Away with allegory!

In All The Scriptures: The Three Contexts of Biblical Hermeneutics
Nicholas G. Piotrowski
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 289

In All the Scriptures is about contexts: literary, historical and theological realities encompassing the writings of the Bible. This provides first principles to be considered.

The author defines hermeneutics as “the theoretical study of the science and art of how to legitimately and ethically interpret texts” (4). He emphasizes that it’s not just a matter of mastering the mechanics. There is an art to it, which can only come through “time, trial and error, reading and rereading with others” (4). Furthermore, it is all about properly interpreting texts, so that the main idea becomes clear and the interpreter is not reading into the text.

Piotrowski’s approach starts with the literary: discovering the flow of thought in a book. Individual verses and passages must be considered in light of the whole. The historical is learning something of the culture or time that pertains to a given passage. Christological or theological consideration looks at how themes “develop, flow and climax in Christ” (13).

The primary focus is on the underlying principles for interpretation rather than spending time on application. The exceptions being illustrating and briefly covering application in the last chapter, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Initially, I was a little disappointed hoping for more of the latter but the author convincingly argues for the necessity of sound hermeneutics. Plus, listening to popular sermons and teachings in our day one might conclude that application takes precedence. Making teaching practical is a noble aim but if the meaning is wrong than it’s counterproductive.

To start this journey you find an excellent overview of hermeneutic highlights from the past to the present. This section contains the first mention of allegory: “Allegory attempts to dig under the straightforward and historical sense of texts to find hidden, mystical meanings” (21). The author argues against allegory in favor of typology. The latter “starts from the historical sense and perceives the way persons, events, and institutions in the Old Testament prefigure the person and work of Christ” (21). The problem with allegory is that it “has no need for history and often enough runs around Christ” (27). There is more: “Allegory connects to derivative ideas outside the text. Moreover, the Bible was not written as an allegory. Thus it is a violation of genre. What kind of misinterpretation would one produce if they read a history book like a novel, or vice versa?”(70).

Deconstructionism also gets a mention: “Deconstructionism is complex, but we can define it here simply as an attempt to read (and/or rewrite) narratives (in texts or anywhere narratives are told) in a way that moves the center of attention away from traditional (and sometimes obvious) interpretations and give voice to the characters and ideas at the margins. There are social, political, and economic forces at work in all this that now make it hermeneutically in vogue as well” (43). He cites a TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell as an example where the meaning of the David and Goliath story is changed.

This book is a challenge to do interpretation with integrity. It shows the hard but rewarding work involved. It’s much easier to take an isolated verse or verses out of context, reading into it an unintended meaning. Any interested in the legitimate use of Scripture will do well to familiarize themselves with this content. This book can be read with profit many times over.

One reason I read this volume was my exposure to teachings that critics label hyper-dispensationalism. I wondered if it would indirectly address their errors. If their doctrines are measured against these guidelines where would there be problems? It would seem that at least in some areas their hermeneutic and application are defective. I suspect it has to do with the presuppositions that inform their hermeneutic. It highlights why this stage in interpreting scripture is critical. Getting the approach wrong leads to bad theology. Getting it right from the start and along the way is no guarantee of soundness but increases the chances of a better outcome.

As a side note, those who share the author’s ecological or science background will appreciate how he introduces each chapter with an illustration showing how his former field of study relates to the discipline of interpreting texts. It’s a fascinating way to introduce the different topics showing the correlations and making the material more accessible, even if you are not a student of the sciences.

Away with allegory! It’s hard to argue with the logic of the arguments, but the case might be stronger if it included some examples that differentiate application from allegory. Sometimes I wonder if applications made from the pulpit or in books go too far or are they legitimate? This is something that I would ask about if I had the chance to question the author or those who are knowledgeable on the subject.

Michael Dalton