How is an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures possible? In the fourth chapter of Galatians, St. Paul invokes the story of Abraham and his two sons, one born of a bondwoman (Hagar) and the other of a freewoman (Sarah). As he prepares to draw a lesson from the story he says of it: “These things are an allegory.” He then proceeds to draw a very authoritative (for him) conclusion based on this allegorical reading. Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and the earthly Jerusalem, and is thus bondage. Sarah is the Jerusalem from above and freedom.
It is an interesting way to read the stories in Genesis regarding the Patriarch and his family – but again – how is this possibly a true reading?
I like allegory, something that is largely synonymous with symbolism (rightly understood). I find it extremely useful in reading many of the texts of the Old Testament. If you attend lots of Orthodox services (as I do), then you’ll hear repeated uses of allegory in every service. For the liturgical texts of the Church, it is indispensable. There are occasional debates here on the blog about the proper way to read the Scriptures. Some are very insistent on the importance of the “literal” reading and its historical reliability. I am highly doubtful about the historical character of a number of things – a debate that will not likely be resolved for those with a committed point of view. But a question (not a debate) that I pose with this article is simply, “How is it possible for an allegorical reading to be true?” What does St. Paul mean when he calls something an allegory, or a type, or when he and other New Testament writers resort to this way of reading the Old Testament?
In 1Corinthians we have this example of allegory:
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1Co 10:1-4)
The peculiar thing about this passage, similar to the Galatians allegory, is that St. Paul does not say that the passing through the sea was like a Baptism, or that the Rock that followed them was like Christ. This would be the modern take on allegory. We think of allegory as a literary technique, a way of reading something in which, through an act of the imagination, we think that one thing is like another and are therefore simply creating an imaginary case. But the New Testament writers do nothing of the sort. They do not suggest in any way whatsoever that they are engaging in an imaginary act, or that the allegorical figures are merely like the point they make. And here true literalism must be taken into account. The Spiritual Rock that followed them (itself a very strange statement) was Christ. Or in Galatians, Hagar is Mount Sinai; she is the earthly Jerusalem.
Our modern thought habits always presume that there is only one way to speak of historic, concrete reality. We believe that such things are, in fact, what is. We may speak of them in symbolic ways, draw meanings from their arrangement, or infer things as we consider them, but we think that such things are only a “manner of speaking.” We are certain that they are but ideas and not the nature of reality itself.
In the modern historical/literal interpretation of Scripture, we carry this same mindset into our reading. We assume that what happened is what happened, and that something is true inasmuch as it rightly and correctly describes what happened. As such there is a great deal of anxiety whenever someone is heard to suggest otherwise. For if the text has a different relationship with this notion of “what happened,” then its trustworthiness is seen to have vanished.
But what if “what happened” is not at all the same thing as a literal eye-witness might have seen? What if reality itself is something quite different?
It is to this that both the writings of the Apostles and the Fathers bear witness. Allegory is not simply a technique of interpretation, a way of speaking – it represents a statement about the true nature of reality. Here I beg the patience of my readers. We need to do some careful thinking.
Fr. A. Schmemann wrote about the nature of symbol and its relationship to reality. He described a change in how reality and symbol were understood. He traces that change to certain ideas within the Carolingian period in the Western Empire (after 800 a.d.). Symbol and reality become separated and even come to be seen as opposites. In his words:
It is clear that in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’
In this new idea, reality and symbol are seen as two different things. One is veritas (truth), the other is figura (a figure). One is vere (true), the other mystice (mystical) and the two are incompatible.
To this, however he contrasts the Fathers of the East and “the whole early tradition.” He says, “[They] not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding.
He cites St. Maximus the Confessor, the “sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age,” who:
calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation.
We could add to this, that the Fathers not only see “symbolism” as the essential dimension of the sacrament, but to be characteristic of reality itself. There is not an opposition between vere (the real) and mystice (the mystical), because the mystical itself belongs to the real and is an essential component of it.
We cannot rightly read the Scriptures by ignoring allegory for the same reason that we cannot rightly understand the Eucharist by only speaking of bread and wine. Reality itself is greater than this.
In my own spiritual journey, I consider this understanding to have been perhaps the most important. It is the understanding that undergirds all that I have written about the “one-storey universe.” The world in which we dwell, the reality we inhabit, contains mysteries, symbols, images and figures – not as mere ideas – but as inherent parts of reality itself.
That Rock that followed the children of Israel was Christ as surely as the bread and wine of the Eucharist is His body and blood. If you affirm one and not the other you have abandoned the understanding of the Fathers.
Some readers are familiar with the idea in the Fathers that everything in creation has its logos, its inner reason, purpose, and meaning, etc. The Fathers speak of the contemplation of the logoi (plural) of created things. This logos is related to symbol, figure, allegory, etc., and is as much a part of the reality of something (indeed it is the ground of its reality) as any easily observable characteristic.
And I will now bring us back to the Scriptures and their right interpretation. Suppose the Scriptures were an absolute one-to-one correspondence with historical events “as they happened.” Suppose the Genesis account of creation were precisely how things were done in the most literal, historical form. Suppose every detail of the gospels were exactly how things actually happened. (And there are any number of believers who indeed believe this to be the nature of the Scriptures).
If the Scriptures were precisely just such an account – they would not reveal the truth nor show us the reality of our salvation. They would obscure the logoi of all created things and hide the symbols, figures and allegories that save us.
St. Peter refers to Holy Baptism as “the antitype which saves us” (1 Peter 3:20). The Flood and the Ark are the type – Holy Baptism is the antitype – the inner symbol of the flood – and it is the antitype that saves. The Manna in the wilderness cannot save, Christ says (John 6:49). But the Bread that He gives (His flesh) is that which gives eternal life. St. Basil describes the bread and the wine in the Eucharist as “antitypes” in the same manner as St. Peter. It is the antitype that saves us.
None of this is meant to devalue historical events themselves or to say that what we see doesn’t matter. But it points to the true character of our salvation and the true character of how we should read the Scriptures. In the event of Christ’s incarnation, the Word becomes flesh. Here we have the situation in which the Logos, the Type, becomes visible and able to be easily seen. Christ is present throughout the Old Testament (truly present), but He is hidden under figures, types, shadows, and mysteries. But all of those figures became flesh and dwelt among us. Some refused to see this at the time and fulfilled the type by putting Him to death.
To see the types, to live within the allegory, we have to slow down and learn to look. The truth of the world does not come with observation (Luke 17:20).
We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2Co 4:18)
And this is the manner in which we must read the Scriptures – and the manner in which we must live our lives – for these are not mere thoughts about reality – but the very nature of reality itself.