“Allegory” might as well be a curse word for many literal-minded Christians. Dismissed, laughed at, scorned–allegorical interpretation of the Bible has fallen on tough times. But it was not always this way! Again, O’Keefe and Reno (Sanctified Vision, ch. 4-5) are here to provide a helpful explanation of the logic, and perhaps even the beauty, of allegorical interpretation. Allegory and typology are sibling reading strategies, as both seek the deeper, “spiritual” meaning of the text. The authors distinguish between the two only insofar as an allegorical reading requires “significantly more interpretive investment capital” than does a typological reading (90).
We first get a discussion of typology, “the most important interpretive strategy for early Christianity” (69). Broadly put, typological interpretation occurs “whenever somebody alludes to an event in a shared cultural narrative as a means of illuminating the present” (71). Thus, MLK Jr’s “I have a dream” speech typologically evoked the Exodus, and “having a Jan Brady moment” evokes a world of teen-age angst and emotion. Similarly, “a reader of the scriptures shows that the divine economy is recapitulated in Christ precisely by showing the countless instances in which specific details of the scripture are linked in a common pattern or type” (73). O’Keefe and Reno identify three different patterns of typology (explicit prefiguration of Christ, prefiguration of practices of the early church, and prefiguration of the lives of early Christians themselves). Thus, Joshua is a type of Christ, the Exodus is a type of baptism, and the martyrdom of Polycarp follows the type of Christ’s passion. In each case, interpreters are focusing on parallel patterns within Scripture and history.
Allegorical readings, then, are “interpretations that claim the plain or obvious sense of a given text is not the true meaning, or at least not the full meaning” (89). An allegorical reading “decodes” a text that cannot be understood literally, either because there is a literal meaning beyond the literal sense, or because the literal sense is obscure or problematic. Thus, Moses’ life can be allegorically understood as the life of faith of a Christian believer. And thus the Song of Songs, which posed interpretive problems for ascetic Christians, must be reinterpreted as not about sex but as the relationship between Christ and his church.
While O’Keefe and Reno again give helpful explanations and examples, their real genius comes in showing how our difficulties in understanding or appreciating patristic exegesis is not the fault of the Fathers but ourselves. For both typological and allegorical readings, the authors are concerned to make the point that the Fathers are not abandoning the actual narrative of the text; rather, they are intensely studying the smallest details of the narrative to make their interpretations. We cannot accuse them of failing to pay close attention to the text.
More importantly, the authors make the point that the objections of modern readers to typology and allegory are theological and not methodological. “In the end the controversy surrounding the practice of allegorical reading really has to do with the superstructure supporting the correspondes, not the intellectual act of making them” (109). Their point is that all interpretation takes place within a larger, master understanding of how the text and the world works (an “economy”). Thus, Marcus Borg’s book on Jesus interprets him in light of the type of a spirit-filled man who transforms society. Sigmund Freud interpreted Oedipus Rex allegorically according to his theory of psychosexual development. Feminist criticism reinterprets the writings of the Fathers to actually be about gender and authority, and not God and salvation. Even supposedly objective historical-critical scholars make use of larger conceptual frameworks to understand the past and its texts. In other words, “All historians need to presume an economy of causality and influence that allows them to connect events and organize the data into some meaningful whole… The scandal, if there is one, is in the economy that guides the interpretation, not the strategies of reading, even the allegorical strategy” (112).
Thus, a Freudian reading will seem to correctly decode the “true” meaning of Oedipus Rex to one who accepts a Freudian economy, and the feminist reading of the Fathers will likely be judged true by a person who accepts the historical assumptions of modern feminism. When it comes down to it, everyone is “guilty” of reading texts and thinking about reality in light of what we take to be the “deep structuring principles of reality.” Allegorical and typological interpretation simply make these clear. For the early Christians, the “deep structuring principle of reality” was the economy of the rule of faith, “that God governs all things, that human beings have fallen into sin, and that the only begotten Son, who is the Word of God in the creation of all things, becomes incarnate to draw human beings into the divine life and bring the created order to its final perfection” (112-3). We should not be surprised, then, that the Fathers would see the imprint of this reality throughout the biblical record and even in their own lives. Following Irenaeus, the Fathers believed that all of biblical revelation is structured by a Christ-centered structure, and they read it in light of this economy.
The Freudian, feminist, historical-critical, and rule of faith paradigms all may or may not be the “true” way to read and understand a given text. But it is nevertheless astonishing that so many Christians are so quick to dismiss a reading of Scripture that seeks to read it within the framework of a distinctively Trinitarian story of redemption. Indeed, one might be forgiven for suggesting that the model of reading Scripture used by the Fathers is more Christian that many of our modern assumptions about reading.