Allegory : Exegetical Method Or Spiritual Vision?


In order to understand “allegory” as it was used in Christian antiquity, it is necessary to reconsider the way we read any given text. Today we expect the meaning of a passage, from a novel or a newspaper, to be immediately obvious. A text is normally understood to have a single meaning, and that meaning should be evident at first glance. If it is not, we attribute the obscurity to bad writing.

To the ancients, however, significant texts contain multiple layers of meaning. While the surface layer – usually designated the “literal” or “historical” sense – might be clear and evident, the deeper spiritual or existential sense remains hidden, unless it is uncovered by various methods of interpretation. Cynics and Stoics, for example, used what came to be called the allegorical method in order to interpret the epic poems of Homer or the didactic poetry of Hesiod. This is a method that looks for a hyponoia, a hidden meaning under or behind the obvious connotations of the words of the text.1 Those words possess a symbolic quality: they point beyond their literal meaning to one that speaks especially to the ethical and spiritual life of the reader.

Troubled by anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, Philo of Alexandria attempted to reconcile Hebrew tradition with Hellenistic culture by “allegorizing” offending passages of Scripture to make them acceptable to Greek readers. The result was to transform the historical perspective of the Old Testament into a timeless or transcendent vision of the quest for virtue undertaken by the human soul. In a religious context, allegory thus came to be characterized by its tendency to probe beneath, behind and beyond the obvious or literal sense of a scriptural passage, in order to find within the word-symbols a message that speaks to the reader’s moral life and to his longing for communion with God.

To early Christians, the Bible is the ultimate expression of the Word of God. Yet the Word, the Person of the eternal Logos, is not limited to the canonical text, but reveals himself within the entire liturgical-sacramental life of the Church. Manifest throughout Israel’s history in various theophanies, the divine Word became incarnate at a particular moment in history as the man, Jesus of Nazareth. To the author of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ primary function was to reveal (literally, “to exegete”: exêgêsato 1:18) God the Father within the framework of history.

To convey this revelation, Jesus employed a variety of tropes, or figures of speech, in his parables and in other forms of teaching. These included occasional uses of allegory as well as metaphor and simile. Johannine tradition records him drawing upon Old Testament examples of allegory, including the “Song of the Vineyard” (Ps 79/80:8-19; Isa 5:1-7; etc., cf. Jn 15:1-6), the image of the shepherds of Israel (Ezek 34; cf. Jn 10:1-18), and the figure of the Bridegroom from the Song of Songs (cf. the nuptial language in Jn 2:1-11 and 20:11-18). In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is depicted as having frequent recourse to allegory. The Parable of the Wicked tenants (Mk 12:1-11 and parallels), for example, is an obvious “code,” easily decipherable by Jesus’ followers, which likens Israel to the vineyard, the rulers of Israel to the tenants, the ancient prophets to the messengers, the Gentiles to the “other people,” God to the owner, and Christ to the owner’s son. Similar allegory is found in the parables of the Two Sons (Mt 21:28-32), the Wedding Feast (Mt 22:1-14; Lk 14:16-24), and the Ten Virgins (Mt 25:11-13). The parable of the Tares (Mt 13:24-30) with its decoding (13:36-43) has been called “a little lexicon of allegorical interpretation.”2 Finally, a classic example of allegory in Jesus’ teaching is found in the Parable of the Sower, with the “reason for the parables” and the concluding interpretation (Mk 4:1-9; 10-12; and 13-20, a passage which almost certainly comes from the “post-Easter” Church).3

The apostle Paul employed allegory in his parallelism between Adam and Christ (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15), as well as in three key passages of his first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Cor 5:6-8 the old leaven represents sin and the lump signifies the Church, while the righteous life is figured by the fresh dough and the Christian’s destiny by celebration of the Passover feast (Pascha or Easter). Even the image of Christ as the Paschal Lamb represents a form of allegory. In 1 Cor 9:8-10, Paul allegorizes the Torah, insisting that the worker deserves his wages as the ox deserves the fruits of its labor (Dt 25:4).4 Then in 1 Cor 10:1-11, he relates the crossing of the Red Sea to Christian baptism,5 and the manna and water from the rock to the eucharist (“spiritual” food and drink). In the “deutero-pauline” Epistle to the Hebrews, the Temple of Israel serves as an image of the Church and the Christian altar, while Melchisedek (without genealogy, who receives the tithe from Abraham and offers him bread and wine, Gen 14; cf. Heb 7) serves as a figure, a prophetic image, of Christ the High Priest.6

