Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Literal Interpretation Is Harder than Allegory

“Literalism” frequently gets a bad rap nowadays when it comes to the Bible. The word “literal” is fraught with ambiguities, especially in its modern usages, which I have no intention of getting into here. But the practice of reading the Bible ad litteram–“according to the natural sense of the words,” perhaps–of course goes back to the ancient church; and at least one very bright theological mind found it more difficult and intimidating than allegoresis.

Thus in his Retractationes (“Reconsiderations”), Augustine’s late-career review of his works, he says this about an unfinished ad litteram (“literal”) commentary on Genesis, a book he worked on frequently. He says (I quote from the translation of Roy Deferrari):

After I had composed the two books of On Genesis, against the Manichaeans, and had explained the words of Scripture according to their allegorical meaning, not presuming to explain such great mysteries of natural things literally–that is, in what sense the statements there made can be interpreted according to their historical signification–I wanted to test my capabilities in this truly most taxing and difficult work also. But in explaining the Scriptures, my inexperience collapsed under the weight of so heavy a load which I could not endure. (Retractationes 1.17).

He was not, he felt, disciplined in the study of the Bible to sufficiently expound it according to the letter at this stage, though he could do so allegorically. The weight of the natural sense crushed him. He would return to his attempt later, writing a new work in twelve books:

But while I was re-examining my writings in the present work, this very book came into my hands, unfinished as it was, which I had not published and which I had decided to destroy since, at a later time, I wrote twelve books entitled On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. Although in those books many questions seem to have been proposed rather than solved, yet this present book is by no means to be compared with those books. But, still, after I had re-examined this book, I decided to keep it so that it might serve as evidence, useful in my opinion, of my first attempts to explain and search into the divine Scriptures, and I determined that its title should be One Unfinished Book on the Literal Meaning of Genesis. (ibid.)


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.