Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Danger of Allegorical Bible Interpretation

This is an excerpt from a larger article about Harold Camping written in 2002 by James R. White of the Christian Research Institute ( Every Christian ought to read it, whether you know or care about Harold Camping or not. There has been a lot of criticism--and rightfully so--of Harold Camping's attempt to predict "the day and the hour." But what underlies that prediction is an entire approach to Biblical interpretation which is not unique to Mr. Camping. The same method of allegorical Bible interpretation is fairly widespread, particularly in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. I have seen it used to make the Bible say things which the text was never intended to say. I have seen this approach used to invent or justify all kinds of spurious theological ideas and I have seen the detrimental real-world consequences.

The single most important lesson I ever learned about studying the Bible was to ask this question: "What did it mean to the original hearers?" That should always be our starting point in Bible study. When we untether scriptures from their original context, we open ourselves up to the type of error which has now caused Camping and his followers embarrassment and ruin.

How has Camping arrived at the conclusion that the church has been destroyed? There is one simple answer: unfettered, inconsistent, arbitrary, and, at times, incoherent allegorical interpretation of the text of Scripture. Camping has long taught the view, popularized by Origen in the early church, that first sees a basic, literal meaning anyone can understand. More important is the moral meaning, which requires more insight. Most important is the “real” meaning, or the “spiritual” meaning, which requires spiritual insight and knowledge. According to Camping, every passage of the Bible has some relevance to the gospel message.

This becomes the basis, then, for his allegorical interpretations where anything in the Bible becomes “fair game” to be made into a picture of whatever Harold Camping desires. For example, to substantiate his current teachings against the church, Camping has used the two witnesses of Revelation 11, Jerusalem, Judea, all of Old Testament Israel, Hezekiah’s life, and the boat the disciples used in John 21 as “pictures” of the church. Within less than the span of five verses Peter can “represent” the church as a whole, a disciple, and Christ. There is no limitation to what can be “seen” with such “interpretation.”

Allegorical interpretation contrasts with the grammatical-historical method, which first determines a passage’s meaning by reference to its language, context, and background. When we read the biblical text, we wish to know what the original author intended to convey to his original audience in his own context. Until we determine this, we truly have no basis for asking other questions, such as, “What does this mean to me today?”

Allegorical interpretation ignores the grammar and original context of the Scriptures, which is why it must be rejected as a valid method of interpretation. It is simply unverifiable. In other words, no person using the allegorical method can honestly and logically affirm that his or her conclusions are actually based upon the text that is being interpreted. Because the actual meaning of the text is ignored, the allegorical meaning can have no more weight than one invests in the allegorical interpreter. Since each allegorical interpreter may “see” or “feel” something different in the text, allegorical interpretations can never be verified by others working with the same text (unlike real biblical exegesis, where the work of generations of scholars verifies and reverifies the conclusions already reached).

The result of this fatal flaw in the system is that no allegorical interpretation can claim the authority of the original text. This is because the source of the interpretation is not the text itself but the mind of the interpreter who “sees” things in it. Allegorical interpretation cannot compel anyone else to belief since it is personally derived, and the people who accept it do so only because they accept the word of the interpreter, not because they invest any authority in the text itself. Allegorical interpretations have no more authority than the one announcing them.

Allegorical interpretation destroys the authority of the text of Scripture. No one using this method can honestly say, “The Word of God says,” for their system replaces the meaning of the text (which is communicated through grammar, lexical meanings, context, and background) with the more-or-less relevant insights and imagination of the interpreter.

Christians believe the Scriptures are “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16–17), and therefore are authoritative by nature. When the allegorical interpreter ignores the text, the source of Scripture’s authority is replaced by the thoughts of mere men and women. This leads to every kind of abuse of God’s Word. False teachers often utilize such unverifiable forms of “interpretation” as a cover in order to replace biblical truth with their own false doctrines. Untaught and unstable believers (2 Pet. 3:16) are often susceptible to the “smooth speech” of such teachers, and without solid knowledge of how to properly interpret the Bible, they accept false conclusions, which are presented with great confidence and power. So when we point out Camping’s erroneous use of allegorical interpretation, we are not merely arguing about obtuse, insignificant points of theology. We are defending the very authority of the Scripture, for a Bible that cannot communicate God’s truth consistently to each generation cannot be a solid foundation for the faith.


Anonymous legal translation services said...

A good writer has to have a good mind to see things that aren't there, things that are different from his or her reality, but also able to convince the readers that those things are true or relatively true.


2:17 AM  
Blogger Manna ם ֶחֶלּ ַה said...

God hides himself and his truths from the mind that has not been opened up to see the deeper and more significant truths. Did Jesus not speak all things in parable to hide the truth from those not chosen to hear? (Mark 4:34)

"It is the glory of God to hide a matter, the glory of his kings go search a matter out." Prov. 25:2

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

Like most literalists, you beg the most important question on this subject: What are the criteria by which one may properly determine whether an allegorical interpretation is true or false?

If an interpretation uses in addition to the literal a strong allegorical or anagogical sense and it is able to pass reasonable truth tests, then it should be granted warrant. This is reasonable and rational; to throw a blanket of condemnation over allegory is not intellectually honest.

6:14 AM  
Blogger Daniel P. (Danny) Coleman said...

Hi Blake,

What makes you think I'm a literalist?

12:46 PM  
Anonymous TSBrumwell said...

Logically speaking, there are two types of arguments (Deductive and Inductive).

Deductive arguments, if they are valid/sound, can yield a 100% certainty.

Inductive arguments, if they are Strong/Cogent, at best can only yield a high possibility (x%) of being correct.

Allegory is so far on the Inductive side that it is difficult to even argue that an interpretation is even strong, let alone cogent.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi TSBrumwell
"Thus saith the Lord..." does not require deductive or inductive, it is not open to fallen human nature to interpret for the bible interprets itself.

8:01 PM  

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