Systematic Theology and Biblical Criticism

Brad East on Ephraim Radner’s Time and the Word

Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures, Eerdmans, 2016, 326 pp., $50.00
Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures, Eerdmans, 2016, 326 pp., $50.00
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Should the Bible be read like any other book? Such a question was not asked and could not have been asked until quite late in the Bible’s reception history. But once it was asked the answer seemed clear, at least to those who posed it. (Those who asked and answered were a comparatively small group of textual scholars in western European and English-speaking countries that rose to greatest prominence in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not, in other words, a representative sample size of the global Christian community.) Not only can the Bible be read like any other book, came their answer, the Bible should be read like any other book. For either the Bible in fact is like any other book or, if it is distinct from all other books, then its unique treasures will nonetheless be accessed by the same means. That is, even if the Bible is more than other books, it is not less: and books are products of history, culture, and convention, bearing meaning according to rules of interpretation and understanding common to all texts and ascertainable by ordinary, if rigorous, habits of study. Whether or not the Bible’s meaning is divine, it is, like the incarnation, inseparable from and mediated through the human.

Should the Bible be read like any other book? Well, what does it mean to read any other book? The latter question began to be asked in earnest around the same time (galvanized, appropriately enough, through the text-critical work of the great German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, father of liberal theology), generating a tradition of critical reflection on the art of interpretation that continues today. Many of the greatest thinkers of the last century devoted themselves to this task: Husserl, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Austin, Ricoeur—here and there the continental and analytic lines touching and parting ways with a vengeance. The turn to language was not the filling of a vacuum, however. It was self-consciously an alternative to, indeed a substitute for, an inquiry now declared, like Nietzsche’s deity, dead and buried: metaphysics. Language is the real, for as Rorty put it, “only sentences can be true”: it is words all the way down. There is no soul, or rather, the soul is a redundancy: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” in Wittgenstein’s remark; what need have we for metaphysical extras to underlie the shining surfaces of what is? Whether language is itself constitutive of the world or whether it bridges the divide between the world and our minds, language is the stuff with which we have, and must have, to do. Hermeneutics is queen of the sciences.

The affirmation of the nineteenth century moved quickly to institutionalize itself in the academy, eliminating rivals to the throne and eventually, like a conquering king, surveying its dominion with supreme confidence. It goes by many names, most exalted among them “historical criticism.” Like other monarchs of the time, however, it found itself besieged by resistance and revolution. The first was an internal revolt, sparked by the bombshell of Karl Barth’s Römerbrief, published in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. There Barth sought to turn over the tables of bourgeois liberal scholarship, through unrestrained, almost maniacal reference to the living, sovereign God—God, the singular subject matter of the biblical text, apart from whom no amount of parsed verbs and form-critical analyses can lead to understanding of the text.

The second was that recounted above: as historical critics of the Bible grew ever surer of their claims and ever more dogmatic in their promulgations—now in the wake of World War II, having doubled down on their task in response to Barth—hermeneuticists and deconstructionists were growing ever more doubtful of the sure deliverances of human reason, ever more indeterminate and polysemous in their interpretations. The fruit of this discrepancy came only a generation or two later, as academic biblical scholarship came to terms—it is still doing so—with its limitations, shortcomings, and divisions.

The third reaction to the dominant canons of Wissenschaftlichkeit happened also in the post-war period, led by French and German Catholics looking for sources of renewal for theology and exegesis beyond the bounds of modernity alone. Called ressourcement, this movement sought tutelage in the forgotten wisdom of the church fathers and their medieval successors, working from the sensible assumption that Kant’s project of enlightenment was less like the Copernican revolution than the French. One of the great works produced by this group was the Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac’s multivolume Exégèse médiévale, a constructive history of interpretation that lifted up the coherence and continuity of the church’s long-standing tradition of reading the spiritual sense in Scripture.

Should the Bible be read like any other book? In light of these happy assaults on historical criticism’s reign, the reply—from theologians as well as biblical scholars, Catholics as well as Protestants, Christians as well as others—has increasingly been negative.

But how then should the Bible be read?

