7.3. The Rise of Allegorical Interpretation

Because the book of Revelation is categorized as apocalyptic literature and contains numerous symbols, it undergoes a great deal of abuse due to allegorical interpretation. But what exactly is allegorical (also known as mystical1 ) interpretation and where did it come from?

Zuck offers the following description of allegorization:

Allegorizing is searching for a hidden or secret meaning underlying but remote from and unrelated in reality to the more obvious meaning of a text. In other words the literal reading is a sort of code, which needs to be deciphered to determine the more significant and hidden meaning. In this approach the literal is superficial, the allegorical is the true meaning.2

Completely in line with Zuck’s description is the following statement by Trench regarding his understanding of the New Jerusalem (Rev. Rev. 21:2+):

The dream of an actual material city to be let down bodily from heaven to earth, . . . has been cherished in almost all ages of the Church by some, who have been unable to translate the figurative language of Scripture into those far more glorious realities of the heavenly πολιτεία [politeia] , whereof those figures were the vesture and the outward array. [emphasis added]3

Notice how the language of Trench confirms the statement of Zuck: the allegorical meaning represents far more glorious realities. The literal text represents figures which are the vesture and outward array. According to Trench, the true (allegorical) meaning is “clothed” by the representation of the literal text. Presumably, the interpreter must remove this outer garment of literal text to see the deeper and more glorious reality beyond.4 Trench doesn’t inform us that each interpreter that does so finds a different glorious reality!5

Using allegorical interpretation, it is possible to “find” all manner of meanings beyond the plain sense of the text:

To cite a few examples [of allegorical hermeneutics]: The journey of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran is interpreted as the imaginary trip of a Stoic philosopher who leaves sensual understanding and arrives at the senses. The two pence given by the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper has the hidden meanings of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The river Euphrates means the outflow of manners and is not an actual literal river in Mesopotamia. Pope Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the Book of Job is equally disheartening: ‘The patriarch’s three friends denote the heretics; his seven sons are the twelve apostles; his seven thousand sheep are God’s faithful people; and his three thousand hump-backed camels are the depraved Gentiles!’6

While it is tempting to chuckle at these examples from early Christianity, what is alarming is how often equally obscure results attend modern interpreters of the book of Revelation.

So where did this tendency begin? Evidence is lacking within Scripture that Jesus or the Apostles understood the Old Testament in this way.

The allegorical interpretation of Sacred Scriptures cannot be historically proved to have prevailed among the Jews from the time of exile, or to have been common with the Jews of Palestine at the time of Christ and His apostles. Although the Sanhedrim and the hearers of Jesus often appealed to the Old Testament according to the testimony of the New Testament writers, they give no indication of the allegorical interpretation. Even Josephus has nothing of it.7

The flowering of allegorical interpretation as applied to Scripture can be traced to Jews in Alexandria Egypt who were interested in accommodating the OT Scriptures to Greek philosophy as a tool for removing or reinterpreting what were considered embarrassing anthropomorphisms and immoralities in the OT.

Two names stand out in Alexandrian Jewish allegorization: Aristobulus and Philo. Aristobulus, who lived around 160 B.C., believed that Greek philosophy borrowed from the Old Testament, and that those teachings could be uncovered only by allegorizing. . . . Philo (ca. 20 B.C. - ca. A.D. 54) . . . sought to defend the Old Testament to the Greeks and, even more so, to fellow Jews. He was led to allegorize the Old Testament, . . . because of his desire to avoid [seeming] contradictions and blasphemies.8

Observe how often Christian aberrations have arisen from a faulty attempt to defend the Scriptures before skeptics. Preterism, and its belief that non-believers reject Scripture because Jesus’ prediction to come “soon” was misunderstood, is a recent example.

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 155-216) was influenced by Philo and proposed a system of interpretation where any passage of the Bible might have up to five meanings.9 Thereafter, Origin, who studied Platonic philosophy and is thought to have been a pupil of Clement, went so far as to say that Scripture itself demands that the interpreter employ the allegorical method.

