In this excerpt from All Thy Lights Combine, editors Ephraim Radner and David Ney introduce the concept of figural reading and it’s importance to biblical interpretation in the Anglican tradition.
When English speakers think of the power of biblical language, they often summon up memories of that great monument of historic Anglicanism, the Authorized King James translation (KJV). Within the remembered sounds or simply written sentences of this great monument to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English lie the echoes of, it is sensed, a mysteriously great language. Ann Wroe recounts her first hearing, as a British Catholic, of a reading of the KJV at university:
I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.
Much about these memories is just their grasp of something that seems gone. When, in 2011, the 400th anniversary of the KJV was celebrated, a spate of articles and books on the translation appeared, most of them addressing the specifically literary influence of the text. They noted with praise the tradition of sonorous eloquence, the vivid Saxon terminology, and the lyrical and sometimes mysteriously violent rhetoric set in motion by the KJV that seemed to order English prose and poetry for centuries, from the KJV’s own origins in the language of Tyndale and the Book of Common Prayer, to Donne to Melville. But the 2011 laudators also offered eulogies to the translation in the modern sense of tributes for what is lost and dead, a way of speaking and imagining the world that is no longer ours. Our contemporary language, it was often noted, seem pallid by comparison, weak and ineffectual.
The power of biblical language is generally viewed in our day as literary. Cultural or cognitive potency is what is at issue, something bound up with the way words and their ordering shape the individual and collective consciousness. No doubt the seventeenth-century translators of the KJV were sensitive to this important character of biblical speech, framed in a particular language or vernacular. But what governed their own presuppositions about the text that they translated, and that only thereby elevated the resonance of their English sentences, was their more fundamental conviction that the words of the Bible themselves held power to shape the world of nature, the world of men and women, bodies and spirits together. Scripture words could do this precisely because they are God-given, and in this divine origin encompass all creation: when “God said,” so it was. This is why, in Wroe’s description, the words of the Bible can “give shape to everything around them”: not because they are linguistically well framed, but because they frame all things. As Adam Nicolson writes, contrasting the King James Bible to Shakespeare’s King Lear, “everything in Lear falls apart, everything in the King James Bible pulls together; one is a nightmare of dissolution, the other a dream of wholeness … it absorbs and includes.”
It was out of this conviction, and (more properly for those of faith) out of the reality on which this conviction resided, that English Christians, and especially the Anglican tradition that comprehended most of them until the nineteenth century, produced the rich, variegated, and astonishingly illuminating scriptural interpretation that this volume seeks to introduce. What is here called the “figural” reading of the Bible is but the practiced version of that conviction of Scripture’s power to provide and reveal the wholeness of God’s world and history, and to absorb and include all aspects of actual life within the formative power of God’s own life, most clearly given in Christ Jesus.
The goal of figural reading was, to borrow a phrase from the great Anglican poet George Herbert (1593–1633), to come to know “how all thy lights combine / And the configurations of their glory!” Figural readers hoped to uncover the way that God’s creative work integrates all reality by showing how particular parts of Scripture—God’s own words—interlock with others, often across times and books and characters, through similitude, resonance, and moral form. Most Christians are aware of the figural connection between Adam or David and Christ, drawn not only by New Testament authors but elaborated upon extravagantly over the centuries in liturgy, homily, poetry, and image. But the figural readers of the Bible were not only invited but, given their understanding of the Bible, driven to see such connections in all the corners of the scriptural text, from those dealing with flowers or beasts to those dealing with conquest and destruction. The figurated Scripture told them what the world looked like, not only in terms of human imagination, but in the very mind of God. Figural reading, then, revealed and reveled in the truth.
Figural readers receive biblical words in canonical context and pay special attention to the way these words acquire theological and especially christological import, referring to these realities by taking into their meaning related words and texts. Scripture words, sentences, narratives, and images thus become figures of other words, sentences, narratives, and images—and finally of divine truths themselves—through their variegated use and linkages. The lexical range of “figural reading” overlaps with that of terms such as typology (where one event or person prophetically pre-figures a later event or person) and allegory (a looser mode of theological reference) and thus occupies a place within broadly conceived categories such as spiritual interpretation or theological interpretation. Because of its interest in particular objects and bodies depicted in Scripture and in their relationship with other referents, figural reading can sometimes rightly be opposed to spiritualizing tendencies in the history of biblical interpretation. But for the purposes of this volume, “figural reading” will be used generously as a broad category which includes the premodern modes of interpretation of the medieval quadriga as well as other historic theological interpretations of Scripture generated from reading the Bible according to its wider canonical interrelationships.
Like those for whom the King James Bible has become a relic from a bygone age, Christians of the modern West often study the figural reading of Scripture as one gazes upon an artifact in a museum. Students are still taught about the medieval quadriga, a term that conjures up the four wheels of a chariot. The quadriga referred to the fourfold senses of the Scripture that any text might hold: the literal, the allegorical (matters of Christian faith), the anagogical (matters of Christian hope), and the tropological (matters of Christian love). The latter three senses are usually designated as “figural,” and many modern Protestants (and now Catholics too) assume that they were left behind with the Reformation. Often the assumption that figural reading is premodern is accompanied by a value judgment: it is taken to be the mode of reading which is practiced by primitive Christians. Yet recent history suggests that it is resilient and reasserts itself even as scholars and preachers try to stamp it out.
The first early modern translator of the Bible, William Tyndale (on whose work the KJV is largely based), is famous for his Reformation rejection of complicated allegorical interpretation. Yet, as we see in David Mason Barr’s chapter on Tyndale, he was a thoroughgoing figuralist in his own way, largely because only by reading the Bible figurally could he make sense of Britain as belonging to God. The same can be said of Thomas Cranmer, a radical Protestant in some respects, but whose composition of the Book of Common Prayer in fact established figural reading as a central part of Anglican Christian faith. Preachers and poets, including Puritans and Catholics both, followed Cranmer’s lead well into the era we associate with enlightened social progress. Precisely this learning has, over the centuries, fueled the most focused devotion, sublime poetry, powerful conversionary preaching, vigorous political activism, and robust missionary outreach. The purpose of this volume is to trace some of these fruitful lines of witness.
This post is adapted from All Thy Lights Combine: Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition edited by Ephraim Radner and David Ney (Lexham Press, 2022).