Kevin Basil (signature)

Where are the Floodbanks?

Next article: Darth Smartass
Previous article: Conversation I Wish For

Written by Basil on 08/3/2006 8:50 PM. Filed under:

Share with your friends and followers:

Nathan at Fighting the Little Fights struggles with the use of allegory in interpreting scripture:

I encountered a rather frustrating use of allegory in reading “Mary: The Untrodden Portal“. Frustrating because I could easily understand the argument the author was making from the text but really coudn’t see how anyone would come up with that novel interpretation without first importing the idea. The author, quoting a saint whose name escapes me, argues that the East gate in Ezekiel 44 allegorically represents Mary (or her womb) and since it was shut after God went through it, similarly Mary was shut after God went through her in the Incarnation, thus “proving” the ever-virginity of the Theotokos. But the text itself could never be made to say any such thing if the doctrine had not already been firmly established in the mind of the interpreter – so what is authoritative about that kind of interpretation? Clearly it is not the text. Wright argues that at least some of the uses of allegory “constitute a step away from the Jewish world of the first century within which Jesus and his first followers were at home.” He does concede that allegory, given the nature of the debates surrounding difficult passages in the OT which might have lead to them being tossed altogether, did serve as a way of saving the Bible for the church. But where allegory fails is that it does not appeal to the Bible itself, even though it operates with a Christian framework and uses biblical language, but rather to previously established doctrines and traditions within the church. (Read the whole article: Fighting the Little Fights: Allegory as love affair?)

Well, let me first say that I have not read this book, but the excerpts and reports I have seen lead me to believe that this will be the least difficult bit of the book. At least, maybe it will be after we put it into perspective.

The prophecy of Ezekiel is apocalyptic literature — like the prophecy of Daniel or the Apocalypse of Saint John (Revelation). To put it crassly: It’s weird. It is impossible to understand the imagery employed without resorting to allegory. (Think, for example, of the valley of dry bones passage.) The interpretation of the East Gate as prophesying about the Theotokos is the most common Orthodox Catholic interpretation; in fact, I know of no other interpretation, in East or West.

But the underlying question is: What are the floodbanks surrounding the allegorical interpretation of scripture? What keeps allegory from overflowing its banks and becoming a devastating flood of rank heresy only pretending to have any root in scripture?

Let’s streamline the question a little and see if it offers some insight: What are the floodbanks surrounding the interpretation of scripture? Answer: The living Tradition of the Church, which is nothing less than the Holy Spirit moving within the Bark of the Church and steering her true. Does this sound circular? It is; the circularity of the argument is unavoidable.

The authority of any interpretation is based on the authority of the Tradition, the authority of the Church, which is ultimately based on the authority of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the scriptures which testify of him, both old and new testaments. Before you can determine what you should believe about any interpretation of scripture, you must first establish whether you believe that the Holy Spirit has continuously led the Church into all truth from the time of the Apostles.

Once you accept this primary dogma of the Church — this foundational point of ecclesiology — then the determination of what counts as an authentic interpretation is a far easier question.

Whether Anglican Bishop Wright’s position on allegory vis a vis the early Church holds up under scrutiny I will leave to more capable minds than my own. But, here’s a clue: “He argues that the current understanding of Jesus must be connected with what is known to be true about him from the historical perspective of first-century Judaism and Christianity.”

Share with your friends and followers:


The URL to trackback this post is:

3 Responses to “Where are the Floodbanks?”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Kevin –

    I’ll have to clarify Wright’s thinking on biblical interpretation because its clear I didn’t present it very well. Wright does not categorically dismiss allegorical understandings of the Bible. He actually calls for a return to the Reformer’s understanding of the “literal sense” of Scripture. Which, rather than meaning “take it all literally” as many modern fundamentalists would have it, means reading the passage in the way it was originally intended to be understood. Parables, prophecies, poetry, etc, were not intended as statements of literal fact and therefore should not be understood as such. If the original author intended allegorical or metaphorical usage then that is how we should try to receive it. Which is not always easy given that not all passages are clear as to this original intention, but it suffices for most of the text.

    Nor does Wright completely dismiss the role of tradition in interpretation. He does subordinate it to the written word, as would be expected of any Protestant, but he talks as if there is a prima fascia case against any novel interpretation until it is rigorously proven from good exegesis and scholarship. Of course, Wright does believe that the Church has strayed from the path Christ set before her – not completely and not irredeemably, but she has gotten of course nonetheless. As you point out, his argument on interpretation hinges, at least in part, on a question of ecclesiology, so it is no surprise that he finds the frequent use of allegory in the Orthodox/Catholic traditions to be so troubling.

    As to that final wikipedia quote, I’m not sure what you’re intending that statement to convey. Wright firmly believes in Nicene Christianity; he also believes that, in losing, or limiting, its self-understanding as the continuation of Israel, the church has lost a key aspect of the story of God’s redemptive action in history through Christ. He does not reject the later understandings of Jesus that are, perhaps, more philosophical or Hellenistic, but he does think they need to be rounded out by a healthy dose of that first-century perspective.

  2. Basil Says:

    To believe that each genre of scripture has a particular mode of interpretation, and only that mode of interpretation which is proper to the genre is admissible as valid, would be to limit the church only to the level of the “literal sense of scripture.” (Excluding, as you note, fundamentalist understandings of literality and inspiration.) It would exclude, for example, a typological interpretation of the passage of Israel through the Red Sea (a type both of Christ’s pasch and of the penitent’s passage through baptism into the new life in Christ, which is essentially a personal pasch).

    The last statement alludes to his identification by many as a member of the “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Any quest for a “Jesus of history,” as distinguished from the “Christ of faith,” is mostly irrelevant to the Orthodox. It is not a fight in which we have a dog. For us, the primary question remains that posed by the Lord to St. Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” The Church answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is the Christ. We appropriate findings of scholars questing for a “historical Jesus,” when it suits the purpose of better understanding our Lord’s life and ministry, but we remain utterly faithful to the basic confession of the early Church, “Jesus is the Christ.”

    Probably, Bishop Wright would agree with this on some level, but for the Church, it doesn’t really matter whether we can definitively pin down particular actions or statements to Jesus. The Church, through the evangelists and the approval of the canonical gospels, believed and taught that the Jesus of scripture was an authentic portrayal of the Word made flesh. She may be interested to know the historical development of that portrayal, but nothing will deter her from that assessment.

  3. basil's blog » Blogrolling 2006-10-18 Says:

    […] Kevin Basil (no relation) looked at allegory. […]