The Difference Between Appropriately Interpreting an Allegorical Passage and Inappropriately Allegorizing

History is littered with ill-advised and unhelpful attempts to “discover” allegories in the Bible. By and large, attempts to manufacture a formal allegory from a biblical text have fallen out of fashion. However, even as we may not be tempted to set out to allegorize portions of Scripture, we are apt to fall into the same sort of error if we interpret the Bible with a “what this means to me” attitude (for more on this, check out does it matter how I read the Bible?) or if we approach Bible reading with the assumption that it is our job to unearth the hidden meaning of a Bible passage (for more on this, check out the author determines the meaning; now what do I do about it?).

At the same time, we know that allegory is a legitimate literary form that is employed in the Bible. How can we know when a passage should be interpreted as an allegory while avoiding illegitimately allegorizing a passage? Let’s start by defining allegory and allegorizing.

Allegory: A Legitimate Literary Device

A parable focuses on a single point of comparison and will often contain several contextual and incidental details to move the story along, get your attention, and provide a punchline. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is an example of a parable with one point of comparison and numerous incidental details. But, an allegory contains multiple points of comparison. The Four Soils (Mark 4:1-20) is an example of an allegory with multiple points of comparison. Parable and allegory are both literary forms that use symbols (often referred to as “signifiers” or “pictures”) to describe reality (often referred to as what is “signified”).

You might be wondering why this post has devoted so much attention to parables. That is simply because the types of Bible passages most apt to be inappropriately allegorized are the parables.

Henry Virkler contrasts a parable (a single point of focus) with an allegory (multiple points of focus): “In the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) the central purpose is to show the spread of the gospel from a tiny band of Christians (the mustard seed) to a worldwide body of believers (the full-grown tree). The relationship between the seed, the tree, the field, the nest, and the birds is casual, and these details acquire significance only in relationship to the growing tree. However, in the allegory of the Christian’s armor (Eph. 6), there are several points of comparison. Each part of the Christian’s armor is significant, and each is necessary for the Christian to be ‘fully armed.’”[1]

The following visuals are provided to help demonstrate the difference between a mere parable and an allegory:

mxply - Parable Example
Parable Example
mxply - Allegory Example
Allegory Example

Allegorizing: An Illegitimate Interpretive Approach

Allegorizing is taking a text (regardless of whether it is actually an allegory) and making an allegory out of it: establishing “several points of connection, not necessarily centered around a focal point,”[2] establishing a corresponding “reality part” for a number of “picture parts.”[3] Engaging in allegorization likely reveals an assumption that parables are “simple stories for those on the outside to whom the ‘real meanings,’ the ‘mysteries,’ were hidden…”[4] This method of interpreting Scripture is now repudiated because (a) “one can be absolutely certain this is not what Jesus intended,”[5] (b) any number of interpretations can be generated in this manner, and (c) the allegorizations are prone to be silly and useless.[6]

When allegorizing (an illegitimate method), you are forcing connections and meanings into a text that does not define the connections or provide a basis for establishing them.

The following visual is provided to demonstrate illegitimate allegorization of a passage that is not allegorical:

mxply - illegitimate allegorization example
Illegitimate Allegorization Example

The Difference: Avoid Allegorizing by Looking for Cues from the Author About Whether or Not the Passage is an Allegory

In the literary device of allegory (where interpreting through an allegorical lens is legitimate), there is some cue (from Jesus in the Parables, for example, or from the author/narrator) as to how we should establish the connection between “picture parts” and their corresponding reality. If a passage is truly an allegory, the author will define for us the corresponding parts. The Scripture tells us which of its parts are allegorical.

When appropriately handling the literary device of allegory, you interpret the text as it was intended; when allegorizing you interpret the text in a way that it is not intended.

Principles for Identifying and Interpreting Allegories

  1. Study the message (words, syntax, and context) and the situation (historical and cultural setting) as you would with any other passage of Scripture. A sound interpretive approach helps us to avoid allegorizing and other problems.
  2. Identify the multiple points of comparison in the text by relying on the author and the context for points identified and defined. If the text does not explicitly define or make the comparison clear (if you are required to supply what the various points represent), then this is not likely to be a legitimate allegory.[7]

Virkler provides an example of working through an actual allegory in John 15:1-7. As you read the passage, note how Jesus defines all of the corresponding parts in this allegory:

“The allegory of Christ as the true vine (John 15:1-17) is analyzed here to show the relationship of the several points of comparison to the meaning of the passage. There are three foci in this allegory. The first is the vine as a symbol of Christ. The entire passage emphasizes the importance of the vine: the pronouns I, me, and my, occur thirty-eight times in the seventeen verses and the word vine three times, underscoring the centrality of Christ in the spiritual fruit bearing of the Christian. The focus is summarized in verse 4…The second focus is the Father, symbolized as the vinedresser. In this illustration the Father is actively concerned with fruit bearing. He prunes some branches that they may be more fruitful and eliminates those that produce no fruit. The third focus is found in the branches, the disciples themselves. ‘Abiding’ speaks metaphorically of relationship, and the present tense speaks of a continuing relationship as a necessity for fruit bearing. Obeying God’s commands is a necessary part of relationship, and loving fellow believers is an integral part of that obedience. The allegory portrays the need for a continuous, living relationship with the Lord Jesus, coupled with obedience to his Word, as the essence of discipleship and fruit bearing.”[8]


Footnotes:

  1. Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 160.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 159.

  4. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 154.

  5. Ibid., 155.

  6. Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 266-267.

  7. Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 160.

  8. Ibid., 160-161.

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