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When the allegorical sense of Scripture surpasses the literal one

When I first came back to the Church 10 years ago and heard the following passage of Scriptures read aloud at Mass, I was absolutely stunned:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord". And he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing". (Luke 4:16-21)

I was flabbergasted as I slowly grasped the fullness of what Jesus was saying. I heard the hush of bewilderment that must have gone over the assembly in the synagogue. I imagined that the whole world must have held its breath for a minute. But our human nature is so prone to resist the divine that we quickly recoup from our stupefaction and start questioning and then doubting: "But who is this man? Isn't he the son of Joseph?" and the story says that the crowd got angry and ended up chasing him out of the synagogue…

I first understood this particular passage on two levels: my mind understood that it happened one specific day 2000 years ago in a specific synagogue (that is the literal-historical level) and at the very same time, my heart felt that Jesus was talking to me in church, right then and there, and declaring who he really is (and that is the moral level). The impact was exhilarating. Ever since that very first time, I delight in hearing this passage of Luke and I re-live it each time and, as the years went by, as I took Scripture classes and read biblical commentaries and joined prayer groups, I even started to understand a deeper meaning which was completely new to me and I could now see the "allegorical" level in Jesus' words.

Some of my classes spoke of the Four Senses of Scriptures (some, not all!) but it certainly seemed very logical and very creative to me to explain it in 4 different layers: the literal, the moral, the allegorical and the eschatological. I wondered why some teachers - and homilists - never mentioned the allegorical but I just read a wonderful article by Robert Louis Wilken on the history of the allegorical sense of Scriptures and I can now understand why. Wilken states that recent exegesis just brushed aside and dropped the allegorical sense. He says that the neglect of the allegorical sense of Scriptures only took place within recent times with the advance of the historical-critical method. Neglect is a form of abuse and I even think that, in modern exegesis, this neglect became a sheer reject. Wilken calls it "a revolt against the the Church's tradition including the tradition that is found in the New Testament itself". Because the truth is that there has been a constant thread of people acknowledging and using allegories in Scriptures, starting with the Gospels authors themselves and going through the Fathers of the Church and up until our modern times. And this thread started with Jesus himself who was - and is - the very source and subject of all allegories again and again. He said: "It's all about me".

Wilken unfolds the golden thread of allegory in history by enumerating the most beautiful litany of scholars and teachers and saints: Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Melito, Bernard… Then Wilken shows how the tool of allegory is not only able to show us the light of Christ since his coming but can even reach further back before the Incarnation in the prophets and the psalms. The allegorical sense, by opening up an additional sense, another meaning to the first meaning, is a most beautiful multifaceted tool, giving us access to the fullness of the revelation. Wilken says that "Christian allegory is centered on Christ, it means interpreting the Old Testament as a book about Christ". Saint Ambrose wrote: "The Lord Jesus came and what was old was new". Everything in Scriptures is to be related to him. In the words of Henri de Lubac "Jesus Christ brings about the unity of Scripture, because he is the end point and fullness of Scripture. Everything in it is related to him. In the end, he is its sole object. Consequently, he is, so to speak, its whole exegesis."

So the interesting question is what is it in our modern mind that made us so willing to reject allegory? Why, in this recent explosion of scientific and technological discoveries, did we discard the use of allegory? I think that it is because we are actually timid. We are going soft. We are timid, soft and lazy, such are the weaknesses of our time. With all our wonderful new found ability of googling information rather than thinking, prioritizing and deducting, we have lost the desire to truly explore and we rely on shortcuts. With our recent attraction to virtuality rather than reality, we are going soft, we are never leaving our comfort zone and the result is that we are shying away from conversion. True metanoia scares us, it implies a complete change and a commitment, it belongs to the realm of quest and adventure and our modern world wants to play it safe. We would rather play with virtual reality because the real stuff is messy and painful. But that is unfortunate. I think that if allegories make us, modern people, uncomfortable, it is because we are taking them on a superficial level and not on the profound level they are meant to be and therefore we are missing the transforming experience they are supposed to lead us to.

