The Use of Metaphor and Allegory
In a previous post, I engaged in some broad strokes regarding biblical interpretation. In this post I want to dig into certain claims regarding common figures of speech that the biblical authors employed and respond to a common claim that because these are used that means that there is no correct interpretation of a text. So, when it comes to the issue of biblical interpretation, certain distinctions must be made, and must always be kept in mind: there’s a difference between interpretation and application.
Starting on a path of distinction
In biblical interpretation we are interested in what the text says. Our interest is in the words of the text and the context of the text. Our concern is with the genre of the text: is this poetry or narrative; is this descriptive or prescriptive? What’s the historical background? What’s the grammatical structure of the text? All of these are important, because they have an effect on the application.
Application is what we do with the text. It’s how what is said in the text finds its way into expression in thought or deed. While this has variety in practice, it is only as valid as the interpretation from which it is drawn.
Often, these two get confused since they are so closely related, but they are two sides of the same coin, but they are not equal and should not be treated as such.
Metaphor, Allegory, and Literalism
When it comes to matters of interpretation, while it’s important that we not only understand the context, historically and grammatically, but that we recognize the usage of figures of speech in their use. Such examples are the use of idiom and metaphor.
An idiom is a word or phrase that can figuratively or literally refer to something. They are often culturally defined, so their meaning can be lost outside of a particular context. Idioms can also be metaphors. The point being that these can be simple terms used to convey broad, complex, or situationally inappropriate matters politely.
A metaphor is a linguistic means of comparison that doesn’t use the comparative terms “like” or “as”, which would make the comparison a simile. It is a comparison of different things where the comparison is not immediately apparent until one reflects on it. For example, if I said that I was “steaming mad”, that would be a metaphor.
An allegory is an extended metaphor. It uses a narrative and characters to convey the intended meaning of a matter. Famous examples of allegory are Plato’s Cave, CS Lewis’s Narnia books, and Tolkien’s Rings series.
All of these work together to help us communicate effectively and meaningfully. The problem is that when we move from reading and recognizing the use of figures of speech to interpreting the text in order to make application then our method of interpretation comes into question.
Indeed, when we read the text itself, especially the New Testament, we see various methods employed, not only by the apostles, but by Jesus himself.
An Employed Methodology
It is necessary to briefly describe some of the types of interpretational methods, or theories of hermeneutics, before getting into specific biblical examples.
- Allegorical interpretation often insists that there are hidden meanings within the text that allows the text to stretch beyond what it immediately addresses. A related but more reasoned type along this line is known as typological interpretation.
- Anagogical interpretation seeks to interpret biblical texts for relatability to present circumstances. This is sometimes called “spiritual” or “mystical” interpretation.
- Literal interpretation, sometimes called “grammatical-historical” method deals with the text directly because it rests upon a particular presupposition in regard to the text: direct, dictated inspiration.
- Analogical interpretation seeks to interpret the texts in regard to historical understanding of the text as it has been taught in a particular community.
Much more can be said about these, and they are not the only ones, but it suffices to say that when we look through Scripture, especially when we look at the New Testament and the interaction of the authors with the a Jewish Scriptures, we can find examples of each type being employed. Further, it should be said that I don’t think that any one particular type of interpretation is necessarily wrong, rather they can be used wrongly. Let’s look at some examples.
In the very first chapter of Matthew’s gospel we see the employment of allegory being used when he connects the birth of Jesus to the prophesy in Isaiah. Similarly, we see Paul use it to contrast between the two covenants in his letter to the Galatians. Jesus uses a literal interpretation in his arguments against divorce, as well as his defense of the belief in resurrection. If time permitted, we could discuss several other instances where different types of interpretation were used by the biblical authors in order to make their points. However, it does not follow that those texts must only be interpreted in the way that the apostles or even the Lord himself did each and every single time.
So, that should push us to ask certain questions, like how can I test an interpretation?
