Fenestra Allegoriae: Allegory As A Window to Reality

Whenever we hear the word “allegorical” we tend to associate it with fanciful and wistful ideas separated from reality. We tend to think allegory must mean the literal words are now abstracted into some chaotic world where meaning becomes subjective and order is left behind. There is a valid criticism that much of what gets argued for today under the banner of allegory is nothing more than an attempt to unmoor the text from the shame of being an historical document, but it is my contention that the allegorical method of interpretation is actually just as valid and “real” of an interpretation as the literal one; in fact, I do not think you can have the former without the latter. My reason behind this is similar to what I wrote in my previous article Imago et Cogitatio, and thus you can consider this entry as a sequel to that one. In that light, let us go over a few highlights in order to pave our way forward into this consideration.

Metaphysical groundwork

My main thesis throughout Imago et Cogitatio was that images are an inescapable part of our reality because of the logic that undergirds them. I went on further to explain how visible depictions draw our mind towards contemplation of the divine. Fundamental to this argument is the connection I show between Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint John of Damascus’ use of Pseudo-Dionysius’ “predeterminations” in their respective ideas on the logoi and images. Particularly relevant to our study here is Saint Maximus’s insight into the relation of the various logoi to the one Logos.

For the Confessor, the logoi are the underlying principles, so to speak, which give every created thing its own being, form, order, and end for which it is made. But these logoi proceed from and are one in the Logos. Here it is worth citing Saint Maximus at length: “…we affirm that the one Logos is many logoi and the many logoi are One. Because the One goes forth out of goodness into individual being, creating and preserving them, the One is many. Moreover, the many are directed toward the One and are providentially guided in that direction. It is as though they were drawn to an all-powerful center that had built into it the beginnings of the lines that go out from it and that gathers them all together. In this way the many are one.”[1]

There is much in this text that we could stop and meditate on, and in Imago et Cogitatio I argued from this text to show how images (and by extension all of creation!) serve to direct our mind back to God through contemplation. Because of these underlying logoi, or principles, by which all created things have their being, form, etc…,and because each of these logoi subsists in the one Logos, it stands to reason that we can move from these logoi and follow the “lines” back to the Logos through contemplation. There is nothing created that was not made by and through the Wisdom of God, and all things are upheld by His power. If we follow Saint Maximus’ analogy of the “all-powerful center,” we will find that all the “lines” going out from it lead us back to the person of Jesus Christ, the Logos of God.

How Scripture fits into this

With these things in mind, we can now turn to the question at hand. How does the allegorical method of interpretation connect with the logoi and the Logos? First, we must understand what the telos, or end, of Scripture is. Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was given to the Church for the salvation of man. In it God’s love for humanity is revealed, and the way of salvation is made known. Scripture is, therefore, aimed at bringing man into participation in the Divine life through the revealing of the Son of God. Since Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it has both a human and a divine author—it contains both a visible and a spiritual reality. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the basic understanding of a sacrament—a visible sign (signum) which points to and conveys a spiritual reality (res). As Fr. Hans Boersma says, “Allegory is a sacramental kind of interpretation that looks for the deeper…meaning of the text.”[2] St. Paul tells us that all of Scripture is inspired and profitable for both doctrine and instructing us in righteousness, but not every portion seems to be addressing these things. This is where a strictly literal approach to scriptural interpretation ultimately falls flat, and where the Allegorical method helps us to better understand and apply every portion of Sacred Scripture to our lives.

Take for example an event in the life of King David. Let’s consider when David fought against Goliath. If we follow the Historical-Grammatical interpretation strictly, we will only see the accomplishment of David against an enemy of Israel. Are we to believe this is all that the Holy Spirit intended by including this event in David’s history? That God was faithful to raise up a savior for Israel amidst political turmoil? Surely not, because even in how I described the passage above we see, practically bursting forth from the words, how David typifies our Lord. Still further we can look to Goliath and see the passions which wage war against the soul and try to drag it down from its ascent to God. We can take the stone used by David to be Christ, and more specifically the graces given by Christ to aid us in this life. This rendering of the stone, mind you, is not my own, but partly comes from St. Chrysostom[3]. It is evident there is more at work beyond the mere letter of the text.

