Are you hairy or smooth?

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.


9 thoughts on “Are you hairy or smooth?

  1. Elijia was hairy,(2 Ki 1:8),Samson was hairy , John the Baptist wore clothing made of camel’s hair, Mary wiped Christ’s feet with her hair. Leprocy causes hair loss
    So where does sin equate with hair? How did Augustine form that conclusion?

    1. I do not know. It was a sermon based on an allegorical reading of that story. It was poetry not science, I think.

      Your questions point out why allegory is so controversial, though.

      1. I fail to see the poetry.
        I have a rule I always follow…Check it out.
        The reason?
        The Pulpit is a powerful seat and many things said behind the pulpit are viewed as facts when many times they are opinion.
        I sometimes wonder if pastors really understand the influence they have.

        You can be rest assured someone will read that statement and repeat it as if it is a fact.
        You know what they say, “Repeat something enough and it becomes truth.”

  2. Sometime ago, I started questioning why we Methodists are amellennialists like the Roman Catholics. My searching led me to the allegorical (spiritualization ) interpretation of the scriptures as the reason for this doctrine. My searching opened my eyes including gaining insight on the major roles of the school of Alexandria , Plato, Origen, Eusebius and Augustine why some mainline denominations twist the meaning of a lot of scriptures that are meant to be literal in its meaning. An allegorical interpretation can give thousands of meaning to a verse. I just wonder how illiterate Peter, one of the apostles, could understand allegories which according to Origen are meant to be understood only by the elites who are gifted with sophisticated and enlightened minds.

    I am at peace with myself and proud that I am a premil like a few of my fellow Methodists. At this time our small congregation is clamoring to be taught about the book of Revelation and other prophetic books. What a coincidence that you brought up this topic at a time when our Church is talking about it.


    A quote from Sir Isaac Newton:
    Sir Isaac Newton observed: “About the time of the end, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the Prophecies, and insist upon their literal interpretation, in the midst of much clamor and opposition.” (Isaac Newton A.D. 1643-1727)

    Pre-millenniarism is the belief of the apostles and the early Church Fathers (first and second generation after the Apostles) until the middle of the second century when Augustine advocated the use of allegorical interpretation in the Scriptures. The literal method of interpretation was restored during the Reformation causing the recovery of Justification by Faith. Unfortunately, the literal interpretation did not include the prophetic Scriptures. Luther continued in the footsteps of Augustine. I am sure the Jewish believers did not buy into the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. It is only the Gentiles who made the shift in the interpretation. Let me correct myself. The originator of the allegorical method of interpretation is Plato, a Jewish Greek philosopher. I doubt if he was a follower of Jesus Christ.

  3. References: On Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible
    1) What Does the Bible Say About Truth?

    2) by Dennis Hunt of East Alton First United Methodist Church , East Alton, Illinois . This is an Online Bible Study material on prophecy prepared by Dennis Hunt, a United Methodist. The material is excellent !

    3) Source: The Road to Holocaust by Hal Lindsey

    a) Literal, Grammatical and Historical Interpretation Defined (page 60)

    b) The Alexandrian Legacy (page 77) .
    (Page 61) are some examples of how the Lord Jesus , the ultimate exegete , interpreted the OT.

    4) The Allegorical Interpretation of the Scriptures
    5) 2.7.3 – The Rise of Allegorical Interpretation

    6) Historical Implications of Allegorical Interpretations
    by Thomas Ice Saturday 9/10/11 1246 pm

    7) Spiritual (Allegorical) Interpretation Versus The Literal Interpretation of God’s Word

    8) Dr Norman Geisler reviews Hank Hanegraff’s Apocalypse Code
    by Thomas Ice

    9) The Meaning of the Millennium
    #5 The Great Millennium Controversy (Augustine) page 65
    Topic: Allegorical Interpretation, Constantine, Eusebius, Papias, Augustine

  4. #5 The Great Millennium Controversy (Augustine)

    After the conversion of the emperor and his empire, however, Eusebius changed his point of view. (When times are good, people look for the status quo to continue without interruption.) In his History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Eusebius wrote about an earlier bishop named Papias, who lived while John was alive and writing The Apocalypse. Papias had listened to the Apostle John directly as well as to pupils of the other Apostles, and Papias clearly believed John’s Apocalypse described a literal thousand-year utopia after Christ’s return. Eusebius quotes Papias favorably on other occasions, but then argues against him on his literal understanding of the millennium now that the return of Christ seemed superfluous to the reign of Christ:

    “[Papias] says that after the resurrection of the dead [invariably linked with the return of the resurrected Christ] there will be a period of a thousand years, when Christ’s kingdom will be set up on this earth in material form. I suppose he got these notions by misinterpreting the apostolic accounts and failing to grasp what they had said in mystic and symbolic language. For he seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books. But it is partly due to him that the great majority of churchmen after him took the same view, relying on his early date [i.e., on the fact that he lived early enough to hear the Apostle John in person].” (Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, III.39.)

