Editor’s note: This is the fifth piece in our series Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition. See the introductory essay by David Ney for more details on Anglicanism as a community centered on the Word: “The bare reading of Scripture and Anglican hermeneutics.” Find all the essays (and others related to them) under the tag ressourcement.

In this post I have the privilege of introducing one of my heroes, the 18th-century natural philosopher, theologian, and Anglican cleric William Jones of Nayland (1726-1800). Jones’s way of dealing with the Bible may strike us as odd, but I will show that it is conventional, from an Anglican perspective, since it grows out of the prayer book tradition, which has the juxtaposition of scriptural texts as its foundation. Jones’s approach shows how this conventionally Anglican perspective has the potential to lead people to an intellectually robust appreciation of who God is, and what is more, it opens a new way of seeing the world. It boasts nothing less than the ability to reveal the entire world as it truly is, under God.

Seeing God as he is

Jones of Nayland was revered as a pre-eminent theological authority in the first half of the 19th century. Many early 19th-century Anglicans lauded his first work, The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity (1756), as the definitive refutation of Antitrinitarianism. In 1751 Anglican Bishop Robert Clayton (1695-1758) shocked the establishment with his Antitrinitarian tract, An Essay on Spirit, but Jones’s response treats Clayton’s theological adventures as the occasion to engage a more formidable opponent, Sir Isaac Newton’s protégé, Samuel Clarke (1675-1727).[1]

In 1712 Clarke published what is undoubtedly the most important Antitrinitarian work ever written in the English language, The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. Clarke’s starting point is his monotheism. In his best-selling Boyle lectures of 1706 and 1707, he had demonstrated that God must be a “Self-Existent being” and that it follows that he must also be “a most Simple, Unchangeable, Incorruptible being, without Parts, Figure, Motion, Divisibility, or any other such Properties as we find in Matter.”[2] For Clarke, it was obvious that the New Testament word God refers to just this Self-Existent being with just these properties. And it was equally obvious that passages that refer to Christ and the Holy Spirit refer to them, not the Self-Existent being. The New Testament thus showed, according to Clarke, that Christ and the Holy Spirit are different beings with different properties. If ever the New Testament entreats them with the epithet God (and Clarke is squeamish about this), it does so in a way that befits their unique properties. In The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity, Clarke walked through all the passages in the New Testament that ascribe Christ and the Holy Spirit divine powers and attributes, and shows that they can only but ascribe an inferior and subordinate divinity.

Clarke’s work purported to account for of “ALL the Texts in the New Testament relating to that Doctrine.” It appeared to offer a compelling solution to the conundrum of Trinitarian theology that is both canonical and empirical, since it proceeded from the ground up, with the texts themselves. Jones’s refutation demonstrated, however, that Clarke’s hermeneutic wasn’t properly canonical, since it ignored the entire Old Testament, and it wasn’t properly empirical, since it didn’t actually let the words of Scripture speak. It was a top down approach that began with a rationally deduced definition of God and imposed this definition upon the Bible, muting the voice of belligerent texts. Jones argued that if we open ourselves to the whole council of God, and allow God’s words to speak to us, we will see God as he truly is and embrace The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity.

Like Clarke’s Scripture-Doctrine, Jones’s Catholic Doctrine thrusted scriptural passage after scriptural passage at the reader. But where Clarke asked the reader to consider the meaning of individual passages in themselves, Jones juxtaposed at least two scriptural passages before proceeding to comment on them. More often than not he placed an Old and a New Testament text side by side.[3]

For example, he begans by placing Isaiah 8:13-14 (which states that the Lord of hosts will be “a stone of stumbling and rock of offence”) next to 1 Peter 2:7-8 (which states that Christ has been made “a stone of stumbling and rock of offence”). From this it follows, said Jones, that Christ is the “Lord of Hosts himself.”[4]

Jones then juxtaposed Isaiah 44:6 (in which the Lord says, “I am the First, and I am the Last, and besides me there is no God”), and Revelation 22:13 (in which Jesus declares, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the End, the First and the Last”).[5] When the titles “the first” and “the last” — as titles reserved for the one “besides whom there is no God” — are applied to Jesus, said Jones, Jesus is confirmed to be the God besides whom there is no other. Throughout The Catholic Doctrine, Jones pursues this method — juxtaposing two passages and then commenting on their accordance — relentlessly to defend the divinity of Christ, the divinity of the Spirit, the plurality and Trinity of Persons, and the Unity of Persons within the Trinity as Scripture-Doctrines.

Seeing the world as it is, under God

Jones engaged in his juxtapositional method of interpretation throughout his life, and he applied it not just to spiritual realities but to physical realities as well. Jones’s method is thus more than a means of establishing orthodoxy. It proposes to unveil the divine meaning of everything humans encounter in life.[6]

According to Jones, the language of Scripture is uniquely suited to such a task because it is figurative.

Words are the arbitrary signs of natural things, but the language of revelation goes a step farther, and uses some things as the signs of other things; in consequence of which, the world which we now see becomes a sort of commentary on the mind of God.[7]

Jones was a member of the Royal Society, and was natural philosopher of some note. He had no problem endorsing the empirical method as able to procure delightful knowledge of God’s creation. He equally insisted however, that Scripture is essential for those that wish to move beyond a mere physical knowledge of the world.

