...are the ones that make the biggest difference

8.02.2006

Allegory as love affair?

The Pontificator recently quoted a lengthy quote from Robert Louis Wilken on the use of allegory in the history of the Church's interpretation of, and relationship with, Scripture. Wilken argues that allegorical interpretation methods were by no means foreign to the earliest Christians and that, indeed, allegory is a necessary tool for the modern church to recover due to the Bible's inexhaustible depths and the varied experience and milieu of the Church through the centuries. Or, put another way "...the book the Church reads also belongs to another time and to other places...." The Church must dust off the use of allegory because in no other way can the Bible be received as the Bible.

Really, the only reason this post jumped out at me is because I was reading NT Wright's "The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture", and I'm still digesting the weighty arguments of this rather brief book. But in it, Wright discusses various misuses or misreadings of Scripture that have, in his view, cropped up through Church history. He argues that the earliest Christians did not employ allegory, but appealed to exegesis and scriptural narrative of redemption and renewal in Christ in arguing against heresies and innovations. Champions of the faith, like Ireneaus in his battles against the gnostics, used detail exegetical arguments about the actual meaning of specific passages and texts. They did not begin to use allegory until, in Wright's opinion, the focus on the "narrative character" of Scripture slowly diminished alongside "the church's hold on the Jewish sense of the sciptural story...." The latter involves the Church's self-understanding as a continuation of the people of Israel and their story in a creational and covenantal understanding of monotheism. He comes to argue that, while allegory "highlights the church's insistence on the importance of continuing to live with scripture...", it inevitably leads to a tension between interpretation and authority. How far can an allegorical reinterpretation (seemingly) stray from the text before it begins to lose its authority? He asks, "[a]t what point in this process are we forced to conclude that what is really 'authoritative' within such an operation is the system of theology or devotion already believed or embraced on other grounds, which is then 'discovered' in the text by the interpretative method being used?"

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.

Wilken, perhaps understanding this but thinking about it differently, seems to indicate this fact when he says "[i]n [the Bible's] pages the fullness of Christian faith and life could be found in bewildering detail and infinite variety—all organized around the center which was the Church." (Emphasis mine.) Within the Catholic perspective the Pontificator now embraces, perhaps dusting off allegory makes a great deal of sense. Within that (or the Orthodox) framework, there may be enough safeguards to ensure that things don't go too far afield, but what guarantees are there? And what does this say about the Church's true view on the authority of Scripture? If Wright is correct about the use of Scripture by the earliest Christians, what are the practical effects of such a return to allegory? What role will Scripture play, what role can it play, in such an interpretative system?

1 comment:

basil said...

Nathan, my comment needed some elaboration, so I responded with a post of my own:
Where are the Floodbanks?