History of Biblical Interpretation: Confusion of Typology and Allegory in Cassian and Catholic Catechism

open bookIn this post, we will look at some more examples of the confusion of typology and allegorical interpretation. As we saw in the previous post, some Church Fathers encourage the confusion by using the terms “allegory” or “allegorical” for interpretations that are clearly typology or typological. For a definition of allegorical interpretation and typology, see my previous post (here). One sees this same confusion in the current catechism of the Catholic Church (see below).

The influential Church Father, John Cassian, has a famous passage in his Conferences (A.D. 420) where he talks about the four senses of Scripture. In the quotes below, notice how he encourages confusion between typology and allegorical interpretation. Cassian probably is not the first one to blur the lines between them, but he certainly encourages this confusion for many who come after him.

In Conferences 14.8, he says:

“But of spiritual knowledge there are three kinds, tropological, allegorical, anagogical, of which we read as follows in Proverbs: ‘But do you describe these things to yourself in three ways according to the largeness of your heart.’ And so the history embraces the knowledge of things past and visible, as it is repeated in this way by the Apostle: ‘For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondwoman, the other by a free: but he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he who was of the free was by promise’ [Gal. 4:22-23]. But to the allegory belongs what follows, for what actually happened is said to have prefigured the form of some mystery: ‘For these,’ says he, ‘are the two covenants, the one from Mount Sinai, which genders into bondage, which is Agar. For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, which is compared to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children’ [Gal. 4:24-25]” (italics mine).

It is clear from this quotation that Cassian’s confusion is a result of his interpretation of Galatians 4:21-31, including 4:24. Galatians 4:24 says, “Which things are allegorical (or speaking allegorically, allēgoroumena), for these women represent two covenants, one is from Mount Sinai…this is Hagar.” Cassian correctly observes that “what actually happened is said to have prefigured” something else. This statement has to do with typology (types prefigure antitypes), but notice that he provides the wrong label. Under the influence of “allegorical” (Gal. 4:24), he calls this “allegory” instead of typology.

Here is an even clearer example of the same problem. Also in Conferences 14:8, he says,

“For revelation belongs to allegory whereby what is concealed under the historical narrative is revealed in its spiritual sense and interpretation, as for instance if we tried to expound how ‘all our fathers were under the cloud and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and how they all ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink from the rock that followed them. But the rock was Christ’ [1 Corinthians 10:1-4]. And this explanation where there is a comparison of the figure of the body and blood of Christ which we receive daily, contains the allegorical sense.”

Now, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 is really and truly an example of typology and not allegory. It is clear in this passage that the Old Testament types prefigure or foreshadow the New Testament antitypes (see 10:1-4). The language of type or pattern occurs in 10:6 and 10:11. Cassian, however, labels the passage as allegory.

The same confusion persists in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, section 117). The “allegorical sense” is described with the following statement: “We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian baptism” (1 Cor. 10:2). Note how closely the catechism follows the example of Cassian and even cites a verse from the same passage (1 Corinthians 10).


1. Excerpts from Cassian are from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 11.

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994.