The allegorical (or spiritualizing) method of interpretation was prominent in the church for about 1,000 years until it was displaced during the Reformation. The Reformers sought the “plain meaning” of Scripture.
Allegorical interpretation looks for a deeper, spiritual meaning within the text. While not necessarily denying that the text has a literal meaning or that the historical incidents reported are true, allegorical interpreters will look for a deeper symbolic meaning. Some examples may be helpful:
The Song of Solomon is often interpreted allegorically as referring to the love that Christ has for the church.
In the Scofield Reference Bible, C. I. Scofield interprets Genesis 1:16 allegorically. While not denying the plain meaning of the verse regarding creation, he finds a deeper spiritual (he calls it typological) meaning. The greater light/sun is Christ, and the lesser light/moon is the church, reflecting the light of Christ, and the stars are individual believers.
In his Portraits of Christ in Genesis, M. R. DeHaan says that Adam is a type of Christ because Adam was put to sleep, his side was opened—he was wounded and his blood was shed—and from that wound his bride was taken. In the same way, Christ died, had His side pierced, and from that ordeal His Bride, the church, is produced. Just as Adam said that Eve was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (Genesis 2:23), so the church is the body, flesh, and bone of Christ (see Ephesians 5:30).
Perhaps the most famous instance of allegorical interpretation is Origen’s explanation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. In the allegorical view, the man who is robbed is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The priest is the Law, and the Levites are the Prophets. The Samaritan is Christ. The donkey is Christ’s physical body, which bears the burden of the wounded man (the wounds are his sins), and the inn is the Church. The Samaritan’s promise to return is a promise of the second coming of Christ.
We need to recognize that allegory is a beautiful and legitimate literary device. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was written as an allegory of the Christian life. In this story, almost every action and character is intended to have a deeper, spiritual meaning. To interpret Bunyan’s story literally would be to miss the point completely.
Really, there is little difference between allegorical, typological, and symbolic interpretation. They all look for a deeper meaning behind what would seem to be a literal reading of the Bible’s text. However, these methods should not be set in opposition to “literal interpretation,” because every interpreter recognizes that some passages of the Bible are intended to be taken symbolically, typologically, or allegorically. For instance, Ecclesiastes 12:1–7 speaks of a dilapidated estate, but this is an allegory for the ravages of age and time upon the human body. All Christians would agree that the Old Testament sacrifices are symbolic for the greater sacrifice of Christ. When Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5), no one expects to find leaves and clusters of grapes sprouting from their arms. Even those who insist on a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation still expect “the Beast” to be a man, not an animal (see Revelation 13:4).
To insist upon a literal reading for a passage of Scripture that was intended to be taken in a symbolic manner is to miss the meaning of the text. For instance, at the Last Supper Jesus says of the bread and wine, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood” (Luke 22:19–20). Jesus’ hearers in the room were partaking of a Passover meal in which every item on the menu was interpreted symbolically. For them to suddenly think that Jesus was speaking literally regarding these two elements is completely foreign to the context. Metaphor is a recognized literary device in use today and in the time of Christ. Jesus could have just as easily said, “This represents my body and my blood,” but in the context of the Passover, such directness was not necessary.
The problem with the allegorical method of interpretation is that it seeks to find an allegorical interpretation for every passage of Scripture, regardless of whether or not it is intended to be understood in that way. Interpreters who allegorize can be very creative, with no control based in the text itself. It becomes easy to read one’s own beliefs into the allegory and then think that they have scriptural support.
There will always be some disagreement about whether certain texts are to be taken literally or figuratively and to what degree, as evidenced by disagreements over the book of Revelation, even among those who have high regard for Scripture. For a text to be interpreted allegorically or figuratively, there needs to be justification in the text itself or something in the cultural background of the original readers that would have led them to understand the text symbolically. The goal of every interpreter who has a high view of Scripture is to discover the intended meaning of the text. If the intended meaning is simply the literal communication of a historical fact or the straightforward explanation of a theological truth, then that is the inspired meaning. If the intended meaning is allegorical/typological/symbolic/figurative, then the interpreter should find some justification for it in the text and in the culture of the original hearers/readers.