In his new book, Ephraim Radner’s answer is simple: unique among all books, the Bible should be read “figurally.” Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, and the author of books on Christian division, church unity, mortality, and Scripture, including a commentary on the book of Leviticus. As for what it means to read the Bible figurally, that is what Time and the Word is all about. Consider first a definition by another purveyor of the practice, Paul Griffiths:

scripture as a whole and in each of its parts is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. . . . One event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself. Eve’s assent to the tempter and her consequent taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree figures, in this sense, Mary’s fiat mihi in response to the annunciation and the consequent incarnation of the Lord in her womb. The second event—the figured—encompasses and includes the first, without removing its reality. The first—the figuring—has its reality, however, by way of participation in the second. This is in the order of being. Ontological figuration may, however, be replicated at the level of the text, and in scripture it inevitably is.

Griffiths distinguishes this approach from allegory inasmuch as allegory exhausts or eliminates the figure or trope that signifies the second reality, whereas figural reading retains both in a necessary and mutually participatory existence. Neither is figuralism typology, which is a much more restricted and (in practice) wooden exercise of identifying “the” set of “types” in the Old Testament that, by divine authorial intention, correspond to their fulfillment (or “antitypes”) in the New. Finally, figural exegesis is indeed reading for a sense other than the literal, for the spiritual sense, but it is not synonymous with the classical division of that sense into the allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical (eschatological). Figural interpretation sees the Bible, in short, as a divinely ordered interplay of infinite depths, the reading of which is a self-involving, spiritual affair with the text, which—unlike all other books—is a medium for delighted communion with the Holy Trinity.

This is not, I assure you, standard fare in the Journal of Biblical Literature.

Radner’s book is the first major systematic theological work on the topic of figural reading. Antecedents include, among others, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, John David Dawson’s Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity, and in a certain manner Richard Hays’s recent Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Figural reading is in vogue at present. Radner’s entry-point is this renewal of interest, which has tended to be historically focused, ad hoc, or critical in character—lacking, that is, a positive, well-developed account of what figural reading is, what it is for, and how it may be undertaken. Radner’s aim is to remedy this deficiency.

Time and the Word is many things. It is a magisterial treatment of Christian figural reading of the Bible. It is a densely written monograph, elusive and elliptical, at times due to the complexity of its subject matter, but too often due to prose that is needlessly opaque, even indecipherable. It is a metaphysics of created temporality and of the ordered relationship between the omnipotent creator God, God’s written word, and creatures who would relate to God and the world through attending to that word. It is, finally, a theological call to action, an exhortation to remember and to act: for figural reading, according to Radner, is nothing more than Christian common sense, and its diminution in modern times is a symptom of larger problems whose rectification, paradoxically, can be achieved only through a return to the figural imagination.

Radner describes figural reading as “the general approach of reading the Bible’s referents as a host of living beings—and not only human ones—who draw us, as readers, from one set of referents or beings to another, across times and spaces, whatever these may constitute.” In his use, the term encompasses the threefold spiritual sense of the Middle Ages. Hence:

“Figural” . . . refers to the “everything” of God’s act in creation, as it is “all” in the Scriptures. And “figural reading” of the Bible is that reading that receives this divinely-given “allness”—who is the Christ “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6), who “is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)—from within the breadth of the Word written.

Figural reading takes its rise in what creation is and what God’s creative word found in Scripture says, and therefore accomplishes, with respect to creation. In this way “[f]igural reading . . . is a natural response to the character of the world as God’s creation, which God relates to in a certain way.” The attempt of historical critics, by way of contrast, to let go of figural reading while maintaining a grip on God as creator and the world as God’s creation “has proven to be a religious (and moral) failure.” For faith and figuralism go hand in hand: Christian life in the world is a function of reading the Bible as God’s word, and God’s written word is nothing less than the sovereign and all-encompassing expression of God’s living will, making history even as it tells of it. What it tells of is Christ, but all is in Christ, so all is in Scripture.

How does that work?

