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The Intersection Between Our Lives and Biblical History

An Overview of Figural Reading

Now and again, some people ask me to mount an “apology” for, and explanation of, what many call “figural reading” of Scripture – an approach I have written about and been identified with. My main point, in response, is that I don’t really have to mount a defense, because figural reading is unavoidable for the Christian, whatever she or he may think, or even think they are doing.

Maybe you are not familiar with the term, but it has been tossed about a bit more frequently in the past two decades within theological and biblical studies. It derives more or less, from a long-standing tradition in Christian interpretation of the Bible, now and then subject to debate, and since the 19th century mostly, met with disdain and opprobrium from most Protestant; since the mid-20th century. Catholic biblical scholars have offered their own critiques. Whether figural interpretation is having a revival is debatable. In a culture and church where anything and everything is for sale, as it were, everything has been revived. But that doesn’t constitute a living retrieval.

But before I move to my point – that figural interpretation is unavoidable for the Christian – let me offer a few starting definitions so we are on the same page.

Does a Figural Reading Pervade the Scriptures?

Figural reading is unavoidable for the Christian Click To Tweet Figural reading is often contrasted with a modern approach called the “historical-grammatical” method. According to this method, Scripture verbally refers to specific time-bound and discrete entities (whether real or imagined), and the language of Scripture more broadly serves to identify and place these entities (that’s what grammar serves to do). Take Judges 16:30[KJV] “And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with [all his] might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that [were] therein. So, the dead which he slew at his death were more than [they] which he slew in his life.” A historical-grammatical reading of this text would insist that the words refer to a man named Samson, who lived in a such a such a year, and he was chained to a column in a building in such and such a place, dedicated to a god by the name of Dagon, worshipped by a people called the Philistines and on a certain day he pulled at his chains and dragged down the column and the temple and this and that person, including Samson, died at that time, and it all came about in this way.

Figural reading, by contrast, sees a scriptural text as referring to a range of entities, time bound or not, and often at once; and Scripture’s language serves to open up ourselves to this multivalent reality.

Consider a few examples:

  • Exodus: in the Easter Vigil service we are told that the Exodus reading is for us a “sign of the salvation of all nations by the water of Baptism.”
  • Samson in Judges 16:30: A figural reading would say that verse and its words refer first to those, including David, who follow God “in faith” (Heb. 11:32) in the train of the great “pioneer of faith,” Jesus on the Cross: let me die with the sinners, and let the demons of sin die with me.
  • 1 Peter on the ark and baptism (3:20-21): baptism is an “antitype” of the ark, and thus the ark is a figure (type) of baptism.  Thus, when we read about the ark, it refers, among other things to baptism.
  • Ephesians 5:32: marriage is a “mystery” that refers “to” Christ and the church.

All these interpretations are “figural” in that they engage the text in terms of types, mysteries, and signs. But is the whole of Scripture made up of figures in this way? Or just some of it? Or none of it? Across history a figural reading is more and more constricted, following, broadly, the course from the early church (all of it) to the reformation (only a little of it) to modernity (none of it). I go with the first: “all” of Scripture is made up of figures. Not in an unstable way, in the sense that there is no meaning to the text; but in a constantly unfolding way – the meanings are divinely infinite. We’ll come back to this.

A Figural Reading is the Hermeneutic of the Church Universal

I knew about figural reading from my study of the early church. And I was aware of how medieval Christians were deeply committed to this way of reading the Bible. But my own personal interest in figural reading blossomed only when, as a graduate student, I began to study the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (my main interest at the time) and was finally led to do research on Jansenism. Jansenism was a 17th- and 18th c. Catholic movement of reform mostly in France, and they were associated with miracle-working (Pascal was among them in this regard). The issue I was interested in had to do with how the Jansenists understood the Holy Spirit, given that all that they tried to do, including a huge manifestation of healing miracles in their midst, was rejected by the church authorities as false. My interest shifted to how the Jansenists understood this rejection. They were arrested, imprisoned, exiled, a few executed. But they never left the church. How did they manage this?

It turns out that the Jansenists were great figural readers of the Bible, following both early church and some medieval exemplars.  And they developed a rich and comprehensive figural way of understanding the suffering of Christians even at the hands of other Christians. It wasn’t wholly satisfactory to me, but it gave me some substantive insight into how to read the Bible in the midst of our ecclesial life.

I had also become interested in ecumenical matters – Lutherans and Anglicans, Anglicans and Catholics, Evangelical diversity and so on. Finally, I became ensnared in the divisions amongst Anglicans themselves, my own church tradition. A key question pressed itself: how should I understand this? Because in fact, there is little in the New Testament that speaks to Christian division. The only way Christians have in fact dealt with this is figurally: using (or abusing) a few New Testament texts, they have been forced to say that the “bad” Christians are “faithless Israel” or a few “pseudo-apostles.”  Note that this is a figural reading:  one group of people described in the Bible “refers” to present groups of people we may encounter in the church’s life. Babylon is Rome; the Anti-Christ is the Pope; the Pharisee is the Pelagian and so on. We’ve been doing this for years, centuries even.

