It goes without saying that our contemporary worldview as modern Americans is vastly different than that of ancient people. One difference which summarizes countless smaller distinctions is the fact that our modern way of thinking is entirely materialistic. This is even true of religious people.
Miracle occupies an ever-narrowing band of phenomena for which no possible naturalistic explanation is possible. God stands outside and completely separate from history. The great events of salvation history cannot be considered to be historical because their spiritual elements do not match the materialistic definition which we have given to history. Possibly no discipline has been more negatively impacted by this change in worldview than the interpretation of scripture in general and the Old Testament in particular.
This overall shift to a materialistic view of the world began after the trauma inflicted upon Europe by the 30 years war and accelerated through the period of the enlightenment. In the United States in particular, however, it has been further complicated by the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. In response to modern challenges to the accuracy of the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, evangelical Protestants undertook a defense of the historicity of the scriptures. This historicity, however, was argued according to the modern, materialistic definition of history.
A very literal reading of the scriptures was used to compose dates for events and then archaeological expeditions were undertaken to prove those dates accurate. Any variance between Biblical passages was treated as a problem that must be resolved, sometimes through arcane and downright bizarre argumentation, in order to preserve the value of scripture.
There are, obviously, countless problems with the fundamentalist approach. It treats its own reconstructions and explanations (such as dates) with equal dogmatism to the words of the scriptures themselves. It pays no attention to the varied genres of the scriptures. It ignores the understanding of history held by the authors and readers of scripture themselves.
Unfortunately, the response to the excesses and errors of a fundamentalist approach did not, by and large, question its basic presuppositions. As modern people, the other side still shared a materialist definition of reality and history. Rather than trying to push the square peg of the text of scripture through the round hole of modern historiography, they, by and large, took the approach of denying the value of the scriptures as history in toto.
The scriptures were taken to be religious literature to be interpreted poetically and allegorically. What is recorded there, particularly in the Old Testament, is myth rather than history and so has no correspondence to space/time reality which is purely material. Thus, a false dichotomy was created. One must either take the fundamentalist approach of defending the modern-style historicity of every jot and tittle of the Biblical text, or one must treat it as a series of spiritual parables which convey moral lessons or feelings about God.
Even where more subtle approaches are taken, this dichotomy prevails. Any given portion of the scriptures is either poetry or prose, myth or history, literal or figurative.
That this is the result of particular internecine Protestant debates is demonstrated by the fact that this is not the approach taken by historians to any other ancient text. Modern historians, of course, share a modern view of history. Yet when reading, for example, in Herodotus that Zeus himself appeared in the heavens during a naval battle against Persian forces and hurled thunderbolts to destroy their ships, they do not dismiss the historian’s entire account as mythology — quite the opposite. While denying the existence of Zeus, they accept the basic history of the event and conjecture that there was likely a thunderstorm during the battle which ancient people interpreted as a supernatural element of the event.
Before the rise of fundamentalism, this was also the primary approach to the scriptures by modern interpreters. The supernatural elements were merely reinterpreted or removed while the basic historicity of the account was maintained. Ultimately, however, this approach to scripture is no better since, once again, it is subjecting an ancient text to a modern worldview. However, this approach would at least have the virtue of being a correct approach if its basic materialist presuppositions were true and there were no spiritual component of reality.
Unfortunately, this dichotomous approach has, to a large extent, been inherited by American Orthodox thinkers and writers on the scriptures. On one hand, there are those who have adopted various approaches to the historicity of the text from Protestant fundamentalism (such as young-earth creationism) and insist upon these particular approaches with the same dogmatism that they insist upon the actual dogmas of the Orthodox Church.
Others, encouraged by the perception that the fathers interpreted the scriptures primarily allegorically (though allegory in their thinking is rather poorly defined as to method) will treat all or part of particularly the Old Testament as “myth” (with that latter term likewise poorly defined).
For those in the latter camp, anyone seeing historical value in these texts is a fundamentalist trying to import evangelical Protestant concepts into Orthodoxy. For those in the former camp, anyone not holding to their literal constructions is clearly a wild-eyed liberal who distorts the scriptures and is importing concepts from the most progressive elements of Protestantism into Orthodoxy.
Again, this is a false dichotomy grounded in an equally false set of materialist presuppositions. Ironically, these are presuppositions concerning the relationship of material and spiritual reality, creation visible and invisible, which no Orthodox Christian would accept when presented to them directly.
In reality, the Old Testament historical texts are of the genre of mythic history. This term is not an oxymoron as there is no innate contradiction between myth and history. Myth constitutes the story of the spiritual reality which accompanies and underlies events in the material world. Mythic history, therefore, tells the entire story of an event. Myth as such speaks of beings and events in the invisible, spiritual world. History in the modern sense speaks of people and events in the material world. Mythic history explains the union of both and makes the events of history participable through ritual.
If, for example, myth and history are separable in the death and resurrection of Christ, the Christian faith collapses. If what “really happened” historically is that Jesus died on a Roman cross and then two days later came back to life on the one hand and then on another we speak of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, of his descent into Hades and its harrowing, and of his spiritual body as myth, then Baptism and the Eucharist are incapable of bringing us into a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ.
This dichotomy forms a sort of historiographic Nestorianism that severs the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. If this cannot be argued without destructive results in the case of this central piece of mythic history then it is likewise invalid and destructive when applied to any other element of mythic history from Genesis to Revelation.
The nature of allegorical interpretation then becomes deformed by those who hold to an ahistorical interpretation of scripture or portions thereof. Allegory becomes a means of partially bridging the gap which they themselves have created between the text and history. Because there is no objective referent to the text, allegory becomes untethered and can be used to derive nearly any proposed lesson, thought, or teaching. This is not how the fathers used allegory.
The fathers utilized allegory as a means of the application of texts, otherwise seemingly irrelevant, to their present hearers and readers. For example, St. Gregory the Dialogist says in a homily that the three steps leading up to the altar in the Jerusalem temple represent faith, hope, and love, which are required to approach God in worship. In doing so, he in no way argues that there were not actually three steps leading up to the altar. Rather, he is taking a text which correctly communicates a historical detail and making that detail relevant to hearers thousands of miles and hundreds of years away from that detail.
Relatedly, many of the examples of allegorical interpretation cited by these partisans are, in fact, not examples of allegorical interpretation at all. In significant cases, these examples of supposed ahistorical allegory are, in fact, quite literal interpretations of mythic history.
If one name is associated with the allegorical interpretation of the scriptures more than any other, it is that of Origen. One place in which Origen is commonly invoked by modern ahistorical interpreters of scripture is the book of Joshua. When the book of Joshua is read from the materialistic perspective of modern history, it is found to be morally objectionable, because it appears to describe one ethnic group of people committing genocide against another.
Origen, nearly prophetically, states at the beginning of his commentary on the book that if it did not have the character (figura) of spiritual warfare, it would be rightly rejected. Based on this, modern interpreters profess an (at best) agnosticism regarding whether any of the events of the book of Joshua had actually happened. Instead, they argue, it is an extended parable about spiritual warfare.
This, however, is not at all what Origen meant. Rather, upon careful reading of the text in multiple versions and languages, he had noted that the places in which a city or region is to be totally destroyed and all of its people and livestock killed are those places populated by demonic giant clans. Therefore, the events described had the character of spiritual warfare. They described spiritual warfare which had taken place in the then already distant past and applied what the scriptures described about these events to spiritual warfare in the lives of Origen’s hearers. It is, therefore, a literal interpretation.
As a side note, St. Jerome cribbed much of his early commentaries from those of Origen and yet he is rarely, if ever, considered to have been a proponent of allegorical interpretation. The break with Origen happened not because St. Jerome changed exegetical method, but because St. Jerome joined in the widespread repudiation and condemnation of Origen over the heresy of universalism which swept through the church in the late 4th century.
Throughout the historical scriptures, God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, angels, powers, principalities, the devil, Satan, the gods of the nations, demons, giants, cherubim and seraphim, the heavenly host, and all other manner of spiritual beings interact with human persons within time and space history. Spiritual events and events within the material creation occur in relation to one another and interact with one another. Reality, as all ancient people knew and the Orthodox Church teaches, is composed of creation visible and invisible, of the world of spirits and the world of flesh.
When the scriptures describe the history of our creation and redemption and look forward to our ultimate destiny, they describe reality and human life, in both of these worlds, in their totality. They call us, rather than attempting to reframe the scriptures and tradition of the church within the context of the things which we as modern people “now know,” to reframe our own understanding of our lives, our personal histories, and the world as we encounter it in terms of the fullness of God’s creation and the reality of Jesus Christ himself. The scriptures have the power to and ought to transform the way in which we interpret everything else — not vice versa.