From the Epistles through the Gospels, the New Testament thus provides a firm foundation for the development in the post-apostolic period of various allegorical approaches to biblical interpretation. That development has been the subject of a vast number of studies and their conclusions need not be repeated here.7 Before moving to a reevaluation of allegory and its relevance for biblical interpretation today, however, it is necessary to clarify the relation between allegory and the exegetical method known as typology.8

The expression “typology” is a modern construct, although its roots are pre-Christian and biblical (Paul depicts Adam as typos tou mellontos, “a type of the one to come,” i.e. Christ, Rom 5:14). A type (typos) may be defined as a prophetic image – an event, person, institution or ritual – that points forward to and is fulfilled by a future eschatological reality. In the horizontal, linear movement of salvation history, that future reality is the “antitype”; in the vertical perspective, for example, of St John’s Gospel and Hebrews, it may be more appropriately termed the “archetype.” In both cases, the type consists either of an actual historical reality (such as the person of Moses, the Jerusalem Temple and its ritual sacrifices, the Exile into Babylon) or to a “reality” that may have some degree of historical grounding, but whose significance lies in the way it has been interpreted and inscribed in the people’s living memory or tradition (such as the figures of Adam and Eve, Gideon’s fleece, and details of the Exodus from Egypt). While the type need not be historical in the modern sense of “factual,” that is, empirically verifiable, the antitype must indeed be either historical (e.g., the person of Christ, the Church, the eucharist) or trans-historical, a reality fulfilled in the Eschaton (e.g., the Kingdom of Heaven or the messianic Banquet).

The type, in other words, can be either an actual historical event or other factual reality; or it can be a semi-mythical image that has taken concrete form in the people’s religious consciousness, such as the highly elaborated story of the Exodus found in the Pentateuch and Psalms. That image foreshadows the future antitype, which in turn fulfills it and thereby establishes the essential unity between the Old and New Testaments. Thus, for example, in Christian typology, Moses is perceived as a type of Christ, the true Lawgiver; the Jerusalem Temple with its sacrificial rituals is viewed as a prefiguration of the Church and its liturgical anamnesis or “remembrance” of Christ’s sacrifice; the manna in the wilderness is a prophetic image of the eucharist; the Exodus is interpreted as a foreshadowing of the baptismal ritual by which believers are “co-buried” with Christ and rise up with him “in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), and so forth.9

In the next section we shall see that this familiar understanding of typological relationships is in need of major revision. For the moment, keeping in mind the generally accepted notion of a linear movement from past to future, from the type to its fulfillment in the antitype, we should recall the way typology has usually been compared and contrasted with allegory, so as to see in them two divergent and basically incompatible exegetical methods.

We are familiar with the late third to fifth century tensions that set the catechetical or exegetical “school” of Antioch against its Alexandrian counterpart. It has become a commonplace that the Antiochene school, under the leadership of Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopusestia, Theodoret of Cyrus and, less directly, St John Chrysostom, arose and sustained itself primarily in opposition to the allegorizing tendencies of the Alexandrian school, represented especially by Clement, Origen, Didymus the Blind and, later, St Cyril. The chief differences between the two schools may be schematically noted as follows.

