Three Point Parables: Craig Blomberg

While the allegorical method was largely ignored in the early twentieth century, it never was completely abandoned. Some of the literary methods popular in the late 1960s were not far from allegory. More recently, Craig Blomberg developed a method for the interpretation of parables which offers a strictly limited use of allegory. Blomberg observes that some parables have intentional allegorical elements identified by Jesus himself. The birds in the parable of the Sower represent Satan according to Matt 13:18-20. This limited kind of allegory is similar to rabbinic parables.

Interpreting the ParablesBy 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 is an excellent paradigm 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.

Similarly, the three main points of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin resemble those of the three points of the Prodigal Son.  In each of the three parables something is lost that is of value.  The lost item is considered valuable to the “master” figure in the parable.  In the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the “master” figure seeks out the lost item, in the Lost Son the father is seen waiting for the son upon his return.  The results of finding the lost item is an occasion for great rejoicing, although in the Lost Son the rejoicing is tempered by the poor reaction of the older brother

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 allegorizing of church history.  By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a  story.  Is the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and 25 in some way to be related to the kingdom of God or the consummation of the age?  Perhaps, but Blomberg’s method seems to preclude the possibility since only the characters can be used for the development of a “point.”

In the end, Blomberg has created a Jülicher-like method by restricting meaning to three points and three points alone. Does this “one point per character” work for all the parables? How can the method described here help restrain the excess of most allegorical methods?

Bibliography: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1990); Interpreting the Parables (Second Edition; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2012).


12 thoughts on “Three Point Parables: Craig Blomberg

  1. I suppose if you interpret any of the parables with a specific rule, such as finding only three key points from each character, it would certainly limit any excess of allegorical methods. This could be of some value, but is it worth missing out on what the true meaning of the parable may have been? Each parable must be considered in light of what Jesus meant by it in the context in which He was speaking and also by considering that Jesus’ central message was the Kingdom of God (Strauss, 449-450). There may indeed be several ways to interpret a parable. With this in mind, even Blomberg’s method is too rigid, though less generalized than Jülicher’s. In the parable of the Mustard seed who are the three characters? Or in the parable of the lost coin who would they be? Perhaps it could include the woman, the coin, and those she tells she found the coin (Luke 15:8-9). But with this same logic the parable of the prodigal son must have at least four: the father, the prodigal son, the obedient son, and those they tell the son has returned (Luke 15:10-32). It is a good idea, but we should approach the parables with an open mind that will objectively take all the facts, not come at a passage with preconceived formulas for how to interpret any section of scripture.

  2. To come up with one point for every parable could limit the number of allegorical methods, but at the same time there’s a bigger picture. Each parable tells a story and it is related to that time period. For example, the prodigal son, it’s more than just a story it’s a celebration of what is to come. Jesus was talking about the future, about life after the cross. Jesus was the father and the outcasts were the prodigal son. Jesus accepted the outcasts into His arms and Israel (the angry brother) was furious because they have been obedient with their mouths, but not their hearts and Jesus is saying to them that all they had to do was realize that they were sick and in need of a doctor and then they could have had the same celebration the outcasts had. Jesus came so we could have life in abundance, to the full until it overflows. (John 10:10) Jesus is not a burden He is our freedom.
    “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) The prodigal son or in their culture, outcast relied on his strength and came to the realization that he could not make it on his own. All of his right answers failed him. He came crawling back to his father (Jesus) and with a humble and reverent heart asked not only for forgiveness, but was willing to even lose his own life for the sake of finding it. All Jesus wants is our hearts, and for us to be willing to lose it all for Him because only the foolish ones will hold on, hold on. “Save the foolish one! I hold on! I hold on!” -Lose It All By Rush Of Fools

  3. It does make sense that each parable would have only a certain number of points. Three has definitely without a doubt got to be that perfect number too since it represents the trinity and is what every sermon today has. Although I don’t see how it can be represented by just the characters. How would that make sense in the story of the talents? There are three people who receive the talents and one who’s giving the talents (Mathew 25:14-30). There are at least four characters in this parable so the idea of only three doesn’t always work. On the other hand we also can’t make points for whatever we want to in the story. For instance in the prodigal son story the son is in the pig pen the pig pen doesn’t represent the struggles of life. We have to be smart and think about how Jesus meant it, what were the points he was trying to make, and not focus on the point we are trying to make.

  4. No, the “one point per character” does not work for all parables. As you stated in the blog, the wedding parables in Matthew 22 and 25 represent the Kingdom of God. In Blomberg’s theory the characters are the only elements of the parables that carry meaning. What about the parable of the mustard seed? (Matthew 13:31-32) The only character is the man who plants the seed. Blomberg’s method of interpreting the parables is still to strict in my opinion. It’s never a good idea to limit how much you can get out of scripture. Some stories like the mustard seed one can struggle to get three characters or meanings. Yet other parables, like the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, there is no way that you could limit it to only three characters. We will all be better off if we understand the tools to understanding a parable without being limited by the rules of the tools.
    I really do appreciate Blomberg’s attempt to tame the allegorical style of interpreting the parables though. On page 447 of Strauss, it explains how out of hand the allegories of the early church got. For example in the story of the good Samaritan, “the man who is beaten represents Adam, the robbers are the devil and his angels, the priest signifies the OT priesthood, the Good Samaritan is Christ, the animal who caries the man represents the incarnation of Christ, the inn is the church, and the innkeeper is the apostle Paul” (Strauss 447). They are so focused the the details, and how each element represents something that they would miss out on the true meaning of the parable. Blomberg’s method would limit the excessive allegorizing of the elements in the parable, by limiting it to three characters instead of the eight elements the example had. Allegorizing certain parables can be helpful, but to be absolute about method of interpreting scripture is never going to work.