    On all other subjects Eusebius quotes Papias as a reliable source of direct information regarding the author of The Apocalypse, but he now dismisses Papias as a man of small intelligence when it comes to actually understanding The Apocalypse. In other words, wherever Papias agreed with Eusebius, he was quoted as highly reliable. Where he disagreed, he was an idiot. That’s actually typical of the debate that still rages on this matter.

    Ironically, no one formalized the idea of an imperial millennium under Roman rule until the very years when Rome was falling. That’s when Augustine took the theocratic notions that had been loosely floating around and formalized them in his book The City of God, which he wrote between the time when Rome was first sacked by Alaric the Goth and when it was finally busted up by Attila the Hun.

    According to Augustine, those 1,000 years in The Apocalypse when the saints would rule with Christ meant that the Spirit of Christ would rule the world through the Church hierarchy for a long-but-indefinite period until Jesus returned to judge the earth and take his saints to heaven. Satan was seen as being bound, not by Constantine’s prohibition of persecution by pagans, but by Christ at the Cross who cast Satan out of the believer’s heart and, therefore, out of the Church.

    Augustine conceded, however, that the devil was still much alive in the world of unbelievers. That concession was necessary due to frequent bombardments against the empire by the Vandals, who showed that paganism was alive and well and the world still obviously imperfect. While The Apocalypse specifically stated that Satan was bound prior to the millennium so that he could not deceive the nations, Augustine taught that Satan still deceived the nations but was only bound so that he could not deceive the Church. (This new idea would eventually become a pillar in the doctrine of papal infallibility.)

    Even Augustine had once believed in a literal sabbath millennium until he decided it had to be rejected because many of those who believed in it thought it would be graced with abundant physical pleasures. That couldn’t be good: (Augustine tended to be hard on himself that way–and on others–to the point of self-loathing.)

    “[Some people], on the strength of [the millennial passage in the Apocalypse], . . . have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labours of the six thousand years since man was created . . . so that thus, as it is written, “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” there should follow on the completion of six thousand years . . . a kind of seventh-day sabbath in the succeeding thousand years; and that it is for this purpose the saints rise, viz., to celebrate this sabbath. And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that sabbath shall be spiritual . . . for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets . . . such assertions can be believed only by the carnal.” (Augustine, The City of God, XX.7.)

    That’s quintessential Augustine–the inventor of Catholic guilt. If it’s pleasurable, it can’t be good and should be rejected. That’s how and why his own opinion about the millennium changed. Buried within his statement, however, is a problem that Augustine never gets satisfactorily around: What’s the purpose of the resurrection of physical bodies at the return of Christ if there is never going to be a time of living and reigning with him physically on the earth? This resurrection is spoken of throughout the New Testament and in The Apocalypse as an event associated with Christ’s return. If physical pleasures are to be put away in favor of a purely spiritual reality, why resurrect a physical body? If earth is not going to continue for some time under the reign of Christ, why should he return at all? Why not simply transport all of his followers straight to where he now dwells in that spiritual dimension called heaven?

    Augustine’s views had some chilling, unintended outcomes. Originally an advocate of religious liberty, Augustine became one of the first bishops to assert the principle of religious coercion and to put his name behind civil persecution by the Church against those who would not convert. Just as the dream of an imperial millennium seemed to empower Constantine in his expansion of the Roman Empire, it also appears to have impelled Augustine toward coerced expansion of the Church. It’s hard to say for certain what rationale pressed Augustine to exceed his own limits, but his doctrine, which became known as “amillennialism,” certainly was used by others to justify much greater violence in the centuries that followed him. Note Augustine far from being a saint, was responsible for much bad theology being introduced into the Church. Details

    Because Augustine lived in an age of monumental political change, his reshaping of prophetic interpretation reshaped the world. When Rome fell, the succession of many short-lived rulers in the West left the bishops of Rome (eventually called popes) as the most stable center of influence, strengthening their position over time. The Church survived what Rome could not, and its power grew into a theocracy that transcended political regimes.

    Augustine cast a long shadow across the subsequent Age of Faith. Since the devil was bound so that he could no longer deceive the Church, it would seem to follow that the Church could do no evil. Under Augustinian theology, the Roman Catholic Church evolved to become its own highest standard. The pope’s actions could scarcely even be challenged by scripture because the pope’s interpretation of scripture (i.e., matters of faith) was considered infallible. (Papal infallibility was a matter of practice long before it was a declaration.) Room for dissenting opinions became increasingly narrow.