In terms of hermeneutical method, Alexandria is seen as the home of allegory and Antioch the home of typology. For the former, a fuller, higher or more spiritual meaning is to be discerned in the words of a text, often regarded as symbols or elements of a code to be deciphered. As a result, the historical grounding of a given passage could be ignored or at least relegated to a position of secondary importance. If we speak of two basic meanings in Scripture, the literal (usually identified with the historical sense) and the spiritual, Alexandrian exegetes clearly gave priority to the latter, often at the expense of the historical meaning. For example, in the hands of Origen the Cross of Christ could at times be reduced to an image of the “crucifixion” borne by the Christian in his struggle toward the acquisition of virtue.10 The Alexandrians’ concern (again: occasionally) was less for the significance of Christ’s redeeming death in human history, than for the image of the Cross as a symbol of the “unseen warfare” required in Christian existence. Recalling the four senses of Scripture that come down to us from the Christian Middle Ages – the literal, the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical or mystical11 – we may say that the Alexandrians, under neo-Platonic influence, were primarily concerned to acquire a “spiritual vision” (theoria) of ultimate, transcendent reality. This view of their methods and aims has led many scholars to the conclusion that the Alexiandrians “destroyed textual coherence”12 by placing an exaggerated emphasis on words rather than adopting a more holistic reading of the text. Some even press this judgment to the point of caricature, declaring, “allegory takes no account of history” and “as exegesis it is for the most part sheer rubbish”!13

The Antiochenes, on the other hand, insisted on preserving history as the indispensable framework for God’s mighty acts in Israel and his redemptive work in Christ. They drew on typology as a way of affirming the presence in history of particular correspondences between a type and its antitype, between Promise and Fulfillment. Their concern to preserve the historical reality of biblical revelation came in large measure as a reaction to the a-historical, symbolic and mystical reading of Scripture favored at Alexandria.14 Accordingly, their own quest for spiritual vision (theoria) led them to develop a basic hermeneutical axiom: the spiritual sense of a passage can only flow out of the literal sense. Alexandrians tended to separate the two, situating them on different levels and at times severing altogether the connection between the literal meaning of a text (understood, with Augustine and later with Aquinas, as the “intention” of the biblical author) and the superior spiritual sense. The Antiochenes, particularly Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, insisted on beginning the task of exegesis with exploration of the literal sense of the text, which may or may not be equivalent to the “historical” sense.15 For example, the author of the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah may have had in mind a coming ruler who could be properly called historical. Yet in the Servant figure he also perceived and expressed (by “hyperbole,” the Antiochenes would hold) a deeper significance, one rightly termed messianic.16 The literal sense, in any case, can incorporate both an historical reality and its future eschatological fulfillment, insofar as the prophet perceived that fulfillment under the inspiration of the Spirit.

The usual, we might say “traditional,” understanding of allegory and typology sees them as distinct methods of exegesis that in many respects are mutually contradictory; as hermeneutic approaches, they are fundamentally incompatible. On the one hand, allegory devalues history and seeks the true or higher meaning of a biblical text in the words, taken as a code that reveals the mystical sense for the believer’s own moral transformation and sanctification. Typology, on the other hand, is concerned to root all meaning in history, discovering the higher sense of Scripture in the actual correspondences that exist between type and antitype. Theoria for the Alexandrians seeks ultimate meaning in transcendent reality and therefore focuses on a spiritual or mystical reading of the biblical text. For the Antiochenes, however, theoria perceives in the historical event itself a double sense (Diodore), both literal and spiritual. Thereby it preserves the historical framework of revelation, gives full value to the incarnation of the Word of God (over against perceived monophysite tendencies in Alexandrian christology), and assures the coherence and integrity of the biblical text.

The question is, is this view of the matter correct? Or with a growing number of scholars working today in the area of biblical hermeneutics, are we obliged to reevaluate the relation between allegory and typology, to discover their real function in the Church Fathers’ work of interpretation, and to grasp more accurately the meaning of “history” in the mind of ancient authors?


To this point we have noted two presuppositions that characterize a great deal of opinion concerning the relation between typology and allegory as approaches to biblical interpretation. The first holds that typology is essentially linear and unidirectional, moving through history from the past type to the future antitype. A type is conceived as a sign that points forward to a higher, deeper, more spiritual reality. Since Promise and Fulfillment are separated by time, they can only be interpreted diachronically, in a movement that leads the exegete from the historical phenomenon to the future (and ontologically disconnected) eschatological antitype. The second presupposition sees typology and allegory as representing two different world-views, such that as exegetical methods they are basically incompatible, even contradictory. Whereas typology respects the historical grounding of the type-antitype relationship, allegory tends to ignore that grounding by locating the true meaning of a biblical passage not in historical events, but on a transcendent plane of being, as well as in the moral and spiritual life of the believer. Revelation occurs less through historical event than through the words of a text, which are taken to be a code that needs to be broken in order to discover the higher, fuller sense of the passage.

