Andrew Fuller Friday: On the Abuse of Allegory in Preaching

After what several able writers have produced of late years upon this practice, particularly the late Dr. Stennett on the Parable of the Sower, it might have been expected that this evil would at least have been considerably diminished. But the misfortune is, those who are most addicted to this way of preaching seem in general to have very little inclination to read. Whether they deem it unlawful, as involving them in the sin charged upon the prophets, of stealing every one from his neighbour—or whether they be so enamoured of their own thoughts as to set all others at defiance—I cannot decide; but certain it is, that many preach as if they had never read or thought upon the subject.

Very little observation will convince us that the preachers with whom this practice mostly prevails are of the lower sort with respect to seriousness and good sense, however high they may affect to soar in their notions. Of such characters I have but little hope. But as some godly men are, I believe, too much infected with this disease, if the editor will indulge me with two or three pages in the Magazine, I will expostulate with one of them on the causes and consequences of his conduct.

Let me entreat you then, my friend, to consider, in the first place, whether, when you turn plain historical facts into allegory, you treat the word of God with becoming reverence. Can you seriously think the Scriptures to be a book of riddles and conundrums, and that a Christian minister is properly employed in giving scope to his fancy, in order to discover their solution? I have been asked the meaning of certain passages of Scripture; and when I have answered according to what appeared to be the scope of the sacred writer, it has been said, “Yes, that may be the literal meaning; but what is the spiritual meaning of it?” as though every part of Scripture had a spiritual, that is, a hidden or allegorical meaning, besides its obvious one. That some parts of Scripture are allegorical—that some prophecies have a double reference—and that the principle suggested by many a passage may be applied to other things besides what is immediately intended—there is no doubt; but this is very different from the practice to which I allude. All Scripture is profitable in some way; some for doctrine, some for reproof, some for correction, and some for instruction in righteousness; but all is not to be turned into allegory. If we must play, let it be with things of less consequence than the word of the eternal God!

Secondly, Consider whether the motive that stimulates you to such a manner of treating the sacred oracles be any other than vanity. If you preached to a people possessed of any thing like good sense, they would consider it as perverting the whole word of God, and whipping it into froth. Instead of applauding you, they would be unable to endure it. But if your people be ignorant, such things will please them; and they may gaze, and admire, and smile, and say one to another, it may be in your hearing too, Well, what a man! Who would have thought that he would have found so much gospel in that text? Ah, very true: who indeed? But what would the apostle Paul say? “Are ye not carnal?” Is it for a man of God to “court a grin when he should woo a soul?” For shame! desist from such folly, or lay aside the Christian ministry! You are commanded to “feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood;” but it is not every thing pleasing to a people that feeds them in the sense of the apostle. He did not mean to direct the Ephesian elders to feed men’s fancies, and still less their prejudices; but their spiritual desires: and this is accomplished only by administering to them the words of truth and soberness. If your preaching be such as God approves, and if you study to show yourself approved of him, it will lead the people to admire your Saviour rather than you, and render him the topic of their conversation.

Thirdly, Consider whether both you and your people be not in danger of mistaking this spiritualizing passion for spirituality of mind and a being led into “the deep things of God.” There are few objects at a greater distance than the effervescence of a vain imagination and that holy and humble spirit by which spiritual things are discerned; yet the one is often mistaken for the other. The preacher dreams of deep discoveries; and the people wonder to hear them: but what saith the Scriptures? “The prophet that hath only a dream must tell his dream, but he that hath God’s word, let him speak it faithfully: for what is the chaff to the wheat.”

Finally, Consider the consequences which must follow from this practice. If an unbeliever come into your assembly, and find you arraying Christianity in this fancy dress, is it likely he should be convinced of all—and, the secrets of his heart being made manifest, fall down and worship God, and report that God is among you, and that of a truth? If he hear you treat of the historical parts of Scripture as meaning something very different from what they appear to mean, will he not say you are mad, and be furnished with a handle for representing religion itself as void of truth and good sense? Or if he hear you interpret the miracles, which Christ wrought in proof of his Messiahship, of that change which is now wrought in the minds of sinners by the Spirit of God, will he not say that you yourselves appear to consider the whole as a string of fables, and are employed in finding out the morals of them?

But perhaps you are seldom attended by men of this description. Be it so; what, think you, must be the effect of such preaching on professing Christians, either nominal or real? The former will either fall asleep under it, as something which does not concern them; or, if they attend to you, and understand your interpretations, they will think they are quite in the secret, and set themselves down for deep Christians; when, in truth, they know nothing yet as they ought to know. And as to real Christians, their souls will either pine under your ministry, or, by contracting a false taste, will thirst after the froth of human fancy, to the neglect of the sincere milk of the word; and instead of growing in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, will make no progress in either.

It is an easy thing for a man of a luxuriant imagination, unencumbered by judgment, to make any thing he pleases of the Scriptures, as well as any other book; but in so doing he must destroy their simplicity, and of course their efficacy; which in fact is reducing them to nothing. If they be not applied to their appropriate uses, they are perverted; and a perverted good proves the greatest of evils. Thus it is that characters abound who are full of Scripture language, while yet they are awfully destitute of Scripture knowledge, or Scriptural religion.

Excerpt from Thoughts on Preaching.

Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 726–727). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.

By |January 15th, 2021|Categories: Andrew Fuller Friday, Blog|

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