Amillennialist Schaff is fair when he describes the great hermeneutical failings of Origen: “His great defect is the neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning. He even goes further in this direction than the Gnostics, who everywhere saw transcendental, unfathomable mysteries.”10

[Origen] lays down the principle that the true meaning of prophecy is to be found only by going beyond the literal and historical sense to the spiritual; and he says specifically of the Apocalypse that the mysteries hidden in it can be understood only in this way. His whole interpretation of the book is therefore spiritual rather than literal. [emphasis added]11

Origen’s interpretive approach had great influence on those who would follow in the Middle Ages, as did Augustine (354-430) who, like Philo, saw allegorization as a solution to Old Testament problems.12 The allegorical system of interpretation prevailed throughout most of the Middle Ages:

During the Middle Ages, the fourfold sense of Scripture was taught. Medieval scholars took Origen’s threefold sense—the literal, the moral, and the spiritual—and subdivided the spiritual into the allegorical and the anagogical. As schoolman Thomas Aquinas affirmed, ‘The literal sense is that which the author intends, but God being the Author, we may expect to find in Scripture a wealth of meaning.’ An example of how the fourfold sense was worked out during the Middle Ages is Gen. Gen. 1:3, ‘Let there be light.’ Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally—An act of creation; (2) Morally—May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically—Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically—May we be led by Christ to glory.13

Although Aquinas endorsed looking beyond the primary meaning of the author, he did recognize some of the dangers of allegorization. “Aquinas put forward a threefold argument against allegory: (1) it is susceptible to deception; (2) without a clear method it leads to confusion; and (3) it lacks a sense of the proper integration of Scripture.”14 All three of these significant drawbacks are evident in much interpretation of the book of Revelation today.

Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Bible prophecy dominated the understanding of eschatology during the medieval period. It found acceptance also with the Roman church and among the leaders of the Reformation. Even today, Augustinian eschatology is held by large segments of the Christian church.15

Even the Reformers, who cast off the darkness of Medieval allegorization in so many areas, failed to escape the influence of those who went before them in their understanding of the book of Revelation.16

As we’ve observed in the origination of this method of interpretation, there was a motive for its use. This remains the case today. At times it has simply been unbelief:

As someone has said, “The Book of Revelation isn’t hard to understand—it’s hard to believe!” The main reason why so many have resorted to allegorical interpretations is that they have found the literal meaning of its prophecies difficult to accept, scientifically, and aesthetically, and have tried to “explain” them on some less offensive basis.17

At other times, the motive has been to teach unorthodox doctrines twisted from the proper understanding of the text, something which has been with us all along:

Metaphysical cults, theosophical cults, divine science cults, pantheistic cults all base their interpretation of Holy Scripture on the theory that the meaning of Scripture is plural. The first meaning is the ordinary historical or grammatical one; and the second meaning is the one the cultist brings to Scripture from the particular metaphysical system or religious system he is pushing.18

Even as far back as Tertullian, the dangerous freedom offered by figurative interpretation for manipulating the meaning of the text was recognized. “On the proper method of interpreting prophecy Tertullian stated: “Now to upset all conceits of this sort, let me dispel at once the preliminary idea on which they [heretics] rest their assertion that the prophets make all their announcements in figures of speech. Now if this were the case, the figures themselves could not possibly have been distinguished, inasmuch as the verities would not have been declared, out of which the figurative language is stretched. And, indeed, if all are figures, where will be that of which they are the figures? How can you hold up a mirror for your face, if the face nowhere exists? But, in truth, all are not figures, but there are also literal statements.”19

As we will see as we progress, allegorical interpretation is frequently used by Christians who hope to avoid the plain implication of the teaching of Scripture. Christian Reconstructionists utilize forms of allegorical interpretation in order to work around passages in the book of Revelation which do not conveniently fit into the newspaper events surrounding the times prior to 70 A.D. Since John’s writings clearly indicate a coming time of wrath and judgment upon the earth, their motive is to attempt to remove this reality in favor of a more optimistic future for Christianity:

Reconstructionism’s interest in this subject stems from its optimistic outlook regarding Christianity’s ability to gain control of secular society. Because Revelation is admittedly pessimistic in this regard, the system’s scheme for disposing of this unfavorable evidence is to relegate its fulfillment almost entirely to the past, to a time prior to A.D. 70.20

Those who stand opposed to God’s promises made to the Jewish nation find the plain sense of Revelation Rev. 20:1+ much to their disliking as it suggests the fulfillment of the Messianic Kingdom prophecies scattered throughout the OT. Again, allegorical interpretation provides the “solution” in that the thousand years (Rev. Rev. 20:4+) becomes an indefinite period and the physical rule and reign with Christ represents the current spiritual standing of the believer. Never mind that interpreting the first resurrection (Rev. Rev. 20:4-5+) as being spiritual and the second (Rev. Rev. 20:12+) as literal runs rough-shod over the rules of sound hermeneutics.

