Besides the Grammatical Historical Approach to hermeneutics, various allegorical or metaphorical approaches exist. It seems to me that if you approach a text with the assumption that the whole thing is allegorical, it's unlikely you will find the right meaning in it at all. At the same time Scripture includes parables, poetry, hyperbole, and other forms of literature so excluding the concept of allegory from our hermeneutical toolbox entirely is clearly not a good idea.

How is one to understand when your approach to the text is setting you up for failure to properly understand it?

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    I'm not sure that they would see it that way. What I mean is, if I assume that it's all allegory, then I probably also reject the concept that there is a "right" interpretation in the first place. At least, my experience with these sort of people has felt very post-modern in that respect. Oct 4 '11 at 22:10
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    I agree and am not sure anybody who truely believes in a purely allegorical approach will have any interest in a study of hermeneutics, but there are passages that are allegorical, so one must draw the line somewhere. What factors should be considered when deciding if an allegorical approach to a passage is warranted given that there is always a potential slippery slope lurking somewhere...
    – Caleb
    Oct 4 '11 at 22:14
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    It seems to me that you are making an unwarranted assumption that there is only one right meaning. Often a single passage has multiple meanings that can apply to different people in different times. Oct 6 '11 at 15:24
  • @BruceAlderman: My wording may need improvement, but I'm not asking for somebody to draw a line in the sand. I'd like to hear what criteria should be considered before letting people use their own judgement in this situation. Without coming down with a mandate here I think it's possible to answer with what some of the criteria should be.
    – Caleb
    Oct 6 '11 at 19:45
  • @BruceAlderman often a single passage has multiple meanings which apply to the same people at the same time. There is very rarely, perhaps never, one right meaning of a given bible text. God can say infinite things with finite words Jan 31 '17 at 4:06

The church has made many attempts to rid itself of allegorical interpretation for a very good reason. It is based on Greek rhetorical invention, which has no means of validating, or preventing a free-for-all. The reason it has been unsuccessful is because there are so many hints that there is a deeper meaning or a parallel to the life of Christ. Why do so many second sons preempt the first born? for instance. What's with all the 3's, 40's and 7's? Add to this God's own tease:

It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. —Proverbs 25:2

The rules which separate Greek allegory from sensus plenior (which cannot be denied to be a subclass of allegory) are these:

These rules are discerned from the Scriptures using the same hermeneutic as sensus plenior:

  1. Since God has said that not a jot or tittle will pass away, until one knows why each jot and tittle is there, a complete understanding has not been derived. (This keeps us humble)

  2. Since man shall live “..by every word”, a doctrine is not sound until it sums up and includes all that God has said about it. (This keeps us searching)

  3. Since every word must be established by two or three witnesses (Mt 18.16, De 19.15), every shadow must have at least two supporting scripture witnesses. (This keeps us rigorous in methodology)

  4. Since God’s word is established forever (Pr 12.19,Ps 119.89), a shadow means the same thing everywhere is it used. So, since a donkey is a shadow of a prophet, everywhere there is a donkey, it is a shadow of a prophet. This rule alone makes the shadows humanly impossible to fabricate. (This keeps us in awe)

  5. The riddle of Samson tells us Christ is the answer to all the riddles (1). If the shadow doesn’t look like Christ, it isn’t a good shadow. (This keeps us focused)

  6. And since we are to “let everyman be a liar and God be true” (Ro 3.4), outside references are not required to solve the riddles and see the shadows. (This keeps us devoted)

A properly discerned allegory should have the same authority as literal interpretations. We should not trust such authority to anything that is not verifiable.

-Example- Scholtz has done a good job of documenting the beginning of the slippery slope in the interpretation of Parables by over 20 popular modern scholars. Many of these men claim to be expositors.

"Collective meaning and specific, prophetic reference in the parables of Matthew 13" by Jacob Jan Scholtz, Stellenbosch University http://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/85594

If we summarize the modern teaching of the parable of the mustard seed, you learn that the kingdom starts off small and grows and grows and if you have faith like that, you can move a mountain to the sea, which no one seems to be able to do. The birds may be angels, demons or gentile nations. The tree is likely a great empire, or ecclesiatical-political system, or world power. And most question or try to explain why Jesus said the seed was the smallest, when we all know that it isn't.

This is a pretty good documentation of free-for-all interpretation.

Now use the exegetical method of sensus plenior which recognizes allegory everywhere, but derives it's meaning from the formation of words and their meanings, and correlation with other scripture.

Jesus was the seed of the woman in Genesis 3 who had the bruised heel. He was the least of the seed because he served us all on the cross. 'Mustard' in Greek' sounds like 'bruised by anger' in Hebrew.

Free-for-all allegory suggests that 'leaven', in other parables, represents sin. But The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, so it is a bit difficult to explain when the rules above are applied. Why would the Hebrew rid themselves of leaven/sin before Passover/cross when we do not get rid of our sin before the cross? Leaven represents teaching.

Back to the parable of the mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven/teaching of the cross. The parable points back to the prophesy of the seed of the woman. The rest of the parable can be exegeted in the same fashion. Jesus became the great teacher of the cross (herb) he then fulfilled it on the cross (tree) and those who live in the spirit rest in the cross. These are all discerned by finding the OT source for the NT teaching.

To understand the teaching of moving the mountain to the sea, you must parse out the meaning of 'water' מים by the letter to find the Father and Son. Then cross reference to Jesus's teaching at Sychar to the woman at the well. Though she worshiped on the mountain, she would worship in Spirit and Truth. The Father is Spirit; the Son is Truth, so she would move the mountain, the place of her worship, to the water, the Father and the Son.

Proper allegorical interpretation derives from the meaning of the words and by correlation with other scripture. It is validated by the same teaching in other places.

*formation of words is called: Notarikon - Interpretation by dividing a word into two or more parts in the 32 rules of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jose de Galili

(1) "Plowed with my heifer" Plowed - turn over the earth(ly) (or literal). Heifer- the sacrifice (Christ). Use what you know of the 'mystery revealed' (Eph 1.9, 3.3) to find what was concealed previously (Pr 25.2)


If allegorical interpretation is a slippery slope, it's of the semantic variety. When you start reading things allegorically, it's certainly possible to stop when the interpretations don't make sense anymore. But it's difficult to draw a clear line between a passage that is intended to be taken strictly literally and one that is not. Further, the difference between legitimate and illicit allegoricalization can be difficult to identify.

Here's an example to chew on:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.—Galatians 4:21-26 (ESV)

Starting from Genesis, I can't see how to get to Galatians—the steps are just too tenuous. But Paul didn't start from Genesis and build the allegory from the ground up. Rather, he reinterpreted the story within the framework he'd previously established. He is connecting several related concepts (slavery, the law, Mount Sinai, Roman control of Jerusalem, and Hagar) and contrasting them with paired concepts (freedom, grace, independent Jerusalem, Jerusalem above, and Sarah) in what he openly labels an allegory. If you grasp the framework he's using, it's not difficult to divide other paired concepts (Jacob and Esau, for instance) in the same way.

The place to stop the allegory is clear if you are working deductively rather than inductively. Sodom and Gomorrah, Jannes and Jambres, and David and Jonathan are familiar pairs, but it's not obvious how they would fit into Paul's framework. Further, there can be several, overlapping meanings to a particular passage, so if the allegory doesn't fit well, you don't need to force it; a different analogy might come along and fit better. Notice that Jerusalem appears on both sides of Paul's analogy!


Allegorical fit is a matter of degree; it isn't a Boolean value. Therefore, it is subject to the semantic slippery slope fallacy. The way to avoid the problem is to pick analogies that best fit your a priori hermeneutical framework.

  • I'm not sure how you get Jerusalem on both sides. He makes it clear that there is Jerusalem which now is, and and Jerusalem which is above. These are two different Jerusalems. It is like mixing up Salem Oregon with Salem MA
    – Bob Jones
    Jan 9 '13 at 14:14
  • @GoneQuiet I'm not sure if allegory can't be used to derive interpretation, but rather that doing so risks a sort of semantic slippery slope. I think early Christian allegory (from Jesus himself to at least Augustine) was more interested in putting existing pieces together to form the picture they had in mind than in the historical-grammatical methods we use. Having the picture in mind, I think, is important to constructing useful allegory.
    – Jon Ericson
    Jan 9 '13 at 16:56

Here's a good way to decide if the grammatical historical method is valid or the allegorical, based on the method the NT authors used:

Hints, Mysteries and Allegories: the New Testament quotes the Old

[Bible.org Article] ................

