Bible Reading Like An Apostle: Reading for the Purpose of Allegory
Allegory is basically a form of literature in which objects and persons represent ideas or qualities. In allegory the ideas or qualities are the focus rather than the objects and persons. In speaking of allegory, a word of caution must be given. At different times in church history, certain groups have utilized allegory as an interpretive framework for Scripture. So, for example, during the Patristic Era (c. A.D. 100-590), the group of theologians now known as the Alexandrian school would attempt to find underlying spiritual meanings in historical narratives; thus, the account of Jesus' changing the water to wine at the wedding in Cana would be taken to symbolize the need for those weak like water to be changed and become steadfast like wine, etc. [S.J. Wellum, 22100: Hermeneutics Handouts, 2006. 4] As an interpretive framework, allegory is unacceptable because it downplays the historicity of the the text, and either leads to a purely arbitrary system of interpretation where anyone can read anything into the text or else leads to the need for an elite group of interpreters to explain the deeper meaning of the Scriptural text [Wellum, 5].
Given this caution, we still must observe that there is at least one instance where the Apostle Paul read the Old Testament allegorically, namely Galatians 4:21-31:
21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, "REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE NUMEROUS ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND." 28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? "CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN." 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. (NASB)
The word in verse 24 that the NASB translates "allegorically" is allhgorew, the word from which the English "allegory" directly derives. In the section above, the Apostle uses a combination of allusion and allegory to illustrate the spiritual truth that he has been establishing throughout the epistle- that salvation and sanctification are perfected not by the works of the old testament Law, but by hearing with faith. Notice two things about the Apostle's use of allegory in this section:
- He specifically indicates his use of allegory: This is not his typical style of biblical instruction, i.e. he is not giving us a framework by which to read our entire Bible, rather he is making a point through using a figure of speech, and he alerts readers to this fact.
- The way that the Apostle uses allegory is specifically dependent upon the historical reality of the primary events. Though the Apostle makes allegorical connections ("Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia," etc.) this allegory would be meaningless if there was never a slave-woman named Hagar and powerless if there was never a child of promise named Isaac.
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