What are the most fundamental rules for interpreting the Bible? Here are some ways it is often formulated:

  • A passage cannot mean now what it didn’t mean then.
  • We must put a text in its cultural-historical context.
  • The goal is to discover what the biblical author intended to say.

Every Bible college student learns these principles as soon as they begin studying, and rightly so. Otherwise people would interpret in ever more wild and wacky ways, making the Bible say anything imaginable.

So how do we react when a great theologian like St. Augustine throws these rules out the window without even pretending to follow them? To pick a famous example: when he comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35, Augustine asserts that the Samaritan represents Christ, the robbers are the devil & his angels, the inn is the Church, and the innkeeper is the Apostle Paul.[1]

Bible scholars frequently use Augustine’s ‘Good Samaritan’ interpretation as a perfect example of the wrong way to do exegesis. They will say: how do we know the parable does not mean this? Because nobody who first heard that parable could possibly have understood it that way.[2] Paul had not yet converted to Christianity when Jesus told the parable, and nobody listening to Jesus knew who Paul was, probably – to give only one reason we know this.

But the problem is stranger. Augustine isn’t alone in doing this sort of interpretation. Irenaeus, Origen, and Ambrose do the same thing.[3] In fact, all the early church Fathers seem to read, not only this parable, but the whole Bible, in this same bizarre manner.

But the problem is stranger still. When Augustine and Irenaeus write about how to interpret the Bible, they establish (what look like) our own principles of exegesis! We must pay careful attention to the biblical author’s intended meaning, they tell us, and they accuse others of distorting the Bible’s meaning by ignoring its context.[4]

How should we understand this? Did they just fail to live up to their own principles? Ought they to know better? But these are not small mistakes. Did the influence of Greek philosophy blind them to how they were contradicting their own rules?

In what follows I’m going to try to defend/describe the Early Church way of reading the Bible. I prefer to give Early Church Fathers the benefit of the doubt when they say something that doesn’t make sense to me. Rather than assuming they’ve missed the point, I ask myself whether I might have missed the point instead. This is based on the principle that I may not have a complete grasp of the gospel yet.

Allegory & Exegesis: No Conflict

It’s hard sometimes for our modern minds to realise that for the early Church, a Bible passage didn’t need to have only one meaning. For them, it could have both a literal meaning and an allegorical meaning. The two types of meaning did not contradict or compete with one another. In fact, the Fathers believed you could only find the allegorical meaning if you had already grasped the literal meaning. In seeking a literal reading, one is concerned with the (human) author’s intention. But in seeking an allegorical reading, one is concerned with the (divine) author’s hidden meanings pointing to wonderful theological truths.

Many people who object to allegory make the mistake of thinking that allegory is trying to be exegesis. They rightly point out that allegory is pretty bad exegesis, that misses the author’s intention by a wide margin. But this is a category mistake. It is like saying that a paintbrush is a pretty bad hammer, or a vacuum cleaner is a pretty bad frying pan. Of course it is! But that’s neither what it was designed for, nor what it is trying to achieve. You can have both a hammer and a paintbrush without any competition arising between them when you are doing your DYI work. In the same way, we need not be against allegory if we are for exegesis, or vice versa.

That is why Augustine can insist on good exegetical principles and yet also do allegorical readings. Augustine often used the literal, exegetical meaning of the Good Samaritan Parable in his church sermons. Exegesis and allegory are simply two non-competing tools in his toolbox, and he uses different ones at different times to suit the occasion.

Where Did This Idea Come From?

Hang on, Barney. It’s not good enough that the Fathers were consistent with their own teachings. How do we know those teachings were the right ones?

The Fathers believed that, by doing allegorical readings of Scripture, they were following the practices they found in Scripture. The New Testament seems to interpret the Old Testament in both exegetical and allegorical ways at different times. For example, in Isaiah 53:2-12 the (human) author meant to refer to Isaiah himself, or else the people of Israel as a whole (that’s why it’s written in the past tense). But the apostle Peter discerned that, at a deeper level, it was referring prophetically to Jesus (1 Peter 2:24-25).

Or in John 11:50-52, Caiaphas’ authorial intention (the literal sense) was taken up into having a greater meaning than he ever realised, without ever contradicting what he originally meant.

Or in Numbers 20:11, Moses strikes a rock which pours out water, saving the lives of the Israelites in the desert. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul notices the parallels between the rock and Jesus.

There are many other Biblical examples but I’ll cut it short here. If you’re curious, check out Galatians 4:24, 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, John 3:14, among others.

The Philosophy Behind Allegory

How does this work, then? It’s one thing to see that allegory doesn’t contradict exegesis, and it’s another thing to recognise allegory as acceptable. But how does it make sense as a practice?

For the early Church, theology didn’t only encompass the Bible: it encompassed all of reality. Theology is about everything insofar as it relates to its Creator, who created it good, beautiful, with a reason and a purpose and a goal. There is no ‘random stuff’ without meaning: everything has meaning because it was created by a meaningful Creator.

So when we read the Bible, we are not reading guide to living in a hostile world. We are reading a text that that has the deepest possible connection to reality, that reveals the way things truly are, because the author of the Bible and the author of Reality are one and the same.

Therefore, it was natural for the early Church to suppose that the Bible had many levels of meaning. They could be broken down like this:

  • The literal sense: the text of Scripture is a series of signs pointing to some physical reality.
  • The allegorical sense: the physical reality (which we discover by finding the literal sense) is a sign that points to a spiritual reality.

For example, think of Song of Songs. The literal sense of Song of Songs is not about Christ and the Church; it is about sex and marriage. But sex and marriage are ‘about’ Christ and the Church (Eph 5:32). They point to the deep mystery and ultimate goal of every Christian.

