I’m thinking about that old types-and-shadows method of biblical interpretation… not too fond of that one. It seems to me that it sets up a situation where only a specialist with particular esoteric insight would be able to “properly” interpret the biblical text — not to mention that it ignores the principle that the text “cannot mean now what it never meant then.” It seems in some ways a gnostic idea that the text would contain hidden knowledge that later enlightenment would reveal. A bit of Googling produced more examples than descriptions of this method, and no real discussions of its validity, but I found some background material using that “other” search that’s become so prevalent.
Allegorical interpretation is the approach which assigns a higher-than-literal interpretation to the contents of a text (eg Bible).
The method has its origins in both Greek thought (who tried to avoid the literal interpretations of ancient Greek myths) and in the rabbinical schools of the Land of Israel. Most notably of pre-christian authors Philo of Alexandria expressly refers to its use by his predecessors and uses it himself to discover indications of different doctrines of philosophy in the stories of the Pentateuch. The traces of allegorical and typological interpretation can be found later in New Testament but are further developed in the Epistle of Barnabas and especially by Origen.
Allegory in the Middle Ages was a vital element in the synthesis of Biblical and Classical traditions into what would become recognizable as Medieval culture. People of the Middle Ages consciously drew from the cultural legacies of the ancient world in shaping their institutions and ideas, and so allegory in Medieval literature and Medieval art was a prime mover for the synthesis and transformational continuity between the ancient world and the “new” Christian world. People of the Middle Ages did not see the same break between themselves and their classical forbears that modern observers see; rather, they saw continuity with themselves and the ancient world, using allegory as a synthesizing agent, bringing together a whole image.
Medieval allegory began as a Christian method for synthesizing the discrepancies between the Old Testament and the New Testament. While both testaments were studied and seen as equally divinely inspired by God, the Old Testament contained discontinuities for Christians — for example the Jewish kosher laws. The Old Testament was therefore seen in relation to how it would predict the events of the New Testament, in particular how the events of the Old Testament related to the events of Christ’s life. The events of the Old Testament were seen as part of the story, with the events of Christ’s life bringing these stories to a full conclusion. The technical name for seeing the New Testament in the Old is called typology.
Typology is a theological doctrine of theory of types and their antitypes found in Scripture. What is referred to as Medieval allegory actually began in the Early Church as a method for synthesizing the seeming discontinuities between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian Bible (New Testament). While both testaments were studied and seen as equally inspired by God, the Old Testament contained discontinuities for Christians, for example, the Jewish kosher laws (see also Old Testament—Christian view of the Law). The Old Testament was therefore seen in places not as a literal account, but as an allegory, or foreshadowing, of the events of the New Testament, in particular how the events of the Old Testament related to the events of Christ’s life. The events of the Old Testament were seen as part of the story, a prefiguration, with the events of Christ’s life. The technical name for seeing the New Testament in the Old Testament is called typology. The doctrine is stated most succinctly by Paul in Colossians 2:16-17 – “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” It also finds expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews, see also New Covenant.
The development of this as a systematic view of the Hebrew Bible was influenced by the thought of the Hellenistic Jewish world centered on Alexandria, where Philo and others viewed the Bible in Platonic terms as essentially an allegory. The system was Christianised by Origen, and spread by figures including Saint Hilary and Saint Ambrose. Saint Augustine recalled often hearing Ambrose say that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” and he in turn was a hugely influential proponent of the system, though also insisting on the literal historical truth of the Bible. Isidore of Seville and Rabanus Maurus were influential as summarizers and compilers of works setting out standardized interpretations of correspondences and their meanings.
Back in my charismatic days in particular, it was not exactly uncommon to hear preachers pull up Old Testament material and explain reams of typological significance about what it teaches us about Christ or some such thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one… any thoughts or other guttural reactions?