But I want to stress how this just doesn’t fit well when it comes, not just to Christian disagreement or even estrangement, or even pockets of error. There is nothing in the New Testament that seems to speak directly to the reality of millions of Christians who separate and anathematize millions of other Christians, and finally kill them (e.g. in 16th c. France). Which is why literalistic readings of Scripture are useless in face of Christian division. Here is where I made my whole-hearted move into a figural reading of the Bible in its entirety, following a minor exegetical tradition: the only way to read Christian division was in terms of the division of Israel, between Northern Samaria and Judah – as in 1 Kings. Israel, in his case, “refers” to the church, and in reading 1 Kings one is, among other things, reading about the Christian church, in the 16th c.— but also earlier, also in the East, also in America, also today. Reading the division of the church figurally – in this case, through the figures of Israel and her division – opens up a challenging vista to Christians, including those caught in the grip of intra-church antagonism, as Anglican have been in the past few decades.

I want to stress furthermore how, once one goes this route, everything changes: the entire Bible now becomes a prism to human history as a whole, in all its variety and times. And if that, to every human person, to every human passion and desire, to every human act and decision.

Theological Commentary

The final stage in my figural journey came with my agreeing to write theological commentary on Leviticus. My ideas about figural reading were already pretty much in place. This was an occasion to test, to practice, to explore. What I discovered was that, not surprisingly, until the Reformation mostly, Christians had read Leviticus in a variety of figural ways – the sacrifices, the law, the festivals. But it was haphazard, limited, and finally became a rote approach with little illuminating interest. In writing my commentary, I turned instead to Jewish interpreters of Leviticus, and found out to my amazement that they were deeply engaged in figural reading of the book themselves, in ways that took up, and often in a more rich fashion, the habits of patristic, medieval and Jansenist Christians, but with a much more vigorous and wide-ranging reach. A figural presupposition, for a Christian, would be that Leviticus is about Jesus Christ, among others things; perhaps first about him, before the other things. Could this make any sense? It seemed to me that, engaging the outlook with as much freedom and trust as Jews did, allowed it to make all kinds of sense, neither committing the book to obscurity, nor tying it down with historical moralism (oddly and wrongly what Christians accused the “narrow minded and legalistic Jews” and their progeny of doing).

Before moving to a more abstract discussion of figural reading, let me pause to underline what figural reading permitted me to see in the course of engaging it within the church. If Scriptural texts refer to a range of realities, time-bound or not, and often at once, then it means that I cannot limit Scripture’s reach to just this or that. Note some of the consequences:

  • The Old Testament is talking about Christians, not just about Israelites or Jews; it is talking about any Christians not just the good ones or the bad ones. Therefore, you have to figure that out, so to speak.
  • Hence the blessings and condemnations in the Old Testament refer to anyone at any time potentially; the reference is not constrained from the start – as if you know that you are always Israel and never Edom (and how does this make a difference?)
  • Similarly, New Testament distinctions have traction in the Old Testament in, as it were, the reverse direction: the faithful and the unfaithful, Jews and Gentiles both, Law and Cross, Temple and Resurrection – as they are talked about in the New Testament, they cannot only find their meaning in this new “era” of AD; their meaning is already referred to in the Old Testament. You cannot understand the meaning of Paul and Law only on the basis of what Paul says, in a “historical-grammatical” fashion, but you must find out who Paul is in the Old Testament – that is, Paul is “figured” there somehow – and find out how the Law functions rightly or wrongly there. Is Paul an “anti-Moses” or a Moses?  Sometimes one or the other? The Epistles are far more interesting, challenging, and revelatory in this way.
  • This is not just an academic or scholarly question, about “historical criticism,” the still dominant mode of interpretation of the Bible. It is finally all about “who am I?” and “who are you?,” and what is this church or that work in which we are involved? The answer to these questions can only be found by sifting through the figures of the Bible as a whole. That is a completely relativizing discipline: suddenly I am no longer “safe” in my identification with what or whom I like; I am subject to lives and callings and judgments, in fact, of every scriptural figure, from Adam to Moses, Cain to Judas, from Samson to Paul, Sarah to Hannah to Jezebel to Esther to Lydia and on and on. I am ever exposed to God’s providential ordering – in judgment and mercy both. And so is every church of which I am a part, and of the Church of Christ as a whole.
  • This is Good News, because the Son of God, the Second Adam, has taken all of these figures to himself somehow, and perfected their purpose in God. We are all Publicans in the back of the Temple in this case, being called up higher by Jesus.  Always, and at every turn to our lives.

What Does Figural Reading Presuppose?