In short: the text points to one historical reality (exegesis), and the history recorded by the text points to a deeper spiritual reality (allegory). You might notice that we cannot do good allegory unless we have first done good exegesis. We need to get the history right before we allegorise about it, or else our allegorising will have a false foundation!

How Do You Avoid Anarchy?

But isn’t it obvious that Augustine is importing his own theological views into a text which doesn’t talk about them? How do we avoid people ‘allegorising’ Bible passages to make them mean anything they want?

It is a mistake to think that allegorical interpretation lacks criteria to help discern good from bad. Just like the Early Church had rules for good exegesis, they also had rules for good allegory. Although they never appear in one place as a neat and tidy list, a few experts in the Early Church thought that these four rules were a great summary of the Early Church allegorical practices.[5]

  1. The Rule of Faith. A good interpretation must have Christ at the centre.
  2. The Rule of Charity. A good interpretation must build up love of God and love of neighbour.
  3. The Rule of Scripture. No interpretation is valid if it contradicts some other (literal) part of the Bible.
  4. Context of the Church. Interpretations gain credibility by widespread use and acceptance. It was more important that church leaders accepted an interpretation than laypeople, because leaders were responsible for protecting sound doctrine.

If we follow these rules, we are welcome to allegorise Scripture just like Paul, Peter, John, and the Fathers did! But I would recommend that we first learn their allegories before coming up with our own. It is an art that takes practice, just like any other.

Appendix 1: Controversial Ground

When I first published this post, I received a lot of push-back from Bible scholars who didn’t think that allegory should ever be acceptable. This blog was never intended as a place for advanced theological debate. I only meant to introduce the idea of allegory for people who had never heard of it. I am sorry to have promoted an idea that not every Christian thinks should be promoted. To try and make up for it, in this update I’m going to introduce the controversy as it stands.

Some Bible scholars believe that Augustine’s allegorising is nothing like the New Testament’s way of interpreting the Old, and the latter cannot therefore be a precedent for the former. They believe that the New Testament is doing ‘typology’ rather than allegory, (although the difference between these two terms is also disputed). For them, the difference between the Early Church and the New Testament is that the Early Church used the Greek philosopher Plato to help explain elements of their interpretation, and that this was a huge mistake; therefore we cannot consider Early Church interpretations of Scripture to be trustworthy, because they are based on a non-Biblical philosophical foundation.

Other scholars respond to the first group by saying that everyone has a philosophy arising from our culture and upbringing, and we are no different to the Early Church in that regard, except our own philosophical outlook is less influenced by Plato. They would suggest that modern biblical scholarship is drawing on the philosophies of the Enlightenment in how it interprets the Bible, just as the Early Church drew on ancient Greek philosophy. The debate quickly becomes a question of whether it is possible to read the Bible “neutrally” without any philosophical lens, or whether this is even what we should be trying to do, or whether one philosophical lens is better than another. I became so intrigued by this last question that I made it the subject of my Masters’ Thesis at Cambridge.

The debate is huge and I can’t hope to do it justice here. But ultimately, a lot of it comes down to how willing you are to trust the Early Church’s intuitions and assumptions when reading the Bible. Some people think they were basically on the wrong track from the beginning, and we need to start again today from a blank slate with our own improved methods. Others think that the Holy Spirit was still guiding the Church after the end of the writing of the New Testament, and that he also guided the reading of it before our own time. While for many years I held the former view, a while back I was persuaded over to the latter view which is the one I now hold.

Further Reading

Books and articles that argue for allegory:

Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).

Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Baker Publishing Group, 2017).

Robert Louis Wilken, ‘In Defense of Allegory’, Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (1998): 197–212.

Peter Leithart, ‘Rehabilitating the Quadriga‘.

Books and articles that argue against allegory:

Iain W. Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017).

Rikk E. Watts, ‘How Do You Read? God’s Faithful Character as the Primary Lens for the New Testament Use of Israel’s Scripture.’ in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis (Hendrickson Publishers, 2013), ed. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd

[1] Here is a concise version of Augustine’s reading (taken from this website):

“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead.  The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travellers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come. The innkeeper is the Apostle (Paul).”

[2] I attended a preaching course in 2010 and heard a conference presentation in 2012; Both speakers, who did not know each other, used Augustine’s Good Samaritan allegory as an example of poor exegesis. Also, to pick another random example, Craig Evans wrote ‘The parable is no allegory. It answers the question “Who is my neighbour” in the context of a discussion of Lev 19:18. It is not an allegory of Christology and the Incarnation.’ (‘Luke’s Good Samaritan and the Chronicler’s Good Samaritans’, in Biblical Interpretation in Early Christian Gospels. Vol. 3 The Gospel of Luke, ed. Thomas R. Hatina, 2010).

[3] For example, Irenaeus wrote this in the 2nd century A.D.:

“The Lord commended to the Holy Spirit His person who had fallen among thieves, on whom He Himself had compassion, and bound up his wounds, giving two royal denaria; so that we, receiving by the Spirit the image and superscription of the Father and the Son, might cause the denarium entrusted to us to be fruitful.” (Against Heresies III.3)

[4] For example, in Against Heresies VIII.1 Irenaeus writes:

“… they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.”

[5] This list was produced by my friend Matthew J. Thomas, whose PhD topic was all about biblical interpretation in the early Church. It was then approved by Hans Boersma, an Evangelical theologian who is an expert in Early Church interpretation of Scripture.

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Barney is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. He hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers which confronts challenges to the Christian faith with hope. He also has a column on Seen and Unseen, a magazine that offers Christian perspectives on life and society for a non-Christian audience.