This statement, or the equivalent, may be commonly heard in evangelical, fundamental, or charismatic churches. Conservative Christians believe the Bible is factually, historically true: that it must be read and understood literally, and not spiritualized into an allegory. Though this sounds very pious and orthodox, there's one small flaw in this position -- it seems no one told the apostles, or Jesus! For all the writers of the New Testament, and Jesus Himself in the Gospel accounts, refer to the Old Testament PRIMARILY as spiritual allegory. (Of course, we may excuse their oversight, since they never went to seminary!)
According to Webster's dictionary, an allegory is "The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form." If we look in the New Testament, we find that the NORMAL and USUAL interpretation of Old Testament Scripture is allegorical in nature.
Let us look first at
the Gospel authors' use of Old Testament Scripture. We may go straight
through the Gospel of Matthew (which is the New Testament book richest
in Old Testament citations) and tick off one allegorical reference after
Next, we look at the Epistles. Paul in particular is extremely creative in his allegorical treatment of the Old Testament. We should of course mention his description of the story of Hagar and Sarah as an allegory for the old and new covenants (this is the only place in the Bible that the word "allegory" is used explicitly). Paul's other interpretations are no less allegorical. He takes Genesis 2:24, " Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh", and applies it PRIMARILY to Christ's marriage to the Church, then SECONDARILY to human marriage.
Paul even interprets the Mosaic law allegorically. For instance, Paul takes the instruction, "Do not muzzle the ox which treads out the grain", as a characteristic instantiation of a general principle, that the laborer (whether man or beast) should be allowed to partake of the firstfruits of his own labor (1 Corinthians 9:7-10). As another example, Paul takes the Law's permission for widows to marry, and applies it to our death to the law and remarriage by faith to the resurrected Christ (Romans 7).
Apart from Paul, Peter in his epistles also made use of allegory, comparing the waters of Noah's flood with the saving waters of believers' baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). The writer of Hebrews takes the figure of Isaac's deliverance from sacrifice to represent the resurrection of the faithful (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Finally, let us look at Jesus' own allegorical use of the Scriptures. Recall Jesus' famous statement as recorded by John: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man shall be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him should have everlasting life" (John 3:14). In this brief statement, the episode of Israel's rescue from the fiery serpents is unveiled as an allegorical representation of our eternal salvation through Jesus' death. Another striking example is Matthew 12:40, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth", which indicates an allegorical parallel between the ministries of Jonah and Jesus.
In effect, all of the Old Testament Scriptures comprise a living allegory. Jesus summed them up by saying, "These testify of Me" (John 5:39). But as we have already seen, the testimony of the Scriptures is not through direct, literal reference, but rather through dramatic or pictorial representation.
The Bible is nothing if not an allegory. But it is an allegory with a difference. It is a living allegory, acted out through real people and genuine events rather than invented characters and imagined plots. It is God's novel, written originally in flesh and blood and only later set down with paper and ink.
The Bible is indeed an extremely practical book. Nonetheless, the Bible must be understood as spiritual allegory first, before it can be applied practically. Take for instance the Song of Solomon. Historically, many commentators have viewed the Song as an allegory for Christ and the Church. However, many modern evangelical authorities are denying this interpretation, and treating the book instead as a practical manual for love in marriage. But when Jesus said, "These Scriptures testify of Me", He made no exceptions for the Song of Songs! ALL of the Old Testament scriptures, Song of Songs included, are primarily intended to bear witness of Him. Not to say it does not tell us something about sexual love! But before we can apply this book properly to human sexuality, we must understand how it applies spiritually to Christ and His bride. If we do not, we will inevitably misuse the Scriptures -- just as the Pharisees misused the Law, because they did not understand its fulfillment through Christ.
Prayer: Father, grant us grace that we might truly be workmen worthy of Your approbation, and that we might rightly divide Your Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
Copyright © 2001 CrossPollen
Last Revised: May 5, 2003
CrossPollen Main Page || top of page || CrossPollen e-mail