Gospellegory: Or, An Allegory’s An Allegory

*Posted by Barry Creamer

Engraving from Pilgrims Progress, John Bunyans allegory of the Christian life.

All scripture ought to be interpreted carefully then applied prescriptively. Scripture is more than a record of others faith and practice. It is a directive for our faith and practice. Its fairly easy to interpret and prescribe a New Testament command like pray without ceasing. It takes a bit more work to apply an Old Testament Proverb like when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy, but not beyond reason. But when it comes to applying a story from the heart of the Old Testament to a contemporary audience, even intelligent peoplethough swimming in the confidence of well-designed rhetoric and of affirming followersoften create the equivalent of expressionist paintings. In other words, their interpretation is their creation, not a product of the text.

The most common form of this egregious violation of texts is allegory. Take a common interpretation of David and Goliath, in particular an interpretation Ive heard justly bashed by more than one reformed preacher recently. In this allegorical creation David is the underdog-little-guy, Goliath the huge opponent (corporation, boss, hegemonous gender, or whatever giant foe the audience can imagine), and Davids victory a testimony that even Canadians can win a World Series.

There is a reason allegories are popular. They are great for what they do. David and Goliath (the story) makes a great illustration for the point that underdogs can win. But an illustration is not an interpretation of the meaning of a text. It is simply one authors (in this case, speakers) creative use of another authors text to make his own point, regardless of whether the point is related to the original texts meaning.

There is another reason allegories are popular. It is a lot easier to create an allegory to illustrate a point already held than to study a narrative text until its meaning is clear.

Most people (at least, most preachers and scholars serious about studying scripture) know that allegorizing is an embarrassingly subjective way to study scripture and get it dead wrong.

But replacing a bad allegory with another one is not the solution. So suppose a preacher criticizes the previous interpretation and then, presumably, attempts to improve on it. But suppose his improvement is to replace it with another allegory. Suppose he holds that instead of David being the underdog, David is a figure of Christ. And suppose he holds that instead of Goliath being the generic giant foe, Goliath is something like sin, the sin nature, or Satan. And suppose he holds that instead of Davids victory representing a win for the little guy, Davids victory represents Christs deliverance of cowering sinners (Sauls army) from sins oppression.

His interpretation may be more whole-gospel oriented. His interpretation may create even more points of connection with the story than the original interpretation. And his interpretation may be published and well-received by people who ought to know better. But it is still an allegory. And it is still wrong. That is, it is still wrong as an interpretation of the text of the story.

Now dont get me wrong. It is a great illustration of the gospel. So when a preacher is expositing some New Testament passage about the salvation of the fearful (e.g., Hebrews 2:15) he might create an illustration based on the time he rescued his dog from a shelter, based on the previous nights news of a nuclear meltdown, or based on 1 Samuel 17s story of David and Goliath. But the power of the preacher to create that illustrative connection for the point of his sermon is NOT the same thing as his uncovering the meaning of rescuing a dog, NOR of responding to a meltdown, NOR of David and Goliath.

Both of the interpretations above are wrongnot because one is man-centered nor because the other is God-centered, and not because one is about self-help nor because the other is about the gospelbut because they rise subjectively from the allegorical creativity of the interpreter (speaker, reader) and not from the content of a text in its context.

The point is that when the text provides the framework within which its interpretation is to be defined, the conclusion is seldom (if ever) what it is presumed to be when the dominant portion of that framework is provided by the creativity and prior determination of a creative reader (or speaker, or author) instead.

There is a legitimate means for revealing objective, prescriptive content in Old Testament narratives (and New Testament ones too, for that matter). Perhaps that method of induction will be fodder for another post. Readers anxious to work on 1 Samuel 17s interpretation in the meantime, though, ought to begin no later than 1 Samuel 14 (where Jonathan has an experience with the Philistine garrison almost identical to the one David has with Goliath) and go into at least the first few verses of 1 Samuel 18 (where David takes Jonathans place as the king-apparent in Israel) to realize the significance of Sauls rebellion against Gods will in 1 Samuel 15. Whether arriving at statements about trusting God against all odds (points repeated in 1 Samuel 14:6 and 1 Samuel 17:36-37) or about the importance of Gods replacement of Saul (and therefore Jonathan) with David, readers will be hearing what 1 Samuel 17 actually saysall of which, by the way, fits beautifully and appropriately with the redemptive message of the entirety of scripture culminating, of course, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So here it is:

To illustrate a passage like Hebrews 2:15 (about the bondage to fear), allegorize away with David and Goliath and the whole hee-haw gang; but know that the communication is about Hebrews 2:15, not about 1 Samuel 17.

To teach or preach a passage like 1 Samuel 17, read it, all the stories in it, and all the stories around it, and compare their objective content until what God has said obviously and repeatedly in those narratives becomes the undeniable testimony of why He wrote that passage to us. Then preach that.

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