Reconsidering allegorical Interpretation

As the Oxford Reformers began to rediscover their High Church foundations of the seventeenth century, they immediately encountered the patristic ethos of the Caroline divines, who specially revered Augustine. Owen Chadwick wrote:

…a momentous difference to the study of the early Church. St Augustine, to whom everyone looked back for guidance in the doctrines of justification, grace and predestination, had once risen head and shoulders above the other teachers of the ancient Church. In 1630 he was still a giant; but he had been placed in a wider context of learning and especially against a background of Greek thought. [The Mind of the Oxford Movement]

This attitude, however, underwent a transformation in the mainstream of the Church of England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the Latitudinarians, who felt that more help might be found ‘in understanding St Paul, from Locke rather than from …Augustine’. In reaction against the prevailing weight of opinion, the leaders of the Oxford Movement turned their attention to the writings of the Church Fathers of the first four centuries. Geoffrey Rowell pointed out:

“The theological vision of the Oxford Movement was in large measure a rediscovery and reinterpretation of patristic theology. The typological exegesis of Scripture and the strong sacramentalism of the Fathers commented themselves to men who already had begun to criticise the evidence theology off the eighteenth century.. [The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the catholic Revival in Anglicanism p 9]

This process of recapitulation became so complete that after hearing a sermon (perhaps by Newman) in which some new ideas appeared to be forthcoming, John Keble advised the preacher, “Don’t be original”.

The insistence upon tradition and traditional, that is to say, typological exegesis commended itself especially to E.B. Pusey, the Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford. Pusey first encountered this mode of interpretation in De Doctrina Christiana as part of his study of the Augustinian corpus. So, in 1836, he prepared a series of lectures for the Michaelmas term on Types and Prophesies of the Old Testament, to reintroduce to a new generation, an Augustinian approach to figurative and typological interpretation which has been, for the most part abandoned in current Biblical studies in Britain and Germany, and which has continued to this day.

Pusey, like some of us today, struggled with figurative and typological interpretations remarking that. ” I cannot give any principle in a few words”. Nevertheless he was aware of the need to break with the ‘old orthodoxy’ of Biblical criticism which saw types and prophecies only as specific predictions of New Testament events, and with the ‘new orthodoxy’, which tended to discount typological and prophetic elements within scripture altogether. Like Augustine, Pusey had become convinced of an intentional ambiguity resident within the interpretation of a great many typological and figurative expressions within Scripture. Rather than ignore the difficulty, he used the tools of interpretation so important to the early centuries of the Church.

As we seek to re-establish our roots once again in the faith of the Fathers, we too need to find a new meaning in the Scriptures. A return, without embarrassment, to an appreciation of allegorical interpretation which was so beloved of the fathers, might assist us in drawing spiritual. resources from Scripture that have been so far noticeably absent in the work of modern critics.

D.W.H. Arnold, the author of this piece is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham