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.