Allegorical Preaching: What Would Calvin Say?

Preaching Christ in the Old Testament has become a topic of great interest among evangelical preachers today. While this is by no means a new issue, our desire to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God in a gospel-centered or Christ-centered way has led to a growing renewal in understanding how we can rightly “find” Christ in the Old Testament. Almost without exception, those who teach and write on preaching Christ from the Old Testament emphatically reject the use of allegory in preaching from the Old Testament (see for example, Edmund Clowney, Preaching Christ from All of Scripture, and Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Preaching Christ from Genesis, and Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes).

The question needs to be raised, however, whether the stigma associated with allegory and the outright rejection of preaching allegorically from the Old Testament should be maintained. Clowney notes that many preachers warned about preaching allegorically have also shied away from identifying people, places, events, or themes in the Old Testament as types (Preaching Christ from All of Scripture, 31). The history of biblical interpretation sheds some helpful light on this question. In particular, because the Reformation had such a significant effect on how we read and preach the Bible today, it is worth considering whether John Calvin and his contemporaries would have share the same reluctance to preach allegory from the Old Testament.

Different Understanding

First, it is important to recognize that the most common understanding of “allegory” today differs from the way the reformers—and their predecessors—understood it. Most of us likely assume that allegory allows preachers to make the text say whatever they want. We understand allegory to be an arbitrary metaphor that finds a symbolic meaning of some spiritual truth in certain features of a biblical passage without any regard for the context or meaning of that passage.

To distinguish from symbolic meanings that are in the Old Testament, it has become common to use the term “typology” to refer to representations based on a historical reality that anticipate another future historical reality. The straightforward differentiation between these terms, however, originated in the 20th century as an aspect of the modern interest in the historical concerns of biblical interpretation. (See, for example, Aubrey Spears, “Preaching the Old Testament” in Hearing the Old Testament, 396. For a helpful summary and critique of the agenda behind these kinds of claims, see J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God, 149-194.) This simple distinction between allegory, which ignores history, and typology, which is based on history, is currently being challenged, particularly because interpreters throughout history did not refer to “allegories” or “types” in this way.

Until recently, it was widely accepted that in the fourth century two “schools of exegesis” established two different approaches to interpreting the Bible. The Alexandrians, such as Origen, Clement, and Cyril, favored the use of allegorical interpretation. The Antiochenes, such as Diodore, Theodore Mopsuestia, and Chrysostom, rejected allegory and favored literal and historical interpretation. The stated contrast between these two traditions then provided the basis for assessing the Reformation as characterized by “the widespread rejection of allegory . . . that represented a kind of return to the hermeneutical principles of the Antiochene school” (Al Wolters, “The History of Old Testament Interpretation: An Anecdotal Survey” in Hearing the Old Testament, 33.)

Blurry Boundaries

However, this portrayal is oversimplified. The boundaries between these two traditions are much blurrier. Both traditions had similar training for how to interpret the Bible. Both employed allegorical methods. And the later exegetical tradition incorporated elements and interpretations from interpreters of both these traditions. As a result, the reformers’ primary reaction against allegory, was its abuse—not its existence.

The changes in biblical interpretation during the Reformation were part of a gradual shift toward a stronger emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture that had already begun as early as the 13th century. During the Middle Ages, the primary approach to interpreting the Bible was the “fourfold sense” of Scripture. The fourfold approach sought to find multiple meanings in each text. This approach was often summarized by a poetic verse, “The letter teaches what happened, allegory what you should believe, the moral what you should do, anagogy to what you should aim” (Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture).

In theory, though not always in practice, the three spiritual senses were to be built on the literal sense. However, as the reformers pointed out, many in the exegetical tradition had departed from the genuine sense of Scripture by inventing all kinds of allegories that obscured the literal sense. It was this abuse of allegories (as well as the abuse of the other spiritual senses) that they rejected, and not simply the use of allegory itself.

The reformers certainly did not disallow the practice of discerning “what you should believe” from Old Testament passages. Rather they retained the components of the fourfold sense by relocating them within a more expansive understanding of the literal sense that contained a message concerning what Christians should believe, do, and hope. Sometimes they connected the teaching of the Old Testament to the teaching of the New Testament by allegory. But they did not assume that allegory had to be disconnected from the literal or historical sense. That was in fact what they abhorred about the way it had been used.

Calvin and other Reformed interpreters allowed for and approved of allegorical interpretations, but only if they were simple, useful for instruction, and consistent with the New Testament (For further analysis of Calvin’s approach to allegorical interpretation, see John L. Thompson, “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim, 67-70; Raymond Blacketer, The School of God: Pedagogy and Rhetoric in Calvin’s Interpretation of Deuteronomy, 220-232, 269; T.H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, 70-82; David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, 105-113; Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms, 77-101.) Calvin’s use of allegory was more limited than most of his predecessors, as well as his use of typology. He rarely labeled his interpretations as allegory, but instead referred to them using rhetorical categories or calling them analogies, metaphors, and applications. However, he did not entirely reject allegory as one way of teaching what Christians ought to believe from the Old Testament.

