In a previous post, I tracked the shift in Parables studies away from the allegorical methods of the medieval church to the “one point per parable” method of Adolf Jülicher.  In the next several posts I want to talk about a few other scholars who developed Jülicher’s ideas in the twentieth century (Dodd and Jeremias) and a short note on the rise of literary studies of parables beginning in the 1960’s, using Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan as examples.  Since 1990 there has been a wave of commentaries on the parables from writers who take the parables as historical, coming from the teaching of historical Jesus, yet also allow for some insight on a literary level.  I start with Craig Blomberg simply because I find his approach to parables extremely helpful.  In addition, his book Interpreting the Parables had remained in print for more than 20 years and was just published in a Second Edition from InterVarsity Press.

Craig BlombergCraig Blomberg has developed the interpretation of parables which is an evangelical return to the allegorical method, albeit with clear limits. The parables were intended to have some level of allegory by Jesus himself. This allegory is along the lines of that found in the rabbinic parallels to the parables. By way of method, Blomberg argues the interpreter should only attempt to find a “point” for each character of the parable, normally three characters, sometimes two with an implied third. This point or lesson is stated in propositional language and is understood to be the intention of Jesus when he original gave the parable.

Blomberg is not advocating the kind of polyvalence represented by Crossan but he does seem to open the way for a metaphor to function as a more or less fluid literary device. The meaning of the metaphor is, however, to be found within the text and is a part of authorial intent rather than an open-ended reader-response hermeneutic. In a very real way, Blomberg is advocating limited multiple meanings, specifically only those meanings which were intended by Jesus in the first telling of the parable in a real historical context.

The Prodigal Son an excellent paradigm or prototype of the most common pattern of three point parables (the so-called monarchic pattern). The title of the parable is misleading since if places the focus on the son that leaves. The parable might very well have been titled “The Forgiving Father” or “The Hardhearted Brother” based on the characters in the story. If a parable can only make one point, then the parable of the Prodigal son must be interpreted in such a fashion so as to downplay two of the three major characters. Is the story about repentance? Is the story about forgiveness? Is the story about acceptance? It appears that all three of these themes are present. The interpreter following Jülicher would seek to formulate a single theme that somehow was broad enough to cover all three of the themes above. Blomberg argues that this will water down the message, making it so general that it is of very little value. By allowing one application for each main character the interpreter is free to work all three themes.

Blomberg is not adverse to allegory.  For example, in reading the  Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids he struggles to determine which elements should be allegorized and which not.  Since the bridegroom is a common Old Testament symbol for God, and the preparation for the banquet may be seen as allegorical since it is highly unusual for the women to be unprepared given the tendency for the wedding party to be late. It may be also possible to see the wedding banquet as a reference to the kingdom since this is a metaphor used in Jesus teaching elsewhere, and the parable seems to make the shutting out of the banquet parallel to Jesus’ shutting out of the hypocrite from the kingdom in Matthew 7:21. Blomberg calls the oil an“allegorical waver,” or more specifically the attempt of the unprepared virgins to borrow some oil from the prepared virgins. Blomberg states that the importance of this feature may or may not have some significance.

Blomberg represents an evangelical response to the literary studies of Funk and Crossan in that he treats the parables as capable of more than one meaning. He establishes controls for what elements of a parable may be used for application and which should not be “allegorized” in order to refrain from the wild interpretations of church history or more radical literary readings. By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a story.

Does Blomberg’s method allow for multiple interpretations and authorial intent?   How is this “one point per character” a helpful control on allegory?

Bibliography:  Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables.  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990; second edition, 2012.