Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Typology and Allegory as Exegetical Methods in the Patristic Era - Part 1
The early Church was faced with numerous questions about how to utilize the scriptures inherited from the Jews, as well as the apostolic writings from the first century. The church determined that the scripture would not be interpreted in a legalistic manner, as the Jews had dealt with the Mosaic Law. Yet the other extreme, anarchism, was also to be avoided. Various churchmen addressed this issue, with different approaches, and different results. Two of the most important from the Patristic era were the use of allegory and typology.
Allegory was also inherited from Jewish theologians, such as Philo. In response to pagan accusations of the veracity of scriptural stories, Christian apologists began to employ the use of allegory to explain the “spiritual” meaning of texts. Building upon the example of St. Paul in Galatians 4, where the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar was equated with ancient Israel and the Church, Christian authors, such as Origen, the Alexandrian theologians, and even the Cappadocian Fathers, incorporated this hermeneutic method into their interpretations. Ultimately, the Alexandrian school took the leadership in this form of interpretation and Allegory became associated with them. However, there were other prominent Orthodox theologians who also employed Allegory, at least to some degree, including St. John Chrysostom, who “admitted the propriety of treating Cain as prefiguring the synagogue, Abel the Church, and the spotless lamb enjoined by the Law of Christ."
Allegory tends to ignore the literal meaning of the text, and focuses upon the symbolic meaning of the words. St. Augustine provides a good example of this method, when he taught that the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Adam, Paradise, Sin, the Devil, the Church, and the Priesthood are to be understood as proper interpretations of the locations and individuals involved in that story. By using this technique, early Christian writers were able to find Christian meaning in obscure Old Testament texts. Broad themes were addressed in this manner, with every action in a text representing a spiritual truth and every physical location representing a spiritual location.
The Platonic background of many of the allegorizing writers made it simple for them to make application of this method. This philosophical approach tended toward a spiritual interpretation of words, in order to learn “real” truth, where transcendent truth could be interpreted by the intellect. Origen brought this approach to prominence in the Christian community, as he believed that “Scripture [was] a vast ocean…of mysteries; it was impossible to fathom…them all, but one could be sure that every line…was replete with meaning." Ultimately, Origen taught that there were three levels of meaning: “the bodily, the psychic and the spiritual." These three were understood to be the literal sense, the moral sense, and the mystic sense, respectively. According to its proponents, only an allegorical approach could allow for a proper interpretation of scripture, worthy of the Holy Spirit, with the spiritual sense being the “perfect and complete meaning." “Every proper name, every number, all the animals, plants and metals mentioned [in scripture] seemed to [Origen] to be allegories of theological or spiritual truths."
Eventually, Christian theologians, such as Theodore of Mopsuestia, modified and tempered the use of allegory. He determined that the allegorical method of Origen was an “abuse of [St. Paul’s] term” and that a proper allegory was “one that compared [and applied] events that happened in the past to the present." These new theologians were more restrained than their predecessors in utilizing the allegorical method of applying Old Testament examples to New Testament/Christian elements.