Types, Allegories and Interpretation: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
A mainstay of evangelical preaching, is the use of typology and allegory in the interpretation of Scripture. Most preachers would most likely be surprised to learn that they are engaged in a patristic practice that really only saw the light of day again, owing to the Oxford Movement within the Anglican church.
You see, in the 1830s many of the Oxford Reformers began to rediscover their High Church foundations in the Caroline Divines of the seventeenth century. There, however, they immediately encountered the patristic ethos of the divines, who specially revered Augustine. Yet, Augustine had, by the 1830s lost his unique position in the theological world. As Owen Chadwick wrote:
“…St Augustine, to whom everyone looked back for guidance in the doctrines of justification, grace and predestination, had once risen head and shoulders above the other teachers of the ancient Church…. he was still a giant; but he had been placed in a wider context of learning and especially against a background of Greek thought.”
By the 1830s most of the Church of England was Latitudinarian and most felt that more help in interpreting Scripture could be found in the philosophy of John Locke than might be discovered in the interpretive musings of Augustine. In reaction against this prevailing weight of opinion, the leaders of the Oxford Movement specifically turned their attention to the writings of the Church Fathers of the first four centuries as interpretive guides and there they found allegory and typology. As Geoffrey Rowell pointed out:
“The theological vision of the Oxford Movement was in large measure a rediscovery and reinterpretation of patristic theology. The typological exegesis of Scripture, allegory and the strong sacramentalism of the Fathers commented themselves to men who already had begun to criticize the critical ‘evidence theology’ of the eighteenth century.”
This process of recapitulation became so complete that after hearing a sermon (perhaps by John Henry Newman) in which some new ideas appeared to be forthcoming, John Keble advised the preacher, “Don’t be original”.
The insistence upon tradition and traditional, that is to say, typological and allegorical exegesis commended itself especially to E.B. Pusey, the Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford. Pusey first encountered this mode of interpretation in De Doctrina Christiana as part of his study of the Augustinian corpus. So, in 1836, he prepared a series of lectures for the Michaelmas term on ‘Types and Prophesies of the Old Testament’ to reintroduce to a new generation, an Augustinian approach to figurative and typological interpretation which has been, for the most part abandoned in current Biblical studies in Britain and Germany, and which has continued to this day.
Pusey, like some of us today, struggled with figurative and typological interpretations remarking that. ” I cannot give any principle in a few words”. Nevertheless he was aware of the need to break with the ‘old orthodoxy’ of Biblical criticism which saw types and prophecies only as specific predictions of New Testament events, and with the ‘new orthodoxy’, which tended to discount typological and prophetic elements within scripture altogether. Like Augustine, Pusey had become convinced of an intentional ambiguity resident within the interpretation of a great many typological and figurative expressions within Scripture. Rather than ignore the difficulty, he used the tools of interpretation so important to the early centuries of the Church.
As we seek to re-establish our roots once again in the faith of the Fathers, I think that we too need to find fresh meaning in the Scriptures. A return, without embarrassment, to an appreciation of allegorical interpretation which was so beloved of the Church Fathers, might assist us in drawing spiritual resources from Scripture that have been noticeably absent in the work of many modern critics.