Is Allegory OK?

allegory-of-the-cave1-atsuko-nakamuraIn teaching through Genesis, I have been struck by the relevance of the story of Cain and Abel and their subsequent lines (chapters 4-5), culminating in the beginning of chapter 6. What is the meaning of this story?

In asking this question, I am searching for the theological meaning—the Truth with a capital “T.” Not a debate about the historicity of the account (that’s a different issue), but the “other” meaning, the revelation that must be applied to my life. This is one of the ways Scripture reveals its truths to us.

Our medieval brothers understood, better than we, the multifaceted interpretation demanded by God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. In fact, they typically looked for five different aspects of the meaning of every text (the first four are in this little poem):

The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life;
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

Thus, we have the literal interpretation, the allegorical interpretation, the moral point of the account, and the anagogical (i.e. the spiritual interpretation regarding our future life). Added to these four is the Christological meaning (how is it pointing to, prophesying about, or revealing Christ—even if it was written centuries before his birth?). Each story is a real story (the literal) and a symbolic story (the allegory) at the same time.

Many Christians are uncomfortable with the word allegorical as it might apply to a biblical story. Allegorical has connotations in our modern mind of a fable, a made-up story. But this is not the original meaning of the word. The allegorical interpretation is not a debate about the truth of “facts” (that is the literal interpretation mentioned above), but about the “other” truth, the deeper truth. And an allegory is distinct from a fable. In an allegory:

It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed (this is also true of a proverb). Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinctive from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature.

The point of an allegory is not to tell an untrue story. The word is derived from the Greek allegoria, a combined word of allo– (other) and –agorein (to speak, proclaim). Recall that Paul spoke in the Agora in Athens in Acts 17 and our word agoraphobia means fear of open places, since the Agora was the central market and speaking area of Greek cities. Literally, allegory means to speak so as to imply something other. It is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms, a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.

So can we accept the Medieval Christian idea that we should look for the allegorical meaning in each text? And what does allegory have to do with the story of Cain and Abel? That’s for next week!

Sources: Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 148; Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, 158; and
Artwork: “Allegory of the Cave,” by Atsuko Nakamura (those are salt crystals between the pages of the book).