Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Efficacy of Salvation in the Allegorical Reading of Scripture: Learning from Origen

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Efficacy of Salvation in the Allegorical Reading of Scripture: Learning from Origen

Article excerpt


This article explores the possibility of returning to the practice of ancient allegorical interpretation as a resource for developing a post-critical theological reading of Scripture that prioritizes its formative significance for contemporary scriptural readers. What I am after is not the specific theological conclusions proposed within an ancient reading of a scriptural text. Those conclusions are, no doubt, interesting, but often force the comparison between ancient allegorical practice and various modern exegetical strategies in a distracting and unhelpful way. I want instead to see allegorical reading as a phenomenon that arises within a set of theological commitments about the impact of scriptural reading--its soteriological efficacy--on the reader.

I go about this task in three steps. First, I problematize the contemporary scholarly distinction between typology and allegory, seeing it as supporting an often unwarranted anxiety about ancient allegorical practice. This anxiety, usually involving the relationship between interpretation and history, presses allegorical readings into a predetermined opposition to history in a way that argumentatively begs the question in favor of discreet typological reading. It will be important to notice how such modern discreet categories not only obscure the variety of nonliteral reading practices in the ancient period--not noticing how they work together--but also belie certain theological commitments about the efficacy of scriptural reading that gives allegorical forms their force. Second, I take up the discussion of "figural" scriptural reading in Erich Auerbach's essay "Figura," showing how his theory of figural interpretation both preserves and surpasses the assumptions of the allegory/typology distinction, thus providing a framework that pinpoints the benefits and dangers of nonliteral interpretation. Nevertheless, recognizing Auerbach's hesitance to affirm the procedures of the allegorical readings of Origen of Alexandria, the paragon of ancient Christian allegorical interpretation, I turn to Origen's theology and his second homily on Genesis to explore how his reading strategies depend on a picture of scriptural soteriological efficacy, bringing the ancient writings to bear on the contemporary ecclesial formation of the Christian reader. With the help of Henri de Lubac and Karen Jo Torjesen, I argue that Origen's allegorical reading presumes a theological relationship between Scripture and the reader that allows past events preserved in ancient Scripture to contribute to the contemporary soteriological formation of the reader, thus including the reader into the transformative import of the scriptural text. (1)

Allegory and Typology

The term "allegory" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] has been used since the ancient period and is associated with interpretive strategies that have been questioned and criticized for about just as long. No doubt the origin of its meaning, literally "to say something other," (2) has often sparked a suspicion that interpretive uses of allegory do a disservice to the meaning of the text under analysis. Yet the Christian incorporation of allegory as a way of reading Scripture has involved a distinct set of questions that attempt to determine whether ancient Christian allegorical reading bears direct methodological influence from early Platonic, Gnostic, and Philonic uses of allegorical interpretation. Attempting to differentiate between allegory and what has come to be called "typology" (derived from the Latin typologia) has been thought to assist modern scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis in differentiating between properly Christian interpretive commitment regarding Scripture and otherwise non-Christian influences that bore on ancient Christian interpretation.

One of the first twentieth-century scholars to incorporate this distinction, Jean Danielou, attempted to discern what in Origen's exegetical writings derived from the Christian tradition and what involved carryover from other non-Christian sources. …

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