Reading the Scriptures as Gospel: Figuratively – Brad Jersak

“If you aren’t reading the Scriptures allegorically,
you aren’t reading them as gospel.”
—Fr. John Behr

John Behr’s provocative statement surely triggers the Evangelical allergy for allegory, betraying a hermeneutic co-opted by modernism that privileges the literal sense into literalism. Is Behr’s bold claim hyperbole? How far is too far? Has he opened the door to an anything-goes subjective free-for-all with the Scriptures where we make them say whatever we want?


Allow me to reframe the issue in a series of questions I hope will reveal the obvious:

Do the Scriptures prefigure the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Yes. Christ both directly says so and shows that they do and how they do.
Remember, to prefigure means “to anticipate figuratively.”
Do the Scriptures anticipate the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ figuratively?
Yes, that is the consistent testimony of apostolic preaching.

How do we read the Scriptures such that we see them prefigure Christ?

To see how the Scriptures prefigure Christ, we must read them as figurative.
If you don’t read them as figurative—i.e. figuratively—you won’t see them prefiguring the gospel—you won’t read them as gospel.
Does the term ‘figuratively’ serve as an antihistamine for our allergy to allegory?
Guess what: same thing.

How far do we go in reading the Scriptures figuratively?

The question is not “how far is too far?” but rather, “How far is far enough?”
And Jesus tells us:
When we accept Christ’s claim that “Moses wrote about Me” (John 5:46).
When we see all that Moses, the Prophets and all the Scriptures say concerning Christ, how he must suffer and then enter his glory (Luke 24:27).

John’s Gospel models a figurative understanding of the Scriptures:

John’s Gospel identifies Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of its figures.

It presents the Jewish religious feasts and many symbols as types of Christ.
Christ fulfills them in both words and deeds, explaining and enacting their significance.
To read the Scriptures figuratively is to read them as John did: as gospel.

John invites and requires that we likewise read his Gospel figuratively.

John also frames the life of Christ as prophetic acts to be interpreted figuratively.
This is not to deny that Jesus actually turned water to wine or healed a blind man.
But for John, these acts (like those of Israel’s history) are themselves revelatory.
We read Jesus’ acts as purposeful and figurative. They communicate the gospel.
Both Jesus and John overtly say so or allude to the fact frequently within the narrative.
To read John’s Gospel figuratively (as allegory!) is to read it as gospel.

Won’t this become a subjective free-for-all?

What does this question imply? That Bible reading can be an objective science, where the locus of inspiration is entirely in the leather-bound copy and its truth extracted through rules of interpretation apart from the illumination of the reader by the Spirit.

Paul would regard that as a veiled reading of the letter that he dismisses as impossible (1 Cor. 2) and worse, a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 5). Put simply, illumination and transformation are subjective claims embedded in the New Testament notion of inspiration.

So, of course, Bible interpretation is subjective, if by that we mean there is an inspired message for the reader that addresses and transforms their lives by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

But is it a free-for-all through which we make the Scriptures say whatever we want? Of course not. The figurative sense is not derived from my personal whimsey, but from the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In fact, we’re not just speaking of a figurative reading. The claim here (on the Road to Emmaus) is that the Scriptures were written figuratively (or more precisely, prefiguratively). In David Bentley Hart’s notes to his translation of the New Testament, he suggests that the apostle Paul does not say that we should simply read the story of Sarah and Hagar allegorically. When Paul says, “This is an allegory” (Gal. 4:23-34 NRSV) the implication is that they were written to be read allegorically, at least by divine intent. That is, the Scriptures are objectively figurative. 

Thus, the Scriptures’ figurative sense is not from us or first of all about us.
The Scriptures spring from the Word, by the Spirit and are written about the Word AND therefore, to be interpreted as figurative gospel messages for us.

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Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More