Q. The Lord Jesus uses an allegorical approach to interpret the meaning of His parables in Matthew 13. In the early days of the church, use of such an approach to interpret biblical texts was overwhelming, but nowadays we adopt the historical-grammatical hermeneutical principle as far as possible. How should a balance be struck between the two? Or should it be that if a historical-grammatical interpretation is not evident (such as the number of the beast is 666), then allegorical interpretation would be used to look for an answer? How can we measure whether the interpreted result is correct or not? How far can we stretch this method?
A. The allegorical method is a method of interpretation which assumes that the Bible has a hidden, mystical meaning beyond the literal, which is not obvious from the surface meaning the words conveyed.
The word “allegorically” appears in the NASB only in Ga 4:24:
• Ga 4:24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. (NASB)
It translates the Greek word “allegoreo“, which means “to speak in a figure”, i.e. figuratively or symbolically.
In Ga 4, Hagar = bond woman = covenant from Mt. Sinai
Sarah = free woman = New covenant
This meaning is not obvious until explained by Paul, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and goes beyond our ordinary figures of speech.
Some suggested that since Jesus Himself used an allegorical approach to interpret His parables, this method is justified. I do not think so. First, when the disciples did not understand a parable, Jesus Himself explained it to them – the parable of the Sower (Mt 13:3-9) in Mt 13:18-23; the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Mt 13:24-30) in Mt 13:36-43. Although the explanation of other parables are not recorded in the gospels, Jesus did not leave them in the dark as to what He meant:
• Mk 4:34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.
Secondly, Jesus always used day-to-day illustrations e.g. sowing, seeds, soils, leaven, fishing, lamp etc. Unlike current allegorical interpretations, He did not use fancy ideas which the disciples could not relate to.
I believe therefore the historical-grammatical method should be used throughout, and that the allegorical method is not valid except in cases specifically identified in the Bible as symbolic. After all, if the meaning derived from analyzing the writing in its context, understanding the historical and cultural background and taking the grammar into account, cannot be accepted, language no longer has any meaning! If the plain meaning makes sense, seek no other sense! Otherwise what else can you trust? Some wild ideas concocted by the interpreter based on loose associations?
Having said that, I am fully aware of interpreting any passage according to its genre, and the use of figures of speech in literal interpretation. Much of apocalyptic literature, for example, was composed during times of persecution, and therefore written in symbolic language to protect the author and the reader. But that does not warrant spiritualizing everything to say whatever the interpreter wants it to say.
The measure of any interpreted result must be how well does it fit with all available evidence, including the context, background, biblical worldview, consistency with known biblical teaching and reality. All interpretation, historical-grammatical or allegorical, must pass through the same criteria for evaluation. Otherwise how can we compare which is more valid? The question then is not how far we can stretch the allegorical method, but how carefully we have done our observation and interpretation using all the tools available. If we have not done our homework, we are under a stricter judgment as we will be leading others astray.
• Jas 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
This is my biased view. Don’t dig yourself into a dead-end (鑽牛角尖). Hope it will encourage others to be careful exegetes instead of pursuing human speculations.