Thursday, December 22, 2005

Luther and Allegorical Interpretation

Back in the Middle Ages, everyone used allegory for interpretation. They used it to avoid the plain meaning of Scripture. Luther realized that allegory was used for that purpose and called on all to avoid allegory. Since then, all good Christians have used the historico-grammatical method of Bible interpretation. Allegory is just bad.

This fairy-tale version of Lutheran Bible interterpretation is wide-spread, like many other fairy-tales of the Reformation. And like many fairy-tales, it does have some grains of truth. Luther's attitude to allegory is best described as ambivalent. The key fact, however, is that his Scriptural interpretation was governed by the rule of faith, not by a reified historico-grammatical method.

After finishing his discussion of the Flood in his Lectures on Genesis, Luther pulls back and discusses allegory:

I have often asserted that I take no delight in allegories. Nevertheless, I was so enchanted by them in my youth that under the influence of the examples of Origen and Jerome, whom I admired as the greater theologians, I thought that everything had to be turned into allegories. Augustine, too, makes frequent use of allegories.

But while I was following their examples, I finally realized that to my own great harm I had followed an empty shadow and had left unconsidered the heart and core of the Scriptures. Later on, therefore, I began to have a dislike for allegories. They do indeed give pleasure, particularly when they have some delightful allusions. Therefore I usually compare them to pretty pictures. But to the same extent that the natural color of bodies surpasses the picture . . . the historical narrative surpasses the allegory (p. 150)

After noting that the Anabaptists also used allegories and preferred the obscure books (the Revelation and the book 4 Esdras found in the Apocrypha), he writes: he who either fabricates allegories without discrimination or follows such as are fabricated by others is not only deceived but also most seriously harmed, as these examples show. Hence allegories either must be avoided entirely or must be attempted with the utmost discrimination and brought into harmony with the rule in use by the apostles . . . (pp. 150-51).

He then adds:

Yet these remarks must not be understood to mean that we condemn all allegories indiscriminately , for we observe that both Christ and the apostles occasionally employ them. But they are such as are conformable to the faith, in accordance with the rule of Paul, who enjoins in Rom. 12:6 that prophecy or doctrine should be conformable to the faith.

When we condemn allegories, we are speaking of those that are fabricated by one's own intellect and ingenuity, without the authority of Scripture. The others, which are made to agree with the analogy of the faith, not only embellish doctrine but also gives comfort to consciences (p. 151).

Luther then notes that what is objectionable about the allegories in Augustine, Origen, and Jerome, is that the meaning of the allegories is not about the faith, but about "philosophical ideas," and are hence useless for faith or morals. For example Augustine compares the creation of man and woman to reason and emotion, with the idea that reason should control emotion. Luther asks "what is the value of this fabrication?" because the idea that sin adheres only in the "lower functions" and not in man's reason was an idea he combatted all his life. The allegory was bad not because it was an allegory, but because it had the wrong point.

Citing the 1198 bull of Pope Innocent III, which in language from Gen. 1:16 compared the sun to the Pope and the moon to all temporal authorities, he exclaims "Oh such audacious insolence and such villainous desire for power!" (p. 151). But after citing the New Testament's allegorical use of the old, he writes:

Thus if someone should state that Christ is the sun and the church the moon, illuminated by the grace of Christ, he might be in error; nevertheless, his error is such that it rests, not on an incorrect basis but on a solid one. But where the pople declares that the sun is the papal office and the moon is the emperor, then not only is the application silly and foolish, but even the basis is evil and wicked. Such allegories are thought out and devised, not by the Holy Spirit but by the devil, the spirit of lies (p. 156).

Note that Luther was similarly contemptuous of bad theology drawn from careful attention to grammatical points. Earlier he noted that the Latin translation of For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21) has "inclined to evil" (in malum prona) not simply evil. The scholastics then built on this a large discussion of how certain faculties remain impaired by the fall. Luther comments: If the sophists [i.e. scholastics] were as friendly toward the sacred teaching handed down through the apostolic and prophetic writings as they are to their own teachers, who maintain the free will and the merit of works, they surely would not have permitted something so slight as one little word to lead them from the truth (p. 122).

And in discussing Hebrew meanings he frequently notes that the letter of the text must be interpreted according to the analogy of faith, not the other way around. After discussing Rabbinical interpretations of "continually judge" in Genesis 6:3, which based on the verb forms treat it as "sheath" (thus "My Spirit will not be confined as in a sheath"), he writes: But the Jews make fools of these modern [Christian] Hebraists by convincing them that Holy Scripture cannot be understood except by means of grammatical rules and their minute system of pointing. Therefore no meaning is so preposterous that they would not defend and garnish it with their fusty rules of grammar.