  5. Limiting parables to have a certain number of points based on the characters, can limit the overall objective someone might pull from it. I agree with miller2016. We are too quick to interpret parables to what we want them to mean, rather than interpreting it in its cultural context. In parables like the wedding banquet, it is impossible to restrict it to only three characters. Honestly, we can not and should not put such boundaries on Jesus’ parables. I think that the parables do reflect a lot of symbolism; sure, maybe the banquet parable in Matt. 22 represents the kingdom of God. But I think that when we only focusing on what the “right” way to interpret it is, distracts us from what we can learn from the parable.

  6. I agree that both Bloomberg and Julicher could be right in each of their own interpretations of the parables. For our purpose a parable is a story from daily life illustrating a moral or religious lesson and are seen as theological allegories ( Strauss 447-449 ), where Julicher believes parables are not allegories, but stories that convey only one main point.
    I do think that I would tend to agree more with Bloombergs attempt to find a point for each character, because when Jesus was telling a story in parables he was telling it to stand for a deeper more spiritual meaning. Most stories do have more than one event or character as in The Prodigal Son , the father and both sons have their own point in the parable. Heathers explanation is good . Jesus as the father, the prodigal son as the outcast, and Israel as the angry son. and it is about the celebration to come.

  7. I do not believe that the “one point per character” works for all of the parables. It is hard to place three characters in every parable. Just like miller2016 said, in the Parable of the bags of gold, even though there are three people who receive the talents, there is still the man who is giving the talents. Then there is the Parable of the mustard seed. The only character that can be found in this is the man who is planting the seed. The same goes for the parable used in the blog on the wedding banquet. There is no way you can only put three characters in that one parable.

  8. Blombergs’ spin off of a Jülicher method to look at the parables in the Gospels is rather entrancing as he leans to make them as simple as possible. Any lecture, sermon, speech, etc. tends to be formed in a three point system to allow the listeners or readers to grasp the main ideas the author wanted to portray. I think that Blomberg has a point when he tries to fit the parables into this three point system. Clearly in the two parables mentioned above, the three point system worked, but I do think that that is not the case for all parables. I think that the characters in parables can serve many different purposes but ultimately have a headlining meaning. I think that, as was mentioned in the post below, Kenneth Baily described a “theological cluster” within the parables. Each parable was meant to teach valuable lessons, multiple lessons. Therefore I think to cap the possibilities to one main idea to each character is a little bit of a stretch.

    • I am not sure if the point of Blomberg’s model is to simplify the parable or to get to the point. Rather, I think that he doesn’t want to fall into the path that St. Augustine did where every little thing is an allegory and can be viewed in numerous, unending ways. He also doesn’t want to be like Julicher who would only stick to one main point. “While rejecting the outlandish allegorization elements and that of church history, they recognize that parables often contain allegorical elements and that sometimes a parable may make more than one point” (Strauss 448). I understand where Blomberg is coming from with the idea that we want to get all the main points of the parable, not limiting to one idea, but yet we should not exaggerate the possibilities.
      I don’t think that it is necessary to make such an outline and to narrow every parable down to simply three points. It is tough to know where to draw the line on the amount of possibilities. I do not think that there should be a set number but I think it’s best to find the main points and to stick to those. It may be best not to look too deep, yet not to look to shallow. Somehow there must be a happy medium, but the amount of allegory will always be subjective.
      Jesus seems to even make a comment that there are multiple means to his parables, including that of the kingdom of God, although many will not understand. “He said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, through seeing, they may not see; through hearing, they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10).Those who live by faith may understand the kingdom but those who reject the message will not see the truth. Strauss also touches on that subject a bit as well. It is best to look at this from many possibilities but yet to not think too much about its meaning.

  9. I agree with most of the bloggers up above that the parables should not have limited meaning to them, and they should be interpretted with scripture and the context of which Jesus is speaking. Whenever I have learned about the meaning of a parable, I remember that the teacher or minister always used many passages from scripture to correlate with the message of the parable. Like every other passage of the bible, there could be many different meanings because people interpet things different depending on how a person was raised or taught. I think that the elements as a whole convey a meaning not each particular element. “while a parable may teach several related truths, all of these will normally relate to one central point” (Strauss 451)

  10. There are definite limitations to this framework. As has been mentioned previously, there are many examples to which this rule cannot be applied perfectly, because of a difference in the number of main characters in the parable. Still, I think there can be some value in using this three-point approach to the parables. For someone like me, who tends to err on the side of limiting the number of correct meanings / interpretations of a parable, the concept of this system helps to expand the realm of interpretation without going overboard. I appreciated the example you gave of the monarchic pattern, showing how a too-narrow view of the parable (as evidenced by the title which it has been given) limits and cheapens our understanding of what Jesus is really saying. When we rule that a parable can have but one main point, we rule out all other (equally?) valid points, like you demonstrated in Luke 15.

    We need to be careful that we do not forsake the historical/social context of the parables, while still trying to glean as much as we can from them.

  11. The idea that there can only be one main theme for each character and that there can only be three main themes, is an interesting idea. I can see where he is coming from, because it would be wrong to interpret the parables in numerous ways, but it is also wrong to limit the parable to one main theme. However, if he believes there can only be three possible themes, then he is limiting the parable for interpretation as well. Strauss argues that, “while a parable may teach several related truths, all of these will normally relate to one central point” (Strauss, 451). Parable should be interpreted as if we were first-century Jews hearing the parable. It needs to be looked at from the context of the culture of the day. Parable interpretation should not be limited to only one theme or three themes or multiple themes. Each parable should be looked at separately and main themes should be taken from them as lessons.

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