When I read Augustine’s Confessions, I was intrigued to learn that one of the keys to helping him move toward Christianity was hearing allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament. He wrote that he had found much of the Old Testament too hard to swallow on a literal reading, but the allegorical preaching of Ambrose knocked down his objections.
Here is an example of Augustine’s own allegorical preaching about the story of Jacob and Esau.
The mother, you see, gave birth to both sons; she bore one hairy, the other smooth. Hairiness stands for sins, smoothness for mildness, that is for cleanness from sins. Two sons are blessed, because the Church blesses two kinds of people. Just as Rebecca bore two sons, so two are begotten in the Church’s womb, one hairy, the other smooth — I have already explained the difference between them. There are people, after all, who even after baptism are unwilling to give up their sins, and want to do the same things as they used to do before. For instance, if they used to perpetrate frauds, they want to defraud again; if they used to swear to lies, they want to perjure themselves still; if they used to cheat the simple, they want to go on cheating still; if they used to fornicate, to get drunk, they are doing the same things as much as ever. There is Esau for you, born hairy. What does Jacob do? He is told by his mother: “Go and let your father bless you.” And he says, “I’m afraid, I won’t go.” There are people in the Church, you see, who are afraid to mix with sinners, in case they are so to say contaminated by consorting with sinners within the Church’s communion — and so they perish through heresies and schisms.
The dangers of allegorical preaching are well known, and even demonstrated some in this piece. Allegory simply cannot be forced to remain faithful to the text itself. Indeed, by definition is cannot remain so. But I do find it a historical curiosity that the church father who exerted so much influence on the Reformation was an advocate for allegorical reading.