The net result of allegorical interpretation is to place a veil of darkness over God’s divine Word. It takes that which God has graciously revealed to the saints and subjects it to the dark vagaries of human imagination and speculation. The result is predictable. Those who major in it remain as much in the dark regarding the Second Coming of Jesus as many Jews were in relation to His predicted suffering at the First Coming.21

Concerning the inconsistency of the allegorical method and the damage which results, Seiss notes:

Good and able men have satisfied themselves with it; but, on the same principles of interpretation, there is not a chapter in the Bible, nor a doctrine of our holy religion, which could not be totally explained away. By a happy inconsistency do they not so treat other portions of Scripture, or they would transmute the whole Revelation of God into uncertainty and emptiness.22

Having examined a long list of these symbolic and allegorical interpretations, and followed the processes by which their authors have tried to apply them, I have not found one which does not completely break down under the weight of its own cumbrous unfittingness. They each and all fail to explain the facts and relations of the record, and treat John as a half-demented sentimental old man, trying to make a grand poem out of a few dim anticipations touching the earthly fortunes of the Church, which could have been better told in one well-written chapter. They are, at best, the wild guesses of men who have never got hold of the real thread of the matter, whilst under the necessity of saying something.23


Notes

1 “Literal is not opposed to spiritual but to figurative; spiritual is an antithesis on the one hand to material, and on the other to carnal (in a bad sense). The Literalist is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestly literal being regarded as literal, and that which is manifestly figuratively being so regarded. The position of the Spiritualist is not that which is properly indicated by the term. He is one who holds that certain portions are to be normally interpreted, other portions are to be regarded as having a mystical sense. The terms properly expressive of the schools are normal and mystical.” John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scripture: Revelation, p. 98.

2 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 1991), 29.

3 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 185.

4 “In the history of allegorical interpretation of Scripture it is not denied that there is a literal, historical, or grammatical sense to Scripture, but it is depreciated. It is the ‘fleshly’ or the ‘superficial’ understanding of Scripture.”—Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1970), 124.

5 “Among non-literal prophetic interpreters, a state of virtual interpretive chaos exists. It is rare, for instance, to see a well-ordered or definitive work by an amillennial interpreter setting forth positively and consistently his prophetic interpretations. On the contrary, the amillennial writings usually concentrate on attacking and ridiculing the premillennial position. This approach is probably one of necessity, for amillennialists seldom agree with each other in specific interpretations of prophecy except to be against the earthly millennium.”—Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Dallas, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1993), 73.

6 Ibid., 37-38.

7 George H. N. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1978, 1884), 50.

8 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 30-31.

9 Ibid., 35.

10 Mal Couch, “Interpreting the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 58-59.

11 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 323.

12 “Augustine proposed seven rules of interpretation by which he sought to give a rational basis for allegorization.”—Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 39.

13 Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, 53.

14 Rodney Petersen, “Continuity and Discontinuity: The Debate throughout Church History,” in John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity And Discontinuity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 26.

15 Larry V. Crutchfield, “Revelation in the New Testament,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 32.

16 “Though the Reformers had come out of the interpretive darkness into the light of literal and historical hermeneutics, they still clung to allegorical details in their attempt to understand the book of Revelation.”—Mal Couch, “How Has Revelation Been Viewed Interpretively?,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 40.

17 Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983), 25.

18 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 111.

19 Crutchfield, “Revelation in the New Testament,” 25.

20 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 20.

21 “The question is if these allegorizing commentators are not as much in the dark in relation to the second coming and the glory that should follow, as the Jews were in relation to His First Advent and His atoning suffering and death.” [emphasis added]—Arnold Fruchtenbaum, “The Little Apocalypse of Zechariah,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 270.

22 J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), Rev. 11:3.

23 Ibid., Rev. 12:7-12.