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