A few examples from Calvin’s comments on Genesis reveal ways he taught the Old Testament that many preachers today would hesitate to follow because they might get chastised for preaching allegorically. Calvin actually affirmed “Ambrose’s allegory” that just as Jacob received the blessing because the odor of his older brother’s clothes pleased his father, so also Christians are blessed when we receive from Christ, our older brother, “the robe of righteousness, which by its odor procures [our heavenly Father’s] favor” (John Calvin, Genesis: The Crossway Classic Commentaries, 239). He identified that “Jacob at that time represented the person of Christ” because Christ was figuratively speaking in his body when God promised that all nations would be blessed in him (Genesis, 250). He taught that the angel who wrestled with Jacob “must be understood to refer to Christ . . . because he has been and is the perpetual mediator” (Genesis, 360). And Calvin affirmed that “in the person of Joseph, a living image of Christ is presented” (Genesis, 296). These are just a few cases where Calvin offered symbolic interpretations not explicitly identified in the New Testament or connected to historical matters. Calvin and other Reformed interpreters used several methods to connect Old Testament texts to the larger divine context in order to explain how they pointed to Christ and his church. Sometimes they made these connections by teaching that the words further symbolized a greater truth.

Renewed Way

So what would Calvin say to preachers today? On the one hand, Calvin thought it was frivolous and often unnecessary or unfruitful to look for allegories. He stressed the simple sense of Scripture, which allegories could too easily distort. He felt that allegories had often been used as a shortcut to Christ that didn’t take the original message seriously enough.

Yet on the other hand, he did not entirely reject allegories when they could be used appropriately. If we insist on defining “allegory” as arbitrary and disconnected from history, then of course, Calvin would rightly reject that kind of preaching. But if we acknowledge that “allegory” is a way to perceive symbolic representations of “what you should believe” beyond the surface level, then we may be able to connect appropriate features in an Old Testament passage with a greater truth revealed in Christ.

In fact, good preaching mandates that we do more than simply recount a historical sense of text, but rather we must also proclaim how this particular word from God teaches us what to believe, what it calls us to do, and where we should place our hope. The real issue—both today and in Calvin’s time—is that we avoid arbitrary and completely subjective readings of the text. But rather than following a modern redefinition of “allegory” that makes it pejorative and forces us to rule out the practice altogether, perhaps we need to refine our approach to allow for identifying simple, useful, and suitable representations in the text that symbolically point to a greater truth.

Even as cautious as Calvin was in his limited use of allegory, he still wanted interpreters and preachers to recognize all the elements in God’s unfolding story that point us to Christ. The reformers’ call to correct the abuses of allegory still resounds today, but perhaps we need to hear it again in a renewed way.

  • Zach Nielsen

    UNI alums coming strong at TGC! Strong work here Dr. Fisher!

  • Jonathan Hoffman

    Yes! Thanks for an insightful and nuanced consideration of this topic. It seems preaching the OT ought to be more than navigating a hermeneutical obstacle course to Christ (or hopping on the same biblical-theological treadmill), yet the gospel must always be the substance and end of our preaching. Perhaps allegory (as traditionally applied) helps connect the plain sense historical reading of many OT texts with a NT application founded on Christ. Here’s where you struck the nail on its head: “The real issue—both today and in Calvin’s time—is that we avoid arbitrary and completely subjective readings of the text. But rather than following a modern redefinition of “allegory” that makes it pejorative and forces us to rule out the practice altogether, perhaps we need to refine our approach to allow for identifying simple, useful, and suitable representations in the text that symbolically point to a greater truth.”

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  • Lon Hetrick

    Thanks for this interesting read and the useful historical background that was new to me. However, I think your conclusion could be more useful to an average guy like me with a few concrete examples of the “rethinking” you propose.

    I, like you (probably), have heard a plethora of ridiculous sermons that “spiritualize” (aka allegorize) the text. How many sermons about the “Giants” we face must we endure? On the other hand, I can’t recall any sermon that allegorized a text in a way that could be considered warranted by the context, was useful for instruction/training, and was objectively, exegetically defensible.

    So, without an example or two, I’m not sure what you mean by respecting the historical, simple sense AND looking for greater truths beneath the surface. I suspect doing the latter will always violate the former.

    I could suggest that a better approach is the one Reformed folks have always advocated: that Christ is the climax of the redemptive-historical drama, and is foreshadowed in many passages that predate Bethlehem. Thus, to say that Christ is the “subject” of the OT, does not force us to find Him in every passage. I would describe this as respecting the historical, simple sense of the text AND discovering how it fits within the larger redemptive story.

