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Time and the Word:
Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures

by ephraim radner
eerdmans, 326 pages, $50

Moderns are accustomed to taking premodern interpretations of the Bible to be products of a bygone time, when outmoded worldviews permitted naive, anachronistic interpretations of scriptural texts. On this view, it is only by an extreme tendentiousness, a blinkered approach to reality, that one may understand the words of an Israelite prophet to refer, for example, to the Virgin Mary or the suppression of Christian heretics. Postmodernism has softened this judgment a little, prompting some to appreciate the verbal sophistication and literary imagination typical of figural reading of Scripture. Yet the condescension, though subtler here, remains.

In Time and the Word, Ephraim Radner, one of our leading theologians, makes a new case for an old practice: figural reading of the Bible. To read the Bible figurally is to read it as a single, coherent text whose words refer not only to an original context but also to things that may be quite distant in both time and historical situation. Examples of figural reading include the rabbinic application of Song of Songs to the relation between God and Israel; another example is the traditional identification of the Servant Songs in Isaiah with the passion of Christ. In both cases, parts of Scripture are integrated into what Hans Frei called “a single cumulative and complex pattern of meaning.”

In one sense, Radner’s program is not new. In the mid-twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac made influential cases for a return to patristic and medieval modes of figural exegesis. It was the “Yale School,” however, that exercised a stronger and more immediate influence on Radner, who introduces this book with personal recollections of the American, Protestant wing of ressourcement represented by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Brevard Childs. Yet Radner goes farther than his teachers. Not only does he defend the legitimacy of figural reading; he also calls for a contemporary return to the theological perspectives and modes of reading identified with traditional Christian figuralism.

Figural reading of the Bible has gone by many names: allegory, typological reading, the discernment of the spiritual sense. In the familiar scheme of medieval interpreters, figural reading enclosed four distinct levels of meaning: literal, tropological, anagogical, and allegorical. Radner’s burden is to show that, far from being a practice limited to the likes of Origen, Augustine, and Wycliffe, figural reading endured as an essential feature of Christian thought among early modern interpreters (Puritans) and flourishes in contemporary churches as well (Pentecostals).

One of Radner’s central arguments, then, is that figural reading is very much a universal practice identifiable with the Christian Church wherever and whenever it has existed. (Indeed, Radner even sees Jewish figuralism as “converging” with the Christian.) That figural reading has atrophied in the last two hundred years is not to be explained by its actual deficiencies but rather by Christians’ failure to understand what figural reading truly involves.

Radner defines figural reading as “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.” In other words, figural reading recognizes the Bible as true precisely by refusing to understand it simply as a book about the past. Despite the Bible’s historical character, that to which the Bible refers is not dead and remote but present and alive. There is thus no rupture between the biblical past and the reader’s own day and time, still less a disjuncture between the world of the Bible and the reality in which readers live.

Figural reading helps us to reckon with a great mystery: To God, all are alive (Luke 20:38). Time, as we normally experience and conceive it, is not a feature of reality itself but only of the way that reality is providentially unfolded in human experience. Though we are accustomed to thinking of time as linear and irreversible, something that sorts, separates, and limits life, Radner rightly notes that time is simply “how eternity is apprehended by creatures.” Following Augustine, Radner likens time to the unrolling of a great, intricately patterned tapestry. What is fundamental is not time but the “tenseless” reality in which all things are alive to, and loved by, God. Understood this way, time, temporality, and history need not constrain scriptural interpretation in the ways they normally do. In fact, the reverse is the case. If Scripture is timelessly true, then it is Scripture that reveals the shape and meaning of history.

Take, for example, the biblical language of “exile.” Radner asks to what, exactly, “exile” refers. He follows earlier Christian and Jewish exegetes who see exile as something real and, indeed, ongoing in the life of their communities. The biblical exile was “congruent” with real historical events, but ultimately it cannot be confined to a single episode. Exile must enclose a repeatable reality that belongs equally to Israelites of the past, Christians in the first century, French Huguenots, and Jews fasting on the ninth of Av. The implications of this are great, not only for high-level theology but for the Church’s daily life of preaching and prayer.

A good portion of the book is taken up with the criticism of what Radner regards as half-measures. The “critical realist” approach of N. T. Wright, for example, uses historical analysis to understand what “more or less” took place in the past and to uncover the worldviews of biblical texts. Though it promotes respect for the “otherness” of the Bible, it does nothing to explain how and why the Bible, a product of the “past,” remains true in the present. Post-liberal theologians also fall short in this respect. By laying too much emphasis on the role that language plays in theological systems and too little on the work that language does in our relation to God and the world, post-liberal approaches isolate scriptural language from reality. The Bible is not only a source for coherent theological vocabularies; it must also be true to the world in which we live.

And so on. Figural reading as Radner describes it refuses to make peace with religious pluralism and modern biblical criticism. In this sense, the book is an “apologia for traditional Christian ways of looking at the world.” Readers should be warned, however, that despite its clear aim, the book is not an easy read. Radner zig-zags across analytic philosophy, church history, biblical studies, and modern theology. Another layer of difficulty is added by his prose—rich, lyrical, and penetrating, but sometimes dense, winding, and aphoristic.

For all this, though, Time and the Word repays careful and patient attention. Radner has a bold and far-reaching argument to make. To the extent that he succeeds in making a compelling theological case for figural reading, he also succeeds in reminding the reader just how strange, demanding, and uncertain figural reading can be. Radner cites, for example, the case of one of Christendom’s most influential interpreters, Bernard of Clairvaux. Figural reading led Bernard to advocate passionately for the Second Crusade, a campaign against the Muslims that went disastrously wrong. When it failed, Bernard was crushed and mortified. As a figural reader, he was initially misled in discerning the proper referents of scriptural language. And then, as Radner notes, he was led back to God by the Scripture’s own figurations of repentance. In drawing text and world together, the figural reader risks much.

In contrast to figural reading, the critical objectivity of the modern reader is safe and familiar. It domesticates Scripture and insulates it from life. What the non-figural reader loses, though, is a certain intimacy with God and the world. He forsakes a form of knowledge that is based on intellectual submission, one that comes not by “figuring the Bible out” but by “figuring ourselves in.” Radner closes the book by disclosing the ultimate reason for a return to figural reading: “in some small measure, to once again be led, and once again be found.” The statement is open-ended: found how? led where? How this can be—and what ultimately follows—only the God of the living can say. 

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics at Pennsylvania State University.