Allegory: A Problem of Too Much Emphasis upon the Divine Author?

51tyut9onul-_sx331_bo1204203200_Vern Poythress, from his newly published book, interacting with Philo’s interpretation of 1 Sam 22:1-2:

Philonic [allegorical] interpretation seems outlandish to many modern people. But an ancient interpreter could defend it by saying that God intended these meanings as spiritual meanings in addition to the literal meanings lying on the surface. This kind of appeal to God’s meanings can produce strange results.

So does Philo’s problem arise from concentrating on the divine author and ignoring the human author? It might seem so. But further reflection shows that such a focus on the divine author is not actually the real source of the troubles. Theoretically, and appeal to the human author could produce equally strange results. The human author of 1-2 Samuel is unknown to us. If Philo could postulate that the divine author meant to communicate Platonic philosophy, he is equally free to postulate that an unknown human author meant to communicate such philosophy. Why not?

Though a person like Philo could attribute Platonic meanings to a human author, he would probably be less likely to do so. The attribution is more tempting in the case of a divine author, precisely because the divine author’s writings are authoritative. If Philo’s interpretation persuades people, the divine author seems to give authority to Platonic ideas that are actually Philo’s. As a result, Philo’s own ideas become authoritative, which obviously has an attraction for sinful pride. At the same time – and this may be the more important motive for Philo – his interpretation raises the status of a biblical writing in the eyes of those who already admire Platonic philosophy. It allegedly shows the compatibility of Scripture and the God of Scripture with the best of the Greek world. It builds an apologetic bridge.

Still, the same Philonic motives could in theory arise in dealing with a merely human author. The hidden intentions of a human author are really not any more accessible hermeneutically than the intentions of a divine author.

Vern S. Poythress, Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation (Crossway, 2012), 120-121.

For Poythress’s answer to a dilemma, you have to read the book! (And/or I’ll blog on it later as time allows!)

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA