… the spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the literal meaning. In what Jesus was and did – at his baptism, in this instance, and even more in what that foreshadowed – we have not a symbol of something else, but that to which all the symbols refer. And the symbols are present in this passage – in the voice and the dove – as providing the frame, as it were, in which we can see the significance of the events: they ‘what was at work at the time and afterwards ceased’. The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the history of the Incarnate One, a history which is a ‘new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh’ (Heb. 10:20) – a way which we are all to enter upon and tread.
And it is, of course, our baptism and the life of faith, hope, and love to which it commits us that provide our entrance into the history of Jesus. So the themes that we have just outlined are naturally picked up in the baptismal liturgies of the Church and in the Church’s celebration of the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). 125.
In the rest of this chapter Father Louth proceeds to give an extended example of the way in which allegory can open up the theological significance of a biblical passage by examining the readings of Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine of the Baptism of Christ. The Fathers regularly see this passage as a revelation of the Trinity, in which the Father is revealed in the voice, the Son in the man, and the Spirit in the dove. However, for all of our authors the manifestation of Son is central, for it is historical in a unique way, whereas the voice and the dove provide symbolical allusions which further open up the significance of this event. They become bearers of biblical meaning, which both interpret the passage for us and open the way for us to respond to it. Thus Cyril tells us that Christ “opened the heavens, which the first Adam had shut, showing how the power of baptism effects an ascent to heaven” (124) and he and other Fathers recall the role of the dove at the flood showing the link between the old covenant and the new.
Moreover Origen sees the gentleness, innocence and soaring nature of the dove as opening the way for our response to revelation given in prayer, namely, that we too are enabled to ascend to heaven on the wings of a dove, for in the manifestation of Jesus as Son of the Father our identity is also revealed and we too are given access to the life of the Father.
Louth discerns a similar approach in the sermons of Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth century Caroline divine, in which we find the last echoes of the tradition of the Fathers in which allegory comes into its own in the liturgy.
He concludes with Augustine’s observation of the contrast between the complexity involved in interpreting the Scriptures and the belief that Scripture teaching nothing but charity. In the fall we have fallen from simplicity to confusion and multiplicity, yet
The Scriptures tell the story of God’s way of leading men back into unity, and the way has to be from the fragmented to the unified. The history of the Old Testament fashions a matrix, a kaleidoscope, which shares in our fragmentedness and yet harks forward to the simplicity of the One who will restore all things…
And it is allegory that enables us to discern this pattern, and not only discern it but by means of this pattern restore within ourselves the unity and simplicity lost by the Fall, and so come again to love. The heart of Scripture is the end of Scripture: the love of God in Christ calling us to respond to that love. (131)