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Allegory and Church Fathers

This article is based on notes from a lecture delivered by Dr. Robert Louis Wilken at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis on 3 December, 2015.

Gregory the Great said that the Word of God exercises the understanding of the wise, and nurses the simple. To some it speaks openly, to others it holds things in secret—leading them to loftier matters. It is a river both shallow and deep. The lamb can find footing, but the elephant can float. Gregory exudes childlike delight when he uses the language of Scripture to convey the truths of the Christian faith. In this article, we will compare and contrast an allegorical approach to Scripture (like the one Gregory took) with more modern methods. We will define allegory as simply “giving the text another sense,” and more specifically, “giving the text another sense that refers to Christ.” Allegory is used by the Church Fathers to interpret many Old Testament texts, but never those in the New Testament. The subject of the New Testament is explicitly Christ, while the subject of the Old Testament has to be discerned.

Relating a narrative means telling the story from beginning to end. Every reading that a Christian makes of the Bible is conducted in the context of its larger story. Allegory “fills out” that story or narrative. It makes certain plot points more pronounced, and minimizes others. It allows us to organize all of Scripture around Christ. The Church Year is the prime example of storytelling expanded by allegory. Every feast day, every Scriptural reading, and every ritual is fitted into a rhythm of sacred time that begins with anticipation, finds fulfillment in resurrection, and is lived out in Trinity Season [“ordinary time”]. Similar to engagement with liturgy, the reading of Scripture requires participation in the mysteries that it conveys. A disinterested observer cannot discover the fullness hidden within Scripture’s treasury.

The previous statement raises questions about the end goal of exegesis. Like many of the Church Fathers, Gregory the Great was first and foremost a pastor. “What does this have to do with us?” is the question that he asked most often. Today, many have come to realize that in order for the Church to grow, we must return to a style of Biblical exegesis that is less technical and more artful, a style that is prescriptive rather than descriptive. With all the benefits of the historical-critical approach, it fails to yield a great amount of material that the Church can use to bring about spiritual growth and moral reform. In the liturgy, we are constantly reading Old and New Testament texts in conjunction with one another. If lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief) is true, Christians should not carry qualms about allegorical or typological readings of Scripture. The remainder of this article provides two examples of this kind of allegorical exegesis, and then makes brief concluding remarks.

Isaiah 6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Today, interpretations focus first on historical and literary settings. Only later is the theological or spiritual meaning treated. In the Patristic paradigm, the primary aim was to probe the basic sense of the passage. Hence, the most striking sections were analyzed first. In this example, the phrase “I saw the Lord” stands out—since it is a bold and controversial claim. Church Fathers who read this passage looked for other Scriptural texts where people use the word “see” with respect to God. An early example is Ex 33:20: “Man shall not see me and live.” Besides the testimony of Moses, there is also that of John: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Finally there is 1 Tim 6:16: “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” Thus, how can Isaiah say that he saw the Lord? Augustine provides us with an answer. The truly devout person longs to see God not just when God wills (i.e. in historical events) but as God Is. It is one thing to see, it is another to grasp the whole by seeing. Hence, no one has ever seen the fullness of God. Isaiah saw the Lord by faith. It had taken place by believing. And Chrysostom confirms, Isaiah saw only what he was capable of seeing.

Isaiah 63:1 ‘Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson? Who is this so splendidly robed, marching in his great might?’ ‘It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.’

Moderns see this as an oracle of divine vengeance on the nations. The phrase is thus couched in terms of literary genre and political context. Ancients interpreted the text Christologically, taking a cue from Rev 19:13 (the robe dipped in blood). Cyril of Alexandria described Isaiah 63:1 as a true-to-life portrait of Christ when he makes his return to heaven after his passion. Edom represents earth, while the crimson garments are his clothes redenned with blood. This opinion is found in nearly all of the major Church Fathers. It is the opinion about the significance of Isaiah 63:1. As such, it falls under a larger category: Passages in the Old Testament that Church Fathers interpret allegorically in order to glean the greatest possible amount of information about Christ. Especially in the Psalms, the earliest Christian theologians were able to fill out the lacunae in the Gospel accounts with a fuller portrait of Christ’s life and thoughts. Ambrose used verses in the Psalms that speak about the emotion of the Psalmist and refers them to Christ, which allowed him (and his pupil Augustine) to speak more concretely and fully about Christ’s emotions. Allegory allows us to read the Old Testament as a book about Christ, following the example of Saint Paul (1 Cor 10).

To conclude, each period, including our own, makes its unique contribution to Christian life and the study of the Bible. What we have with historical criticism is one chapter in the long history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. Now it’s a test for this generation to integrate it with earlier ages. The Church Fathers are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought. Like an inexhaustible spring, pure and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with the life-giving water that flows forth from the Biblical wellspring of the faith. The best place to begin is with at the fountainhead, with the first Christian commentaries on Scripture. This is a fascinating time to be a follower of Christ.

Recommendations: Augustine on the Psalms, Origen on John, Gregory the Great on Song of Songs.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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