  • Michael Snow

    It would be a leap forward in Biblical preaching if many strove to find the ethical teaching of Christ in the NT, remembering Spurgeon’s warning that, ” it is a dangerous state of things if doctrine is made to drive out precept”,**

    “The followers of Christ in these days seem to me to have forgotten a great part of Christianity.”

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  • Emil Posavac

    RE: Calvin “identified … “Jacob at that time represented the person of Christ” because Christ was figuratively speaking in his body when God promised that all nations would be blessed in him.”

    BUT Jacob lied to get that blessing! It seems odd to say in getting the blessing Jacob represented Jesus. Nay, not ‘odd’, really non-Biblical.

    • Cornell Ngare

      Hey Emil,

      I thought I should bring to your attention a quote by D. A. Carson concerning analogies;

      “If a person isn’t careful, it is fairly easy to distort an analogy. The reason is obvious. When one thing is an analogy of another, inevitably there are points where the two things are parallel, and other points where they are quite different. If they were parallel at every point, then their relationship would not be an analogical: the two would instead be identical. What makes an analogical relationship so fruitful and insightful lies precisely in the fact that the two things are not identical. But that is also what sometimes makes them a little tricky to understand.”

      So, in light of the above understanding, Jacob does not have to be exactly like Christ at ALL points for some of his actions to symbolize or allegorize Christ. I hope that clarifies what an allegory is meant to achieve.

    • Joel

      Pardon me, I am just thinking out loud here.

      It seems to me that the story of Jacob stealing the blessing could better teach the dangers of work’s righteousness rather than righteousness in Christ. As you noted, he steals the blessing and is essentially living a stolen identity (as one who pretends to be righteous apart from Christ) and later God calls him out on that matter, asking him “what is your name?” (Gen 32:27) If I understand the story correctly, he is making Jacob accept his true identity, that of a supplanter and heal grabber. If we try to find find righteousness through our own cleverness or deceit we fail because we don’t change who we are, just our outward identity.

      Thoughts anyone? Like I said, I am just thinking out loud.

      • Cornell Ngare

        Hey Joel,

        Thanks for that insight. While I do understand your concern, I would rather say that the story of Jacob could “also” teach the dangers of works righteousness. We do not necessarily have to draw a comparison (or an anti-thesis) with the use of the same story to teach works righteousness in Christ for 3 reasons:

        1. Calvin was actually teaching about imputed righteousness when he used the Jacob allegory; i.e. That Isaac (God) considered Jacob (Christian) righteous/blessed because He smelled like his older brother Esau (Jesus). This would be a more appropriate use because Jacob (Israel) was ACTUALLY blessed. If we used the story to teach the dangers of works righteousness, we will have a lot of reconciling to do considering the fact that Jacob’s blessedness was EFFECTIVE. His “stolen” (imputed) identity is NEVER revoked, and God recognizes and honors it.

        2. It is practically impossible to sustain an allegorical meaning throughout the biblical narrative. Allegories are usually applied to excerpts of scripture that best illustrate a given point. Trying to maintain allegorical consistency in the rest of the narrative will often lead to a deadlock. This is what you’re trying to do by reconciling a story that is found way back in Genesis 27 with something that takes place FIVE CHAPTERS later.

        3. When we make the allegory the main point and start examining it with a fine-toothed comb, we stand the risk of drifting from the point of allegories. As Carson said in the quote I provided above, “If they (an analogy and what it represents) were parallel at every point, then their relationship would not be an analogical: the two would instead be identical.”

        Allegories are often incidental parallels, not solid, “biblical” and authoritative interpretation of given passages.

        Those are my thoughts.

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  • Cornell Ngare

    Thank you Dr. Fisher, for these helpful insights. I come from a background in which preachers used to allegorize scriptures indiscriminately. I also recall having allegorized a couple of Old Testament passages while teaching teenagers in the past. This article has however helped me to clarify the problem rather than over-reacting and dismissing all allegories.

    What matters is that we get the proper understanding of the nature and role of allegories, then we can uses them without placing unnecessary authority on that particular hermeneutic principle while at the same time establishing the authority of the truth/principle being taught using such an approach. This can be achieved by supporting the principle being taught using other scripture and not just letting the allegory stand alone and be the only/central basis for teaching what we are teaching. OT allegories ought to be communication aides which are conscious of and subject to the historical-narrative and other cross-referenced NT truth. Allegories should not be regarded as the final authoritative approach to any given passage.

    Again, thank you for this.

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  • Dr. Raymond A. (Randy) Blacketer

    I think you’re the third person on the planet to cite my book. The first two were me. Thanks for a great article.