Since beginning to focus more on the Fathers of the Church in the last couple of years, I have become conscious that their use of Scripture is something that I need to get a better understanding of. This relates both to the priority which they give to Scripture, and to their understanding and use of it. And it is also concerned with how allegory is related to contemporary readings of Scripture, most notably what one may term a hermeneutical tradition.
Father Louth speaks of a “fundamental distaste” for allegory in modern theology on the grounds that it is dishonest and distorts the original meaning of the text, yet I rather wonder to what extent this is universally true today, twenty-five years after this book was originally written.* Now I must hasten to stress that I am not a biblical scholar, nor have I ever been one, and I am moreover out of touch even with those academic contexts that I once inhabited. But, apart from a couple of undergraduate courses in a very distant past in which the dominant mentality would I suppose correspond to the sort of context that Father Louth is addressing, this soon gave way to another context with different concerns. While not directly involved with Scripture myself, I became aware of a variety of interpretative frameworks which did not necessarily situate the meaning of the text in the original intention of the author, but variously sought to locate it behind the text (socio-historical readings), in the text itself (literary readings) or in front of the text in the world which the text opens up for its readers (thematic or theological readings). It was the last possibility, especially as expressed by Gadamer and Ricoeur, and developed further by Sandra Schneiders in response to the question of what it means to interpret the Bible as Sacred Scripture, that I was most exposed to and found the most inspiring.
But I have found myself wondering at the relationship between this hermeneutical approach and the patristic use of allegory. There are clear similarities in that both allow the text to become freed from its original historical context in order to take on new meaning in new contexts. While the Fathers are working within a dominant Christological framework that sees the Old Testament finding its fulfilment in the new, and which provides a theological delimitation to their interpretation, Ricoeur and Schneiders are also clear that while a text can take on endless new meanings, it cannot take on just any meaning. Yet I am surprised, looking at Schneiders’ book** again now, years after reading it, that she doesn’t engage the patristic use of allegory.
I find Father Louth’s discussion helpful in both broadening and deepening my understanding of allegory in his focus not so much on the details of specific meanings or differences of method, as on the purpose of an allegorical reading being to hold us before the Mystery that is revealed to us in Scripture. It is here that the commonalities with the hermeneutical readings become apparent to me, and a reason why their relationship fascinates me. While I have the feeling that this requires further unpacking, that’s about all I’m able to say about it for now.
* For the uninitiated, the book that I have been discussing is, Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) – to order the new edition, which I would highly recommend doing, go here.
** Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text. Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, (Harper San Francisco, 1991).