Interestingly, Paul, in justifying his right to "material benefits" (τὰ σαρκικὰ), appeals to Deuteronomy 25:4, which has to do with allowing the ox to eat the grain while he treads it out. Let the beast partake of the fruit of his labors. Now the passage in question really has nothing to do with Paul! Or so it seems. Paul, however, things just the opposite; it has everything to do with him! This is not a mere a fortiori argument, something like, "If God cares for the ox, how much more for Paul?" That's how I had always thought of this. The Greek adverb "entirely" (πάντως) suggests a more intensified reading. In Deuteronomy itself, God was not really thinking of allowing hard-working oxen to have a snack so much as He was thinking of Paul's needs when ministering to the churches.
What is going on here is that the apostle understands that Scripture is for the church. God has written it for him, for the Corinthians, and for us. He continues his reflections into the next chapter:
This is another key text for the patristic use of allegory. Here, Paul famously says that rock in the wilderness actually was Christ (ἡ πέτρα δὲ ἦν ὁ Χριστός). Other early Christians would pick up on this, saying that the saints of the Old Testament were saved because of their implicit faith in Christ, and one can see how Christ is hidden in the Old. Notice especially that Paul says that these things were written for our instruction. They served as an example for us, a fact which in no way degrades the significance of the Old Testament event in itself. This challenges a Western way of reading texts, as though in elevating a later thing that somehow denigrates the former thing. On the contrary, the rock of refreshment was so significant that it can only be compared to Christ himself; the "grumbling in the wilderness" was so significant that it would serve as a monition for all time;
And it is not as though Paul is the only one who gives Scripture this type of reading. It continues into the era of the fathers. As Margaret Mitchell points out, in the days of Gregory of Nyssa, there was a dispute over the validity of the allegorical method of interpretation opposed to the literal. Some thought that the literal was the only way. Saint Gregory disagreed, saying, "in our view there is nothing unreasonable in our seriously studying all possible means of tracking down the benefit (ὠφέλιμον) to be had from the divinely inspired scripture."
None of this is to degrade the literal meaning itself. The Scriptures are alive, divine, a treasure that cannot be fully plundered. The modern historical-critical project, however, has no room really for the allegorical or anagogical meanings of Scripture, because both presuppose divine authorship and therefore absolute inerrancy. These are presuppositions that many are unwilling to grant. Symptoms of such a hermeneutic include exclusive focus on the literal sense (unless of course the literal sense is miraculous!), dismissiveness of the fathers, and nifty reinterpretations of stories and events that attempt to annul the mystery and humanize the divine. So it does matter what the modern reader believes. Accurate commentary upon Scripture, the Fathers say, can only come from a virtuous life. It takes patience and faith to properly examine the stumbling stones.
Even the dark sayings, however, can profit our understanding, as we saw with Paul's pointing out the benefit of the example provided by those who fell in the wilderness. I know you're thinking. 'You're telling me that something so horrible as the ban of destruction could be profitable?' Yes. It is Scripture, and it was written for our instruction. To quote Paul, "All scripture (πᾶσα γραφὴ) is inspired by God (θεόπνευστος) and profitable (ὠφέλιμος) for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17).
To give just one example of a Father commenting on this passage, St. Maximus the Confessor has an interesting interpretation in Ambiguum 10 (tr. Constas). See how this allegorical contemplation works:
Here is an unfortunate event of Biblical history that moderns detest, and one that gives most Christians severe allergies. Just watch a believer break out in hives trying to explain this to an atheist interlocutor, yet look how seamlessly Maximus moves through the difficulty. This is a good illustration of the limitations that a literal-sense-only perspective puts upon a modern reader of the Bible. This is not to say that the literal sense should be ignored or that certain events did not happen. They certainly did. Some things, however, are best read allegorically.
How do we know which way to read them? That all goes back to the rule of faith I mentioned in the previous post. The point is that we have most excellent guides for interpretation of the Scriptures today. Never before have the writings of the Fathers been more accessible to believers than they are today. Never has there been a better time to be a student of the Scriptures, provided that one set oneself at the foot of the right teachers.
There has come about among many Catholics a way of reading the Fathers that seems to put them on the same plane as the historical-critical method in an attempt to bring about a sort of Hegelian synthesis and a new reading altogether (I understand the point of attempting to pluck the good fruit from modern research). Embracing this dialectical view may be leading to some consequences in praxis, problems that some of us may be overlooking concerning the value of the Fathers' reading in itself. One of those consequences seems to be a trivializing of the role of allegory and anagogy. It seems that moderns are only interested in the moral sense when it comes to the spiritual "senses" of Scripture, if, indeed, they even grant something beyond the literal. But the Fathers, those righteous guides who were far more versed in Scripture than we are today, no matter how many lexicons sit on our bookshelves, were able to appropriate the literal and full spiritual senses in their readings. That is a topic for another day perhaps. There really is only one way to read the Bible in the modern world: in conversation with the fathers.