Testing the Method
If you listened to the podcast that I was on back in January, you probably heard me say that the Garden story in Genesis 2 and 3 was a metaphor. More importantly, you probably heard me chastise David for his logical error in regard to the claim that he made in regard to the use of the term. The problem stems from a confusion about the nature of metaphor and how it is used.
Metaphor, in this sense, should be understood to be representative. If you know something about the nature and kinds of explanations (agent, purpose, and material) the use of and the need to understand metaphor becomes relevant. As, such, it makes sense to understand that the opening chapters of Genesis, especially in regard to the creation narratives, are explaining matters in terms of agency and purpose rather than in the terms of a material explanation. The use of metaphor (the use of “days” to distinguish the elements that have been physically created) is used to explain the facts of creation in a way to distinguish them from one another and explain their existence in terms that are necessarily true.
One of the many problems that moderns have is that we’ve been infected by verifacationism and the secular lie that the only valid explanation is a material, or scientifically-verifiable explanation. Never mind that to make such an explanation, one is smuggling in the need for the other two through the back door. As such, when a modern who assumes that a literal interpretation of a text is required will assume that, given certain poetic elements, such as obvious parallelism in the days of creation (the overarching descriptions of days 1-3 with the specific purpose statements of 4-6) will often miss what is being conveyed. This is more evidently see when one dives into what has become described as the Deuteronomy 32 worldview, and the elements of it that pervades the various texts.
Another issue that seems to cause a similar problem is the concept of something being literally true when metaphor is used. This necessarily goes back to the categories of explanation. This comes form failing to distinguish from the metaphorical frame used to convey what is true from the truth itself. Such is seen in Genesis 2:7, where is says that, “… the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”
Did God literally scoop up dirt and form this thing called “man” and perform some kind of CPR? Simply put: no. These are metaphors that are used to convey God’s act of intention and purpose in setting whatever means that he decided to use to bring about man as a unique creature. The argument that seems to be made on the believing side seems to be one like: if God didn’t act directly, physically in the creation of man, then man is not a created being. Equally, we find the exact same argument being employed on the opposite side.
That is why people, like myself, are often accused of compromise if we don’t take every single word of Genesis to be absolutely literally true. We get accused of doubting Scripture, and twisting it by people on both sides, just listen to my interaction with David Smalley.
The Danger of Allegory
An equally dangerous aspect to literal interpretation is to assume that because one thing is metaphor, all things are metaphor. Ninetenth and twentieth century theological liberalism run headlong into this buzzsaw.
As various scientific discoveries and theories drawn from those discoveries were used as leverage against strict literalism, rather than moderating and trying to derive coherence from Scripture, some theologians responded by spiritualizing through allegorical interpretation. Such a stance even began to affect what were previously be considered as historical facts, even the existence of historical figures, to become elements of allegory that had to be interpreted. Elements of this can be seen in atheist and Jesus-myth proponent Richard Carrier’s work, especially on his discussion of a celestial Jesus as opposed to a historical Jesus, such as he contended in this episode of the Unbelievable podcast against Jonathan McLatchie.
Allegory, properly used as a method of interpretation, works as the Apostle Paul demonstrates in Galatians 4 recognizes that there is an application that lies behind the text when he uses the child of Sarah to contrast against the child of Hagar. While both had the same father, only one was the son of promise, and as such receive the promises.
The End of the Matter
In the end, when it comes to making an interpretation of Scripture, the question that should be asked is whether or not such an interpretation, and any application that arises from it, is ultimately coherent? To that end there are certain “rules” that will help.
- The rule of definition
- The rule of usage
- The rule of context
- The rule of historical background
- The rule of logic
- The rule of precedent
- The rule of unity
- The rule of inference
I cover these more in depth in this session from my series on the Bible.
What’s important to recognize is that these aren’t exotic or unique methods that apply on to the Bible, rather, they are normal everyday methods that we use for interpreting any other kind of literature. It is simply absurd to make it any more difficult than it actually should be. Does that mean that we don’t need to be open to the guidance of the Spirit? No, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s difficult either.