some may abuse and misuse this principle doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Actually, the greatest truths are often surrounded by the greatest abuses. This is Satan’s way of keeping us from the truth he doesn’t want us to hear. Beloved, reading the Scriptures by the Spirit of God is the only way to fly. As we embrace the risk and responsibility of it, we won’t fail.
I propose that Bible readers need to learn and employ Spiritual Exegesis in excavating, elevating and renovating the Bible from the dead letter into the living Spirit. The result will be a fulfillment of God’s goodness in the reading of any and all Scripture. The Bible will come alive and pulsate with the goodness of God.
No longer will Scriptures be the Paper Pope whom we serve in the oldness of the letter. Scriptures instead will be inspired impressions left by the actual and living Word of God – – the Lord Jesus. These impressions will help us remember and recognize our own indwelling inspiration.
Scriptures will be the diving board from which we dive into the fullness of God. To keep the diving board flexible, we must remove all husks of brittle and dry and brittle opinions which we have wrongly projected onto both God and Scripture, and which have prevented us from springing into the bottomless depths of God’s nature and goodness.
“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).
Certainly, allegorical reading can be fraught with danger if the one doing it is NOT being led by the Holy Spirit. My response to this criticism is merely this –then BE led by the Spirit. Origen believed allegories must be spiritually sound to be successful. They must resonate with Apostolic faith and follow the established models set by the apostle Paul and other established exegetes. Scripture must interpret Scripture, etymological meanings considered, and humility applied.
Allegorical Exegesis is a RETURN to traditional Bible interpretation, not a departure from it.
Theologian Greg Boyd, in his recent blog review of a new book entitled The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation by Matthew Bates (Baylor University Press, 2012), corroborates the early church’s hermeneutic as allegorical and non-literal:
“[F]or ancient people in general, and for Paul and the authors of the New Testament in particular, it was generally accepted that the most important part of Scripture was not its surface or literal meaning, but rather what was underneath in the depth of the text. They looked for the ‘voice behind the voice’ and the divine ‘res’ (things) beneath the ‘verba’ (words) of Scripture…
Prior to the 17th and 18th century, the Church read Scripture through the lens of the ‘rule of faith’ (regula fidei) and therefore with the understanding that the divine author of Scripture could intend meanings that went beyond, if not at times against, the original meaning intended by the human authors.
And it was always assumed (though not always consistently practiced) that the central meaning of all Scripture is Jesus Christ since Jesus himself taught us to read it this way (Jn. 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-27, 32, 44-47). This is clearly in line with the probing way Paul and other NT authors approached the OT. They reflect very little concern with adhering to the original meaning of passages while demonstrating a willingness to go to remarkably creative extremes to discern Christ in Scripture…
What’s most interesting today is that, while a host of scholars after Barth, and especially over the last twenty years, have been arguing for a return to the Church’s traditional way of reading Scripture, evangelicals have by and large been the most resistant to this. While evangelicals, by and large, reject the biblical criticism that accompanies the historical-critical approach to Scripture, they have been the most vocal defenders of the historical-critical assumption that the original meaning of a passage is the only truly legitimate meaning a passage can have.” “Getting Behind the ‘Letter’ of Violent Portraits of God”, ReKnew Blog by Greg Boyd, July 18, 2013.
Let me close with an extended quote on allegorical Bible reading from H.D. Lubac, one of my favorite Origen scholars and theologians. Henri de Lubac was a French Jesuit priest who became a Cardinal of the Catholic Church and is considered to be one of the most vibrant theologians of the last century. In his proposal that we maintain and relish proper Spiritual Exegesis, aka allegorical reading, Lubac describes it this way:
“Naturally our spiritual exegesis on the supposition that it be revived will remain Christological, purely Christological, and it will not overlook any of Christ’s dimensions any more than it did in the past. Its course will be directly contrary to the one taken by an unenlightened science with consequences which were, on many an occasion, lamentably destructive. It will make a definite effort to remain open, on all occasions, to the ‘wondrous depth’ of the divine words which filled St. Augustine with awe and love.
We will be different in this respect alone that we will be more painstaking in our endeavor to avoid ever giving occasion for the impression that the foundations of our exegesis have been weakened by deficiencies of criticism. This preoccupation will force us quite often to give up the procedure of the ancients and the reasons which, in their mind, justified it, even though we remain faithful to their fundamental principles. We will imitate their habitual modesty rather than their methodology.
Although we will give as much attention as they did themselves to the Mystery which is signified in history, we will give more, perhaps, to the historicity of the figure; or, at least, we will be more aware of the way of proceeding which is imposed on us by an accurate knowledge of that historicity. And in this way we will make a real effort to unite our modern ‘historical sense’ to that profound ‘sense of history’ which their spiritual exegesis could draw from the text.” HISTOIRE ET ESPRIT, page 432.
Sounds like a plan!