What not to say about interpreting the Bible literally – Gregory of Nyssa

The following is taken and modified from a outline on Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses I will be presenting for a class.

In this work, Gregory of Nyssa presents a spiritual-moral-contemplative-allegorical interpretation of Moses’ life with the theme of virtue as its driving paradigm for his interpretive ‘insights.’ To say the least, most of his interpretations are rather outlandish. His goal is that “by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of things spoken literally” (II.320) “those who have been striving toward virtue may find aid in living the virtuous life” (II.49, 148).

Below I’ll present something like a critique of his interpretive method that I’ll offer in my class presentation. My critique is stated as such: “Inappropriate use of allegorical interpretation.”


  • Allegorical interpretation of literature is legitimate if the literature is meant to be interpreted allegorically (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress). The Pentateuch is not such literature.
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If I had to summarize typology…

Typology

If I had to summarize typology simply and briefly, this is how I’d do it.

  • Typology is not…
    • Allegory.
      • Allegory is not directly concerned with the meaning of the text. It’s interested in a spiritual or moral meaning that goes beyond the text.
      • Allegory is not directly concerned with the significance of the historical realities. It’s interested in ascribing spiritual meanings to these historical realities.
    • Making connections between obscure and insignificant details.
  • Typology is best understood as a “prophetic paradigm” – A type is a historical event, person, or institution in the storyline of scripture that serves as an anticipatory (“prophetic”) model/pattern (“paradigm”) for a greater reality (antitype) in God’s story of salvation.
  • Typology is rooted in…
    • The overarching storyline of scripture – These Biblical events, persons, and institutions occur within the storyline of scripture. This story takes place within the context of the covenants, is propelled forward by covenant promises, and therefore has a built in sense of anticipation as the story heads towards fulfillment. Therefore, these Biblical persons, events, and institutions have a special significance as they occur in God’s unfolding plan of salvation with the anticipation of its climax.
    • God’s nature (e.g., His sovereignty, omniscience, etc.) and a theological understanding of history – God’s providence over and guidance of history means that history is significant. These historical events, persons, and institutions should be understood as intentionally designed and revelatory.
    • God’s unchanging character – Since God is consistently true to His character, God’s previous actions, institutions, and appointed individuals/offices reveal something of His unchanging character as it relates to God’s future actions, institutions, and individuals/offices.

The Difference Between Typology and Allegory

You may have read my previous post entitled, Are “Authorial Intent” and “Christ-Centered” Mutually Exclusive? (if not, you may want to do so before continuing, although it’s not necessary).

But this post prompts the question, if we are to preach Christ in all of Scripture (that is, preach Christotelically; see my previous post Christ in the Old Testament: Christocentric or Christotelic Hermeneutic?), are we allegorizing? If Christ is not at all present in a text, then are we spiritualizing the text by preaching Christ?

I have had enough experience with a certain school of interpretation to realize that many people answer this question in the affirmative–unfortunately. It has appeared to me, however, that part of their reason for doing so was a fundamental misunderstanding, a confusion of typology and allegory.[1] So, let me try to spell out some of the basic, introductory differences between typology and allegory.

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