An allegory is an extended metaphor in which the characters and/or events are symbols representing other events, ideas, or people.
While a typical parable is told in order to teach one important matter, an allegory teaches numerous hidden truths throughout the story. It is a beautiful way of explaining spiritual matters and difficult concepts in easily understood terms and in a relatable context.
Interpreting allegory is not the same as allegorical interpretation. The former refers to a type of literature and the latter refers to a type of interpretation. Allegorical interpretation, also called allegorizing, treats a text as an allegory even though it isn’t one. This renders the historical meaning of the Bible and what the author intended meaningless and results in the interpreter reading his or her own ideas into the Scripture.
People want to get at the broader theological realities and spiritual truths expressed in biblical allegory, but they are going about it the wrong way when they allegorize Scripture.
The first step in interpreting Scripture is determining the type of writing we are dealing with. Each type has its own guidelines for interpretation. In this instance, once we know we are dealing with an allegory then we must apply the rules for interpreting allegory.
How can we tell if we are dealing with an allegory?
- There is something in the text or in the cultural background of the original readers that indicates allegory
- There are at least two stories—one presented in the straightforward reading of the surface story and one in the way the writer intends the reader to interpret the surface story
- Words are used figuratively to make direct comparisons with a plurality of main verbs and mixture of tenses
- There are several points of comparison, such as in John 10 where the gate and the good shepherd represent Christ
- The story blends factual experience with non-factual experience to emphasize spiritual truths
- There may be an accompanying explanation
Since allegory is essentially an extended metaphor, the same general rules that apply to interpreting metaphors and parables will apply to allegories. We must guard against trying to find minute analogies and hidden meanings in all the details of the imagery.
All Scripture, including allegories, must first be considered in the grammatical and historical context in which it was written and based in what the original author intended.
Even though an allegory uses figurative language we must still interpret the Bible literally. This means reading the Bible in its grammatical and historical context and according to the intent of its authors and the literary conventions of the particular literary style being used, in this case, allegory. Once we determine those we are able to build a “theological bridge” to the rest of the Scripture, the finished work of Christ on the cross, and the application for today.
To interpret an allegory we should:
- Determine who were the original hearers and the context, occasion, and circumstances
- Determine the main thought intended and why the allegory was told
- Search out the basic points of comparison in reference to the main thought. In some cases they will be explicit as when Jesus said, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1)
- Observe the application and accompanying explanation if there is one
- Ask the question “What are the timeless principles?” to build a bridge from when the passage was written to today
While the specifics of an allegory may only apply to the particular situation of the biblical audience, the timeless theological principles revealed in it are applicable to all of God’s people at all times. Therefore, timeless theological principles have meaning and application both to the ancient biblical audience and to Christians today. So while we rightly downplay allegorizing as defined above, let’s not shy away from reading and analyzing passages in the Bible that are allegories.