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If I were to run into the story of the three little pigs accidentally used as a bookmark in my Bible I might draw these conclusions:

Clearly the wolf is the Devil trying to devour sinners who are represented as unclean animals under the Laws of Moses.  There are three of them symbolizing complete sinfulness of body, soul and mind—all aspects of a human regarded as unclean flesh—the unholy trinity.

Just a the pigs, sinners try through various 'works' to escape the Devils malice and hate represented by his 'huffing' and 'puffing'. We know that breath in the Bible is often indicating spirit, so these are spiritual assaults. The two pigs that used hay and wood were consumed under the trial but the pig who built his house on the Rock, represented by the confession of Peter, sustained all assaults. In the Devil's frustration the brick house was made to put an end to him as he tried to sneak into the chimney and died in the 'roaring fire'. Here we see that Christ in His flesh appeared to be weak and the Devil thought an 'opening' was made for a successful assault but in his strike at the human heel of the God-Man, that great serpent's head was crushed and he is now in chains reserved for everlasting burnings. It is because our our gross neglect of spiritual matters that most Christians fail to see the hidden treasure that lies beneath the bare word, but by the Spirit we unveil the exceeding glory of whom all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom are hid.

Although this example may seem humorous there is a serious question here. When we encounter allegorical interpretation, how can we discern when allegory, or unpacking scripture in this manner, goes too far?

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This is an excellent question! It deserves careful consideration before jumping to conclusions. Also, great example with the 3 pigs - it fits the question perfectly. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 16 '12 at 1:45
    
Galatians 4:21-31 should probably be considered. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 18 '12 at 3:41
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1 Answer

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Abstract

Using the historical-grammatical method, whether a text should be taken allegorically depends on the genre of the text. Usually, the author provides sufficient clues to the genre for us to accurately determine if a text is to be taken as something more than the surface meaning.

Genre

One of the challenges of interpreting the Bible is that it contains a diversity of genres. Each literary form conforms to its own unique set of rules. A personal letter, such as Titus, should be interpreted differently than a book of law, prophesy, historical narrative, poetry, or proverbs. To ignore the genre of a work is to ignore the author's intended framework of interpretation.

Things can get complicated when (as in the Gospels) several genres are used. Much of Mark, for instance, is historical narrative. But Jesus teaches in parable, discourse, apocalypse, and so on. Since the Bible often quotes or refers to itself (especially when Christian texts look back to the Tanakh), there can even be cases where a text is interpreted in ways that are essentially foreign to it's original genre.

But the author of the text almost always signals the genre of the text via textual clues. For instance, the presence of anthropomorphic animals puts the Three Little Pigs in the fairy tale genre. It shares an affinity with Aesop's Fables, but since most versions of the story lack a stated moral, it's a slightly different sub-genre. While we aren't always certain of the genre, we can usually reconstruct how the work was originally understood.

Metaphor

According to the conventions of some genres, images may be taken to mean something other than their surface meaning. For instance, fairy tales are usually assumed to have a meaning beyond the story itself. The Big Bad Wolf might represent all sorts of evil, including Satan and Hitler. The interpretation proposed in the question might be a bit extended compared to the usual interpretations of the three pigs story, but it does not seem to violate the author's intent. Note that the author could not have understood the tale as being about WWII, but that still is a legitimate reading within the genre. Other subversive readings, such as "the pigs to be attempting insurance fraud" would violate the metaphor established by the author.

So for genres designed to be interpreted metaphorically, a meaning beyond the surface meaning is not only permissible, but intended. But what about other literary forms, such as history, law, and letters? Is it legitimate to set up a metaphor, even an extended allegory, where the author didn't intend for it to exist?

Contingent meaning

Philosophically, any statement may have a contingent meaning in addition to its literal meaning. For instance, given the right context, "I've had a long day," could also mean:

  • I didn't get enough sleep last night.
  • I had a lot of work to do.
  • I had very little work to do.
  • I live in a northern latitude.
  • I have an inflated view of my own self-worth and fail to see the difficulties faced by those around me.

In fact, there can be no limit to what a statement might mean depending on context. However, there is a limit the credibility contingent meaning carries based on the original text. Exactly where we draw the line is not a settled question, but that's the central task of hermeneutics.

God as author

What I've said above can be said about any text designed to carry meaning, but the Bible is different because it is also Scripture. For many people, that means that God is in some manner an author of the text. If so, every text may have a universal meaning far more extensive than other texts. For those of us who use the historical-grammatical method, every text has the potential to have a personal meaning that directly applies to our lives even if the human author never intended that meaning. For me, and many others, application of the biblical texts is the ultimate meaning and if it were not possible, I would not be interested in further study.

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Nicely done as usual. –  Amichai Sep 14 '12 at 2:14
    
+1 for taking a decent stab at it. –  Mike Sep 14 '12 at 2:52
    
Some great stuff here, but how would you address Gal. 4, where Paul apparently reads historical narrative allegorically? Or 1 Cor. 10? Or Heb. 9? Or Heb. 7? (Etc.) –  Jas 3.1 Jun 30 '13 at 21:24
    
I would say that Paul and the author of Hebrews must have been steeped in the traditions of rabbinical interpretation. God's hand was clearly evident in Israel's history and they believed His plan culminated in the person of Jesus. Paul explains things this way: "Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come." (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV) Paul's point is that even history is written in order to instruct and not just to report. (This is true, in my opinion.) –  Jon Ericson Jul 1 '13 at 5:21
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