There are many who speak about literalism and see it where it does not exist. The trees of modern theories and habits hide the forest of ancient understanding and use of texts. It is necessary to back away from details and look at a larger context to see what we are actually seeing. In cultural terms, it is possible to say that no one was a “literalist” until the modern period.
In the early Church, the use of “allegory” was quite popular. St. Paul uses it without apology. It was a common literary understanding that was shared by Christian, Jew and Pagan. Greek civilization had its sacred texts. The writings of Homer were particularly held in great regard. However, they were generally ignored as history. Educated Greeks would have been embarrassed by any literal treatment of the stories involving the gods. They assumed that the stories had a meaning. Wisdom was required to see or understand that meaning. Allegory was the tool for extracting it.
St. Paul’s use of allegory (cf. Gal. 4:22-25) would have come as no surprise to his readers. It holds a very prominent place in the Letter to the Hebrews. Some of the most popular works within the early Church were highly allegorical. The Epistle of Barnabas is perhaps the best example. Apocalyptic literature, such as Revelation, utterly depends on allegorical assumptions.
It’s worth thinking for a moment about the meaning of allegory. The word is a combination: allos and agoreo, words meaning “other” and “speak publicly,” respectively. Allegory means to speak “in another word.” Whether it takes the form of typology, symbolism, or otherwise, the fathers used the term allegory to contain all such forms of speech.
Allegory assumes that there is “another word” under or within the word that one is seeing or hearing. A prominent example would be St. Paul’s treatment of Adam and Christ. Christ is a “Second Adam.” This also means that Christ is somehow present within the First Adam. In that manner, the Fathers will read of God taking Eve from the side of Adam as he slept and see the Church being birthed from the side of Christ as He “slept” on the Cross in death. Christ is the “other word” within the word “Adam.” Melchizedek gets treated in a similar manner (cf. Hebrews 7).
This presence of “another word” beneath or within a text extends to the world itself. The sacramental understanding of the world is, at its heart, an allegorical treatment of reality. There is something beneath and within everything that we see. This “other word” can be known and perceived. There are levels of realism within this allegorical treatment of the world. In the case of the Eucharist, the “other word” is utterly real. That which is made present, which can be known and perceived (by faith), is the very truth of the thing itself: “This is my body…” In the case of an icon, we say that what is pictured is hypostatically present, a somewhat weaker treatment than the sacraments. That all trees somehow participate in the wood of the Cross is yet a different thing – and so forth.
This allegorical treatment of texts (and of reality itself) suggests that the world we encounter is larger and deeper than it might appear at first. Think of a pot on a stove. On its surface (its literal level) we can see a pot. We can describe its color, shape, even consider what material was used in its construction. But we do not reach out and pick up a pot by its sides rather than its handle. The heat that might be present does not always appear. We approach the pot with respect.
In the same manner, we approach the world as sacrament, mindful of the “other word” that dwells in each and every thing. And this brings us back to the text and to literalism. Modern literalism does not accept allegory in anything other than a mental trick. The connection between Christ and Adam, between Christ and Melchizedek, between Bread and Body are thought to be purely mental. They exist only in the mind. To examples of allegory, we are likely to respond, “Yes, but. What is it really?”
“Literal” is the only reality for modernity. It is in this sense that it is possible to say that no one was a literalist until the modern period.
This is a reason why it is so difficult to have a proper conversation about things such as the early chapters of Genesis and other things within the Scriptures. The modern mind falsely imagines that its own flat, inert and emptied literalism is shared by the ancient world. If a particular early father or commentator treats Adam and Eve in a historical manner, they are said to be examples of a “literal” understanding of Genesis. In point of fact, they are examples of allegorists using a text. The “plain sense” is not absent within an allegorical/sacramental worldview. When we speak of “bread” in the Liturgy, prior to its consecration, it is not “merely” bread. It already has a relationship with what it will become (the “antitype” in St. Basil’s language). That relationship is expressed as the “Gifts,” or other such language.
Years ago, when I was first received into Orthodoxy, my late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas), insisted that in our beginning mission, I was to wear my cassock and be addressed as “Father.” Mind you, I had been an Episcopal priest but a week before but was no longer. It would be another 13 months before I was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood. I was blessed by the Bishop to lead Reader’s services and to preach, and to do pastoral care. But, he insisted on the cassock and the title. “Priests are born,” he said. “Ordination simply reveals them.” It was a staggering revelation.
When we approach the Fathers (and the Scriptures themselves), we must remember that these are thorough-going sacramentalists and allegorists. The level and amount of allegorical (figurative) treatment will vary from time to time and person to person. But even the fiercest example of the Antiochian School (often contrasted with the famously allegorical practices of Alexandria) are still allegorists. The world they inhabit is an allegorical/sacramental world.
To this number belong all of the writers of the New Testament as well as Christ Himself. Indeed, Christ is the chief allegorist, having given us a world whose reality is always more than meets the eye. He puts Himself forward as the “other word” that is within every word of the Old Testament (“these are they that testify of me” Jn 5:29). He is the Other Word reflected and made present in every created thing. He has given us creation that we might know Him.