The term allegory, being derived from allo agoreuein, signifying to say something different from what the words themselves imply, can etymologically be applied to any figurative form of expression of thought. In actual usage in theology, the term is employed in a restricted sense, being used however in three ways, namely, rhetorically, hermeneutically and homiletically. In the first-mentioned sense it is the ordinary allegory of rhetoric, which is usually defined as an extended or continued metaphor, this extension expanding from two or more statements to a whole volume, like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Allegories of this character abound in the Scriptures, both in Old Testament and in New Testament. Instructive examples of this kind are found in
Psalms 80:8-19; Ecclesiastes 12:3-7; John 10:1-16; Ephesians 6:11-17. According to traditional interpretation of both the Jewish exegesis and of the Catholic and Protestant churches the entire book of Canticles is such an allegory. The subject is discussed in full in Terry's Biblical Hermeneutics, etc., chapter vii, 214-38.
In the history of Biblical exegesis allegory represents a distinct type of interpretation, dating back to pre-Christian times, practiced particularly by the Alexandrian Jews, and adopted by the early Church Fathers and still practiced and defended by the Roman Catholic church. This method insists that the literal sense, particularly of historical passages, does not exhaust the divinely purposed meaning of such passages, but that these latter also include a deeper and higher spiritual and mystical sense. The fourfold sense ascribed to the Scriptures finds its expression in the well-known saying:
Littera gesta docet; quid credas, allegorica; moralis, quid agas, quid speres, anagogica ("The letter shows things done; what you are to believe, the allegoric; what you are to do, the moral; what you are to hope, the anagogic"), according to which the allegorical is the hidden dogmatical meaning to be found in every passage.
Cremer, in his Biblico-Theological New Testament Lexicon, shows that this method of finding a hidden thought behind the simple statement of a passage, although practiced so extensively on the Jewish side by Aristobulus and especially Philo, is not of Jewish origin, but was, particularly by the latter, taken from the Alexandrian Greeks (who before this had interpreted Greek mythology as the expression of higher religious conceptions) and applied to a deeper explanation of Old Testament historical data, together with its theophanies, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathies, and the like, which in their plain meaning were regarded as unworthy of a place in the Divine revelation of the Scriptures. Such allegorizing became the common custom of the early Christian church, although not practiced to the same extent in all sections, the Syrian church exhibiting the greatest degree of sobriety in this respect. In this only Jewish precedent was followed; the paraphrases commonly known as the Targum, the Midrash, and later in its most extreme form in the Kabbalah, all showed this mark of eisegesis instead of exegesis. This whole false hermeneutical principle and its application originated doubtless in an unhistorical conception of what the Scriptures are and how they originated. It is characteristic of the New Testament, and one of the evidences of its inspiration, that in the entire Biblical literature of that age, both Jewish and Christian, it is the only book that does not practice allegorizing but abides by the principle of the literal interpretation. Nor is Paul's exegesis in Galatians 4:21-31 an application of false allegorical methods. Here in Galatians 4:24 the term allegoroumena need not be taken in the technical sense as expressive of a method of interpretation, but merely as a paraphrase of the preceding thought; or, if taken technically, the whole can be regarded as an argumentum ad hominem, a way of demonstration found also elsewhere in Paul's writings.
The Protestant church, beginning with Luther, has at all times rejected this allegorizing and adhered to the safe and sane principle, practiced by Christ and the entire New Testament, namely, Sensum ne inferas, sed efferas ("Do not carry a meaning into (the Scriptures) but draw it out of (the Scriptures)"). It is true that the older Protestant theology still adheres to a sensus mysticus in the Scriptures, but by this it means those passages in which the sense is conveyed not per verba (through words), but per res verbis descriptas ("through things described by means of words"), as e.g. in the parable and the type.
In homiletics allegorizing is applied to the method which draws spiritual truths from common historical statements, as e.g. when the healing of a leper by Christ is made the basis of an exposition of the healing of the soul by the Saviour. Naturally this is not interpretation in the exegetical sense.
G. H. Schodde