On Allegorical Interpretation
By Robert Lewis Dabney
Dr. William H. McGuffie used to relate with a good deal of wit one of his own trials under this devious theory of interpretation [allegorical interpretation, ed.]. When a young preacher he had a charge in Northern Ohio; his preaching proved very attractive to a plain but enthusiastic old Baptist sister, who used to say to him: “If you would but follow your Lord into the liquid grave, you would be precisely the preacher to my mind.” One Sunday she asked him, with an air of mischievous triumph, to promise her that he would preach a sermon on a text she would give him; he replied that he would do so, provided his judgment should sanction the effort. She handed him a slip of a paper, containing the Bible reference to I Sam. 6:10. The words were: “And shut up their calves at home.”
The good lady, an undoubting allegorist, saw here a perfect proof that infants are not to be allowed to enter the visible church. Upon first seeing her aim, his inclination was to evade the request as an untimely jest with as much politeness as he might; but reflection showed him that he had here an opportunity of sufficient gravity to be seriously improved for explaining a mischievous scheme of misinterpretation, and also inculcating a useful moral and historical truth. He therefore prepared, carefully, a discourse on the text upon the following lines of thought, to wit: This narrative is not an allegory, but a plain recital of historical facts. Were the allegory admitted, it would prove nothing against paedobaptism; for let the calves stand for infant children; it is pagan idolaters and impostors, not inspired prophets or teachers of the true church, who excluded them from Zion. But the inspired historians meant to teach nothing for or against infant members in the visible church. Historical narratives are not allegories, but they give us facts which exemplify human nature, its errors, temptations, and sins, in a most instructive and valuable manner. Each has its didactic use for us in a later dispensation, and the truth exemplified here, and therefore to be drawn out by the preacher from this historical fact, is the customarydishonesty of unbelief.
The question raised in the consciences of the Philistines by their great sins in the capture and desecration of God’s Ark was this: Is not Jehovah of Israel, after all, the true God of Providence, and our Dagon, therefore, either a fraud or an inferior being? No one knew better than those Philistine priests that Dagon was an imposture. It was they who wrought, by sleight of hand or deception, his pretended miracles. Here they affected willingness to submit the question between Jehovah and Dagon to an experimental test which should be self-evidently fair and impartial.
They said: We will take a new cart, therefore ceremonially clean. We will hitch to it two young unbroken milch kine, who have been taught nothing concerning the roads, or the directions, or where they lead. We will place this mischievous Ark upon the cart; it shall have no human driver, but the animals shall be left to the providential guidance of the Divine power. If Israel’s Jehovah is a true God, He will doubtless lead these ignorant beasts by His providential impulse toward His own sanctuary. What test can be fairer?
But meantime they secretly took effectual means to determine that the kine should go toward Philistia, thus deciding for Dagon. They confined the sucking calves in their stables, feeling certain that their mothers’ instincts would draw them thither. But Jehovah overruled these instincts, constraining the kine to go, although with reluctant lowings, toward His sanctuary. Did these infidel priests bow to the proof, which was of their own selection? By no means! They continued obstinate unbelievers and impostors. Such is unbelief usually; dishonest in its pretexts, and obdurate against adequate proof of the truth they dislike. The sermon then concluded with applications of this charge against the skepticism of our day.
The good lady was as much surprised and disgusted as if her favorite biddy had hatched from her best eggs a cockatrice instead of downy chicks.