On the other hand, the aim of the historical-critical method is different, it is to explain and explicate, to analyze and put into proper context the Biblical texts. One of the most thorough outline of modern exegesis I have found is in Fr. Raymond Brown's "Introduction To The New Testament". He lists and summarizes the various methods of modern hermeneutics: the textual or historical criticism; the source or form or redaction criticism; canonical or rhetorical, structuralism or social criticism, the list seems endless and it can make one dizzy… But it is a captivating and engrossing type of study and when used properly, it is a great tool. But it is only a tool. I went to a Biblical Study conference a few years ago and I was thanking Scott Hahn afterwards for giving us such a full understanding of Scripture, for inspiring us to a deeper love of the Word of God and, when I did complain (oh! ever so briefly, in passing) about the dryness of some of the historical-critical classes I had attended, he said: "But it's a tool. Use it. Just don't stop there". And that greatly helped me. Then along the way, I met solid and inspiring teachers who were completely at home with both the classical senses and the recent methods.

Then last year, I read "Jesus of Nazareth" and I was thrilled! Pope Benedict XVI proposes to study Scriptures based on faith, love and reason, going beyond the indispensable tool of the historical-critical method, applying "canonical exegesis" (reading individual texts within the totality of the one Holy Scripture), using the remarkable accuracy of the old doctrine of the "fourfold sense of Scripture", and making the vital connection between the "Gospel author, the People of God - the Church - and God". I thought, this is it, the tide is turning! So maybe, just maybe, there is the possibility that this is the best of times. Truly, I mean it. Pope Benedict XVI says that "at certain key moments, the disciples came to the astonishing realization: "This is God himself." And this is where all the various traditional senses of Scriptures or the very modern methods must converge, they must lead us to encounter Jesus personally.

I am aware that the allegorical sense can also be misused. At various times in the history of the Church explaining Scriptures via the allegorical sense became so convoluted and extravagant that it ended up being obscure and confusing to the faithful, which is a sad result. It can also become a source of scholarly dispute, with theologians arguing whether it is the anagogical or mystical or typological or tropological sense or not, and that is not the way to discipleship either. Wilken himself summarized it well by saying that "in truth, there are only two senses: the plain sense and the fuller sense". And that is enough for me to appreciate the gift of Scripture: when I hear that Jesus, after having folded back the scroll (which, by the way, is the one proof that Jesus could read, said Raymond Brown - isn't that an interesting remark?) when I hear him say: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" it is a blessed moment, it is a full encounter, it is an "event" and what is happening transcends the here and now. When the Priest lifts up his hands holding the Host, there is an invisible thread going all the way back to the very first time in the upper room. It is a remarkable and astonishing feast. So Yes, these are the best of times.

Since my return to the Church, I have met many people of all ages and walks of life and levels of education actively living their faith, as hungry as I am for understanding the history of Christianity and the development of the liturgy, for being able to articulate this faith which means so much to us and for knowing and appreciating the Biblical texts as much as we can. I am very grateful for all these blessings, for having met all these fellow-pilgrims, for the teachers and Priests that God has put in my path and I am forever thankful for the inspiring and edifying books and articles that keep falling in my lap. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it is always easy, I am often struggling and stumbling along the way, but I also know what it is to feel like praising God and I am holding on to these blessed moments (maybe especially since I am such a late bloomer). So I count my blessings and one of them is Wilken's article (which re-positioned allegories in its proper place within Biblical studies), others are the writings of our current Pope (with their wonderful mix of orthodoxy and modern scholarship), or the prolific and prophetic voice of our previous Pope (who articulated so well the culture of life, the need for forgiveness and the theology of the body, and who had such a large impact on believers and even non-believers). And finally I can certainly find blessings in our own technological progress where lay-people like me can, thanks to the internet, have access to the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church or the latest theologians with the click of a mouse… Yes, this is the best of times - and especially because it is all fulfilled in Him.

Thanks be to God.

Copyright ©2008-2021 Michele Szekely

Ressources and links:

Pope Benedict XVI book "Jesus of Nazareth" can be found at Ignatius Press here
Robert Louis Wilken article on How to read the Bible appeared in the March 2008 edition of First Thing magazine; see their home page here
A profile of Raymond Brown can be found here
Scott Hahn's Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology here


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