The Symbol-Story Principle of Biblical Interpretation

If you have been following this series on biblical interpretation skills then you may have this question: I understand that symbols may be used in texts but what happens when it appears that the whole passage is symbolic? You just discovered the Symbol-Story Principle.

The Symbol-Story Principle is also known as the allegorical principle. An allegory is a story, poem, or picture in which a deeper meaning is communicated. This principle helps us know how to interpret a passage where every element seems to be symbolic. Sometimes this occurs in end-times literature, but the most common place for this principle to show up is in Jesus’ parables. That’s why I call it the Symbol-Story Principle. This principle is like the Symbol Principle on steroids. Every detail of the passage has a symbolic or figurative meaning. Allegory was a common teaching method in the ancient Mediterranean world. We also see it in more modern literature like A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

Let’s look at one of the best known parables Jesus used. This parable is titled differently in theological discussions but you may know it as the Parable of the Sower. Sometimes it is called the Parable of the Soils, probably because it is a symbol-story or an allegory. This parable is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Read it in Luke 8:4-15 (ESV). Notice after Jesus tells this story about sowing into four different soils, the disciples asked Jesus what it meant (v. 9 ff). Jesus then takes the story a part and identifies each detail’s deeper meaning:

table

Now think it through. What does the story say? What does the story mean? You quickly see the story is not about soils, seeds, and sowing. It is about a person’s response to hearing God’s Word.

Below you will find another parable that is allegorical. Take the details apart like we did above and see how you can interpret the passage.

Reflection: Practice this principle on your own. Read Luke 20:9-19. Think it through and use some of the Bible study resources you have. Who is represented by the vineyard owner, the tenants, the servants send by the owner, and the owner’s beloved son? How do verses 16b- 19 help you interpret this passage?

Learn More: Dr. Bob Utley has an excellent, brief discussion about interpreting parables in his website, www.freebiblecommentary.org. His resources are very valuable to the small group leader.

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