While there is a certain truth to both of these depictions, they need to be revised in significant ways. The first point to make is that the type-antitype relationship is neither strictly linear nor unidirectional. If this point has gone unrecognized until recently, it is largely because scholars have identified “historicity” as the defining characteristic of typology. Historicity, however, like the term “typology,” is a modern concept, at least insofar as it presupposes a unidirectional flow through time, from past to present. To the ancients, particularly in the Greek world, history comprises something of a double movement: linear, from past to future, yet also circular, in a pattern of recapitulation. This is true, to a limited extent, even in Hebrew thought. O. Cullmann17 and others have made a sharp distinction between the “upward sloping line” that characterizes the biblical concept of time as contrasted with the “circle” proper to Hellenism. This fails to recognize, however, that Hebrew thought moves not only from past to future, but from future to past: the future itself is fulfilled in a certain sense by a return to the beginning, to the archê. This is characteristic of Christian thought as well: the New Jerusalem is a “return to Paradise.” Similarly, in both Hebrew and Christian liturgical experience, celebration of a past event, such as the Exodus (Passover) or Maccabean revolt, leads worshipers back to the event commemorated. Through liturgical celebration, the past event is actualized in the present; yet the present “returns” as it were to the past, to recapitulate the past and “fulfill” it, in view of the Eschaton.

Typology needs to be understood in this same double perspective, since this is the perspective of Scripture itself. In 1 Cor 10:4, the apostle Paul makes a startling assertion about the rock that (according to Jewish midrash) followed the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings to provide them with what Johannine tradition describes as “living water.” That rock, Paul declares, was Christ. The rock is not said to be a sign, a type or a symbol; it is the reality itself. The type, in other words, participates directly in the antitype, and it does so not only in the historical framework of past to future. The typological relationship is double: from past to future, but also from future to past. If early Christians could find theophanies of Christ throughout the Old Testament, it is because the eternal Word of God was present and active in creation itself (Jn 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2-3) and in the life of the people of Israel. Yet that Word is still “the One to come,” a prophecy fulfilled with the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. To Paul’s mind, however, Christ and the eternal Word constitute a single, indivisible reality. Accordingly, even before the incarnation he can speak of “Christ” (and not only “the Son”) as present and active in Israel’s experience. “The rock was Christ.”

This view, of course, was not universally accepted. Melito of Sardis, for example, understood that the type, once “fulfilled” by the antitype, was rendered void; it was abolished. Although he avoids pure allegorizing, he considers the type to be merely “a preliminary sketch.” Speaking of the relationship between the Exodus event and its fulfillment in the true exodon accomplished by Christ (Lk 9:31), he declares: “When the thing comes about of which the sketch was a type, that which was to be, of which the type bore the likeness, then the type is destroyed, it has become useless, it yields up the image to what is truly real.”18

This is not “fulfillment.” It is “replacement,” much as one finds in the Gospel of John, where Jewish rituals (feasts, purifications, sacrifices) are to a degree replaced by Christ.

Another perspective is provided by Diodore of Tarsus. In his commentary on the Psalms and elsewhere, he makes the point that a true type is “double.” It does not contain two separate meanings, literal and spiritual, but a single meaning that is both literal and spiritual. This is because the type is “charged” with the presence and power of the antitype. The antitype or future fulfillment, is already present and active within the type. The movement inherent in typology, then, is not merely unidirectional, from past to future. It is bi-directional, insofar as there is between type and antitype a relationship of mutual participation.

