Improper use of biblical symbolism – an example

four humors as bowls of red, green, black, and yellow fluid - attributed to

To understand whether one’s application of biblical theology and its techniques of biblical symbolism are legitimate, it helps to see an example of what bad symbolism looks like. Here, we look at a medieval Catholic priest’s analysis of what beards symbolize. 

In a previous article, we looked at the debate over an application of biblical theology sometimes called interpretive maximalism. Its adherents say it is a biblically-restrained application of interpreting Scripture by applying biblical symbolism to the texts to extract more complex meanings. Its opponents claim otherwise.

It will be helpful to cast the techniques of interpretive maximalism into stark contrast with earlier, much less biblically-sound symbolic analysis.


During certain periods of history, off and on, the Catholic church required its priests to shave their beards. Their theologians would, from time to time, put forth a reason why in order to support the policy decision.

Durandus, quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia in discussing the meaning of the beard, said that the “length of hair is symbolical of the multitude of sins. Hence clerics are directed to shave their beards; for the cutting of the hair of the beard, which is said to be nourished by the superfluous humors of the stomach, denotes that we out to cut away the vices of sins which are superfluous growths in us. Hence we shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility, and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of their youth.”

Since the Bible tells us nothing of angels remaining forever youthful, you already have to question where Durandus got his information. At best, we might say they are ageless. It does not follow that no angel has a beard, or that all angels look youthful. Some, like the cherubim, have four faces (Ezekiel 1:5,10), one of which is that of a lion.

If Durandus didn’t get this idea from Scripture, it means he got it from some other place. There is only one alternative: the imaginations of men.

We know how polluted those fountains are.

Likewise, we must treat his imaginative symbolism with skepticism. Is it steeped in biblical imagery, or does it come from outside of Scripture? While his metaphor of relating hairs to the outgrowth of sins seems plausible, we find that it simply isn’t biblical.

First, who says that beards are nourished by fluids found in the stomach? The basis for this metaphor is revealed by his statement.

This assessment of Durandus was rooted in the ancient Greek medical theory of humorism which stated that our bodies are made up of four discrete kinds of bodily fluids. Ailments occurred when any of those four was out of balance: either too little or too much, deposited here or there.


His metaphor implies that sin is the result of some kind of psychological or spiritual imbalance that can be alleviated by following certain procedures or techniques that induce a re-balancing of internal forces. This idea is anything but Christian, as Christianity teaches that the original sin of Adam and Eve was imputed to us because of their covenantal representation of the entire human race (Rom. 5:12). Our sin is both ours and theirs. We cannot escape it. No person can do good, and no person seeks after God because we are all consumed by sin from conception (Ps. 51:5).

That sin is a consequence of some imbalance within us that can be overcome by performing some detailed procedure is an idea from mystical religion. It means sin can be overcome by the intellect of mankind apart from the atoning blood of Christ. The highly specific information required to correctly perform such a rebalancing procedure comes not from the self-authenticating, self-attesting book of divine revelation granted to man by God himself, but instead it comes from the secret minds of certain men who are in the know.

Their minds, as we know, are polluted and foul even when enlightened by the light of life, but consummately and inescapably so without it.

That being the case, Durandus is clearly wrong in applying his symbolism of sinful outgrowths to a man’s beard. His ideas are not rooted in Scripture, and so they take their authority from elsewhere. As such, this symbolism is a rival and, therefore, false, symbolism.


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