The So-Called Epistle of Barnabas and the Problem of Allegorical Interpretation: Apostolic Fathers #6

By Kenneth Berding Jul. 16, 2012 10:48 a.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament, Theology, Historical Theology

We had quite a lively conversation in my Apostolic Fathers class the other evening after reading The Epistle of Barnabas.  (BTW, it was not written by the biblical Barnabas; and the attribution to Barnabas may not even be original, so you don’t need to assume that this author is “pretending” to be Barnabas).  “Barnabas” was committed to the interpretive procedure known as allegorical interpretation.  Like many authors of his period, whether Jewish, pagan, or Christian, he thought that divine texts must contain deeper meanings simply because they are divine.  So “Barnabas” went looking for those deeper meanings…and unsurprisingly(!) found them.  The problem with allegorical interpretation is that the “discovered” meanings are not simply deeper understandings that come through the progress of revelation (such as you might find in observing biblical patterns and themes), they regularly fall into the category of foreign meanings imposed upon texts that neither the original author nor any other later reader aware of the canonical context could access.

And therein lies the danger.  No one will complain if you read a text allegorically if the original author intended to write an allegory.  You should read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress allegorically since Bunyan intended it to be read allegorically.  Jesus intended that his “parable” of the soils (Mark 4) was to be read in light of something else; thus it is proper to read that particular “parable” allegorically.  Jesus there wasn’t talking about different kinds of dirt; he was talking about various ways that people receive the word.  It is appropriate to read such texts allegorically since the texts themselves offer clues that you should read them in such a manner.

But when you impose allegorically-derived meanings upon texts that in no way indicate that they should be read allegorically, you will encounter long-term problems.  Here are two:  1) Even if allegorical readings are theologically orthodox (such as you might find in Augustine’s writings), the particulars of those interpretations function to distract readers from the central ideas of whatever passage is being discussed—and away from the connection of that passage to its Christocentric trajectory constrained by its canonical context.  You don’t want anything to distract you from what is central in the Bible because such distractions will undermine (in the long run) both your interpretive sensibilities of particular passages and your awareness of the placement and function of those passages in the context of the biblical canon.  2) Furthermore, allegorical readings of non-allegorical texts allow interpreters to sneak in (even unintentionally) divine warrant for ideas that are either untrue or watered-down versions of truth.  In other words, when you admit divine warrant for something that cannot be demonstrated to actually be God’s thoughts, you attribute something to God that is not in fact originally his.  And this, at its worst, is a type of idolatry.

Strong words, I know.  But with a renewed interest in allegorical interpretation in some quarters, we might want to start discussing the risks of such an approach before we re-engage.  It just might turn out that we have embarked on a journey into what appears to be a rich and fertile interpretive landscape only to find out later that it yields no more interpretive fruit than a barren and waterless wasteland.


  • John Bugay Jul. 19, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    Dr. Berding -- Are you aware of T.F. Torrance's work, "The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers"? Essentially, it's his 1948 doctoral dissertation.

    There seems to be very little published work on the letter of 1 Clement. There are no commentaries that I can find.

    My question is, how well-regarded is this work by Torrance?

    Torrance's conclusion about Clement is: <i> Clement definitely thinks of charis as referring to a gift of God without which the Christian would not be able to attain to love or salvation. But there is little doubt that this is held along with the idea of merit before God; for grace is given to those who perform the commandments of God, and who are worthy. He may use the language of election and justification, but the essentially Greek idea of the unqualified freedom of choice is a natural axiom in his thoughts, and entails a doctrine of “works” as Paul would have said. In all His dealings with men, God is regarded as merciful; but the ground for the Salvation He gives is double: faith and … [ellipses in original]. And so Wustmann is justified in saying of Clement’s theology: [Google translation] “Whoever does the will of God, him shall God bless…” Like the whole mass of Judaistic writers [following Philo’s usage], Clement thinks of God’s mercy as directed only toward the pious; and if he uses the word χάρις, as in Philo, it carries with it the same principle (pgs. 54-55).</i>

    Has anyone either agreed or disagreed with Torrance in his assessment of the Apostolic Fathers, on the contention that they misunderstood Biblical χάρις, in favor of the more Hellenistic usage in (as Torrance compares it) Philo?

  • Ken Berding Jul. 23, 2012 at 11:43 AM


    Sorry about the delayed response. Briefly, most recent scholars who have interacted with Torrance's book have granted that he had some proper insights, that is, that there was a diminishing of a full apprehension of the doctrine of grace in many of the Apostolic Fathers. I would agree. But they (and I along with them) have also felt that Torrance often overstated his case and painted with too broad a brush. The AFs are a diverse bunch and need to be treated as such. So, I'm afraid you'll need to hunker down and read the AFs if you want to get an answer to this question rather than rely upon secondary literature. Blessings on your study!

  • John Bugay Jul. 24, 2012 at 7:13 AM

    I appreciate your response, and I have read through 1 Clement several times, though not with an eye toward this specific question.

    Can you direct me to the names of some individuals who have commented competently on 1 Clement, specifically with this question in mind?

  • Ken Berding Jul. 24, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    I'm afraid that I don't know anyone to direct you toward who has commented specifically on this question in relation to 1 Clement. Most comments on Torrance's book are throw-off comments, not worth citing. As far as credible books on 1 Clement in general, I would recommend Hagner's doctoral dissertation, The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome. Everything he says is balanced and useful. And, although now 120 years old, the standard for everything on the Apostolic Fathers is still the five volume set by J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers. Check especially part one (volumes 1-2) which is dedicated to Clement.

  • John Bugay Jul. 24, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Hi Dr. Berding, thanks for your response here. I am familiar with Hagner's work -- it is still well over $200.00. It is unfortunate that Lightfoot's work has never really been updated.

    The reason I ask is because I am heavily involved in polemical discussions with Roman Catholics (at my end, I write at For them, Clement is "Pope St. Clement", and any aberration in his work is very threatening. Torrance's work is mentioned (favorably) by Cullmann in his work on "The Tradition", which points to Torrance's conclusion -- and that therefore "oral tradition" was no longer a reliable way of assuring constant doctrine -- as one reason for the 2nd century church to consciously have worked to develop a NT canon. (See also Michael Kruger's work "Canon Revisited").

    On both an official level and at a theological level, Roman Catholics are perceiving that the "authority structure" was not actually "instituted by Christ" but rather, it "developed over time"; Roman Catholics will say that this "development" was so evidently guided by God that it was his intention that the episcopal structure was his plan for the structure of the church for all time; my contention is that, given that this "succession" was not "original" with the church, it was never "permanent", and that the Reformers rightfully cast it out the window.

    Even though there has been a 500 year struggle, I'm fairly convinced that historical research such as this will tip the discussion scales in favor of the Reformation. And I believe that as more and more people begin to see the Internet as a resource for "free educational materials", that the word will first of all "get out", and secondly, become commonplace knowledge.

    Thank you for your time and attention on this vital topic.

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