Monday, April 27, 2015

What is wrong with allegorical interpretation?

When I think of allegory, I think of Tolkien’s use of the word in his introduction to The Lord of the Rings. If I recall his remark about allegory correctly, he said that he “cordially dislike[d] allegory in all its manifestations”. I remember trying to get a handle on the meaning of allegory, and wondering why Tolkien despised it so.

Well, as an adult who has long studied the church, I have come to appreciate why Tolkien despised it so. When it is applied to the Bible, allegory takes the meaning which the interpreter wants to give it, and he can follow his fancy to its furthest borders. I have now read many allegorical interpretations of passages in the Bible, and I can certainly attest to the creative imaginations of the interpreters. The early Christian Fathers were much more careful to distinguish between literal and allegory. It was not until much later in history that allegory began to rear its ugly head. Pentecost, in his epic work on Things to Come, tells us that “Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meager in solid results. He considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the body, soul, and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly, he attributed to the Scriptures a threefold sense: (1) a somatic, literal, or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense, animating the first, and serving for general edification; (3) a pneumatic or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge.” Unfortunately, allegory was to lead many away from the truth of the scriptures until, at the time of the Reformation, the Bible began again to take a central point in developing our creed.

John Walvoord, in his excellent commentary on Revelation points to the many many people who have interpreted Revelation according to the whims of their own personal history (allegory), “The very multiplicity of such interpretations and identifications of the personnel of Revelation with a variety of historical characters is its own refutation. If the historical method is the correct one, it is clear until now that no one has found the key.” That is the huge problem with an allegorical approach to the Bible. Meaning is found in the interpreter rather than in the text, and confusion always results.

Yet for some reason, many otherwise excellent commentators lose it when they come to prophecy. Bewildered by the symbols and metaphors that abound in such works like Revelation, they mistakenly think the correct course is to abandon normal interpretation. Yet how can we possibly hope to understand anything if God did not use language in its native sense, to communicate his message and hope to a world in desperate need of a Savior.
There are some in the church who would substitute the church for Israel, but in order to do that, they are forced to allegorize many of the promises to Israel. A little over a hundred years ago no one looked to the Bible and foretold the regathering of Israel. Yet the scripture is plain, and indeed Revelation focuses heavily on Israel’s plight before the world. The lack of Israel as a nation is the biggest single reason prophecy was allegorized. But the lack of the nation Israel also led to other mistakes by the church, mainly in the “allegorizing” of Israel to mean the church.

Romans Eleven is where much of this confusion originates, and it is to that chapter that we must go to find any resolution. Paul tells us that we have been grafted in where Israel, because of their rejection, were broken off. We have replaced Israel then, in a sense, gaining the salvation which they had sought. At this precise point, many have allegorized the church to have replaced Israel entirely. But this is clearly not what Paul is teaching. He goes on, in an often ignored verse and tells us, (11:25) “that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” The plain meaning of the text is that the blindness which happens to Israel is but to be temporary, and that when God is finished with the Gentiles, his Son will return to Sion. At that time all of Israel will be turned back to the Lord. While we may argue about the precise meaning of all, there is no doubt that God is going to turn the whole of the nation of Israel back to him. Paul explains to us the reasoning and goodness of our God in verse 29, proclaiming that “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”

In other words, God is not at all finished with Israel. They did not lose the unconditional promises of God—rather they lost the blessing and presence of God for a time, because they rejected their Savior, but God intends to make every word of his promises to Abraham come true. One day, he will return to Jerusalem and there will become the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Why? Because God is faithful even when Israel is not.

There is a similar theme taught in many Christian circles—that God is faithful even when we are not. Perseverance of the saints is taught almost everywhere, and loudly do we proclaim the faithfulness of God, even in the face of our wayward hearts. How is it that so many make the tragic mistake of proclaiming that God is through with Israel because of the hardness of their hearts? Since the beginning of time God had to foreknow their hardness of heart. Did he make those famous promises to Abraham knowing that they would not be literally kept? A thousand times no! God has always intended to fulfill each and every promise.

It is of course different with the conditional covenant that God made with Moses. Under that covenant, Israel had to promise to keep the law, a forbidding task that they proved never equal to. Thus the scripture proclaims that Christ is the end of the law for everyone that believes. The law was intended to be a tutor to lead them to receive their Messiah, but they did not expect a suffering Savior, except for a remnant that did believe. Some in the church proclaim that the church has now become the recipient of all the promises to Israel, but God says his “gifts and his call are irrevocable.”

Having Israel clearly in sight in the world makes it much easier to literally interpret these passages; I do not know how I would have fared in past centuries without the evidence of Israel to foreshadow God’s faithfulness. But it is not important how I would have fared, for now we have that evidence, and many obscure passages that we felt we had to allegorize away can now be taken literally. Israel stands as a nation in the world today because of the sovereign purpose of God. Should we not believe that he means what he says when he says all of Israel will turn and be saved?

I have a friend who himself grew up with many Jewish friends, and when my friend looks at these passages he remarks that the friends he had would never accept Jesus. He is absolutely correct! It would take a real miracle for Israel to finally recognize her king. But that is exactly what the Bible says we are going to get. A real miracle. In the Old Testament there are even passages that tell us that Jews will be called back out of foreign lands, and will at last have a peaceful home. God will at last live among us—and it does not get more miraculous than that!

I think, as an older man, I have come to appreciate Tolkien’s comment a bit more, and I agree totally with him. I “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”.

1. Pentecost, J. Dwight (2010-05-11). Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Kindle Locations 553-559). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
2. Walvoord, John (1989-03-01). The Revelation of Jesus Christ (p. 19). Moody Publishers - A. Kindle Edition.

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