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Proper Use Of Allegory

In the last chapter I used the word "allegory" in specific reference to symbolizing an Old Testament historical event to create a New Testament teaching. I said that Biblical writers could do this but we shouldn’t.

According to Webster’s Dictionary the simplest definition of an "allegory" is a "symbolic representation of something". Also according to Webster’s an "analogy" can be used to represent something else if there are at least two or more similarities between the analogy and the thing being considered. An allegory and an analogy are often used as if they mean the same thing. They are similar in meaning, but not exactly the same. Nevertheless, for this chapter I will use these two words interchangeably, since I believe many people do.

When we allegorize an Old Testament event to create a New Testament teaching, we create a teaching out of a symbol. That’s what we shouldn’t do. Yet we can take a New Testament teaching and explain it with an allegory or an analogy. In this case we start with the teaching and end with the symbol, instead of starting with the symbol and ending with the teaching These are two different concepts altogether. In this use of allegory we’re not deriving our teaching from the symbol. We’re using the symbol to help explain the teaching.

Paul uses allegories, or analogies to explain a point. He speaks of our life with Jesus as being a marathon. By using the analogy of "running a race", he helps explain that we need to persist in our faith to the very end, as runners do in a long race. (1 Cor. 9:24) The teaching is on persistence. The analogy is the race.

So there is a proper use of symbols, yet even as I say this, symbols, allegory, and analogies have their limitations. At some point an analogy breaks down and at that point some might make the analogy explain more than the teaching states. Some have gotten carried away in their analogies at this point and have changed the meaning of the teaching by making too much out of the analogy. The analogy thus becomes the basis for a new teaching and becomes no different than allegorizing an Old Testament event.

An example of a bad use of an allegory to explain a teaching is this. Let’s use the marathon analogy to explain Paul’s teaching on endurance. If we say that we’re competing with other runners, which one does in a race, and if we then say that these runners are our brothers in Christ, then that’s an abuse of the allegory. We are in a race, but we’re not in competition with our brothers. This explanation goes beyond the scope of Paul’s teaching of persistence. Paul did not have competition with our brothers in mind when he used his analogy, or when he taught on persistence. Allegory should only explain the teaching without adding any new idea to the teaching.

Like Paul, we can use allegory in this way because we aren’t inventing a new Biblical teaching. We’re only explaining the Biblical teaching that already exists, or at least that is what we should be doing.

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