Derek Olsen: On ‘Allegorical’ Interpretation


Earlier this year I posted a note that listed the areas I wanted to pay particular attention to in my studies this coming year. They represent issues that I’ve found myself wishing I knew more about, generally because they’ve come in conversation in the life of our congregation and I found myself wanting better answers to questions.

One of the three areas that I mentioned was looking into the proper use of Allegory as a tool for interpreting Holy Scripture. It was a common technique in the early church but it has fallen out of favor in academic studies. What I’ve discovered as a preacher is that when I make use of traditional allegorical interpretations of texts in a Sunday sermon, the congregation is fascinated by the ideas and wants to hear more.

So it turns out that the use of Allegory as a hermeneutical tool is a major area of Dr. Derek Olsen’s PhD research. He’s posted a quick response to my note on my blog that lays out some of the fruits of this study into the field.

Here’s a taste:

“The major change with Reformation biblical interpretation, I’d argue, is the jettisoning of the context. I think it could be argued that with the rise of the Schoolmen, the mendicant orders, and the turn into Nominalism the liturgical context had already lost its important restraining function making it appear to the Reformers that they were pruning away the bad rather than losing a key component. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. Suddenly biblical interpretation was not and could not be an act of play. It was serious business. Without the grounding practices of Mass and Office, how each text was read suddenly mattered a lot more because the interpretive act was transformed into the grounding practice of the faith.

So—the liturgy was the context. But that’s not all. Particularly in the early medieval church and most especially in my world of the early medieval monastics, the liturgy was not simply the guiding context but was the fundamental tool through which Christians were inculturated into the hermeneutics of the Church. They learned to read through the liturgy.

On one hand, this is a literal truth: new monks or child oblates learned how to read through the memorization of the Latin psalter, then learning to match the words on the page with the texts they already had in their heads. They literally learned how to read from reading the liturgy. On the other hand, they also learned how to interpret the Bible from the liturgy and this happened in two ways, the first explicit, the second not so explicit. The explicit is that readings from the Fathers in the third nocturn of the Night Office gave them examples. They learned to interpret through what they heard and what was modeled for them by the patristic teachers every Sunday and feast day in the early morning.  And again at Chapter. And again at Mass. The not-so-explicit is the way that the liturgy introduces under-determined interpretive possibilities through the use of scriptural antiphons and responsories in the Mass and Office. When an antiphon taken from the Gospel of the Day is appended to the Magnificat it makes you hear it in a new way, as you are using  new lens. When a Pauline snippet is paired with a psalm, the mind begins working at it to find what the implied logical connection must be between the two. The hymns held together Scripture and Season for mutual reflection. (As it happens, the first paper I gave at the big medievalist meeting in Kalamazoo was on this topic. I’ll try and put it up on Scribd for those who are following me there.)

So—where does all of this bring us? Back to the notion of a distinctively Anglican way of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. Is there one? Maybe… Is there the potential for one? Most certainly, because we of all of the Western Non-Roman ecclesial bodies have retained in theory that which was most important in the heyday of figural reading: the Mass and the Office.”

More here. Do read the whole thing. It’s really helpful. The idea of reading scripture through lenses formed by the prayerful encounter with the scripture is lovely, poetic, and in my experience, exactly what happens as you commit yourself to the regular reading of the Office.

And, yes, Derek, I’d love a copy of your dissertation.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Just one comment on a very fruitful interchange:
    It may be that it wasn’t so much a jettisoning of context as Olsen, posits, but a change of context. Biblical scholarship and interpretation in the sixteenth century developed out of humanism and in reaction against Scholasticism. The humanists were not primarily clergy or monks, but laypeople. Take Zurich for example, where scholars say the reformation began when Zwingli changed his preaching pattern to a continuous preaching from the Gospel of Matthew, breaking with the custom. Equally important was the development of bible study groups that included clergy and laymen. It seems that it was those groups, responding to Zwingli’s preaching, that led to concrete reform.
    To that must be added the importance of vernacular translations that made the text accessible to a wider audience. For the reformers, “jettisoning the context” meant liberating the text from the chains the institutional church had bound it with.

  2. I think this idea has some merit. I recently made the following comment on my blog:
    “But Patristic Biblical exegesis, in more cases than contemporary interpreters and academics are wont to admit, is like a cat who jumps up on a slick counter or tabletop: the slide across and the falling off of the edge don’t look very graceful, but the cat usually manages to hit the floor on all four feet.”
    From here:

  3. Matt Marino says

    This is a very interesting exchange!
    It seems that the argument for allegorizing is that “it is working”. In my experience, whenever something works it comes as a two-edged sword. As we are all aware, “yeah, but it works” gave us the megachurch.
    It seems to me from Nick’s post (not having read Derek’s obviously thought provoking and insightful dissertation in it’s entirety) as if Derek is looking backwards at the abandonment of allegorical interpretation rather than forwards from the Scriptures toward the development of allegorical interpretation. The abandonment of allegorical interpretation may have functioned to divorce Scripture from the liturgy, but the development of it surely divorced the interpretation of Scripture from it’s literary genre and clear meaning to first century readers and hearers. Allegorical interpretation often did some bizarre things with context. The allegorical interpretive school often seemed to torture scriptural texts: for example Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the church rather than a love poem illustrating God’s creation of the body as good…or (and I hesitate to criticize a doctor of the church, but here goes) Augustine’s allegorizing of the good Samaritan text so that the man going down is Adam and Jerusalem is the garden from which he fell and the robbers being the devil and beating the Samaritan being an inducement to sin, etc. These allegorical interpretations may be good churchmanship or good theology, but they are really dangerous as they are so non-contextual in their exegesis.
    I suspect that part of what the young are connecting with is the rejection of the Holy Scriptures to support moralistic, therapeutic, deism: the “Your Best Life Now” in which the Scriptures are equally divorced from their historic context and their literary genre to produce “5 principles for a more effective life.”
    I too am thinking about these things. I suspect it is when we connect a rootless generation to 2000 years of a (relatively) stable tradition, that it provides safety for them. I think it is why when I communicate the Lambeth Quadrilateral with young adults the point they connect with most deeply is the “historic episcopate”- the idea that Jesus laid his hands on 12 who laid their hands on others who laid their hands on others who laid their hands on our bishop who sent us to you and you are being sent to the next.
    I suspect that when you allegorize 2 things happen: 1) You give them something that transcends time and 2) you give them something more helpful than “5 easy steps”.
    The danger to guard against is that allegory is not necessarily good exegesis and who is to say whose allegory? Allegory might be a comfy blanket to young adults right now but it seems to have some strong potential downsides to guard against.

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