Finally, we can return to core questions! What is figural reading? What does it claim? I have tried to outline this in several places, and it’s hard to explain. I have speculated, for instance, that reading figurally presupposes that what we call and culturally experience as “time” may not exist in a stable fashion – past, future and so one. These are metaphysical issues, and are, as I said purely speculative. But the whole issue of “what is figural reading” is hard to answer because it finally presupposes some key realities, ones that take in the very nature of the world, of reality. Scripture, in its reflection of this comprehensive ordering of all things, will do this by showing us, in every page and verse the Christ himself. Click To Tweet

First, God is the Creator of all things and is Omnipotent in all things. This claim is mostly accepted still by Christians.

Second, Scripture is God’s product, not ours. This claim is more debated, but I think that if it is cast aside, too many other dominos fall that subvert common Christian claims, so we need to keep it.

Third, Scripture reflects the comprehensive ordering power of God. Somehow, it can show us “everything,” including everything we are. If we cannot see this, or refuse to see it, we are not yet seeing what Scripture does. In any case, this is the ground upon which we can speak of Scripture’s words as referring to many different times and the things within those times at once: while Scripture can certainly speak of “then,” then will always be speaking of “now” and of “later” and now also speaks of then and so on, because Scripture’s words are comprehensive in their referring reach due to their reflection of God. Things speak of things, but not only in one temporal direction.

Fourth, since God is the God of Jesus Christ, and Christ, the Son of God, or “God the Son,” is he in whom and by whom and for whom all things are created, then of course Scripture, in its reflection of this comprehensive ordering of all things, will do this by showing us, in every page and verse the Christ himself. Ultimately, this is a very traditional claim, and it founds the specifically Christian use of figural reading. This particular reality, by the way, was what allowed the Jansenists to recognize their calling to remain in the church despite the church’s errors and how the church treated them: Jesus’s own passion, his own subjection to Israel’s judgments, is figured in the whole of human history, and so helps us to read the thread of God’s calling in both Old Testament and New Testament; and thus in our own time as well.

Four Senses

Beyond these presuppositions about God’s relationship to Scripture more broadly, the figural reading of Scripture takes in many traditional ways of reading Scripture. Some Medieval handbooks spoke of the four senses of scripture, and they are all included in this figural framework:

  • the literal sense: what (according to a biblical text) happened or what happens generally?
  • the tropological or moral sense: how to act?
  • the anagogical or prophetic sense: what will happen?
  • the allegorical (what I call the figural in its summit): what is the case, the truth of God?

All of these senses whatever anybody actually thinks, appear in most sermons, although a little self-awareness would help keep preachers from both confusions and getting stuck in ruts.

Whenever we read Scripture as an account of something in the past or now, we are indeed being literal. And why not? I would only point out that, by and large, we don’t really know “what happened” according to Scripture in a modern historical way; rather Scripture’s “what happened” is either more or less plausible to us, since we weren’t there and have little to no access to the past outside of the words of Scripture themselves; and thus we read Scripture’s accounts primarily as “stories,” more or less realistic.  As anybody knows, though, realistic stories always have a point or many points in being told at all. For no one tells a story without having a reason for it. The pure literal reading of Scripture, “alone” as it were, is mostly a myth, at best a stepping stone to something else. It’s not that it is not important that something happened; but things happening are without interest unless happenings of the past snare our present somehow.

Most preachers in fact stick to the tropological – how to act. Samson is a good example of courage or weakness or distraction from faith. Ahab and Elijah are excellent examples for engaging our faith vs. power, and so on. But note, using Scripture tropologically assumes that the consequences we note in the examples are “true” “across time”, “for us” – a claim that would make no sense were there not a God who orders truth and error across time in a comprehensive way, such that “our history” looks like “Ahab’s” somehow. That’s the figural claim.

And this claim sustains the anagogical or prophetic view of Scripture: “it will be to Putin as to Ahab”: this is what will happen, because the order of the world is what Scripture gives us in its stories. You may have a more or less insistent faith in this outcome to history. But we are all prophets when we read Scripture this way in some fashion.

And we do so, I noted, because at root we do think that Scripture tells us “what is,” that is, how the world is actually ordered by God. This involves the ordering of time, the ordering of peoples, the ordering of our desires and wills and so on, as I indicated; and the order indicates the significance of divine commands, and human disobedience; of divine judgment and divine mercy; of where things come from and where they go, and so on. Creation “looks like Scripture,” because in fact it coheres with Scripture – in all its infinite variegation, but also in its origin and end. To have a sense of this, is indeed to be prodded into the figural reading of the Bible. You can’t avoid it. Instead, you are constantly pressed to find out who you are in Scripture and never to be satisfied with a simple posture of righteousness or lostness or conviction of mercy. Indeed, you are constantly pressed to “see Jesus” in all things, to be humbled, and to rejoice.

Ephraim Radner

The Rev. Ephraim Radner (PhD, Yale) is Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College. Prior to his appointment the Rev. Dr. Radner was rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado. His range of ministerial experience includes Burundi, where he worked as a missionary, Haiti, inner-city Cleveland, and Connecticut. He has taught at seminaries in Connecticut and Colorado. He is married to the Rev. Annette Brownlee and they are the parents of Hannah and Isaac.

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