Thinking Anglicans

Allegorical and Literal

Just after reading the ARCIC Report on Mary I attended a lecture in Cambridge on “The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science” by Prof Peter Harrison, of Bond University, Australia. It marked the conclusion of a series sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

Prof. Harrison began by referring to C P Snow, and to the way in which scientists and theologians didn’t understand each other. Then, going through a history of the way in which scriptures had been interpreted, he pointed out that, alongside the literal meaning of any text, the words of scripture were also read in a variety of allegorical senses until the end of the middle ages. Medieval works on natural history exhibited the same kind of interest in allegory, with mythical beasts sitting comfortably alongside animals which could be observed.

At the Renaissance, with the coming of printing, and modern vernacular texts of scripture, the Reformers discarded the allegorical meanings in favour of literal meanings. So whilst allegorical commentaries on the Song of Songs had once been popular, in Reformation times it became far more important to explore the literal meaning of what Paul wrote to the Romans.

This critical approach to biblical texts gradually spread to other fields of learning. Prof. Harrison demonstrated that some books on natural history in England in the early 17th century continued to describe mythical animals long after biblical scholarship in reformation countries had pointed the way towards seeing literal meanings as being of prime importance. Eventually, science based solely on observation and experiment began to flourish unimpeded in England, Holland and Sweden, where allegorical meanings of scripture had been discarded. But in Catholic countries, scientists like Galileo were severely constrained by the church establishment.

Prof. Harrison concluded his lecture by returning to C P Snow and to the continuing problem that theologians and scientists can still use language and assign meanings to words in different ways.

In my view the new ARCIC document illustrates the same difficulty. There is no problem with the literal meaning of the gospel texts. Whilst we acknowledge that the title “Mother of God” may be a poor translation of the original Greek term, 16th century reformers, and Anglicans today are in agreement about the way in which this title is understood. The problems centre on those interpretations of scripture in which Anglicans would argue that a more than literal reading haws been applied.

The report acknowledges the problem, saying

In the following paragraphs, our use of Scripture seeks to draw upon the whole tradition of the Church, in which rich and varied readings have been employed. In the New Testament, the Old Testament is commonly interpreted typologically (By typology we mean a reading which accepts that certain things in Scripture (persons, places, and events) foreshadow or illuminate other things, or reflect patterns of faith in imaginative ways (e.g. Adam is a type of Christ: Romans 5:14; Isaiah 7:14 points towards the virgin birth of Jesus: Matthew 1:23). This typological sense was considered to be a meaning that goes beyond the literal sense. This approach assumes the unity and consistency of the divine revelation.) events and images are understood with specific reference to Christ. This approach is further developed by the Fathers and by medieval preachers and authors.

It sounds like special pleading to retain pre-renaissance allegorical readings of scripture. But, 350 years after the reformers rejected this kind of approach to scripture as a means of establishing doctrine, it is no more possible for Anglicans to go back to the medieval position than it would be for scientists today to write papers on the unicorn or the gryphon.

This has to be said whilst affirming an Anglican defence of the title Theotokos. It is accepted on the grounds that not only is it a definition agreed by an ecumenical council, but also on the grounds that those who arrived at the definition did so on the basis of literal, rather than allegorical readings of scripture. The Fathers understood clearly what they were doing. One might add, for example, that the devotional insights exhibited in St. Bernard’s allegorical commentary on the Song of Songs were never intended to be doctrinal formulations, and were not understood as such. It might therefore be clear that Revelation 12 and 21 or Genesis 3, whilst poetic and interesting, should not be used to illuminate Christian doctrine about Mary as we would wish to affirm it today.

There are, however, dangers in over literalism when applied to biblical texts. The most obvious, as any scientist will report, concern the ways in which some fundamentalist Christians would support a belief in a six day creation, or Noah’s flood, simply because the text says it happened. When we see these texts as illustrations which had a particular meaning for their own time, it is possible to take a rather kinder view of the ways in which Genesis 3 or Revelation have traditionally been read as referring to Mary than would emerge from a solely literal reading.

But, as the report acknowledges, the remaining difficulties concern Marian dogmas formulated after both the Great Schism and the Reformation. The ARCIC 1 statement on the Eucharist said Our intention has been to seek a deeper understanding of the reality of the Eucharist which is consonant with biblical teaching and with the tradition of our common inheritance. That is to say it laid a great stress on the ecumenical understanding of a united church, and tested this faith against a present day reading of scripture accepted by scholars on all sides. As such, the document has provided a firm foundation for further liturgical and doctrinal convergence between the churches.

My fear about the present report is that, by wanting to retain post reformation dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church which are not underpinned by readings of scripture which modern scholars would support, it has not remained faithful to the principles established by ARCIC 1. As a result its conclusions will be of far more limited application. But, from the Anglican point of view, it will remind very many of us of a great deal of doctrine concerning Mary which we can accept, but may in some quarters have neglected.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
19 years ago

“it is no more possible for Anglicans to go back to the medieval position than it would be for scientists today to write papers on the unicorn or the gryphon.”? And yet I find myself increasaingly taking passages *and* related ideas metaphorically. When presented with a bone whose carbon-dating shows it to be 10k yrs old with a given error-threshhold, and someone telling me the universe is only 6k yr old, the bone (or rather, person holding it) wins, hands down. Hence I’ve come to the conclusion that the *best* you can do with Creation is to treat it metaphorically… Read more »

Dr Abigail Ann Young
19 years ago

If I can just take a moment to ride my hobby-horse… My speciality is the history of Christian scriptural exegesis, and so I’ve spent a lot of time think about, and studying pre-reformation texts about, the meaning of Scripture (whether literal or metaphorical) and the techniques used to draw out the meaning (like allegory and typology). I think that typology is a tool that can still have value, precisely because of its strong ties to the ‘literal sense’. Many pre-modern exegetes had a sophisitcated awareness of the text and were sensitive to its metaphors and figures of speech and its… Read more »

19 years ago

Yeah, I can cope with retaining typology – personally I suspect the answer to my question `can you retain Romans with a metaphorical understanding of Gen.1-3:?’ is `yes’, for example. Certainly reading “(some old event) is a type fulfilled in the NT / in Christ” doesn’t *require* absolute historical truth in interpretation.

Dr Mark Dearden
Dr Mark Dearden
17 years ago

All men (and women) will interpret scripture and be “wrong” Only God is right. The problem with articles like this is that they convey a fundamental message that God’s word is complicated and difficult to understand, making emphasis on need to strive for some special understanding! In truth God’s message is REALLY SIMPLE. It is the ability to live by God’s example in Jesus Christ that is hard. For this reason He sent us first His only Son, then the Holy Spirit. Scripture must be embraced with a Christocentric hermeneutic based on primary sound exegesis BUT I would rather get… Read more »

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x