Reformation Attitudes Toward Allegory

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  • 7/30/2019 Reformation Attitudes Toward Allegory


    Modern Language Association

    Reformation Attitudes toward Allegory and the Song of SongsAuthor(s): George L. ScheperSource: PMLA, Vol. 89, No. 3 (May, 1974), pp. 551-562Published by: Modern Language AssociationStable URL:

    Accessed: 26/02/2010 17:26

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  • 7/30/2019 Reformation Attitudes Toward Allegory


    GEORGE L. SCHEPERReformationAttitudes toward Allegory and theSong of Songs

    WHEN representative hermeneutic treatisesof the Middle Ages and the Reformationare examined closely, it becomes ratherdifficult to make generalizations about the dif-ferences in attitude toward the senses of Scripture(particularlyallegory)between the medieval theo-logians and the Reformers. This is confirmedby acomparative analysis of the medieval and Refor-mation commentaries on the Song of Songs, thelocus classicus of the allegorical interpretationofScripture,for the traditional allegorizationrestedsecure in the Reformation. Nonetheless, the mostcursory examination reveals fundamental differ-ences betweenmedieval and Protestantspiritualityas manifested in those commentaries. But the dif-ference has little to do with exegetic principles;rather, it stems from fundamentally different in-terpretations of the nuptial metaphor, the use ofhuman love to symbolize the love between Godand man.

    I. The Senses of Scriptureinthe ReformationPrevalent generalizations about Reformationexegesis, sharply differentiatingit from medievalallegorical exegesis in its heightened concern fortextual accuracy,historical context, and the plainliteral sense, lay great stress on certain famousanimadversionsby the early Reformers on medie-

    val allegory. These animadversions leave theimpression that the Reformers were simply andunequivocally opposed to anything other than asingle, literal sense of Scripture.1 In Luther'swords: "In the schools of theologians it is a well-known rule that Scriptureis to be understood infour ways, literal, allegoric, moral, anagogic. Butif we wish to handleScripturearight,our one effortwill be to obtain unum, simplicem, germanum, etcertum sensum literalem." "Each passage has oneclear,definite, and truesense of its own. All othersare but doubtful and uncertain opinions" (quoted

    in Farrar, p. 327; italics mine). Consequently,Luther's remarks on allegoryare characteristicallycaustic: "An interpretermust as much as possibleavoid allegory, that he may not wander in idledreams." "Allegoriesare empty speculations, andas it were the scum of Holy Scripture.""Allegoryis a sort of beautiful harlot, who proves herselfspecially seductive to idle men." "Allegories areawkward, absurd, invented, obsolete, loose rags"(Farrar, p. 328).Nonetheless, Luther does allow for a homileticuse of allegory for illustrative purposes.2More-over, the theoretical insistence on a plain literalsense tended to be belied in practiceby the rigorsof interpretingScripture accordingto the analogyof faith (i.e., interpretingScripture by Scripture)and especiallyby the readingof Christologyin thewhole Bible-two hallmarks of Luther's her-meneutics.3 The latter doctrine, that the Bibleeverywhere eaches Christ,necessitatesat least onekind of figural interpretation, typology, whichLuther and his followers would perforce sharplydistinguish from allegory.As Luther said, "WhenI was a monk, I was an expert in allegories. Iallegorized everything. Afterwards through theEpistle to the Romans I came to some knowledgeof Christ. There I saw that allegories were notwhat Christ meant but what Christ was."4 Thisaccounts for the fact that in practiceLuther can beas allegorical a commentator as Origenhimself-notably in his comments on Genesis, Job, Psalms,and above all the Song of Songs, for which he de-vised his own unique historical allegorization.Calvincarried forwardthe doctrine of one plainliteral sense with even greater thoroughness thanLuther and rejected allegorical interpretationevenwhen invokedfor purely ornamentalandhomileticpurposes. Yet on typology he was ambivalent.Theoretically,he professedto eschewtypology andChristocentric interpretations even of the pro-phetic writings.5But confronted with the typologi-551

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    ReformationAttitudes owardAllegoryand theSong of Songscal interpretations made by Paul himself, he isforced to regardthem as illustrativereferencesor"accommodations"6or else to admitthatmanyOldTestamenttypes actually referdirectlyor immedi-ately to Christ and not to the apparentreferentatall (lest a multiple sense be implied).7Moreover,Calvin and his followers were not averse to read-ing their favorite doctrines as applications intopassageswherea modernexpositorwould not findthem8and Calvin himself maintained that it wasless harmful to allegorize Mosaic law than to ac-cept its imperfectmoralityas the rule for Christianmen (see Farrar, p. 350). (We are reminded ofErasmus' dictum that "We might as well readLivy as Judges or other parts of the Old Testa-ment if we leave out the allegorical meaning,"quoted in Grant, p. 142.)We shall see how Calvinmaintained a completely traditional view of theallegoricalinterpretationof the Song of Songs, tothe point of expelling Castellio from Geneva fordenying it.For the English Protestanttradition, Tyndale'sObedienceof a ChristianMan has long been notedas the classic statement of antiallegorical, literalexegesis. In his section on the four senses ofmedieval exegesis, Tyndale views the allegoricalsenses as a papist device to secure Catholic doc-trines from scripturalrefutation:"The literalsenseis become nothing at all: for the pope hath takenit clean away, and hath made it his possession,"9so that our captivityunder the pope is maintainedby these "sophisters with their anagogical andchopological sense" (p. 307). In contrast, Tyndalestoutly maintains the doctrine of one literal sense:"Thou shalt understand,therefore,that the scrip-ture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense.And that literalsense is the root and ground of all,and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto, ifthou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of theway" (p. 304). For the whole of ScriptureteachesChrist, as Luther said, and as God is a spirit, allhis words are spiritual: "His literal sense isspiritual"(pp. 319-20). As for the parables, simili-tudes, and allegories used by Scripture writers,they are simply a part of the literal sense, just asour own figures of speech are an inherentpart ofour direct meaning, not another "sense." In in-terpreting such similitudes as are used by theScripture writers themselves, we must, Tyndalesays, avoid private interpretation, ever keep in"compass of the faith" (i.e., be guided by plain

    texts) and apply all to Christ(p. 317). That is, likeLuther, Tyndale theoretically admits only onekind of allegory, radically distinguished from allothers-typology.But as has been noted, there is a certain dis-crepancy between the purity of these theoreticalstatements, polemical in context, and the actualexegetic practice of the Reformers. Moreover, therejectionof allegoryand the insistence on one un-divided sense hinged for the early Reformers onmaintaininga radicaldistinctionbetweentypologyand allegory. But the more systematic Protestanthermeneutic treatises reveal, as Madsen hasshown, that any essential distinctionwas impossi-ble to maintain. For instance, Flacius Illyricus atfirst triedto fix the differenceby defining types as acomparison between historical deeds and allegoryas a matter of words having a secondary meaning-but this was no different from the old Catholicdiscriminationbetween figures of speech (part ofthe literalsense)and the spiritualsense(arisingoutof the significanceof things). So Flacius shifts to asecond distinction: that types are restricted toChristand the Church,while allegoriesare accom-modations to ourselves-but that is hardly an es-sential difference (being no more than the dis-tinction between allegoryproper and tropology inthe fourfold scheme) and breaks down his initialdistinction between the significances that arisefrom words and deeds.10In any case, types remain as a significant in-stance of what the Catholics called the spiritualsense but what the Reformers