  • Quote

  • The pastor’s sermons, at this church, are filled with symbols, types, and shadows. Consequently, he can say anything that he wants. There are no controls. His approach removes understanding of the scriptures from the common person and places it in the domain of the enlightened, i.e. those who “understand the language.” If this leader develops cultic tendencies, his congregation will be ill equipped to challenge him. The situation could become bad indeed.

  • Paul also warns us to be careful.

  • As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3, 4)

  • In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. (1 Timothy 4:6,7a)

  • Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, (2 Timothy 2:14-16)

  • If it were not for the contraindications of the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament (i.e. (remezim, drashim, and sodim), there would be no clearer proof texts for a strict grammatical-historical interpretation. Instead, we must take them as severe warnings about their misuse. We must work hard to discern when, why, and how to use them. The answer, it seems, is to use the scriptures as a model. That model contains these principles:

    1. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are largely in the p’shat sense. Christianity represented a dramatic change for the Jews and the Gentiles. It had to swim against the current of centuries of entrenched doctrine. Its champions had to show from the scriptures that the “new order” was not entirely new or unexpected. Nothing but a consistent presentation of plain simple passages from the Old Testament could win the day. They were the proof texts for New Testament doctrine and were quoted to convince the Jews and the Gentiles of the truth about Jesus the Messiah.
  • Our first rule must be to use the simple p’shat sense predominantly. People must first of all know what the Book says in order to benefit from its message.

    1. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament never introduce or establish doctrine with anything other than the simple p’shat sense. Instead, the use of remez, drash, and sod serve to amplify and illustrate themes established by the sounder method. To put this another way, remez, drash, and sod are not a bridge to esoteric knowledge. They are servants of the p’shat. Paul, in Galatians, firmly laid a plain text foundation for justification by faith, before using an allegory to provide a human dimension. In the allegory, Paul was not trying to be deep, he was trying to be clear. The story of Hagar and Sarah would stick much better and longer than his propositional logic. On the other hand, without the logic the allegory has no power.

    2. The more error prone is an interpretive model, the less frequently the New Testament uses it. Thus the New Testament employs p’shat, remez, drash, and sod in decreasing frequency.

  • Mysticism attracts people with a promise of a deeper experience with God that transcends the need for righteousness. Because of this, there is a persistent temptation to create a biblical mystique by emphasizing hints, allegories, and hidden themes above simple understanding. This is the area that Paul was warning Timothy about.

    1. The New Testament books that favor a Jewish audience have the highest frequency of remez, drash, and sod. Matthew, Hebrews, and the writings of John contain the highest concentrations of this material, whereas Paul’s letters use it very sparingly. This suggests that their use today has favorable implications for Jewish evangelism. Also by communicating outright that these are Jewish authors using Jewish principles of interpretation, we disarm the efforts of the anti-missionaries, who stridently use the quotes in Matthew to turn the ears of seeking Jews from the claims of Messianic Judaism.

    2. Remezim derive their meaning by semantic association with New Testament events or by communicating universal principles in pictorial form.

    3. Drashim make room for expanded meditation on major p’shat themes. One can even see where the force of the allegory stems from the maxim, “History repeats itself.” Thus the choice of Abram to father a child by Hagar stems from the same misunderstanding driving the Galatian churches to choose justification by self-effort. The meaning of an allegory does not derive from a symbolic language of the scriptures, but on the common behaviors in the human heart that link past events to a current situation.

    4. There is some room for seeking hidden messages in the scriptures, subject to the restrictions noted above. An important criterion before teaching from such a text, though, is for us to discern author intent. One could imagine the human author intentionally hiding a message in his text and that he gives clues to its ence. Such a criterion protects us from efforts like the equi-distant letter sequences concept discussed by Michael Drosnin in his book The Bible Code 15 .

Sent from my mobile.

  • Hi Monica, and sorry about the post. The structure of stackexchange isn't too conducive to detailed posts. The source article is a treasure, containing much more than I've given a taste of. Encourage you to read it!
    – Footwasher
    Jan 10 '13 at 6:56
  • The first task is to differentiate between my material and the quoted content. The next task would be to differentiate between the bulleted list and the explanatory text. I'll try a combination of bold and italics. I am using the HTC Flyer, (SWYPE, handwriting recognition, stylus!) which is supposed to be better in content creation than the IPad! I move around lot. I post in the breaks between being mobile. Waiting for the Surface Pro. Hurry up Microsoft!
    – Footwasher
    Jan 11 '13 at 8:48

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