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Preaching Christ in the Old Testament has become a topic of great interest among evangelical preachers today. While this is by no means a new issue, our desire to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God in a gospel-centered or Christ-centered way has led to a growing renewal in understanding how we can rightly “find” Christ in the Old Testament. Almost without exception, those who teach and write on preaching Christ from the Old Testament emphatically reject the use of allegory in preaching from the Old Testament (see for example, Edmund Clowney, Preaching Christ from All of Scripture, and Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Preaching Christ from Genesis, and Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes).

The question needs to be raised, however, whether the stigma associated with allegory and the outright rejection of preaching allegorically from the Old Testament should be maintained. Clowney notes that many preachers warned about preaching allegorically have also shied away from identifying people, places, events, or themes in the Old Testament as types (Preaching Christ from All of Scripture, 31). The history of biblical interpretation sheds some helpful light on this question. In particular, because the Reformation had such a significant effect on how we read and preach the Bible today, it is worth considering whether John Calvin and his contemporaries would have share the same reluctance to preach allegory from the Old Testament.

Different Understanding

First, it is important to recognize that the most common understanding of “allegory” today differs from the way the reformers—and their predecessors—understood it. Most of us likely assume that allegory allows preachers to make the text say whatever they want. We understand allegory to be an arbitrary metaphor that finds a symbolic meaning of some spiritual truth in certain features of a biblical passage without any regard for the context or meaning of that passage.

To distinguish from symbolic meanings that are in the Old Testament, it has become common to use the term “typology” to refer to representations based on a historical reality that anticipate another future historical reality. The straightforward differentiation between these terms, however, originated in the 20th century as an aspect of the modern interest in the historical concerns of biblical interpretation. (See, for example, Aubrey Spears, “Preaching the Old Testament” in Hearing the Old Testament, 396. For a helpful summary and critique of the agenda behind these kinds of claims, see J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God, 149-194.) This simple distinction between allegory, which ignores history, and typology, which is based on history, is currently being challenged, particularly because interpreters throughout history did not refer to “allegories” or “types” in this way.

Until recently, it was widely accepted that in the fourth century two “schools of exegesis” established two different approaches to interpreting the Bible. The Alexandrians, such as Origen, Clement, and Cyril, favored the use of allegorical interpretation. The Antiochenes, such as Diodore, Theodore Mopsuestia, and Chrysostom, rejected allegory and favored literal and historical interpretation. The stated contrast between these two traditions then provided the basis for assessing the Reformation as characterized by “the widespread rejection of allegory . . . that represented a kind of return to the hermeneutical principles of the Antiochene school” (Al Wolters, “The History of Old Testament Interpretation: An Anecdotal Survey” in Hearing the Old Testament, 33.)

Blurry Boundaries

However, this portrayal is oversimplified. The boundaries between these two traditions are much blurrier. Both traditions had similar training for how to interpret the Bible. Both employed allegorical methods. And the later exegetical tradition incorporated elements and interpretations from interpreters of both these traditions. As a result, the reformers’ primary reaction against allegory, was its abuse—not its existence.

The changes in biblical interpretation during the Reformation were part of a gradual shift toward a stronger emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture that had already begun as early as the 13th century. During the Middle Ages, the primary approach to interpreting the Bible was the “fourfold sense” of Scripture. The fourfold approach sought to find multiple meanings in each text. This approach was often summarized by a poetic verse, “The letter teaches what happened, allegory what you should believe, the moral what you should do, anagogy to what you should aim” (Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture).

In theory, though not always in practice, the three spiritual senses were to be built on the literal sense. However, as the reformers pointed out, many in the exegetical tradition had departed from the genuine sense of Scripture by inventing all kinds of allegories that obscured the literal sense. It was this abuse of allegories (as well as the abuse of the other spiritual senses) that they rejected, and not simply the use of allegory itself.

The reformers certainly did not disallow the practice of discerning “what you should believe” from Old Testament passages. Rather they retained the components of the fourfold sense by relocating them within a more expansive understanding of the literal sense that contained a message concerning what Christians should believe, do, and hope. Sometimes they connected the teaching of the Old Testament to the teaching of the New Testament by allegory. But they did not assume that allegory had to be disconnected from the literal or historical sense. That was in fact what they abhorred about the way it had been used.

Calvin and other Reformed interpreters allowed for and approved of allegorical interpretations, but only if they were simple, useful for instruction, and consistent with the New Testament (For further analysis of Calvin’s approach to allegorical interpretation, see John L. Thompson, “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim, 67-70; Raymond Blacketer, The School of God: Pedagogy and Rhetoric in Calvin’s Interpretation of Deuteronomy, 220-232, 269; T.H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries, 70-82; David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, 105-113; Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms, 77-101.) Calvin’s use of allegory was more limited than most of his predecessors, as well as his use of typology. He rarely labeled his interpretations as allegory, but instead referred to them using rhetorical categories or calling them analogies, metaphors, and applications. However, he did not entirely reject allegory as one way of teaching what Christians ought to believe from the Old Testament.

A few examples from Calvin’s comments on Genesis reveal ways he taught the Old Testament that many preachers today would hesitate to follow because they might get chastised for preaching allegorically. Calvin actually affirmed “Ambrose’s allegory” that just as Jacob received the blessing because the odor of his older brother’s clothes pleased his father, so also Christians are blessed when we receive from Christ, our older brother, “the robe of righteousness, which by its odor procures [our heavenly Father’s] favor” (John Calvin, Genesis: The Crossway Classic Commentaries, 239). He identified that “Jacob at that time represented the person of Christ” because Christ was figuratively speaking in his body when God promised that all nations would be blessed in him (Genesis, 250). He taught that the angel who wrestled with Jacob “must be understood to refer to Christ . . . because he has been and is the perpetual mediator” (Genesis, 360). And Calvin affirmed that “in the person of Joseph, a living image of Christ is presented” (Genesis, 296). These are just a few cases where Calvin offered symbolic interpretations not explicitly identified in the New Testament or connected to historical matters. Calvin and other Reformed interpreters used several methods to connect Old Testament texts to the larger divine context in order to explain how they pointed to Christ and his church. Sometimes they made these connections by teaching that the words further symbolized a greater truth.

Renewed Way

So what would Calvin say to preachers today? On the one hand, Calvin thought it was frivolous and often unnecessary or unfruitful to look for allegories. He stressed the simple sense of Scripture, which allegories could too easily distort. He felt that allegories had often been used as a shortcut to Christ that didn’t take the original message seriously enough.

Yet on the other hand, he did not entirely reject allegories when they could be used appropriately. If we insist on defining “allegory” as arbitrary and disconnected from history, then of course, Calvin would rightly reject that kind of preaching. But if we acknowledge that “allegory” is a way to perceive symbolic representations of “what you should believe” beyond the surface level, then we may be able to connect appropriate features in an Old Testament passage with a greater truth revealed in Christ.

In fact, good preaching mandates that we do more than simply recount a historical sense of text, but rather we must also proclaim how this particular word from God teaches us what to believe, what it calls us to do, and where we should place our hope. The real issue—both today and in Calvin’s time—is that we avoid arbitrary and completely subjective readings of the text. But rather than following a modern redefinition of “allegory” that makes it pejorative and forces us to rule out the practice altogether, perhaps we need to refine our approach to allow for identifying simple, useful, and suitable representations in the text that symbolically point to a greater truth.

Even as cautious as Calvin was in his limited use of allegory, he still wanted interpreters and preachers to recognize all the elements in God’s unfolding story that point us to Christ. The reformers’ call to correct the abuses of allegory still resounds today, but perhaps we need to hear it again in a renewed way.