This insight, however, is proper not only to Diodore. The Cappadocians and many others (Ephrem of Syria, for example, in his Hymns on Paradise) were equally aware of the interrelationship that exists between type and antitype, and of the proleptic presence of the antitype in the type. In his Life of Moses, St Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the rock that “was Christ” and declares that it was also “the fullness of virtue” (hê pantelês arête).(( II.244.)) Speaking of the Hebrew tabernacle, he affirms: “the same tabernacle is both created and uncreated: uncreated in its preexistence, created once it receives created form.” That tabernacle prefigures the Monogenês, the Only Begotten Son; yet the Son, together with angelic powers “who uphold the universe by the divine will,” are also present in the earthly tabernacle (hai en tê skênê theôroumenai). “Moses was instructed en typô beforehand about the mystery of the Temple that contains all things: this is Christ.” Christ is the true Temple; but the earthly tabernacle is a figure that prophesies yet also contains the eternal, pre-existent Word.19 Gregory also sees in the Burning Bush a true theophany of Christ – not merely a foreshadowing but a living presence, not just a figure but the reality.20 Similarly, the manna in the desert not only points forward to the Eucharistic Body of Christ. That heavenly bread, Gregory declares, is the Word (Houtos…artos kai logos estin), who communicates his power (dynamis) to those who consume him (tôn esthiontôn).

The word typos, from the verb typtein, signifies a mark left by a blow. By extension, it can signify a seal, an impression made in wax, a pattern or a model.21 Adam, for example, is a “type” of Christ in that he is a “model” for the One to come (Rom 5:14). Yet he is also an “icon,” an imitative reflection of Christ who himself is both antitype and archetype (as the true Anthropos, Christ is the archetype of created humanity, of which Adam is the representative). As Frances Young has pointed out, “It is not its character as historical event which makes a ‘type’; what matters is its mimetic quality.”22 The type is an image of the antitype: there exists between the two a relationship of mimesis, imitation or copying, in that the antitype “impresses” itself upon the type, so that the type bears the mark of eternal reality.

This, however, does not necessarily imply forward historical movement. Like Diodore, who finds a double meaning in historical events and other types, Young has led us to discover (or rediscover) the presence of the antitype in the type: the spiritual sense is present in and through the literal sense. The type retains its value as a reality in its own right; but it is also an icon, an image of a future fulfillment that is already present within it. Between type and antitype, there is reciprocity, mutual indwelling of one in the other, independent of time. The diachronic, historical approach to typology, which finds a temporal separation between type and antitype, needs to give way to another approach based on another perspective. That perspective – which incorporates a particular world-view more typical of the Fathers than of our contemporaries – easily perceives transcendent reality within the sphere of time and space, within human history. It perceives as well the profound unity that exists between the two Testaments, a unity grounded not only in the forward movement from prophecy to fulfillment, but a unity derived from the actual presence of eternal reality within the events of human history.

This perichôrêsis, reciprocity or interpenetration, between type and antitype is characteristic of the biblical text itself. Modern literary criticism sees in the Bible, as in any significant text, a self-referential quality. Ancient literature, in particular, can be interpreted by cross-referencing, thanks to its quality of intertextuality. This is expressed by the hermeneutic principle of exegetical reciprocity. Because Scripture is understood to be uniformly and integrally inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16; cf. 2 Pet 1:21), any obscure passage can be clarified by another that is less obscure, even one drawn from another book, another author or another Testament. This principle, abhorrent to present-day exegetes who tend to stress the differences and incompatibilities between biblical writings (and between various layers of tradition within a single writing), was nonetheless fundamental to the perspective of the Church Fathers. Given recent advances in understanding the way texts function, including the insights of narrative and reader-response criticism, it is a principle that would be well worth recovering.


What does this mean with regard to allegory and allegorical method? And is allegorical interpretation in any way compatible with historical criticism and other recently developed hermeneutic approaches?

In the first place, we need to reassess our use of the expression “allegorical method.” Allegory is not so much a method as a spiritual perspective, a theoria, that perceives transcendent meaning at the heart of material reality, particularly as it pertains to the moral life of the believer in his quest for salvation. As Andrew Louth so eloquently expresses it, “allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures.”  (( A. Louth, “Return to Allegory,” p. 96.))

This implies, furthermore, that we need to reassess the relationship between typology and allegory, and see allegory as a mode of expression that incorporates typology in its quest for the higher, spiritual sense of a biblical passage. The commonplace: allegory investigates words while typology investigates historical events, needs to be discarded. As Young, Louth and others have recently shown, allegory and typology both aim to achieve a theoria of ultimate reality and ultimate meaning. Allegory can perhaps best be described as a contemplative mode of investigation that interprets typological relationships in its search for meaning. For allegory depends on a type-antitype relationship even in cases where the meaning sought is moral (tropological) or eschatological (anagogical). It searches the depths of Scriptural passages with the aim of discovering divine presence within the world and within human experience, as that presence manifests itself through a chain or sequence (akolouthia) of events.

In an article published in 1990, Mary Sanford Ford addressed the question of allegory in Jesus’ parables.23 In it she took to task modern interpreters of the parables, as much for their method as for their conclusions. She demonstrated that their tendency to separate the “picture part” of a parable from its meaning leads to a serious distortion of the parable’s function in Jesus’ teaching and in the overall New Testament proclamation. Genre critics, she argued, equate the “picture part” with the parable’s realism, which must be “intersected” or even “shattered” by its meaning. These critics see parables, falsely, as “realistic narratives,” in which the “ordinary” picture is analogous to the ordinary world around us, and the meaning is analogous to the transcendent realm of divine reality. This, she concludes, is a result of a secular world-view, in which the “ordinary” is autonomous, separated from God and thus from ultimate, spiritual meaning. Relative to antiquity, where the world-view was characterized by “relationship and process,” the modern secular perspective breaks any relationship between form and content, thereby preventing the holistic approach to Scripture interpretation so typical of the Fathers. As a solution to the problem, she proposes a “restoration of allegory,” one firmly grounded in traditional Orthodox Christology.

Picture and meaning, she argues, must be held together if we are to achieve a true understanding of the parable’s polysemous quality: its capacity to say one thing yet convey more than that literal meaning. The unity that properly exists between picture and meaning, between the story and its message, is analogous to the “hypostatic union”: the uniting of humanity and divinity in the person of Christ. “A person can enhypostasize another nature without in any way losing his own original nature.”24 Christ, the eternal Son of God, unites in himself two natures, human and divine, according to the Chalcedonian formula, “without confusion, change, division, or separation.” By means of his incarnation, the Logos became, in the expression of Cyril of Alexandria, the “God-man.” Yet he is equally united with all those who constitute his Body, the Church. Orthodoxy speaks of the human person as a “being in communion” (Zizioulas). Just as persons cannot exist as autonomous individuals without sacrificing an essential quality of their being, so words can have no meaning as autonomous units. “They can mean only in relationship to one another and to the text as a whole (and to the world-view of the author).”25

The correspondence Ford draws between picture and meaning on the one hand, and the hypostatic union in Christ on the other, is especially helpful for our attempt to reassess and finally restore allegory as a legitimate, and indeed essential feature of biblical interpretation. A similar correspondence may be said to exist between type and antitype. The type corresponds to the picture and the antitype to the meaning. Like the parable, the type is not merely a “historical narrative,” that is, an event of the past (whether historically factual in its details or highly interpreted) that exists autonomously. The exaggerations of Alexandrian allegorizing often led precisely to that misunderstanding: the type does exist autonomously relative to the antitype, which alone embodies ultimate meaning – and it does so to the point that the type can be virtually discarded, as modern critics tend to discard the “picture part” of a parable.

A proper understanding of allegory, however, recognizes the essential “intertextuality” that exists between type and antitype. The insight of Diodore remains valid: the type contains a single meaning, but that meaning is double, both literal and spiritual, both historical and eschatological. This is because the antitype is proleptically realized in the type itself. In Johannine terms, there is “mutual indwelling” between the two. This means that the type is a true symbol: it participates directly (one might say “ontologically”) in the reality toward which it points and whose “impress” it bears. In order to interpret the true meaning behind the “picture” aspect of the type, therefore, it is necessary for us to have recourse to allegory, precisely in order to evaluate the symbolic nature of the type. As H.A. Blair has observed, “Types must be allegorized to reach the true meaning behind the symbols.”26

The “archeological” orientation of historical criticism is essential, and its success in discerning layers of tradition within a text, the circumstances leading to its composition, and the place of a writing within the early Christian community (its Sitz im Leben) has contributed immensely to our understanding of the meaning of Scripture. Post-modern approaches to literary analysis, moreover, have vastly broadened our knowledge and appreciation of how texts speak, of how stories function. From narrative criticism to rhetorical analysis (the role of parallelism and chiasmus in Scripture, for example), the efforts of biblical scholars in recent years have offered precious new insights into the way Scripture embodies and conveys meaning. An essential complement to these interpretive tools, however, is a renewed understanding and appreciation of the importance of allegory, and specifically a typological allegory that avoids fantasy, yet enables the reader to discern, behind the letter of the text, the power and authority of the Word which that text enshrines. This implies, however, that modern critics need to reassess their own perspective on reality. They need to adopt, in fact, a different world-view, one that incorporates the basic perspective of antiquity, and specifically of the Church Fathers. As Frances Young has pointed out: “A culture which can conceive of the material universe as interpenetrated by another reality, which is transcendent and spiritual, will read the reference of scripture in those terms. That is far more significant for the differences between ancient and modern exegesis than any supposed ‘method.’”27

Certainly, as in cases we have noted, allegory can be grossly misused. Its referent can be so “existentialized” that it loses all contact with salvation-history – the historical context of revelation – and betrays the task of interpretation by its subjectivity. Used properly, however, an allegorical approach is indispensable for making Scripture relevant to believers in every new generation. It reveals, through the Scriptural text itself, divine presence and activity within the mundane affairs of our daily existence. And in the best of cases it provides us with the moral and spiritual guidance that leads to eternal communion with God.

Allegory, therefore, is not simply a method, a procedure that will produce answers to biblical conundrums. It is not just an investigative tool. It is an insight, a perception, an awakening, a theoria. The true value of allegory can be recovered if we realize, with Louth, that with allegory, “we are not concerned with a technique for solving problems but with an art for discerning mystery.”28

  1. The term “allegory” is derived from the Greek verb allêgoreô, which itself is built on the verb agoreuô (to speak, particularly in the agora, the marketplace or Assembly), with the prefix allos (other). To “allegorize” is to say or signify something other than the obvious, “literal” meaning of the words used. In hermeneutical usage, it refers to a higher, fuller or more mystical sense that lies behind or beyond the literal meaning of a given word or passage. []
  2. J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: SCM Press, 1962), p. 81. Jeremias holds that it was the early Church that transformed Jesus’ parables from simple lessons on repentance and judgment into “ecclesial allegories.” While the evidence he presents is often sound, he underestimates Jesus’ own proclivity toward figurative and, indeed, allegorical rhetoric. Whether or not any given example of allegory actually stems from Jesus directly, the early Church used allegorical tropes, as well as allegorical method in its reading of the Old Testament, to interpret the person and work of Jesus, and to proclaim him as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. []
  3. The fact that certain sayings attributed to Jesus were, in their present form, composed by his followers after the resurrection does not alter their value or authority as expressions of the Word of God. Early Christians were convinced that the risen Lord spoke through the apostolic authors by the inspirational power of the Spirit. Thus they are “words of Jesus,” whether or not they derive directly from the teaching of Christ during his earthly ministry (see especially Jn 16:12-15). []
  4. This example is closer to a simile, but Paul’s usage of the imagery can certainly be termed “allegorical.” In the Prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs, St Gregory of Nyssa stresses that this and other Old Testament accounts were, as Paul himself declares, “written for our instruction.” The important point, Gregory insists, is to pass from the corporeal to the spiritual, from a literal to “a spiritual and intelligent investigation of scripture.” Commentary on the Song of Songs (translated by Casimir McCamley OCSO; Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987), p. 36. []
  5. A similar interpretation appears in 1 Pet 3:20f. []
  6. Already at Qumran Melchisedek was depicted as a heavenly Ruler with priestly functions, 11 Q 13. []
  7. See, for example, B. de Margerie, Introduction à l’Histoire de l’Exégèse I: Les Pères Grecs et Orientaux (Paris: Cerf, 1980); M. Simonetti, Profilo Storico dell’ Esegesi Patristica (Rome: Istituto Patristico Augustinianum, 1981); S. Todoran, Exegeza Sfintei Scripturi la Sfintii Parinti (Alba Iulia: Ed. “Reîntregirea,” 2000); and J. Breck, The Power of the Word (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), chs. 1-3; (tr. Puterea Cuvântului în Biserica dreptmaritoare, Bucharest: Ed. Institutului Biblic si de Misiune, 1999). []
  8. One often finds in studies on biblical interpretation reference to an allegorical or typological “sense” of Scripture. This is a misuse of the terms involved. Allegory and typology refer more appropriately to interpretive methods. Yet beyond that, as we shall see, they designate a particular world-view, which perceives transcendent reality present and operative within the framework of human history. []
  9. In Christian exegesis, the Exodus is seen to be fulfilled by a number of antitypes: Moses / Christ; crossing of the Red Sea / baptism; blood of the Lamb / crucifixion (water and blood from the side of Christ); the Passover meal / the eucharist; liberation from Egypt / resurrection from the dead, etc. []
  10. Origen, Hom. In Lev. 1:4f (PG 12.2.409ff). []
  11. This classification is derived especially from the reflection of the great medieval Latin exegete, Nicholas of Lyra (+ ca. 1340), who expressed it in a well-known bit of verse: Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, / Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia: the literal sense tells us what occurred (historically), the allegorical sense spells out the content of our faith (what we are to believe), the moral sense specifies how we are to behave, and the anagogical sense indicates the ultimate end of our journey. For an insightful discussion of the movement implied in the order of these senses (or stages), see A. Louth, “Return to Allegory,” in Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 116-117. From history to allegory represents the movement from Old Covenant to New; then allegory, which provides the “dogmatic dimensions of the Christian mystery,” calls for a response (the moral stage), leading not away from history but into history, culminating with the anagogical stage of eternal communion with Christ. []
  12. Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 176, 182. This is an outstanding study of hermeneutical method in the early Church, to which we own many groundbreaking insights. []
  13. G.W.H Lampe, “The Reasonableness of Typology,” in Lampe and Woollcombe, Essays on Typology (London: SCM Press, 1957), pp. 31-32. []
  14. Although he overstates the differences between the two hermeneutic approaches, K.J Woollcombe offers an accurate summary statement of the view most scholars have held of typology and “allegorism” as exegetical methods: “Typological exegesis is the search for linkages between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas allegorism is the search for a secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meaning of a narrative.” “The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology,” in Essays on Typology, p. 40. []
  15. Our understanding of that latter expression is shaped by 19th century historiography. To the early Fathers, “history” is a framework or realm in which God acts to work out our salvation. All history, from this perspective, is “salvation-history,” Geschichte rather than Historie. []
  16. This is perhaps the meaning of Jesus’ word in John 12:41, “Isaiah…saw his glory and spoke of him,” although here the reference is to Isa 6:10, which is taken to mean that the prophet beheld the shekinah of the Lord, manifested in the incarnate Logos (Jn 1:14). []
  17.  Christus und die Zeit (English translation: Christ and Time, London: SCM Press, 1951). []
  18.  On Pascha 37 (tr. A. Stewart-Sykes, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 46. []
  19. II.174, 179. []
  20.  II.19ff. []
  21.  Thomas was invited to place his finger in the “mark,” the typon, of the nails in Jesus’ hands (Jn 20:24-28). []
  22.  Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, p. 153.  My emphasis. []
  23.  “Toward the Restoration of Allegory: Christology, Epistemology and Narrative Structure,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 34/2-3 (1990), 161-195. []
  24. P. 185. The notion of “enhypostasis,” basic to Orthodox christology, is taken from Leontius of Byzantium (6th century). See J. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), pp. 62-68 []
  25. P. 186. []
  26. H.A. Blair, “Allegory, Typology and Archetypes,” Studia Patristica vol. XVII.1 (1993), 263-267, at 264f. []
  27.  Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, p. 139. []
  28. “Return to Allegory,” p. 113. []