With this in mind, we can examine how this applies to to interpreting the Scriptures allegorically. The connection exists in that, just as every word exists as a sign pointing to the reality that word expresses, so too each of these realities serves as a sign as well. The stone in the above example has a particular logos that makes a rock what it is, and this logos is what makes a rock a fitting sign of our Lord Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in Scripture, Christ is referred to as a “rock,” and that is because the qualities of a rock speak to something that is rooted and originates in Christ. Each story then, as well as each particular word, participates in a larger reality than what the literal sense can convey on its own. Whatever is applicable to the logoi can be used in giving an interpretation of a given text, and thus serve as a real and genuine way of revealing Christ through the text (either explicitly or implicitly). This is why so many of the Fathers have found Christ at the center of Israel’s history; why St. Paul speaks of Christ as the “substance” of all the Old Covenant ceremonies; and why Christ Himself taught the Apostles how He is hidden within all of Israel’s scripture.[4]

It is clear then that allegory does not necessarily lead to either a dismissal of the literal interpretation or, far worse, a rejection of the historical veracity of the letter of the text. Rather, when approached rightly, we see that the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture is, in a manner, a transfiguration of the text— elevating the literal into the spiritual. In this light, we see that even our manner of interpreting Scripture mirrors our teleology. When explaining how even the Old Testament can be viewed as Gospel after the incarnation of our Lord, Origen echos this same sentiment when he says, “but the Saviour, when He sojourned with men and caused the Gospel to appear in bodily form, by the Gospel caused all things to appear as Gospel.”[5]

So why then is the allegorical method so often impugned? Doubtless, there are some spurious and dangerous interpretations that have arisen, but an abuse does not negate the valid use of a thing. Those who favor the Historical-Grammatical approach will say that we can only follow the literal sense of Scripture because this alone grounds us in the historicity of the claims made. They will argue that to remain as factual as possible, we must limit ourselves to the author’s intent and the historical setting of the text. But to say that we are bound to the intent of the human author de-spiritualizes the text, turning Scripture into just another historical document to be analyzed by the academy. Is this not the error liberal Biblical Scholars fall into? Yet as Christians we confess and believe that the Scriptures have a divine author—the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Is it impossible for the Holy Spirit to intend something deeper than only the literal reading of a given text? To deny this seems to leave too many typological connections left to mere historical accident, rather than guided by divine providence and the wisdom of God. Nor does this do any harm to the literal sense of Scripture. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says, if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.”[6] This “[comprehending of] all things,” in my estimation, recognizes the various logoi subsisting within each created thing—words included.

Following only the Historical-Grammatical approach also proves too much. It is argued that any attempt to spiritualize or allegorize a text is an abuse of that text, since it was not what the human author originally intended. But how then are the Apostles able give such interpretations of Noah’s flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, or of the rock in the wilderness?[7] It is highly doubtful that Moses had these things in mind while writing the ancient history of Israel. But the Spirit of God was not ignorant of what would happen thereafter. One could argue that these examples were inspired by God, and therefore do not count. However, all this would leave us with are divinely inspired abuses of Scripture. Inspiration does not give warrant for what would otherwise be an abuse. Rather, I believe it is the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit that opened their eyes, as well as our own, to see these connections. Again, the work of allegory is looking behind the curtain of the literal words to perceive the logoi and to follow those lines back to the one who upholds all things.

Guardrails

One of the reasons why critics will downplay the rightful use of allegory in the work of interpretation is due to the alleged lack of boundaries. However, allegory is no more susceptible to this error than the literal sense is with its own interpretive errors. With that said, I would like to offer a few guardrails to help provide a right way of employing this method.

First, we should not disparage the literal sense of Scripture. It is from this sense that any spiritual sense is derived.[8] As I argued above, they very reason the allegorical method is valid is because of the logoi which the words of the literal sense signify. It is these logoi which provide the boundaries of any given allegorical interpretation. You cannot take the word “blood” and come away with something completely unrelated to blood. Blood has specific contexts and qualities that make it give rise to our theological meaning. You can, however, take “wine” and come away with some connections to “blood.” This is because there is a fittingness between the two. Both are red, and while blood carries the theological import of redemption, wine brings with it joy and mirth because it warms the heart of man—which is man’s proper response to his redemption. It is also important that no dogma be founded solely upon the allegorical sense. While the allegorical sense can bolster and inform dogma, it cannot be the only grounds for which dogma is made. Our allegorical interpretation of the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 is only binding because the same doctrine is set forth in the literal sense of John 1.

