Allegorical and literal exegesis in the ancient world

Peter Leithart summarized a paper by Lewis Ayres,  who discussed the allegorical interpretations of the early church fathers:

 Part of the point was to place the early fathers – Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, and Tertullian – in their original context, and ask what they were responding to.  Predominantly, they were responding to Valentinian gnostics who read the Bible according to “parabolic” or “enigmatic” methods of reading, derived from the ancient methods applied by Greek critics to Homer.  Valentinians used the gospels to discover metaphysical ideas in Jesus’ teaching, ideas that were not on the surface of the text.

In response, the early fathers developed a method of reading that prioritized the literal.  They still allegorized and found “enigmatic” teaching in the Bible, but they applied a much stricter standard for determining when and how allegories should be derived from the literal text.

In other words: The church fathers didn’t invent allegorical exegesis; it was already around in abundant.  Insofar as they were innovative, they were innovative in their insistence on reading ad litteram.

A while back I was co-teaching a course on the Church Fathers, and during the week that we discussed Origen at least one of the attendees dismissed Origen’s allegorical exegesis. I pointed to Mark Noll’s description of the American commonsense, literal hermeneutical approach to note that we tend to take our way of interpreting the Bible for granted, making other approaches seem ridiculous. Of course, any method of interpretation can get you in trouble, as we see with Origen’s universalism. But it’s important to see the way that Christians throughout history and in our own time have interpreted the Scriptures and the context of the times in which those interpretive approaches were crafted. We can gain a lot from seeing the meanings that our fathers in the faith found in the Bible because they were looking with different cultural eyes than we are.



  1. Along the same lines, I think the modern world is overly reliant on exact study methods (e.g., word studies up the wazoo) when the authors were writing for an audience that wasn’t so caught up in the same sort of details. I think this can lead to missing out on much of what God intended. If the authors were writing to an audience that accepted allegory and myth, might God not have used those methods to communicate his truth? I, personally, think that this is where many fundamentalists go off the rails (e.g., CRI folks who believe the earth is 6k year old and anyone who disagrees is a borderline heretic). They fail to realize that ancient people didn’t have to believe the details of a story to believe in its truth. Origen, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are all examples of people who acknowledged non-literal ways of interpreting Genesis long before Darwin came around.

    From my own perspective, if modern people where to examine the OT quotes of NT authors without knowing their source, almost none of them would pass modern criteria. Judged purely by their quotation methodology, Jesus and Paul would both be considered idiots who routinely took Scripture out of context.

  2. Great points, Doug, especially about the OT quotes in the NT. How the original audience understood a text can easily be lost.

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