It is safe to say that the allegorical method has fallen upon hard times in the scholarly world. What was once considered a discovery of the deeper meaning of the Old Testament text is now almost universally derided in the academic halls as the arbitrary and perhaps even perverse ingenuity of commentators with altogether too much time on their hands. To quote but one scholar’s evaluation of the method (as used for interpreting the Song of Solomon), “To read a single allegorical interpretation is to be impressed, and to wonder if the author is on to something profound; to read a hundred allegorical interpretations is to be depressed, and to want to discard the whole…I do not believe that the allegorization of any text of the Song is of theological or exegetical value”. Okay then. Like I said, hard times, and not just for the Song of Solomon. Most modern interpreters would hold that finding value in an allegorical interpretation of the Law, the historical books, and the Psalter is also passé. In the words of one author (Hanson, in his Allegory and Event, cited in O’Keefe and Reno’s Sanctified Vision), the use of allegory by people like Origen “since the arrival of historical criticism has had to be entirely abandoned and is, as far as one can prophesy, never again likely to be revived”.
But a method which has won the assent of pretty much all the Fathers cannot so easily be discarded by Orthodox who look to the Fathers as their guides. One need not agree with the Fathers in all their detailed conclusions (for example, in their dating of the Book of Daniel), but Orthodox commentators will accept their basic mindset and approach, including their acceptance of allegory as a valid method of interpretation. One sometimes reads that the School of Antioch rejected the allegorical method while the School of Alexandria accepted it, but actually interpreters hailing from both cities accepted the allegorical method as legitimate. It was a matter of proportion and enthusiasm, with Antioch tending to the historical side of the continuum and Alexandria tending more to the allegorical side. But both Antioch and Alexandria accepted the basic historical reliability of the sacred text as well as the legitimacy of some further allegorical interpretation. I believe that we Orthodox should follow them, and accept both the historical meaning of the text and its allegorical application.
How to do this? Are there any rules? Following our forebears of Antiochene provenance (such as St. John Chrysostom), I suggest the following.
The historical meaning of the text must be regarded as the primary one in that it lays the foundation for further interpretation. One cannot deny the historicity of the events portrayed in the text because we happen to find them difficult or uncongenial. If an historical text like 1 Kings reports that a miracle happened, then it happened, and our modern distaste for the supernatural or our materialist dogma that “miracles cannot occur” cannot be allowed to over-rule what the text says. If the text reports that God commanded Joshua to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho, then that is what God commanded. We may wonder why God said that, but denying that He commanded it is not an option. Laziness may push us to simply deny that it happened and exempt us from the hard work of wrestling with the text and its modern implications, but such a course must be resisted. We must accept the historical reliability of the report and try to work out what it means—and more importantly perhaps, what it does not mean—for us.
In other words, allegory must not be used as an easy escape hatch to avoid theological difficulties. It simply does not follow that because a text has an allegorical interpretation and application—as most texts do—that this somehow nullifies the historical meaning. Take for example the crossing of the Red Sea. The plain historical meaning is the escape of Israel from the peril of the advancing Egyptians. An historical reading will accept that it happened more or less as reported. But we accept that the passage through the Red Sea is also an allegory of our own escape from the kingdom of Satan and his demons, so that just as Israel passed through the waters and emerged safe on the other side to advance towards the Promised Land, so we also pass through the waters of baptism and advance towards the Kingdom of heaven. The allegorical interpretation does not nullify the historical, and it is illegitimate to somehow set up the two interpretations as alternatives from which we may choose. The historical and the allegorical interpretations are not rival choices or two halves of an exegetical dichotomy. They are two parts of a total interpretive house, consisting of its historical foundation and the allegorical superstructure based upon it.
Also therefore one must not build an allegorical superstructure inconsistent with the original historical foundation or interpret the text allegorically in a way that does violence to the original. Take for example the slaughter of Jericho. The original text asserts that the Israelite armies were to put to the sword the inhabitants of the city, sparing only the harlot Rahab and her family. An allegorical interpretation would equate Israel’s enemies within the city with the demons and sins which wage war against us and which will destroy us unless we eliminate them from our life. The allegory is rooted in the history and represents a consistent interpretive trajectory: in both interpretations the enemies are enemies to be destroyed; what has changed is our own situation. The Church is not national, but supra-national—and in fact, eschatological, not of this world at all. Our enemies now are thus not national but spiritual—armies of wickedness in the heavenlies, as St. Paul has said (Ephesians 6:12f). This allegory thus builds on the historical. But we cannot say that because there is a legitimate interpretation that equates the Canaanites with the demons that the historical command to slay the Canaanites never occurred or to say that such a command was immoral simply because it is capable of allegorization. In fact everything is capable of allegorization, given enough time and ingenuity. A total interpretation of the text therefore will declare:
- God commanded the slaughter of Jericho for some good reason (even if we cannot immediately say what that reason was);
- The event actually occurred;
- Its historicity was descriptive, not prescriptive—i.e. it does not give us permission to slaughter that way today;
- Its more immediate application and meaning have to do with slaying the enemies currently warring against us, namely the demons and our sins.
- This allegorical interpretation represents a deeper and more abiding truth.
This I believe may set a paradigm for all allegorical interpretation. All of the Old Testament must be interpreted allegorically as well as historically—as I argued at length in my 2012 book The Christian Old Testament (as I do in an upcoming commentary on the Song of Solomon to be published by SVS Press, in which I attempt to rehabilitate the allegorical method for a deeper understanding of the Song). Appealing to the Old Testament history does not mean a rejection of the allegorical. It only means that the two ways of reading the text are not mutually exclusive. It is perverse to suggest otherwise. We begin with the historical, and dig deeper to find its abiding meaning—a meaning consistent with the historical, but of more immediate concern to us as Christians.