Tag Archives: allegory

Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible


  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

∞ Allegory and Metaphor

Jonathan Pennington has some helpful thoughts on allegory and metaphor using the story of the rich young ruler while looking back at past interpretations between the Reformers and the Church Fathers:

Specifically, what I mean is this — Any theological or applicational reading is metaphorical, substituting what is in the text for some idea or truth, reading the events or characters of a story for the purpose of saying something else. In this way, the difference between the Reformers’ reading and the oft-villified allegorical readings of the Fathers is shown to be a difference not of kind but only of form and judgment.

Read the whole thing here.

The Viability of Augustine’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37), which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[1]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Roland Teske[2] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[3]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.


  1. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in the same way as modern day exegetes by explaining the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  2. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  3. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

Photo Credit: Renata Sedmakova MADRID – MARCH 10: Modern mosiac of Good Samaritan by pater Rupnik from Capilla del Santisimo in Almudena cathedral on March 10, 2013 in Spain.

Origen and His Rejection of Allegory

Origen, a proponent of spiritual interpretation and allegory, rejects an interpretation that is outside of the unifying message of scripture. The context of this writing is his homily on Luke 2:33–34[1], which says that Jesus has been “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Origen takes time to show how Marcion twists the scriptures and doesn’t see the unity in them.

They say, “Behold the god of the law and the prophets! See what sort of god he is! He says, ‘I shall kill and I shall make alive. I shall strike and I shall heal. There is no one who can escape my hands.’” They hear, “I shall kill,” and do not hear, “I shall make alive.” They hear, “I shall strike,” and refuse to hear, “I shall heal.” With instances like this they misrepresent the Creator(67).

Origen then goes on to explain that Jesus also came for judgment. He cites this passage and John 9:39 and shows that there is a unity in the scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He hypothetically asks how will they respond to these passages? He concludes that they will try to twist the scriptures by allegorization and figures of speech. He says:

Will they cease worshipping him, or will they seek another interpretation and take refuge in figures of speech, so that what comes “for the falling” implies benevolence rather than severity? How can it be just, when something like this is found in the Gospel, to take refuge in allegories and new interpretations, but, in the case of the Old Testament, immediately to make accusations and not to accept any explanation, no matter how probable (67)?

Often times as modern readers when we read allegory we automatically assume some flippant use of Scripture to twist the meaning. But here it seems clear from Origen’s own writing that there is some methodology and limits to figural reading and allegory. One of these hermeneutical keys is the rule of faith and the unity of the scriptures. Clearly, Origen saw Marcion and his followers using an interpretation that was outside the rule of faith.

I find it interesting that a man known for allegory and figural readings of scripture rejects a certain kind of allegory that goes against the unified message of the scriptures.


  1. Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