By David Mason Barr
Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
One of the most important people in the early formation of the Anglican tradition was a Bible translator. There are different views about how William Tyndale (1494-1536) fits into or relates to the Anglican tradition: Some regard him as a proto-Puritan, humanist, or Lollard remnant. But he must be acknowledged as the one who gave the Anglican tradition and the English-speaking world its foundational translation of the New Testament and the Pentateuch. If there were a “40 under 40” list for the history of the English-speaking world, he would be on it for this fact alone.
Aside from his magisterial legacy as a translator, Tyndale is worth bringing into our conversation on figural exegesis in the Anglican tradition because his basic exegetical impulses and intentions remind us of something essential and even hopeful about figural reading and its place in Anglican spirituality. He thought figural exegesis was how all people could enter into Scripture and see the work of God in Christ Jesus. For Tyndale, theology was certainly a task, but interpretation was the task. The Bible itself was precisely what the nation needed, and it could be openly approached by all through its various figures.
The old narrative of how figural reading was weeded out by the early Reformers does not hold up these days. In fact, scholars are pretty well in agreement that while figural and allegorical methods underwent changes at the hands of early 16th-century Reformers (as happened in lots of other centuries and movements), the shift in method is just that — a change in use, not an erasure. The thing worth holding onto in examining this shift is how Tyndale decided to use and encourage figural exegesis and who he thought should use it.
The places we find Tyndale encouraging figural exegesis the most are in his prologues to his translations. Here’s one fairly standard example from his Prologue to the Book of Leviticus: “when we have once found out Christ and his mysteries, then we may borrow figures, that is to say allegories … to open Christ, and the secrets of God hid in Christ.” Two primary things are worth noting in this effort to introduce readers to Leviticus.
First, Tyndale does not have a systematic vision for different modes of either Bible reading in general or figural reading in particular. He communicates no hard and fast distinctions between typology, allegory, etc. Instead, he orders figural readings Christologically. He did not organize figures within Scripture by the fourfold method, as had previously been the practice (which Tyndale loathed). Rather, he ordered them within various registers in relation to the multiple ways in which they tell of the promises of God in Christ. In this way, figures are able to speak, not because of the interpreter’s knowledge of a fourfold method, but because of their knowledge of Christ and his redemptive work.
The second thing worth noting here is so obvious that it’s easy to miss. Tyndale introduces this simple figural mode of thinking about Leviticus because he thinks it is exactly how the Bible makes itself clear. In other words, he thinks the very perspicuitas (“clarity”) of Scripture comes through its figures. Scripture can communicate to common Christians (the miller, the smithy, the ploughboy), precisely because they know its preeminent figure — Jesus Christ. And so figures, for Tyndale, are simply part of how the Bible does its promised work. It isn’t necessarily a complex affair.
Now, this is not to say that Tyndale thought the Bible’s figural way of speaking is simple in a limiting or reductionist sense. Even if he does have the exegetical tendency to refer again and again to a Reformation-minded notion of salvation through faith, how scriptural figures order his theological discourse is far from two-dimensional. What this looks like is a kind of latching on to a particular figure, examining its use in multiple biblical contexts, and then allowing Scripture’s use of the figure to lead into deeper theological reflection. The prime example from Tyndale’s work is his treatment of Old Testament sacrifice, also from his prologue to Leviticus:
Christ is Aaron and Aaron’s sons, and all that offer the sacrifice to purge sin. And Christ is all manner offering that is offered: he is the ox that is burnt without the host, and the scape-goat that carried all the sin of the people away into the wilderness: for as they purged the people from their worldly uncleannesses through blood of the sacrifices, even so doth Christ purge us from the uncleanness of everlasting death with his own blood.
The basic emphasis here should be clear enough; all aspects of the Old Testament sacrificial rite, along with its narratives of sacrifice, speak to Christ’s work on the cross. And so in virtually all of Tyndale’s theological work, “blood” and sacrifice — neither Christus victor nor penal substitution — become his sole means of articulating a doctrine of atonement. The remarkable thing here isn’t that this is so innovative or creative; it is that he orders his theology by means of one of the most pervasive figures in Scripture: blood.
My point here, again, is not about the merits (or problems) of Tyndale’s atonement theory, but how he arrives at this depiction. Choosing “blood” as the primary, if not exclusive, lens for his position shows that the figural pressure of the biblical canon is what guides his theological reflection. Tyndale picks blood as the way to talk about the atonement because language regarding blood and sacrifice are used so extensively in both testaments. Figures, then, become the privileged entryway into complex theological topics just as they give the simple-minded or uneducated easy access to the significance of Scripture. Figures enlighten the ploughboy and the PhD student alike (and those of us who’ve been both).
Figural exegesis does not belong exclusively to the academic guild, and it does not belong exclusively to the spiritually elite; it belongs to the Christian scriptures and to the God who made and speaks to his people through them. For Tyndale, figural reading is how we enter into the depth of the Bible because its figures are intrinsic to its basic nature — and God’s. And so, if the Anglican prayer book tradition is about the “allness” of Scripture and its figural character, as David Ney has argued in the first post of this series, then might I suggest that it is also about the “allness” of God’s people.
What this means for those of us interested in encouraging figural reading in our parishes and Bible reading communities is this: Perhaps we need not try to revive a particular movement, or a certain historical attitude or outlook, but encourage commitment to the prayer book tradition’s way of proclaiming all of the scriptural cannon indiscriminately and repeatedly. If Scripture can be trusted to do its promised work, then our task, the task, is translation. Determining what this kind of translation might look like for us is another topic, but for now we can certainly affirm with Tyndale that “God is but his word,” available to all through the splendor and variety of the two testaments. This impulse is not anti-intellectual, and it is certainly not elitist. It is a simple confidence in the one proclaiming, “That which I preach am I; my words are spirit and life.”
David Mason Barr is a PhD student at Wycliffe College, Toronto. He was baptized in the Diocese of Alabama and raised in the Diocese of South Carolina. He lives in Rochester, New York.
 For a detailed account, see Friedrich Ohly, “Typology As a Form of Historical Thought” in Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval Significs and the Philology of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
 William Tyndale, Prologue to the Book of Leviticus, ed. by G.E. Duffield, The Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics: The Work of William Tyndale (Sutton Courtenay Press, 1964), p. 60.
 Ibid., p. 65.
 Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man, 331.
 Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man, 331.