It’s no secret that there are a lot of different ways to read the Bible. Nowadays each one has his own interpretation, and these interpretations are the cause of division, but it was not always so. Allegory, or spiritualizing ordinary words and phrases of Scripture beyond their one clear meaning, used to be a far more commonly employed method of interpretation. Perhaps the relative unity of the visible church in the past was due in part to this flexible method of reading & understanding the Bible, where different interpretations could peacefully coexist alongside each other because they weren’t based on the clear words of Scripture. Once someone holds only to the clear words of Scripture, then visible separation occurs. This is good, right, and salutary, for it shows the difference between true and false doctrine. It can have adverse consequences in this world, but the eternal benefits far outweigh them. (But we digress.)
This quote of Augustine concerning Psalm 8 is an example of allegory. In the heading for Psalm 8, the word gittith could be a reference to a musical key, or perhaps to wine-presses. Then the idea would be that this would be a song sung like the songs sung around wine-presses, during the grape harvest. But the meaning of the word isn’t entirely sure. Here Augustine comments on that term gittith in typical fashion:
1. He seems to say nothing of wine-presses in the text of the Psalm of which this is the title. By which it appears, that one and the same thing is often signified in Scripture by many and various similitudes. We may then take wine-presses to be Churches, on the same principle by which we understand also by a threshing-floor the Church. For whether in the threshing-floor, or in the wine-press, there is nothing else done but the clearing the produce of its covering; which is necessary, both for its first growth and increase, and arrival at the maturity either of the harvest or the vintage. Of these coverings or supporters then; that is, of chaff, on the threshing-floor, the corn; and of husks, in the presses, the wine is stripped: as in the Churches, from the multitude of worldly men, which is collected together with the good, for whose birth and adaptating to the divine word that multitude was necessary, this is effected, that by spiritual love they be separated through the operation of God’s ministers. For now so it is that the good are, for a time, separated from the bad, not in space, but in affection: although they have converse together in the Churches, as far as respects bodily presence. But another time will come, the corn will be stored up apart in the granaries, and the wine in the cellars. “The wheat,” saith he, “He will lay up in garners; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable.” [Luke iii. 17.] The same thing may be thus understood in another similitude: the wine He will lay up in cellars, but the husks He will cast forth to cattle: so that by the bellies of the cattle we may be allowed by way of similitude to understand the pains of hell. (St. Augustine, Exposition of the Book of Psalms)
After he has commented on the entire psalm, Augustine notes before he closes:
Not that these names can be understood and explained in this way only, but the explanation of them must be according to the place where they are found. For elsewhere they have other meanings. And this rule must be kept to in every allegory, that what is expressed by the similitude should be considered agreeably to the meaning of the particular place: for this is the manner of the Lord’s and the Apostles’ teaching. (St. Augustine, Exposition of the Book of Psalms)
Interesting that even in the realm of allegory certain rules are observed. Much of the mischief attributable to allegory can be eliminated by simply sticking with the words of the text, but that seems rarer and rarer all the time — which makes it even more important that we do so when we read, hear, and ponder Scripture.