… what one discovers in allegory, according to Augustine – and he speaks for all the Fathers in this – is the faith of the simple believer. The use of allegory in relation to Scripture, seen from such a point of view, is not an attempt to solve problems, contingent difficulties, but a means of ensuring that we do not evade the fundamental ‘ontological difficulty’ which opens us to the ultimate mystery of Christ contained in the Scriptures. The difficulty in Scripture arises from the depth of its signification, and forces us to find a point of stability, or is rather a warning that we have yet to find it. It is the difficulty of not being sufficiently at home in the tradition, not having an unerring instinct as to what resonates and what merely makes a noise. And what we need here is no method – there is none – but rather erudition, learning, experience: the experience of living close to the heart of tradition, of being able to hear His stillness, to quote St. Ignatius – a familiarity with the response that Scripture has inspired in the Church throughout its life.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 112.

Father Louth sees allegory as intrinsically related to the mira profunditas of Scripture, the conviction of the depth and richness of Scripture that is expressed in multiple senses. He quotes Newman who describes Scripture as unsystematic and various, an unexplored and unsubdued land, which cannot be easily mapped and catalogued. Scripture presents us with complexity and difficulty.

Yet we can distinguish between the type of difficulties that Scripture presents. Louth cites George Steiner’s distinction between contingent, modal, tactical and ontological difficulties in literature. Whereas the first three can be resolved or otherwise adapted to, ontological difficulties cannot be resolved but call into question our very anticipations. They recall Marcel’s distinction between problem and mystery: “ontological difficulty is something very like the mysterious – there is no answer, only engagement.” (111)

The proper use of allegory in relation to Scripture, Louth argues, is not to resolve contingent difficulties but rather

allegory is a way of holding us before the mystery which is the ultimate ‘difficulty’ of the Scriptures – a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning; a difficulty, a mystery, which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance. (111)

This is not to deny that allegory has been used by the Fathers to solve problems, or indeed that there are problems that other methods, including those of historical criticism, can help us to solve. But once these are solved they are precisely that, solved, whereas the mystery that allegory holds before us is on a different level. It is not something to be solved but something that continues to question us.