One phrase I find myself repeating to believers is, “Interpreting the Bible has rules.” It seems that whenever I enter a conversation with a Christian about reading their Bible, many of them are struggling to figure out what God is saying. Part of the problem is that they have never been taught to interpret what they read correctly. The other part of the problem is that so many people do it so poorly and yet are vocal about their findings.
Case in point, over the past couple of weeks, I have read articles shared on social media that were the use of allegory in interpretation. While this type of thing has existed in Church communities since the beginning of the New Testament, it is always dismissed as poor Bible teaching at best and heresy at worst. Since it seems to be on the rise again, I felt it necessary to explain what I am seeing.
Allegory, when it is used in interpretation, is the quest for some deeper hidden meaning or application. One I have heard regularly is about the catching of the 153 fish after Jesus’ resurrection in John 21:11. Allegory teaches that those fish actually represent all of the nations on earth, and the disciples are to try and catch (as fishers of men) all of the world. Instead of these being fishermen who like to obsess over how many literal fish they catch (trust me I know), there is this hidden meaning of nations and the figurative fish of evangelism.
There are hundreds of examples. The star at Christmas is actually the life of Christians shining to lead others to Jesus. Peter catching a coin in the mouth of a fish to pay taxes is actually Churches reaching new believers to fund their budget. Eutychus in Acts 20 represents new believers dying because of a boring Church. And on and on it goes. The idea is that if you look closely and use some “creative license,” you can learn some hidden truth.
The interpretation of scripture as allegory is widespread and sometimes fascinating, but it betrays what the author originally meant, and therefore it leaves us on the quicksand of creative application. It makes the Biblical writers say things they never meant to say and lead us toward false conclusions, attitudes, and actions.
When reading the Bible, always ask yourself, “What is the plain meaning of this passage?” as the first step toward a proper understanding. If it takes some creative thinking to get a meaning few have seen before, then you are probably on your way to allegory rather than appropriate interpretation.