Allegorical Interpretation: Finding the Line Before You Cross It
Have you heard Augustine’s take on the parable of the Good Samaritan? It might leave you a little confused.
In Augustine’s rendering, there is a man (Adam) traveling a road. Having been stripped (of immortality) and beaten (or persuaded to sin) by robbers (the devil), he is ignored by a priest (the Law) and a Levite (the Prophets) before being attended to by a Samaritan (Jesus Christ). The Samaritan takes him to the inn (or the Church) where two denarii (the promises of this life and the life to come) are paid to the innkeeper (the Apostle Paul), to take care of the man.1
It’s an intriguing example of allegorical interpretation. Yet for those committed to biblical exposition, this kind of interpretation is deeply problematic.2 Expositional preaching should be constrained by the author’s intent—and neither Jesus in his telling nor Luke in his recording could have meant much of what Augustine suggests.3
But on the other hand, in our age of right commitments to Christ-centered preaching and a right understanding that all the Scriptures do point to the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s easy to be sympathetic to Augustine’s goal.4 The gospel should be preached! And indeed, the human mind was designed to appreciate the beauty of intricate literary connections and be excited by the fulfillment of such patterns. This makes allegorizing the Bible in a sermon not only tempting, but satisfying.
Yet, again, allegory is something less than exposition. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. How far is too far?
One of the most significant challenges to considering allegory is a problem of definitions.
DEFINITIONS & CHALLENGES
During antiquity and through the Middle Ages, allegorical interpretation was one of a few ways of reading Scripture (along with literal, moral, and anagogical interpretation). It focused primarily on drawing connections between Jesus Christ (or others) and the stories of the Old Testament. It’s thought to have emerged because aspects of the Old Testament would be difficult to apply sensibly without seeing a fulfillment in the gospel.5 One major problem with the terminology from this period is that allegory is often used interchangeably with parable and typology and can refer to any sort of metaphorical or analogical correspondence. Even through the Reformation, these terms are broadly indistinguishable.
It’s not until relatively recently that typology and allegory have come to mean different things. Presently, we use the word typology to refer to connections between an Old Testament concept, typically, and an escalated fulfillment in the gospel of Jesus Christ that is textually warranted (by some standard), while we use the term allegory to refer to more arbitrary connections that are not textually warranted (by some standard).6
Dictionary definitions are not especially precise either. For example, allegory is:
A popular form of literature in which a story points to a hidden or symbolic parallel meaning. Certain elements, such as people, things, and happenings in the story, point to corresponding elements in another realm or level of meaning.7
With such a broad definition—one that can encompass legitimate typologies and exegetically sound ways of reading as well as more fanciful reading—other nuances must be considered.
PASSAGE VS. PREACHER
Perhaps the most important distinction is that of who is driving the connection between passages. Is there something in the text that indicates a legitimate connection? Or is the connection originating entirely from the mind of the preacher? This is the most important distinction to make and it provides us with a substantive criterion for distinguishing between typology and allegory.8
If a passage anticipates a future fulfillment (whether in the immediate literary and historical context or an ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, for example), it’s essential to trace how the passage is ultimately fulfilled. The single best way to do this is to see how a subsequent passage (usually in the New Testament) refers back to your passage.9 If textual connections cannot be drawn, then we have to consider that the source could be the preacher and not the passage.
For example, consider the demise of Saul in 1 Samuel 28:20–25. Having been confronted by the ghost of Samuel, Saul devolves into “obeying the voice” of the medium of Endor. He consumes a somber meal prepared by her. It’s one of the darkest moments in the life a very troubled man, not least of which because he had just been told he will die the next day.
To be sure, there are some interesting connections with the Lord’s Supper here: one identified as an anointed one, consuming a quasi-ceremonial meal the night before dying, and in particular the partaking of unleavened bread. But is there anything in the text that suggests a greater fulfillment to come? Is there anything in any of the New Testament passages describing the Lord’s Supper that point us back to this passage in 1 Samuel 28? If we can answer these questions, we’ll see who’s driving the connection. Is the author giving us a textual reason to connect these two meals? Or are we, as readers, making the connection completely on our own?
In making such connections, we run the risk of de-historicizing the original passage—or depriving it of its historical context and legitimacy as foundational fact. We title the sermon something clever like “Saul’s Last Supper,” suggesting that this passage anticipates an ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s final meal—though by way of contrast as Saul dies for his own sins and Christ dies on behalf of his people. In so doing, we might also skip textual steps and then lose the point of the author in the passage, which is darkly reflecting on the ultimate demise of Israel’s first king.
In this case, the connections the author of 1 Samuel makes seem not to be to the Lord’s Supper, but the Passover meal. The specter of dying sons (1 Sam 28:19), the slaughter of a young animal (1 Sam 28:24) and the baking of unleavened bread (also 1 Sam 28:24) are all suggestive details. In doing the hard work of uncovering a biblical theological theme of that meal, we can then legitimately connect to the Passover meal celebrated by our Lord.
In short, the question we have to be able to clearly answer is whether the connections are coming from the passage, in which case we can responsibly practice biblical theology, or from our own minds—however theologically reasonable, in which case we should be cautious.
INTERPRETATION VS. ILLUSTRATION
If we are convinced of a connection—though possibly allegorical—one other distinction should come into play. It’s a distinction of presentation. When making the connection, do we present it as an intention of the author? Or are we using the connection illustratively?
