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?
My guttural reaction is similar to yours – this kind of interpretation really doesn’t sit well with me. But then I don’t know what to do when I see the apostles doing it in the New Testament. I know that they were inspired by the Spirit, but I’m just not sure if that is all that needs to be said, and that closes the door on types-and-shadows interpretation, or if there is something more we need to appreciate, or even – *shudder – practice.
I think the patterns and symbolism can be fascinating in the same way that examining words and phrases in poetry and literature can add depth and interest to what we read. However, when we go beyond that to interpreting and creating doctrine from the patterns, it usually turns into gnostic hocus-pocus.
I appreciate your gut reaction. And for allegory, where there is no link between words and the proposed meaning, I would heartily agree with you.
What the NT authors did may appear to be ‘inspired’, meaning that they miraculously saw meaning in the text and were authorized to do so, but once the method of exegesis is understood, the miraculous moves from the ability of the NT author, to the text itself.
Consider Bob Hope’s double entendre. We all know he did it. The second meaning was made possible by the symbol we call a word which can represent multiple ideas. Hope would construct his sentence so that the normal reading and the double reading both had plausible, and often plausibly deniable (for the sake of the censors) meaning. No one would accuse Hope of allegory in the process. It was clearly double entendre because the double meaning was firmly attached to the words used.
If we look at a text, and it has plausible second meaning, we could only deduce it was intentional if the author had a habit or reputation such as Bob Hope, for making such double entendres. Normally we shrug them off as accidental.
We might presume that if the percentage of plausible second meanings in a text were not only numerous, but significant doctrinal statements that correlated with the rest of known scripture, that in fact they were intended to be there.
Take the story of Tamar. The name Er means ‘awake’. When you are dead you are said to be asleep and in the dust. Is it a coincidence? Or was this first son called awake from the dust as was Adam? Is it coincidence that he was killed by God for sin and neither had a spiritual heir?
Is it a coincidence that Onan was supposed to bear children for Er as Israel was supposed to bear ‘spiritual’ children for Adam, but that Onan refused and spilled his ‘children’ in the earth, just as Israel refused God’s invitation to bear spiritual children for Adam?
That Joseph, the rightful heir to the throne of Israel would be denied the chance at the throne and at the right to bear spiritual children just as Shelah was.
That Timanath means ‘the appointment’ and that Mary would meet God before the appointed time as Tamar met Judah before Timanth?
That Tamar would be promised a goat and Mary a scapegoat?
That they both would want an assurance of the promise?
That Tamar would get a rod while Mary was told “The power of God…”
That Tamar would get a signet ring while Mary was told “he would be called the Son…”
That Tamar would get bracelets, and in the law it says that a vessel without bracelets is unclean, and Mary was told the Holy Ghost would come upon her.
That Tamar was threatened with death while Mary with divorce.
That when the father was discovered they were both honored?
That Tamar had twins and Mary the God-man.
That the twins names mean the breaking forth of the rising sun and Jesus was called the Daysping?
Many more when we look at the details…
At what point do we stop believing in coincidence and start believing that all the scriptures speak of Christ?
At what point do we look at the details and see that the second meaning is firmly attached to the words used?
I don’t like allegory, because you can’t check it. I like the double meaning found in scripture that points to Christ. What the NT authors did uses the same hermeneutic that I have applied to Tamar.
Jesus spake in parables to the multitudes, and the Bible is filled with repetitiion, allegory, types, shadows, symbols and parallels. Here is the truth: Any man with a seminary education can produce some kind of carnal, logic based system or method by which he can explain what he beleives the words mean, (exegesis, hermenuetics, etc) so that the NATURAL mind can accept what is written in an earthly way. So-called “gnosticism” is nothing more than the miraculous, intuitive teaching and understanding of the Bible by the enlightment of the Holy Spirit, which the Bible expressly says is the ONLY necessary requirement for understanding. “He…the Holy Spirit….”will show you..” Not some carnal minded man or theological educational system created by man, bent on warping and bending the truth of God into lies. Ask for knowledge and understanding, no matter the cost. If you have no desire to simply uphold your own carnal, preconceived ideas and doctrines of men, and will receive the TRUTH with gladness of heart, He will teach you. I promise. Show me where the Bible promises that any other “Light” arrives except by the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t matter how many preachers and teachers stand before you speaking words, if you dont get that “light bulb moment” over your head and say “I SEE” (i.e., I understand), all the words are for naught. Remember that you need OIL in your “lamp” for it to give light. Oil is the anointing, the power of the understanding given to you by the Holy Spirit. It is sadly lacking these days, most churches have already had their candle sticks removed. Is it any coincidence that Biblical understanding seemed to wane after the invention of the electric light bulb, a man-made way to “see” in the “dark”? Just sayin….think about it; ask God if I am right or not.