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Literal-Historical and Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture

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LITERAL-HISTORICAL AND ALLEGORICAL

INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE

Isaiah 32:6 says, “For the fool speaks folly…to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.”  In the Bible, God has revealed His law, the history of ancient Israel, profound wisdom for human relationships, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the missionary journeys of the apostles.  He explains the new birth and eternal life, and He warns of the penalty for impenitence.  There is nothing unimportant or trivial because God’s economy is flawless.  Since God has revealed to us the truth of His Word, and since truth and wisdom find their source in God, we must be unwavering in speaking truthful things about Him.  Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”[1] Therefore, all biblical interpretation should be Christological, or relating to Jesus Christ. The question does not lie in whether or not they are, but in how the texts are Christological—especially the Old Testament, since the proper name Jesus Christ is never mentioned.[2]

Proponents of allegorical interpretation and literal-historical interpretation both affirm the value of Scripture and desire to fulfill Luke 24:27, so that the Scriptures are as effective as God means them to be.  Allegory is the search for a hidden moral, spiritual, or heavenly meaning in a text, whereas the literal-historical approach is the search for meaning through studying context, language, and history.  A literal-historical interpretation is superior to allegory because searching for hidden meaning ultimately regards God’s working in human history as insignificant, misunderstands the Christology of Scripture, and inserts foreign ideas unintended by the author/Author.[3]

Allegory began before the conversion of pagans throughout the ancient world to Christianity, and many of them had already learned to read their own sacred writings allegorically.  It was adopted in order to draw the reader’s attention away from texts that seemed unworthy or demeaning to the gods.  Theologians adopted this philosophical technique to easily take obscure, violent, or sensual Old Testament texts and make them directly reference the Gospel.  The early Christian theologian Origen, when he approached Scripture, “looked for misrepresentations of reality, unbelievable events, distortions or mistakes, heresy, immorality, contradictions, absurdities and statements about biblical figures that he felt should only apply to Christ,” and took them as clues to a heavenly meaning.[4] For example, the red cord that Rahab let down from the wall of Jericho signified redemption through the blood of Christ.[5] Isodore of Seville saw Ruth as a “type of the church, pledging to follow Naomi in the same way that the church is committed to suffer for Christ.”[6]

Psalm 105 begins, “Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples…  Remember the wondrous works that he has done…” The psalmist invites God’s people to remember God’s covenant to Abraham, their father Joseph as a slave in Egypt, the signs of Moses and the plagues, the exile, God’s faithfulness in the wilderness, and their enjoyment of the Land.  Historical events are significant because it is by events God that has claimed a people to be a praise and glory to His name.  Viewing God’s acting in history as unworthy also carries huge implications for the Gospel, in which God entered history by the God-man Jesus Christ.

Many mistakes made by the allegorical method result from confusing the meaning of Old Testament Christology.  Does this mean that every single text directly references Christ?  Robin Routledge says, “It is impossible to treat the whole of the OT in that way [directly referencing Christ] without resorting to imaginative spiritualizing and allegorizing of some of its parts, and neglecting other parts altogether.”[7] But the New Testament is incomplete without the Old Testament just as the Old Testament is incomplete without the New. [8] To be Christological means that the Old Testament is a witness to Christ, in that it bears witness to God’s working towards redemption.  It does not mean that the literal interpretation is a mask on a mystical deep meaning.[9]

A wife gives her husband a detailed grocery list and asks him to stop by the store on the way home from work.  “Nature’s Own 100% wheat bread, a box of Morton salt…” Having never been this specific in his personal grocery lists, he decides that this must be more than a list.  The bread must mean that his wife considers their love to be as pure and healthy as wheat bread.  The box of salt means that even though last night’s argument made them salty and bitter toward each other, she wanted to use the situation for good and prepare a romantic dinner.  The husband is unfaithful to his wife’s wishes and goes home without the groceries.  Without the reality of authorial intent, texts can be bent into any direction.  Concerning Isaiah 1:3, “the ox knows its owner,” John Calvin writes that the papists “set aside the true meaning of the Scriptures” and “spoil all the mysteries of God by their fooleries” by claiming that this phrase is an allegorical representation of the animals worshipping baby Jesus.  Calvin preferred the literal sense of Scripture, which avoids adding to the text.  He writes, “We must not contrive new miracles for the purpose of adding to the authority of Christ; for, by mingling the false with the true, there is danger lest both should be disbelieved.”[10] The Reformers held that unwarranted allegories had been used to build a large wall of superstitions, which was preventing people from seeing the life-giving truth of the Gospel.

Scripture includes perplexing narrative, deep figures of speech, violent judgments, strange laws, and even allegory itself.[11] But the answers to our questions are not in a hidden meaning.  We should look, rather, for the literal sense of Scripture.  If the author wants us to regard the text as narrative, or figurative, or allegorical, then we should do so, but we should never look beyond what God has given us.[12] We are to be content with His blessings and wish for nothing more than the natural meaning of His Word.[13] In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul declares that the historical events of the Old Testament narrative bear witness to Jesus Christ.  In Stephen’s speech to the high priest in Acts 7, Stephen applies history to the apostles’ present situation.  The way the pillars of the Church interpreted Scripture should motivate us to treasure the ways in which God has acted in history, to refrain from adding anything to Scripture, and to see Christ as the destination to which every text leads.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Calvin, John.  Calvin’s Commentaries. Vol. 7, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah. Edited and translated by Rev. William Pringle.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.

 

Longman, Tremper III, and Peter Enns, eds.  Dictionary of the Old Testament:  Wisdom, Poetry and Writings. Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2008.

 

Routledge, Robin. Old Testament Theology:  A Thematic Approach. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008.

 

 

 


[1] See also John 5:46.

[2] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology:  A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2008), 23-24.

[3] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology:  A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 24.

[4] Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament:  Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove:  Intervarsity, 2008), 740.

[5] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology:  A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 24.

[6] Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament:  Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove:  Intervarsity, 2008), 696.

[7] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology:  A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2008), 24.

[8] Ibid, 26.

[9] Ibid, 24.

[10] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 7, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, ed. and trans. by Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 41-42.

[11] See Gal. 4:24; Is. 5:1-79:14-16.

[12] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 7, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, ed. and trans. by Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 323.

[13] Ibid, 41-42.

 

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Written by keywoodblog

March 19, 2011 at 1:40 am

Posted in Bible, Gospel, SBTS, theology

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