Figurative Interpretation

Figurative interpretation was by no means a Christian innovation. It was recognized even in pagan antiquity that inspired utterance will often be obscure. Oracles required interpretation. Philo was anxious to show that Moses had anticipated the best in Greek thought, and he himself used allegorical interpretation for the purpose. But Christian interpreters developed the figurative rendering to unprecedented heights of sophistication under the stimulus of the need to show the harmony of Old Testament and New where a literal reading would make them incompatible.

The central idea of all figurative interpretation is that it is possible to come to an understanding (at least in some measure) of that which cannot be directly grasped, by making a comparison with something which is relatively easy to understand. The 'similitude' provides a stepping stone or a pointer. Many early and later Christian authors argued that God must be unknowable in any other way, and that he himself has therefore provided in his mercy for the needs of his people, by giving them such analogies and pointers, both in creation and in his revealed Word. In the late twelfth century, Peter of Celle contrasts the angelic condition with our own: 'The angels have the truth; you have a likeness.' But he reassures us that it is possible to proceed from an understanding of the likeness to grasp the truth itself.

Genesis 1:26, with its reference to man's creation in the 'image and likeness' of God, provided a convenient scriptural point of departure for many commentators. Man can be seen as designed to make the necessary shift in his understanding from likeness to reality, from what he can grasp more or less straightforwardly by the light of natural reason, to glimpse the higher and deeper spiritual realities which are ultimately beyond his creaturely nature but which he is created to desire to know. Figures are thus seen as part of God's plan in revelation, and especially in the revelation in Scripture. On this basis, it can confidently be expected that there will be a literal and a spiritual, an outward and an inner sense in Scripture, like the book written 'inside' and 'outside' of Revelation 5:1 (cf. Ezek. 2:9-10).

Christian enthusiasm for figurative interpretation was mixed at first. At Antioch in the fourth century the preference was for keeping to the literal sense. But the 'Alexandrian' system developed by the apologists of the second century, and their successors Clement of Alexandria and Origen, became dominant; although there remained some concern that they were indulging in 'pagan allegorizing' like the Gnostics. Origen, the most adventurous of them, wrote copious scriptural commentaries, and took a particular interest in the Old Testament. He composed a Hexapla, an edition of the Old Testament with the Hebrew text in both Hebrew and Greek characters, and four Greek versions. He placed a high value on the spiritual sense, putting it above the literal, and sometimes denying that a given passage had a literal sense at all. In the Western tradition one of the most influential proponents of figurative interpretation was Tyconius the Donatist. He proposed seven rules for interpreting the Scriptures, with particular emphasis upon finding pointers to Christ in the Old Testament. Augustine of Hippo forgave him his Donatism so far as to make substantial use of his rules in his own De Doctrina Christiana, and so from the fifth century Tyconius' pattern became familiar in Latin exegesis.

Augustine himself suggested several ways of subdividing or classifying figurative interpretations; but it was his contemporary John Cassian who drew from Clement of Alexandria the fourfold division which became standard throughout the Middle Ages. This took the literal or historical sense as the base, 'which speaks of things as they happened' as Guibert of Nogent puts it, giving the stock definition. The allegorical sense, strictly speaking (although the term may be used more generally to cover all the spiritual or figurative senses), is that 'in which one thing is understood by another'. The tropological or moral interpretation draws lessons for the living of a good Christian life. The anagogical sense is that through which the reader is led upwards in his understanding so that he glimpses the highest spiritual truths; it is also the 'prophetic' sense. This pattern is used by Gregory the Great, and it was he who made it familiar through the considerable medieval popularity of his exegetical writings, especially the Moralia on the book of Job.

In the medieval West, although the figurative senses continued to be regarded as superior, the literal was not despised or neglected. On the contrary, as Hugh of St Victor insists in the twelfth century, it is the foundation on which all the others rest. It may, like the foundations of a house, consist of rough-hewn stones and even rubble, but the next layer of the construction, and all the superstructure, is cut to fit into it, and that is how the building is made strong and stable (cf. de Lubac (1959) on architectural images of Scripture's structure). There was a fine balance to be struck here, however, as Hermannus Judaeus, a converted Jew of Hugh's time, acknowledges in speaking about his own conversion. He looks back in amazement to his obstinacy as a Jew in insisting upon keeping to the literal sense, the mere husks of the meaning, when he could have been eating the sweet kernel with the Christians.

Figurative interpretation had another significant element from patristic times. The emphasis of the education of the late antique world was upon the acquisition of rhetorical skills, and no educated man in the Eastern or Western halves of the Roman Empire read without a consciousness of the stylistic devices which were being employed in the text. Augustine of Hippo, as a young man, found this a barrier to his becoming a Christian because he could not but despise the rude style in which the Scriptures then appeared to him to be written. In maturity, however, he composed the De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine) in an effort, first to understand what function signs, symbols and figures serve epistemologically speaking, and second, to give advice to Christian preachers about the proper use of figurative language in their own discourse and exegesis. He was able to find many examples of the use of rhetorical figures in Scripture, and others after him were quick to use this device as a means of explaining away difficulties in the text especially of the Old Testament. Hugh of St Victor asks why Satan is called a serpent in Genesis. He thinks that this is a way of speaking one might use, for example, of a thief who dressed up as a monk in order to steal from a monastery; when he is caught in the act his captors might call him a 'monk' in derision. Such mocking or ironical usages may conveniently turn an unacceptable literal meaning on its head.

Systematic treatment of the types of figures (schemata) and tropes or 'ways of speaking' was attempted by Isidore in the sixth century and by Bede in the seventh, with a more sophisticated and technically demanding attempt by Peter the Chanter at the end of the twelfth century (when much more was understood about modes of equivocation). Bede's work was influential in helping to make sense of many Old Testament passages. He finds a prolepsis in Psalm 86:1-2, which speaks of 'foundations' and only later explains whose they are; a variety of translationes or metaphors: Psalm 2:1, where 'the people' are described as roaring in the way lions do; Zechariah 11:1, where a personified Lebanon is called to 'open' its 'gates'; transferences from inanimate to animate in the withering of the peak of Carmel in Amos 1:2 and from animate to inanimate in Ezekiel 11:19, where there is reference to removing a heart of stone; Psalm 103:26 contains a metalepsis, which gradually insinuates its meaning; Genesis 24:20 refers to the pouring out of water-jars, with the container being referred to instead of that which it contains; there is antonomasia in 1 Kings 17:4, where Goliath is not called a giant in so many words, but we are told that he is six and a half cubits high. There are New Testament examples in Bede, too, but the Old Testament cases are often the most testing.

One particular aspect of this complex system of figurative interpretation almost always involves the pairing of the Old Testament and the New. The 'types' are found not by looking into the language for its hidden meanings or special usages, but by examining actual persons and events in history and finding in them correspondences with the later persons and events of the New Testament. Christ himself gave the lead here, by speaking of Jonah as a type of his resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41). St Paul thought baptism typified by the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (1 Cor. 10:1-6) and in Hebrews, Melchizedek is a type of Christ. Similarly, the sacrifice of Isaac is a type of Jesus' Crucifixion, and the Tower of Babel is a type of Pentecost. The inference could always be drawn that, as Guibert of Nogent puts it, 'there are applications of the Old Testament in the New which make the listeners more attentive'; that there is nothing in the prophetic and apostolic books which does not build up faith, for when we read carefully of God speaking in many and varied ways to the prophets of old, we discover beyond doubt the mysteries of the time of Christ foretold there.

It is on these firm assumptions that everything in the Old Testament can be taken to be as true as everything in the New, the very concords attesting to the truth.

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