I recently discovered Travis Finley over at Rethinking Revelation (ht K1). Travis takes a highly allegorical approach to the Bible based largely on James Jordan's work. In addition, I've watched Jordan Peterson's (not to be confused with James Jordan) Bible lectures which also take an allegorical approach and of which my Christian friends rave about. I remain unimpressed by much of the allegorical work that is out there, but believe the approach does have some value when warranted. I haven't done much mirror-reading with apocalyptic or proto-apocalyptic books of the Bible yet, so my need for allegorical interpretation has been limited, and when I have used it, it's been much closer to the specific situation the Biblical author was responding to than most allegorical readings. For example, my cursory mirror reading of Habakkuk shows how the author uses his words to apply to the Babylonians on one level but to the Jews on another level. Although I think it’s a great allegorical interpretation, it shares the same problem with all other symbolic interpretation: they are difficult to prove or disprove.
Even James Jordan notes that it's not the type of thing that one can prove (at the 42:12 mark). This lets just about anything be allegorized. Sam Harris tells an amusing allegory with a recipe in response to Jordan Peterson's approach. Doug Wilson asks "where's the brakes"? The matter is complicated even further if one goes beyond authorial intent and embraces divine intent. In other words, even if the original author never intended his words to be allegorical, somehow God implanted an allegorical meaning in them.
This has led me to desire an allegorical methodology. Even if one cannot prove or disprove an allegory, perhaps we can at least show how probable or improbable they are. Although James Jordan may refer to such a technique as “atomistic reductionism” (at the 13:40 mark), I still believe a methodology would be beneficial. My mirror-reading was initially and largely intuitive, but the methodology I developed for it has been incredibly beneficial. Developing a methodology for Mirror-reading has been of great help to me, both in defending my mirror-reading and in improving its accuracy. Perhaps the same can be done for allegory. However, allegory is not really my thing, so I have no desire to develop a methodology for it. I'll simply list a few thoughts below, and then maybe Travis or someone else can flesh out a full methodology. I use the term "allegory" in this post but I am really referring to all types of symbolic language, whether allegory, metaphor, similitude, typology or analogy.
When someone is using symbolic language, usually they give us indicators that they are doing so. If they don't give us indicators, then we assume they are speaking literally. This allows us to have a conversation with someone without having to wonder if they speaking literally or figuratively. We approach text the same way.
Indicators may be explicit or may not be. To borrow Travis' phrase, "my love is like a red rose", the words "is like" let us know that love is not actually a rose. But even if the phrase was "my love is a red rose" we would still know it was figurative even without the word "like". This is because logically we know that love can't be a rose. These indicators are independent of genres so that we know when to take something figuratively whether in poetry or prose.
It's not impossible that a text without an indicator was meant to be taken figuratively, only that the lack of an indicator weakens the likelihood that it was. The issue can be complicated in those with certain scientific persuasions, because a scientific conflict with the text can cause a logical inconsistency, thereby creating the need to allegorize the text in order to take it seriously.
I should also mention the possibility of a false indicator: belief affirmation. Unfortunately, I suspect that most allegorical interpretations are accepted or rejected on the basis of whether it supports or denies people's beliefs. This is a false indicator and should be jettisoned as a basis for allegorical validity.
Points Of Similarity
The basis for allegory is to find points of similarity between the literal and the symbolic. These points of similarity can vary in quantity and quality. We intuitively think that the more points of similarity there are, the more certain we can be of the allegory. But the human mind is very good at finding similarities where none were intended. There are at least a couple of reasons for this. One is that any item can easily share a number of similarities with another item: color, size, etc. Another reason is confirmation bias when explaining patterns as explained in this video.
This pattern bias is highlighted in the examples below:
Joseph, Joshua and David are widely thought of as types of Christ. But are they all simply part of a larger category? Are they all "hero" types? The hero character is featured in many stories and we all recognize and like the hero characteristics because it embodies common values held among most people. Does that mean all heroes are a type of Christ or is Christ simply a type of hero? The ultimate hero perhaps, but still a hero.
This can also apply to meaning. There are many movies with the message "crime doesn't pay". There was no divine intent to make them all the same message. It is simply a common held value. In the same way, all the redemption stories in the Bible may not be allegories for Christ’s redemption, but simply a common value held among the original writers and readers.
This ease of finding similarities opens up almost any text to almost any allegorical interpretation as demonstrated by Sam Harris above or in the video below which parodies a conspiracy theory with Michael Jordan and the Illuminati.
Travis attempts to counter these issues by limiting allegory to that which lines up with correct theology. However, there are a few issues with this approach. One is that it seems circular in it's reasoning: you can't understand the text without understanding the correct theology, but you can't understand the correct theology without understanding the text. Someone like Jordan Peterson could do an end run around the basis for your theology by saying that Jesus himself is just an allegory.
Another issue with limiting allegory this way is that it can easily turn into eisegesis when the confirmation bias described above kicks in, and one easily begins reading their correct theology into the text.
The issues with quantity causes us to turn to quality of similarity: preciseness of similarity, uniqueness of similarity and the relationship between similarities. A methodology would need to define these categories and explore if there a more that need to be defined.
Some claim that only Scripture should interpret Scripture when doing allegorical interpretation, using the Bible's metaphors as the basis of further allegories. But what if the Bible has conflicting metaphors? The Bible describes both Judah and Gad as a lion in the OT and Jesus and Satan as a lion in the NT. Which does one use when constructing allegories and why?
A methodology would also need to address allegorical "stacking". For example, the creation account in Genesis uses temple language. Is this an allegory of the temple in Jerusalem which is in turn an allegory of Jesus and the spiritual world which is then read back into the creation account? Why or why not? Does "stacking" weaken the allegory?
Allegorical interpretation can be a fascinating and wonderful method of interpretation. I hope this post can start a conversation on how we can do it better, instead of just being enamored with allegories that affirm our beliefs. In the future, I hope to write a post on how allegorical interpretation compares and contrasts with mirror-reading in Genesis 1. If you would like to help me be able to devote more time to mirror-reading, please consider financially supporting my work. The Bible doesn’t mirror-read itself, people!