If a legitimate textual connection can’t be made, we can still make a gospel connection. That is, don’t present a gospel connection as an interpretation, but as an illustration. Illustrations, of course, are not only endearing stories about pets or the harrowing tales of hiking with the wrong boots. They’re not only historical biography or clever stories that begin the sermon and, somehow, always seem to find their punch line in the conclusion of the sermon. We can also use the Bible to illustrate the Bible.
For example, Isaiah 43:1–7 teaches that God does not abandon his children. Hezekiah had messed up pretty badly a few chapters earlier by welcoming an envoy from Babylon. Yet God promises in these opening verses of Isaiah 43 to be with his children through the consequences of their sin (Babylonian exile). In fact, God uses remarkably intimate language to articulate his love for his people and his commitment to bring them home. This passage does not connect textually to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–32, obviously. Yet that story of a lost son who is loved and welcomed back by his father, having experienced something of an exile, can provide a remarkably affective illustration. As long as the parable is presented as such, and not as an intertextual interpretation of Isaiah 43 or an ultimate fulfillment, it can be used to preach the gospel with elegance.
In short, we need to be clear and precise in our communication. We must not present something as an interpretation that isn’t intended by the author. But at he same time, we should not be afraid to make connections as illustrations.
Even after considering both the source of a connection between a text and the gospel (passage or preacher?) as well as how we will present it (as an interpretation or an illustration?), allegorical interpretation remains a problematic venture. It becomes license to mishandle the text of Scripture. What are we to do?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Do the hard work of exegesis, particularly finding the structure of the passage and seeing it in its literary and historical context. What is the author’s intent? Are there theological connections that are legitimate?
- Consider how other parts of the Bible (typically New Testament connections) handle the content of your text. Is there precedent for making this theological connection?
- Work all the tools of biblical theology in your passage to see what legitimate textual connections can be made. Is there a theme, typology, trajectory, or other biblical-theological connection that can be made legitimately?
- When in doubt, choose to illustrate rather than suggest an interpretation.
Allegorical interpretation is problematic. It can lead to preaching that dehistoricizes the Scriptures or plays fast and loose with God’s Word.10 Yet the impulse behind it—the desire to preach the gospel from all the Scriptures—is a right one. Let’s work hard and with careful nuance so that the good news may be proclaimed in all our preaching.
 Augustine, Enarationes in Psalmos 118, 121 and 125, De Doctrina Christiana 1.30.31ff, Sermo 299.
 Without naming Augustine, John Calvin responds to this kind of interpretation in characteristically blunt fashion: “The allegory which is here contrived by the advocates of free will is too absurd to deserve refutation… I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning. And, indeed, any one may see that the curiosity of certain men has led them to contrive these speculations, contrary to the intention of Christ.” See Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37 in John Calvin, The Harmony of the Gospels, Vol. 3 (trans. W. Pringle and J. King; Altenmünster: Jazzybee, 2012), 49. While Calvin’s comments indicate that he is strongly opposed to this kind of allegorical interpretation, he ironically engages in it with a striking frequency. For example, in his commentary on Exodus 28:X, he notes that the garments made for Aaron and his sons are meant to ‘conceal their faults’ and, instead, display virtue and, indeed, the ‘wondrous glory of Christ.’ The text, in Exod 28:2, simply states the garments are to be made “for glory and for beauty.” See Calvin’s commentary on Exodus 28:2 in John Calvin, The Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2 (trans. J. King; Altenmünster: Jazzybee, 2012), 103.
 Mark Dever defines expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.” Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Third Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 44. David R. Helm defines it similarly as “empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text.” David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 13. D.A. Carson defines it similarly as “the unpacking of what is there.” He goes on to add: “it is unpacking what the biblical text or texts actually say. If we expect God to re-reveal himself by his own words, then our expositions must reflect as faithfully as possible what God actually said when the words were given to us in Scripture.” D.A. Carson, “Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit” in Preach the Word: Essays in Honor of R. Kent Hughes (ed., L. Ryken, T. Wilson; Wheaton: Crossway: 2008), 176-177. Finally, Bryan Chapell offers this definition: “An expository sermon takes its topic, main points, and subpoints from a text.2 In an expository message, a preacher makes a commitment to explain what a particular text means by using the spiritual principles it supports as the points of the message.” Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 131.
 See Luke 24:13-49.
 See Origen, On First Principles, 4.2.
 See Aubrey Spears, “Preaching the Old Testament,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (ed., C.G. Bartholomew, D.J.H. Beldman; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 383-409.
 Philip Barton Payne, “Allegory” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (ed. W.A. Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 14. By contrast, Beale defines typology as “the study of analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature and are escalated in their meaning.” See G.K. Beale , Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 14.
 The Bible gives us warrant for making a connection between an Old Testament passage and a fulfillment in Christ, of course. For example, John the Baptist calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God’ in John 1:29. That the Passover lamb is a type. An even clearer example of this is Romans 5:12-21, in which Adam is called a “type of the one who was to come,” using the word type (τυπος).
 Particularly useful here is David R. Helm’s advice on finding such connections: “A great shortcut that I use almost every week is an index that comes with the Nestle-Aland 28th Edition. Even if you don’t read Greek, this index is helpful because it lists every allusion and citation of the Old Testament in the New Testament.” David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 71.
 David R. Helm addresses this concern of dehistoricizing texts in his chapter on Theological Reflection in David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 61-86.