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Allegorical Interpretation

Should Scripture be read allegorically? The answer will make a huge difference in your theology.

Reading Scripture allegorically goes way back in Christian history.

Clement of Alexandria, wrote:

The two fish Jesus used to feed the five thousand represent Greek philosophy.

The Mosaic Law prohibitions against eating swine, hawks, eagles and ravens (Lev. 11:7, 13-19) represent respectively unclean lust for food, injustice, robbery and greed.

Allegory often takes a passage and makes a moral statement out of it. Many preachers allegorize by painting a broader picture with a Scriptural passage then what is directly in the text. Allegory is an effective tool when you want to engage a reader in a way that puts the story in their hands. It has been said that allegory draws the story into the reader.

Allegory always requires an interpreter. This can be the reader, the text, or an authority such as an expert on the subject or a belief system. Notice that what Clement of Alexandria drew from the scripture may or may not be true. People might easily reject his allegorical findings as not supported by the text. It is his interpretation.

When we write precisely we avoid allegory like the plague. A legal or scientific document cannot be read allegorically. A will states that a son can inherit on his twenty-eighth birthday. The son walks into court on his nineteenth birthday and claims that he is now entitled to the inheritance. The judge asks on what basis is he entitled. The son argues that he is mature enough to handle the responsibility. The judge says but the will states that you must be twenty-eight. The son replies that that only indicates a level of maturity, not a specific age. Do you think the judge will allow the son’s allegorical interpretation of the will? I doubt it.

Scripture is written using a wide range of literary styles. In the following verse taken from John we know that Jesus is not a literal door. He is speaking metaphorically. We understand and easily recognize this style of communication.

John 10:9-10 I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.

There is a common rule to follow when interpreting Scripture: “We should understand it in its plain, normal sense of meaning. We should interpret the Bible according to the rules of grammar and take into consideration the historical context in which it was written.” I would add that we need to read with careful attention to the Scriptural context of the passage we are reading. This is saying that we treat poetry like poetry, fables like fables, and so on. You read historical segments of Scripture in a different way than you read prophecy, the Psalms, or Paul’s  complex arguments.

When a theology begins to allegorize in order to sustain its system, you can be certain that that system requires an interpreter that stands outside of Scripture. That interpretation can come from a necessity to maintain the logic of the theological system, or it might come from a proponents personal view. The interpreters claim will be that “he is rightly dividing Scripture.”

Take ten competent readers and present to them “God so loved the world…” and see if any of them would understand the word “world” to be “the elect.” If one of the ten made that substitution, you would not hesitate to ask if they hold a Reformed view of election. They are using their Reformed theological view of election to interpret Scripture. You would challenge this interpretation because they are not reading words naturally. Nothing in the text supports using “the elect” for “world.” Calvinism is ripe with an allegorical approach to reading Scripture. Why? Because the theology wobbles badly in light of the plain reading of the Word.

Covenant Theology, Calvinism, or Reformed theology holds a view called supersessionism. Supersessionism is a fancy word that means that the Church has replaced, i.e. superseded, Israel. God’s prophecies for Israel are fulfilled, or are now accrued to the Church. The blessings promised to Israel are now experienced by the Church. There is nothing special, in God’s eyes, about the Nation Israel, its land, or the present day Jewish race. In order to hold this view the Scripture must be interpreted properly. When one reads “Israel” in the New Testament one substitutes “Church.” What does this do to the plain, normal reading of Scripture?

In Romans 10:1 “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.”

How does this read allegorically where Israel becomes the Church: Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Church is that they may be saved. So Paul makes it a point to pray for the Church, the Body of Christ, the Saints, the Saved, so that they might be saved. No normal reading of that verse would allow such a substitution. We might also ask why is Paul praying at all for Israel if God no longer has any special regard for them. Why pray for Israel if that entity is now the Church. Why not simply pray for the Church?

Have you ever had a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. You pull a thread and soon you are wearing shorts. Theology is like that. You think you are in comfortable clothes, but soon you find you are naked as can be. Our approach to Scripture has consequences. You try to patch a theological hole and that works for a while until another one appears and then you find yourself patching again and again. Take an allegorical approach to Scripture and you soon have a patchwork of interpretation that hardly reflects the simple reading of God’s Word. Understanding Scripture becomes very complex and you are constantly studying, not Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture in order to comprehend it. The interpreter becomes more important than the words they are interpreting.

Many supersessionists are preterists. Preterist hold that most or all the Old Testament prophecies were ended in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple. Supersessionists are often a-millennial meaning that there will be no future millennial Rule of Christ on earth. They hold that we live today in a spiritual kingdom where Christ reigns through His church. This is a spiritual and unseen kingdom. A-millennialism teaches that we are in the millennium now . But what do they do with these verses from Revalation:

Rev 20:1-10 Then I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and tied him up for a thousand years. The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.) Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. Now when the thousand years are finished, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to bring them together for the battle. They are as numerous as the grains of sand in the sea. They went up on the broad plain of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and devoured them completely. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever.

If we are in the millennium now, then we are well past a thousand years for its existence. Faced with an ever lengthening millennium the supersessionist must deal with the six times “a thousand years” is presented in Revelation 20. Their solution is that a thousand years, a millennia, is not a thousand years, but rather it is interpreted to be “a very long time”. If it doesn’t fit allegorize.

The only Scriptural warrant given for this interpretation is found in 2 Peter 3:8: Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. Peter is simply saying that time means nothing to God when He expresses patience toward the ungodly. He is using a metaphor to describe God’s patience. He is not making a statement about time or the interpretation of time. So based on a metaphor and with that one verse the supersessionists have warrant, whenever the need arises, to change the meaning of a plain, exact number of years, a thousand years, to some vague duration of a very long time. That is how the allegorist deals with the fact that his thousand year millennia has already stretched well beyond two-thousand years. Without this external interpretation we would never know.

When you depend on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture you make yourself dependent on those who do the interpreting. You cannot discern what Scripture means for yourself. You must rely on those who know when allegory begins and ends and how it must be applied. You must rely on those who know what words really mean, because if you rely on the plain meaning of words you will get it wrong.

When your theology forces you to allegorize an essential point of an entire chapter of Scripture, you might want to question your theology.

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