Radner begins with the question of reference. To what, for example, using the work of N. T. Wright, does “exile” refer in the Bible? Even in a “purely” historical inquiry, the question is far from simple, for to the extent that Jesus and others appropriate and reconfigure the “original” referent or meaning of exile—the forced expulsion of Jews in the southern kingdom to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E.—for their own purposes, then already one must make judgments about “which” exile is in view. Radner presses the point theologically with respect to the nature and role of Scripture in the church’s ongoing life. He writes, regarding historical examples of “Jewish and Christian extensions of reference,” that “if the Scripture is somehow true in its reference, then its referents cannot be limited to chronologies of signification that exclude a clear relationship to the present.” That is to say, “If ‘exile’ is truly dealt with in the Scripture . . . then that truth . . . must somehow include the historical exiles of the present.” This calls for metaphysical revision, a rethinking of the nature of time and referentiality: “at least in this kind of case, sequential and mutually discrete (and exclusive) events cannot properly identify a given scriptural referent at all.” Accordingly, “this is precisely where chronological sequence as an arbiter of referentiality breaks down, and where the historian’s task trembles before the facts of God.”

What underlies such a claim? First, the “key parameter for figural reading,” namely, that “it is essentially Christological. It will always show Christ, express Christ, reflect Christ, or lead to Christ.” In turn, there is a special relationship between Christ and Scripture, reflected in denoting each the Word of God. Christ is the eternal Word of God, the Son and Image of the Father, one of the three who are the one triune God. This Word “gives rise to the mystery that is the Scriptures. They are his image.” Yet both “stand in a similarly unique relation to creation and creatures,” for Scripture, as the image of the Son and God’s word written, “constitute[s] some instantiation of the mysterious timeless-temporal reality of God, in relation to creatures. Thus Scripture’s own time is ‘unknown,’ because it straddles the threshold of God’s asymmetrical time and creaturely time, and cannot be included within a simple historical frame.” The Bible has a priority over against not just the church but all creation, a priority that is more than a matter of logic, authority, or even salvation. Scripture, like Christ, is somehow “before all things.”

Second, given Scripture’s christological character and priority, and the comprehensive scope of Christ’s being and lordship, Scripture shares in this comprehensiveness through its figural referentiality. To be sure, there are things not mentioned by name in the Bible. But that only means, says Radner, that they “are otherwise indicated . . . since they are nonetheless included within them.” This just is Scripture’s “figural character.” For example, “although the name ‘Napoleon’ does not appear in Scripture, the person we call Napoleon is in fact named in the Bible. A figural reading will discover how this is so.” Radner insists that, far from being “opposed to or other than or in addition to the ‘literal reading’ of Scripture,” this “is rather a way of describing the literalness of Scripture’s reference, that is, that all of it is bound up with the created/creative dynamic of time in an originating and inclusively orienting way.”

Returning to the initial example of the biblical figure “exile,” Radner concludes that “every scriptural ‘exile’ at every ‘time’ is the actual referent of the text itself, for all these times are in fact the times that Jesus means.” This is what he calls Scripture’s “agential power.” The Bible does not merely tell of “the” past, or of people and events other than its readers in the present. It effects and generates new histories that correspond and conform to the figures of which it speaks. (Indeed, “the question ‘Did it happen?’ with respect to Scripture is irrelevant to the character of created time itself. . . . ‘To really happen’ is in fact to be figured in the Bible; nothing more or less.”) In short, “The multiple senses of Scripture reflect an aim at this conformity by proposing a kind of schematic of exhaustive use . . . according to which . . . exile, such as is described in the Scripture, will shape our lives in every conceivable context.” In Radner’s most compressed, gnomic formulation: “One thing, which is all things, has ever happened. It is given in the Scripture, in all of its parts, and at every time, for all times. . . . [This] is what we mean when we speak of history as itself the grace of God.”

Such a proposal is bound to provoke opposition from a variety of quarters, not to mention bewilderment. Three challenges above seem inescapable. What role, if any, do history and historical inquiry play in figural reading? What prevents figural reading from succumbing to the proverbial wax-nose problem, whereby a reader or community simply “makes” Scripture mean whatever it likes? And of what interest is figural reading to those outside its practice, either in the form of non-Christians who deny Scripture’s divine provenance or in the form of Christians who deny the validity of figuralism? Perhaps gathering these challenges together in a single formulation, we might ask: On what grounds is Christian figural reading as proposed by Radner a scholarly or serious intellectual enterprise, rather than a fideistic or viciously circular insider matter?