    When Charlemagne formed what became known as the Holy Roman Empire, his most-loved book was Augustine’s City of God, which led him to achieve anew Augustine’s dream of “one God, one emperor, one pope, one city of God.” So the book really did become the blueprint for theocracy, which all centered on how one understood the millennium. Church and State again came together in an odd form of matrimony (or perhaps hegemony).

    In A.D. 1000, some five-hundred years after Augustine, the glacial force of a millennial change pushed Augustine’s figurative interpretation of the millennium into nearly universal acceptance. The actual passing of a millennium made it clear that a thousand years had passed without the return of Christ. Since the Church still reigned in Rome (sort of), there could be no question that the thousand-year reign of Christ was figurative. The idea that Christ’s reign hadn’t even begun, hardly seemed tenable with the Church still in so much power after so long a time. The conversion of so many nations toward Christianity around this same time no doubt strengthened the view that Christ was reigning through his Church.

    With time, Augustine’s City of God even became the Bible of the Inquisition, being used to justify the deaths of thousands and thousands of “heretical” Christians, pagans, and Jews. As a result, the idea that the Church now reigned over the earth and that it could not be influenced by Satan buttressed some of the greatest evils in history. The Church could do no wrong. Christ reigned with an iron scepter.

    (Some of the material in this article was adapted from the book End-Time Prophecies of the Bible by David Haggith.) The author is David Haggith

  5. Thank you for the post and the links.
    I think it is important to remember there was a history of great persecution of the Christian Church and Christian Community before Augustine.
    Many were martyred and many writings destroyed. All precious to the Christian as well as the Jewish communities of that time.
    It is also helpful to note the apostles spoke in Christ’s stead. That is what we teach and that is what we believe. We say the bible is inspired. It is a book written by men inspired in a very unique way. So, the idea of one man speaking in God’s stead is not a new concept.
    As far as prophesy is concerned I always remember 1 Peter 1:10-12.
    The prophets spoke by faith. They spoke things they did not understand. It is usually in hindsight that prophesy is understood.

    Some interesting facts
    First Vatican Council of 1869–1870 decreed the infallibility of the Pope related to Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture and subject to both.
    A quick rundown of the life of Augustine can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia  
    (available online). Augustine’s writing would change and there is a reason why.

    A brief bio. of Plato is found in the link provided.

    Great stuff!

    1. Thanks d for your response. Thanks also for the links. I need time to read those materials. I am somewhat skeptical of any writings coming from the Roman Catholic establishment because of their need to protect Augustine’s reputation. There is a great tendency for the Catholics to sanitize his biography so he will come out smelling like a rose.

      I have read some of your opinions and comments and I agree with your viewpoint 90-100 % of the time. I believe that a reformation in the UMC should take place and they need people like you and other like-minded laity and clergies. Dr Riley Case, a former DS kept saying that reform in the seminary should also take place for a revival in the UMC to happen. If only 55-60 % of the laity will start reading their Bibles then we have enough Biblically literate population in the UMC to start a reform movement. Bear in mind that it is the laity that controls the purse string. It is the laity that supports the establishment.

      Betsy, a laity, used to write comments in this website but she has been missing for a while now. She wrote about the failure of gradualism in the UMC. WHERE ARE YOU BETSY? WE NEED YOU!

      This is what Billy Abraham once said:
      By William J. Abraham
      “So then, I bring before you bad news and good news, one piece of bad news and two pieces of good news. The bad news is that half a century of splendid historical investigation has unwittingly become a worthy obituary notice for the death of the Wesleyan theological tradition. The good news is that we are now free to stop pretending that Wesley is a great theologian (or even a theologian) and to receive him for what he is, an extraordinary evangelist, a great saint, and a remarkable spiritual Father in God. The other good news is that the funeral of Wesleyan theology is a clarion call for a radically fresh start in theology for all those who acknowledge John Wesley as a spiritual Father in God and as a saint of modern Protestantism.”

  6. What I envision of honoring John Wesley is to require every UM church to have a plaque of 20 of his best sayings and nail it on the church door (10 on each side) or inside the church immediately after the entrance door. That will immortalize the memory of John Wesley in every Methodist’s mind.

    As far as Wesley’s theology, let’s move on. There are many holes in it. Who knows if John Wesley could be persuaded to change his views and position on some of his doctrines if he is alive today. He had done it before.

    Each one of us is responsible for our own eternal destiny. John Wesley is not responsible for us. The question we may be asked before God is, “Have you searched and diligently studied my words like the Bereans or have you allowed yourself to be brainwashed by the establishment ? “

    Acts 17:11 NLT
    11 And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

    John 12:48 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)
    48 Those who reject me by not accepting what I say have a judge appointed for them. The words that I have spoken will judge them on the last day.

    Btw, d are you a lay person or a clergy and are you a male or a female? Just curious!

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