Cherishing the not-so-plain meanings of Scripture

Over the summer I read Augustine’s Confessions. One of my many discoveries in its pages was Augustine’s allegorical reading of Scripture. Indeed, he writes at one point that it was an allegorical reading of the Old Testament that freed him from his prejudices against the barbaric and bloody stories in that collection of sacred texts.

We Protestants tend to be wary of allegory. We like our reading plain and our meanings simple. Unless, of course, we were foolish enough to major in English in college. Then we might fall prey to the argument of writers such as Frances Young, who makes the case for figurative readings of Scripture. In her book Brokenness & Blessing, she argues that the early church read the Bible not in the modernist way of fundamentalists and historical-critical scholars but as a source of spiritual types that inform our journey with God.

Young opens the first chapter of the book with a classic 18th century hymn that plays on the images from the Exodus story, which she uses to explain how figurative or typological reading of the Bible works.

In this well-known eighteenth-century hymn, we easily recognize allusions to incidents in the exodus narrative: the manna, the water from the rock, the pillar of fire by night, and the pillar of cloud by day. Here these motifs become metaphors illuminating each person’s life pilgrimage. Thus the hymn provides a telling example of the classic reading of Scripture by which it provides “types” of the life that each one of us has to live. The way that people understood their own lives was once shaped by patterns and models found in Scripture, and, conversely, people read their own lives into Scripture.

Young’s book is interesting to me for a few reasons, but her effort to reclaim an ancient way of reading Scripture is certainly intriguing to me.




6 thoughts on “Cherishing the not-so-plain meanings of Scripture

  1. I taught a Sunday School class at my church (a Church of the Nazarene) and used a typological approach to Scripture to teach others a new ( though ancient) way to understand Scripture. The figurative approach described by Young is similar ( understanding the symbolic weight if the Bible) though appears, based on the quote above, to help us assimilate the symbols for our own lives ( which is great!). Another way to do typology is to show how all types are Christoloigical – e.g. Leading us to Christ. I did the latter but am interested in how to use Young’s approach as well.

    This book will be put on my reading list. Thanks.


  2. Just ordered the book. It sounds like the way that the civil rights movement used the scriptures. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for mentioning it!

  3. Typographic, metaphoric, allegoric readings of scripture are indeed useful, except when they become a dodge of historical substance. The deconstruction project goes on and on…

    1. Mark tells us:
      In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.
      Mark 4:34

      It is my understanding what Mark states was the typical student Rabbi ( teacher) method in the synagogue. The Rabbi would be elevated and the student seated on the floor or at a level slightly lower than the position of the Rabbi.
      The Rabbi would read the parable and discussion commenced. Very similar to a bible study class in the C.C.
      At the end of the session the teacher (Rabbi) would explain the true meaning of the parable to the students.
      I once had a discussion with a Lutheran pastor about the typical bible class in the Christian Church and voiced my concern that the true meaning of the reading was never given. He replied, “Is it better to have them participate or be corrected?’
      The problem I see with the pastors thinking is everyone leaves the study thinking their understanding of the passage is as valid and true as any other. If that were true there would be no reason for Christ to have to explain to the apostles the true meaning of the parable.
      Matthew 13:35, Mark 4:10 etc.

       Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
          Let those with understanding receive guidance
       by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
          the words of the wise and their riddles.
      Proverbs 1:5-7

  4. If one can read & understand the writings of John Wesley you can understand any writer.
    I am reading Wesley’s Sermons on Law and Grace thanks to your suggestion.
    The topic begins with Sermon 6 and includes 25,34,35,36,& 120.
    Some I have read prior but never together.

    I read a few excerpts from Young’s book online.
    I don’t believe there is any one approach that accomplishes the whole job or paints a clear picture.

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