Can something be both literal and allegorical?

Discussion in 'Languages' started by chuckd, Sep 16, 2016.

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  1. chuckd

    chuckd Puritan Board Sophomore

    Oxford English Dictionary on "literal":
    What if the author intended a certain passage to be an allegory, such as Song of Songs or Pilgrim's Progress? Taking them literally would also be taking them allegorically, correct?
  2. Jack K

    Jack K Puritan Board Professor

    As with most words, there are a couple of different ways to define and use the word "literal." One technical way to define "literal" is that it means something like "consistent with the author's intent or with the genre of the piece of literature." In that sense, one is being "literal" to read intended allegory as allegory. Or to read parable as parable, myth as myth, exaggeration as exaggeration... and of course straightforward statement as straightforward statement.

    However, this is not the way most of us use the term these days. Common usage today restricts it to mean reading any kind of literature as being straightforward. So if you use "literal" in the more technical sense, you will typically just end up confusing people or being badly misunderstood.

    It is good to be aware, though, of the broader meaning of the word, especially if you read older writers. It may be that an older writer who is urging you to read the Bible "literally" means that you should read it with an understanding of its various genres. Modern readers will tend to misunderstand a statement like that, supposing he means the Bible must only be interpreted as consisting of straightforward speech.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2016
  3. KeithW

    KeithW Puritan Board Freshman

    Consider the Old Testament story of Abraham having children by both Sarah and Hagar. It sounds like a literal history. Did God only mean it literally?

    So this story was both literal and allegorical.

    I have pondered over the story of the exodus of Israel out of Egypt as being allegorical of our salvation, not simply a literal historical story.
  4. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Durham points out that the interpretation of allegorical Scripture is not the same thing as the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Clearly, Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, and taking it literally would mean understanding it as such; but it is not written in a literal genre.
  5. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    This is precisely what I was going to say. One of the most crucial distinctions to have in mind when interpreting Scripture and when talking about translations of Scripture is that between "literal" and "literalistic." To take an allegory literally is to treat it rightly. To take an allegory literalistically would be to destroy it completely.
  6. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    To follow up on Ruben's use of Durham's principle, if you take the writing to be setting forth an allegory, a literal interpretation at a minimum must seek to understand (1) the grammatical sense of words and phrases, (2) the historical and cultural setting of the story, (3) the object being allegorised, and (4) the way the tropes and themes of the allegory function in relation to the object.
  7. MW

    MW Puritanboard Amanuensis

    I would say that something slightly different is at work here as a result of "the fulness of the time." It is literal history and should be interpreted accordingly. However, the subsequent development of the "seed-promise" demonstrates a complexity in the divine purposes concerning Abraham's children. The allegory was already evident in the covenant sanctions and prophetic oracles, which distinguished two types of people within Israel.
  8. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member


    A lot of good things have been written in this thread so far.

    I think the best way of thinking about this is that Scripture is not written in some sort of "code" where you have to have some sort of secret key to move past the sense of the words in context (as the author intended to convey) to determine the allegorical, tropological, and analogical meanings.

    I point out those other meanings because this is what the Reformed Church was reacting against.

    Take Paul's point in Galatians where he employs and allegory. He's making a point about those who take confidence in the flesh so he pictures Judaizers and their defective view of the Law at Sinai as actually representing Ishmael. Why? Because their view of the Law as "keeping this under my power in the flesh" actually reveals they are like Ishmael - without the spirit, still dead, confident in the flesh, therefore enslaved. In contrast, Isaac represents life in Christ, confidence in the power of the Spirit, freed from sin and death.

    Paul's allegory then serves a purpose that can be seen in a straightforward reading of his overall argument in the letter to the Galatians. Neither the Galatians nor we who read his letter almost 2000 years removed need to get "under or beyond" the point that Paul is making.

    In fact, those who employ the fourfold meaning would move beyond Paul's use of allegory in making a point and then come up with an allegorical meaning that is beyond the plain (read literal) meaning of his letter. They would then come up with a tropological and analogical meaning as well.

    As Matthew points out there are broad brush strokes that one can find in Scripture as we peice together the tapestry that God is weaving throughout the Scriptures but the threads of that tapestry are, in themselves, to be understood in the genre and meaning that they were communicated. It's only after we see all the threads and study them and stand back from them all that a clear picture arrives that allows us to come up with Biblical Theological and Systematic concepts.

    This does lead to a caution about how we use the broader brush strokes because I've seen a lot of "Redemptive Historical" or "Klinean" or other kinds of templates used to sometimes overthrow the plain meaning that Paul is communicating in this allegory and in other texts. Paul's allegory is used as a form of didactic principle about the Law being a republication of the Covenant of Works. The brush stroke ends up covering up the plain meaning that Paul is trying to communicate. Likewise, there is sometimes a "Where's Waldo?" type of Redemptive Historical preaching where (for example) Elijah is a type of John the Baptist and Elisha a type of Jesus and it suffocates the plain meaning that is being communicated in the OT text.
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