For at least the beginnings of a satisfying answer, these questions have to be turned on their head, their premises traced to the source rather than met downstream. Let me therefore do some reorientation. Strategies of reading depend on the text in question, its community of readers, the conventions of reading that characterize that community, the ends or goals of the community’s reading, and the tradition of reading that the community inhabits, extends, and alters in its various new acts of reading. This insight applies equally to a Supreme Court decision, a scholarly article in the natural sciences, a Young Adult novel, the Qur’an, and an office memo.

Figural reading proposes that these questions be applied to the Christian Bible. Even apart from theological judgments, this book is acclaimed Holy Scripture in and by the Christian church, which accordingly is its primary (communal as well as diachronically and geographically extended) readership. Figuralism is one among many reading strategies that mark this community or, if Radner is to be believed, the encompassing strategy beneath whose umbrella a plurality of non-competitive hermeneutical modes abide and flourish. Either way, the ends for which this community reads the Bible are diverse, but arguably chief among them are the knowledge of God, the communication of the gospel, and the upbuilding of the faithful. The tradition in which these and other ends have been pursued is one that runs through both the allegorizing patristic and medieval periods and the increasingly allegory-allergic modern and late-modern periods.

From here the case for figural reading divides into a number of fronts. Hermeneutically speaking, first, the church’s figural reading of the Bible is in principle no different than any other reading community’s specific relationship to its own text, with the conventions, practices, and ends that accompany and constitute its tradition of reading. Theologically speaking, second, if the church’s confession that the Bible is God’s word is true, then it follows both that this book is in fact unique among all books and that it necessarily will be read differently, because with different ends, from all other books. Third, with a view to the church and its tradition, it is true that, this side of modernity, Christians can neither “skip over” nor repudiate wholesale the developments of historical criticism. They too are now, like it or not, part of the tradition. But the same goes for what came before. In this way catholicity becomes the litmus test for hermeneutical historiography: No proposal regarding the Bible’s interpretation will be viable that would render premodern exegesis either unintelligible or unavailable as an ongoing resource for churchly reading in the present. Historical criticism is not so strong a force as actually to be able to do that (though it has made the attempt); but in any case, the church is not in a position to do so, lest it forsake its forebears in the faith, and make a mockery of the church’s ability to read its own Scripture prior to the Aufklärung.

Of what interest, then, should all this be to nonbelievers and non-practitioners? Once again the question needs to be turned around. Erich Auerbach argued more than six decades ago that Christian figuralism transformed the literary and historical imagination of the West, a process beginning in the first century and terminating, at least in his narrative, with Virginia Woolf. A German Jew living in exile during the Third Reich, he thought figural reading crucial to both the Christian theological imagination and the Western cultural inheritance, for its practice held forth the possibility of unity in difference, of reference without erasure, of fulfillment without supersession. Whether or not he was right, he stands as an exemplary answer as well as challenge to the question of relevance: Figuralism was and therefore is a matter of great significance for anyone even tangentially related to cultures influenced by the Bible and its history of readers. Why not join the conversation?

And yet: historical consequence is one thing, truth is another. In the end, figural reading of the Bible is either common sense or fantastic, just as Christian faith is either wholly and absolutely true or a sick joke: in Paul’s words, “If Christ has not been raised . . . we are of all men most to be pitied.” By providential grace, Radner suggests, the Church in the West is coming to the end of the seemingly commonsensical but in fact silly, even insidious, reductive naturalization of the Bible—aided, ironically, by philosophers inimical to faith and theorists skeptical of language’s capacity to mean without manipulation. As Barth observed, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.” Or, as the Bible has it, through an ass. If figural reading is necessary for the life of Christian faith, as it surely is; and if figural reading by definition is never exhausted in the ongoing significance it has for the present, then perhaps there is yet hope for the Bible’s readers, who are nearing the end of one or two centuries’ misguided wandering—a wandering figured so long ago by Balaam and his voluble ride.

Brad East is currently finishing his PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University and, beginning this fall, will be Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University. His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and Anglican Theological Review. For more of his work, click here; or for his blog, click here.