But tell me, what language has there ever been that men have successfully learned to speak as a result of grammatical rules? Are not rather [even] those language that adhere most closely to rules, such Greek and Latin, nevertheless learned by using them [in speech]? Therefore how great a folly it is in the instance of the sacred language, where theological and spiritual matters are treated, to disregard the particular character of the subject matter and to arrive at the sense on the basis of grammatical rules! (pp. 14-15)

. . . Prime consideration ought to be give to usage, for from it the grammarian derives his knowledge.

I dwell on these matters at such great length in order to warn you not to follow such silly intepreters when you come across them and not to admire their ideas as some sort of extraordinary wisdom. Luther then compares the distortions of the words of institution advanced by Zwinglian grammarians (and today we could undoubtedly advance the distortions of Scripture advanced to defend women's ordination), asking: No one in his right mind would put up with this inclination to distort the meaning in the case of the stories of Terence or the eclogues of Vergil. Are we going to tolerate it in the church? (p. 15)

To understand the meaning of Scripture the Spirit of Christ is needed. But we know that until the end of the world this is the same Spirit who was before all things. Through God's mercy we boast of having this Spirit; and through Him we have faith, a modest understanding of the Scriptures, and a knowledge of other things that are necessary for godliness. And so we do not invent any new understanding, but we adhere to the analogy both of the Holy Scriptures and of the faith (pp. 15-16).

Back to allegory:

Luther accepts the allegory, first advanced by Philo, that compares the proportions of the ark (300x50x30) in Gen. 6:15 to the human body lying on the ground:

These facts are later applied to the body of Christ, that is, to the church, which has an entrance, namely Baptism, through which the clean and the unclean enter without distinction. Even though the church is small, it is nevertheless the ruler of the world; and the world is preseved on its account, in the same way as the unclean animals were preserved in the ark. Others have applied [the dimensions] also to the body of Christ, which had a wound in its side, just as the ark had a window. These allegories, if not actually scholarly, are nevertheless harmless, inasmuch as they contain no error; and one may use them -- except in debates -- for the sake of embellishment (p. 68).

Elsewhere he writes of this allegory:

This thought is not unscholarly. Nor is it unattractive. I am most pleased that it is conformable to the faith . . . If one devises allegories in this manner, therefore, they are nevertheless not ungodly or offensive, even though they may be somewhat inappropriate (p. 156).

What about the raven and the dove which Noah releases? Luther first notes that scholars have allegorized the raven as a carrion eating bird who thus symbolizes fleshly, Epicurean characters who indulge in carnal sins. He then comments: The thought is indeed good, but it is not fully satisfactory; for the allegory is merely moral and philosophical, the sort that Erasmus has been accustomed to fabricate, somewhat after the pattern of Origen.

We for our part should look for a theological allegory (p. 158).

He then proposes at great length (pp. 157-164) this allegory: the raven is the ministry of the Law. Ravens are black, with an unpleasant voice, and so is the preaching of the Law grim and sad. Nor does it return with anything in its mouth; the Law by itself cannot make Christians. Yet still God sends out the Law to the world, just as Noah sent out the raven. And just as "papists, priests, and monks" feed on purgatory and memorial masses for the dead, so too, Luther argues, do raven feed on corpses.

By contrast the dove is the ministry of the Gospel, which is a clean and harmless bird. The first dove is the prophets of Israel who spoke of the Christ to come. The seven days are the time of the Law, before Christ. The dove being sent out the second time is the New Testament apostles bearing the word of God, symbolized by the olive branch. This dove's returning in the evening shows the Gospel being proclaimed in the last days, with no new doctrine to be expected. The dove being sent the third time, and not returning likewise means that once the Gospel is proclaimed, "there is nothing left to do, and no new doctrine is expected."

Luther closes his section on allegory with this admonition:

I urge you with all possible earnestness to be careful to pay attention to the historical accounts. But wherever you want to make use of allegories, do this: follow closely the analogy of the faith, that is, adapt them to Christ, the church, faith, and the ministry of the Word. In this way it will come to pass that even though the allegories be not altogether fitting, they nevertheless do not depart from the faith. Let this foundation stand firm, but let the stubble perish (1 Cor. 3:12-15).

Not altogether a ringing endorsement, but not a blanket condemnation either.

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