Should we interpret Scripture allegorically?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: What, exactly, is the allegorical interpretation of scripture?

Answer: Those who use the allegorical (sometimes known as mystical) interpretation of Scripture believe that a hidden meaning underlies the text and that this meaning, although far different from the text’s plain meaning, is the author’s true intent. Such a system presumes the text to be a code that points to the true meaning in the allegory, making the literal words of little import when compared to the allegorical projection. Such interpreters have decided that God’s real meaning lies outside of the language’s plain and direct meaning.

I will not say that allegory does not exist in Scripture, but we cannot divide God’s word rightly by spending time looking for secret meanings. If we work from the assumption that God uses his word to communicate his truth to the world (and that his purpose was not to form secret societies), then he would serve his purposes poorly by hiding rather than by revealing his truth. Furthermore, when God used common language to preserve his written word, he used common language tools. Taken as a whole, Scripture is a blend of literal and figurative passages. It sometimes communicates in plain and exacting language, but it frequently uses figures of speech, such as metaphor and simile, just as our everyday communications use these tools.

Scripture is best attacked in a straight and literal (non-allegorical) manner. Let the language itself signal its shifts into symbolism. Allegorical interpretation is particularly egregious when an interpreter (often in support of a cult) uses it to deflect a plain biblical truth. We must remember that God wants us to understand what he is saying. He does not hide truth under layers of allegory.

We absolutely need to interpret some language as symbolic, but we should trust God’s provision. He gave us humans the gifts of intelligence and language. If we enter his word seeking him, and not injecting ourselves into the Bible, then the interpretations flow with ease, although we still hit the occasional bump. We find a great example of one such bump in the gospel account of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, which is commonly called communion.

“While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’” (Mat 26:26).

The Roman Catholic Church interprets “this is My body” as literal, insisting that their communion elements become the actual body and blood of Christ in a process they call transubstantiation. Non-Catholics generally believe that phrase to be a metaphor, and their communion activities are a remembrance (“…do this in remembrance of Me"). If you’ve been around churches much you know that this is a big deal. And it all stems from interpretations that vary in their application of symbolism.

There are rules, however, which govern how and when to apply the various interpretive rules in communications. We find these in a discipline called Hermeneutics. Bible students study the science of biblical interpretation via the more specialized version called Biblical Hermeneutics. As a general rule, we interpret the Bible literally and not allegorically. That we do this literally, however, does not imply that we use a straight-and-stupid approach to language (literalistic), but rather that we apply the sensible methods that have come to us in the handling of literature, in the science of documents and in plain old common sense communications.

Although the Bible is in a class by itself, God, whose desire is to communicate his truth to us, does not abandon the sensible rules of common language, either as it is written or as it is later interpreted.

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