Another guardrail is that, like theology, the allegorical method is done within the Church, and not in the academy. Scripture belongs to the Church, and it belongs to the Church alone to interpret Scripture. Included in this parameter is that one should be faithfully participating in the sacraments and living their life in accordance with their Christian profession. Why should we expect someone to be able to faithfully reveal Christ in the Scriptures when he is a stranger to both the sacraments and those in his parish? Grace is the life of the believer, and it is what illumines his eyes to see Christ unveiled in holy writ. This also requires the one seeking to provide an allegorical interpretation to be submitted to the tradition of the Church. If he finds himself coming to a conclusion that is at odds with what the Church has taught, then he should be humbled and return to the Scriptures with his hands to the plow ready to try again.

The allegorical method subsists and thrives in the perichoretic environment of tradition, exegesis, and contemplation. Each part plays a vital role, and it cannot be done without each part in its proper place. We begin in the tradition of the Church, and approach the text to exegete its literal sense. From there, we contemplate what St. Maximus calls the “power” of the literal text.[9] When we allegorize a given text, we are looking to the literal sense and contemplate the logoi behind the words and history seeking to trace the lines back to Christ. We are driven back to the tradition of the Church and to further exegesis as we contemplate these divine mysteries. This perichoretic process informs each step as we progress, and with these guardrails in place we will have a safer environment to ensure proper interpretations are given, and erroneous ones avoided.

Conclusion

It has been my aim here to give a defense for the allegorical method, and I believe I have done so in a way that provides an inherent guardrail that promotes, rather than neglects, the literal sense of Scripture. We have surveyed Saint Maximus the Confessor’s thoughts on the logoi and their relation to the divine Logos, and shown how it connects to biblical interpretation. The result is, I believe, both helpful and inevitable. Helpful, because it connects the text of Scripture to the life of the believer in very real ways; Inevitable, because I dare anyone to pray through the Daily Offices without allegorizing parts of it to reveal the Incarnate Son of God who came to save sinners.

Despite the fear that employing the allegorical method of interpretation lessens the historicity of Scripture, it is actually the Historical-Grammatical method that leaves us with a lower view of holy writ and is insufficient in itself. The allegorical method, often caricatured as providing “non-real” interpretations, actually helps to give a more “real” meaning to Scripture because it looks behind what the literal sense veils to reveal what’s underneath and upholding it—Our Lord Jesus Christ. As with most things pertaining to the Christian religion, the Incarnation informs us as much as it mystifies us. The incarnation reveals to us that the material and spiritual are not at odds, and therefore the literal and allegorical senses of Scripture find their harmony in the one who is at the center of all reality, both visible and invisible—The Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Logos of God.

Notes

  1. On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor. United States: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003. pg. 57
  2. Boersma, H. (2011). Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company. pg. 140
  3. Chrysostom, Against the Anomoeans 11.6. Chrysostom is often touted around as a critic of allegorical interpretation, but in this homily he pulls from the tradition of Saint Paul in interpreting the “rock” in a spiritual sense to be the spiritual rock that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.
  4. Colossians 2:17, and Luke 24:27
  5. Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John 1.8. Origen continues further: “For when he had taken away the veil which was present in the law and the prophets, and by His divinity had proved the sons of men that the Godhead was at work, He opened the way for all those who desired it to be disciples of His wisdom, and to understand what things were true and real in the law of Moses, of which things those of old worshipped the type and the shadow, and what things were real of the things narrated in the histories which ‘happened to them in the way of type,’ but these things ‘were written for our sakes, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.’”
  6. Aquinas, Thomas., Institute, The Aquinas; Aquinas. Summa Theologiae: Complete Set. N.p.: Aquinas Institute, 2012. 1.1.10 respondio. (The citation for Augustine herein is Confessions xii.)
  7. See, 1 Pet. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 10:1; 1 Cor. 10:4.
  8. Aquinas, Thomas., Institute, The Aquinas; Aquinas. Summa Theologiae: Complete Set. N.p.: Aquinas Institute, 2012. 1.1.10 reply to Obj. 1
  9. On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor. United States: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003. pg. 105

 


Cory Byrum

Cory is a native of the great state of Arkansas who is currently in exile in Virginia, and is a layman in the APA. He is interested in the ecumenical dialogue amongst Protestant denominations, as well as between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With a background particularly in Presbyterian theology, Cory enjoys discussing the theological differences between Presbyterian and traditional Anglican doctrine with a pursuit of a Reformed Catholicity. He is a husband to his delightful wife Emily, and father to three wonderful children: Calvin, Elias, and Ella.


'Fenestra Allegoriae: Allegory As A Window to Reality' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican