Allegory, Controlling Narratives and the Bible

This is the first post in a kind-of series on the Bible, narratives, reading the Bible and being formed by the Scriptures. The next two posts are here and here, and some related posts can be found here and here.

Allegory has been a long-accepted method for reading Scripture – seeing the meaning of various stories, events and characters not in themselves so much as in a more general principle, idea or doctrine which they represent. Origen is arguably the guy who started this as a systematic theological enterprise, though it seems obvious that, at the very least, a lot of Jesus’ teachings were allegorical in one way or another.

This invites a question: when do we allegorize? Texts don’t come with handy little tags that say ‘WARNING: ALLEGORY AHEAD’. Jesus doesn’t really say, ‘This parable is an allegory for X’.

Generally speaking, allegory doesn’t happen if the text isn’t a narrative of some kind – Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories invite allegory in  a way that ‘An Introduction to Organic Chemistry’ does not. So far as I can tell, allegory happens when one is confronted with a story or narrative, and forms the belief that the ‘real’ meaning of the text lies deeper than than the the text at face-value. The process for forming this belief usually goes one of to ways: it seems obvious that the real meaning must lie deeper, or the reader thinks that the real meaning must lie deeper. The latter seems to be round about how a lot of the early Fathers interpreted Scripture, especially the Old Testament.

There are other factors, though. In isolation, a text may be demanded to be read allegorically – think of the story of Jephthah. If you were handed a piece of paper with just this story written on it, you’d probably try to come up with some kind of meaning for it, simply because that’s a pretty wild story, and there has to be some kind of deeper meaning. This is a totally natural and correct thing to do. However, the story as we have in Scripture isn’t a random tale, but part of an over-arching narrative – the book of Judges (probably the darkest part of the Scriptures). I’m not going to go into a sustained exegesis of the Jephthah story, but when it’s read as part of a larger story, a larger controlling story, then it seems that allegorization isn’t as much of an option.

The controlling narrative restricts the degree to which we can interpret a story within that narrative. N.T. Wright points out in ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, that a habit of early church interpretation was to find moral or spiritual significance to especially brutal Old Testament stories – something that didn’t need to be done because the stories were, in fact, part of a larger controlling narrative. Their meaning isn’t had on their own in isolation (like, say Aesop’s Fables or any number of folk tales, which do a fine job of imparting moral wisdom in bite-sized parables free from any real controlling narrative) but in the framework of a larger story within which they make sense without allegorization.

This is obviously not to suggest that a given story in the Bible has one and only one meaning. Christians throughout history have had certain stories speak to them in certain ways that are no doubt far from the authors original intent. God is free to speak to us however He wishes from whatever story He wishes. In responsible biblical interpretation, however, the factor of the controlling narrative must be accounted for. We are not free to give any meaning to any story in Scripture – the controlling narrative is more than a literary device because in a very deep sense, the controlling narrative also lays claim to us. We are subject to Scripture – not the other way around. When the sense of controlling narrative is lost (both in its literary form and its theological/authoritative form) Scripture becomes a screen upon which we can project any and everything with equal validity.

3 thoughts on “Allegory, Controlling Narratives and the Bible

  1. John Uebersax May 14, 2015 / 12:06 am

    You raise good points. Origen’s allegorical method pretty much followed Philo of Alexandria, didn’t it?

    Like

    • whitefrozen May 14, 2015 / 7:17 am

      Its the general consensus that they both worked in the same exegetical tradition, though Origen seems to have more of a sense of the historical in his work.

      Like

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