If we descend to an actual examination of particulars, we find [Scripture] assisting and leading our faculties forward; by an application of all visible objects to a figurative use; from the glorious orb which shines in the firmament, to a grain of seed which is buried in the earth.[8]

Jones’s approach grants Scripture the ability to transform the world into a “commentary on the mind of God.” It can only do so, however, as individual objects are saturated with Scripture, immersed in the water of the Word.

Take the sun, for example. Jones observed that in Psalm 84 “the Lord, is said to be a sun and a shield; a sun to give light to his people, and a shield to protect them from the power of darkness.” For Jones, however, this is only beginning. Psalm 84 initiates a cascade of references and resonances that draw together Scripture and world.

Christ, in the language of the prophet is the sun of righteousness, who as the natural sun revives the grass, and renews the year, brings on the acceptable year of the Lord, and is the great restorer of all things in the kingdom of grace; shining with the new light of life and immortality to those who once sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. And the church has warning to receive him under this glorious character: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. When he was manifested to the eyes of men, he called himself the light of the world, and promised to give the same light to those that follow him … his place is supplied by the light of scripture, which is still a lamp to our feet and a light unto our paths. The word of prophecy is as a light shining in a dark place; and as we study by the light of a lamp, so we must give heed to this light, if we would see things to come.[9]

By drawing the object of the sun into Scripture, Jones reveals the true identity of the sun as a figure of Christ. And as this passage clearly shows, it is as a figure of Christ that the sun becomes divine communication that can assist the children of God in numerous ways as they seek to understand their place in the world, under God.

Conclusion

For Jones, Scripture was to be upheld as divine communication because it reveals the true identity of God and the world. The claim that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) is not a bare assertion. As a scriptural statement, it is a unique kind of assertion, not simply because of its located within the canon, but because Scripture is what gives voice to the praise the heavens are trying to declare. Scripture makes the world divine communication. If children were to ask Jones what the sun is, he would tell them that it is a figure of Christ that teaches Christians to walk in the light. (For a look at the relation between figural interpretation and Scripture’s accessibility, see David Mason Barr on William Tyndale.)

If a fellow theologian were to ask him the same question he would offer the same answer. He might well divulge profound scientific and Scriptural reflections that he would withhold from the child, but his reflection would always be about the figural relation of light and God.[10]

Jones was committed to passing on the faith to the next generation, and he found the time to write a children’s catechism despite his frenetic engagement with the natural philosophical, theological, and political issues of his day. Jones’s catechism, The Book of Nature (1788), stands out for the way it manages to avoid doctrinal abstraction. Its primary object was to teach children about the world in which they live. Jones took objects children are familiar with — such as animals, ships, the ocean — and he revealed them as divine communication through the same juxtapositional method he employed in his academic works.

The crisis in contemporary catechesis runs deep. Today’s young people need doctrinal rigor, common prayer, and spiritual disciplines. Even more importantly, I believe, children must be trained from a young age to see the world as it truly is, as God’s creation — a creation that is everywhere marked with the imprint of its creator. Jones’s gift to us is to remind us that God’s Word provides everything we need for this noble task.

Footnotes

[1] In his day Clarke had met his match in Cambridge don Daniel Waterland (1683-1740), but in the middle of the 18th century Clarke’s work had endured to sow seeds of theological dissent in scholars such as Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).

[2] Samuel Clarke, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (London, 1706), p. 71. Clarke helps us to see just why Monism and Trinitarianism are at odds with one another.

[3] The way Jones’s method makes the Old Testament crucial to theology proper points back to the Church Fathers. Recent work in New Testament studies and patristics confirms that historically, the Christian doctrine of God grew out of the basic conviction that the Jesus of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. This principle, when applied to the interpretation of Scripture, was given the title “the rule of faith.” Christopher Seitz, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets (Baker Academic, 2009), pp. 20-23. See also Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1998).

[4] Jones, The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1756), pp. 1-2.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Jones’s scriptural apologetic, like that of Joseph Butler, is phenomenological in orientation. Jones agrees wholeheartedly with Butler that if the Bible is true, it must be true in the sense that it accurately describes human experience.

[7] William Jones, Lectures on the Figurative Language of the Holy Scriptures (London, 1787), pp. 9-10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., pp.44-45.

[10] Jones calls the flower “An Emblem of Mortal Man.” Stevens, The Theological, vol. 11, 197. See also Jones, Four Discourses, pp. 6-10, 29-33. For Jones, the providential significance of the flower is given in the emblematic relation between the flower and mortal man. The process through which Jones relates individual objects to the providential order should not be interpreted as a movement from particulars to abstraction. The theological interpretation of Scripture for Jones, therefore, is not the process of demythologization. The particulars he studies are retained in their relation to other particulars.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney serves as priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta. He recently completed a doctorate in theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His wife Jamie, a Taiwanese national, has patiently journeyed with him for over ten years of theological education but is looking forward to no longer being married to a perpetual student (although hopefully still to him). When David isn’t preparing a sermon, doing a pastoral visitation, or engaged in academic work, he can be found changing the diaper of his infant daughter, on his hands and knees playing “tars” with his three-year-old son, or accompanying his seven- and nine-year-old daughters on the cello and the violin.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of
wpDiscuz