Thursday, July 02, 2009

St. Jerome and Allegory

I have to admit that I struggle with allegory. There is no doubt that there are many allegorical readings which bring light to difficult passages. There is also no doubt that even biblical writers like Paul used it. But, it has never sat comfortably with me. It hasn't because it has always felt like cheating to me- a way to avoid the hard passages. There is no shortage of Christian writers in the past or in the present who use allegory this way. For example, Origen frankly admitted that he used allegory to explain passages which were so offensive to his and other people's sensibilities that they couldn't possibly be taken literally. This is the reason why I'm always a little uncomfortable with the Alexandrian Fathers and why my wife occasionally teases me about being an Antiochene. To some degree, she has a point.

Yet, it is important to remember that even the Antiochenes used allegory (or typology), even though they preferred historical and grammatical exegesis. Allegory is useful, but I've always felt that there has to be some strict controls on it or else it becomes a way of avoiding the hard passages or for making Scripture say what we want it to say. I'm sure many of my readers will recognize these self-serving allegories and will recognize just how it is to counter it, if we don't agree how to limit allegory.

So, you'll understand why this passage by Jerome, quoted by Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book, struck me this afternoon. It comes from St. Jerome's commentary on Habbakuk:

"The historical sense is narrow, and it cannot leave its course. The
tropologogical sense is free, and yet it is circumscribed by these laws, that it
must be loyal to the meaning and to the context of the words, and that things
strongly opposed to each other must not be improperly joined

What works for tropology (the figurative sense of Scripture which includes, but it isn't limited to, allegory) works for allegory. Allegory is necessary because the historical sense is so limited (it is classed as a variety of the literal level), but it needs controls. St. Jerome sets limits which I think work. Ultimately, if the meaning and context don't match, the allegory becomes non-sensical. If they do, the allegory becomes an important tool. It makes sense to me.



J. L. Watts said...

Phil, I would prefer the interpretation of the likes of John Chrysostom, but I appreciate a small dose of allegory from time to time - not as much as the Alexandrians in the 3rd century.

Great post, thanks.

Jim said...

Jesus used teaching stories, allegories that is, parables frequently. In fact a significant portion of what we know he said in th synoptics is in that form. So, I am inclined to think that when properly used the form might just be ok.


Josh McManaway said...

After having converted from Evangelical Protestantism, I'm still getting used to allegory, though I'm far more comfortable with it than I used to be. Louth has a great chapter on allegorical exegesis in one of his books. I basically began to see its necessity when I realized that I couldn't reproduce the exegesis of the NT authors with the historical-critical methods I was taught at seminary.

Also - if you have a wife that knows enough about Church history to tease you about being an Antiochene, you're very lucky.

Phil Snider said...

I think allegory is a tough sell in our day and age, largely because we've been taught, even in seminaries and theological colleges, to go no further than the literal-historical level. I have been learning to appreciate allegory, but I suspect that I'll always be rather Antiochene in my taste. There are worse fates than taking John Chyrsosthom as an example of biblical exegesis.

Yes, I am lucky in my wife, not leaste because she can tease me about my Antiochene predelictions. Mind you, we met when she was in seminary, so she had to take a few church history courses.