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.
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 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).