Editor’s note: This is the sixth 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.
The Victorian philosopher and theologian Henry Mansel (1820-71) is probably remembered most for making famous opponents and unfortunate friends. F.D. Maurice and J.S. Mill, each in their own way, devoted entire volumes to refuting Mansel’s “dangerous” ideas. Even fellow High Churchmen like J.B. Mozley and Charles Meynell published their misgivings about Mansel’s 1858 Bampton Lectures, The Limits of Religious Thought, and they surely had a point: Mansel’s theological agnosticism formed the ostensible foundation of Herbert Spencer’s philosophical agnosticism, an association Mansel never managed to shake. In this way, he was a casualty of the confusion and convulsions of Victorian England’s theological landscape.
Mansel’s simple goal was to assert and defend the truth of every last word of Scripture, from beginning to end. But to do this he made a controversial claim: he argued that scriptural language does not describe God in his eternal essence but only as he has revealed himself within the constraints of time and space. Such a revelation will inevitably leave conceptual and speculative gaps. The Bible tells us what God has done in the world and how we are to live, but little more.
Maurice found this offensive because it seemed to drastically curtail our knowledge of God as it introduced a layer of uncertainty between simple scriptural claims — “God is love” — and the actual reality of God. Mill was offended for the exact opposite reason: how could anyone morally defend Scripture’s portrayal of what God has done in the world, in the Old Testament especially?
In this respect, the Victorian era is not so far from our own. At the parish, national, and international levels of our churches, questions like these continue to confuse and divide: How do we, as Christians, understand the character of God revealed in Scripture? How do we unite the seemingly conflicting images of God’s love and compassion with God’s acts of violence, judgment, and destruction in the Bible? How can an eternal and perfect God carry on conversations with people, change his mind, or make plans that don’t quite work out?
Mansel’s answers to these questions did not satisfy many people because they seemed to lack resolution. He argued that God cannot be fully understood within the limits of human thought and language, and that we must be content with a language that speaks of God in, at times, antimonous language. God’s character is discerned in Scripture by collating and amassing the images and narratives that describe him, not by coercing them into overly resolved categories and concepts. Of course, we cannot do without categories and concepts altogether, but they must be conditioned constantly by the full scope of scriptural data. It is true that God is loving, but our concept of love, scripturally speaking, cannot exclude judgment, and the concrete forms this judgment takes in the Bible.
Further, Mansel never argued that the Bible failed wholly to reveal God’s eternal character, but just that we have no framework or paradigm by which to resolve the tensions that Scripture gives us. Scripture is the framework that reveals God to us, and our place in the world is shown to us within, not apart from, the difficulties, obscurities, and conflicts of the Bible:
The luminary, by whose influence the ebb and flow of man’s moral being is regulated, moves around and along with man’s little world, in a regular and bounded orbit: one side, and one side only, looks downwards upon its earthly centre; the other, which we see not, is ever turned upwards to the all-surrounding infinite.
Figural reading, as I understand it, has to do with Scripture’s ability to “move around and along with man’s little world.” Though it is obviously a contested view, Mansel believed that Scripture, if allowed to speak as a unified and coherent witness to God’s presence in the world, was able to describe and address the complex and difficult lives of human beings in a far more powerful and comprehensive fashion than any philosophical or theological system. In part, this is because such systems inevitably streamline and simplify complexity, whereas the Scriptures render these difficulties almost nakedly and without apology as features within God’s providential ordering of the world that find their resolution in Christ. (See here Jeff Boldt’s essay on Bishop Butler’s similar approach to the analogous character of Scripture.)
One of the greatest threats the Church in North America faces today is that individual Christians struggle to recognize, much less love, the God who is portrayed in the pages of the Bible. Secular though our culture may be, concepts of God still abound, many of which are more damaging to Christian faith than atheism. J.S. Mill’s famous words, uttered in response to Mansel, could have been spoken today: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures” (An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy). Mill, of course, had already decided what goodness was, long before he turned his thoughts to God. It is hardly surprising that in Mill’s utilitarian world, where pleasure and harm are the only weights on the scale, God should appear as a criminal. What is surprising, shocking even, is that Mansel’s contemporaries —High Church, Broad Church, and evangelical alike — sided overwhelmingly with Mill.
In many ways, Mill’s intuition, that God must be something different than the Bible’s description of him, formed a foundational instinct for generations of Anglican theologians. The Lux Mundi theologians wrestled mightily with the moral character of God in the Scriptures, and they resorted to developmental metaphysics to explain how the God of the Bible could so grievously offend their philosophical and moral assumptions. For example, as much as Charles Gore (1853-1932) really wanted to retain the devotional and theological value of certain psalms, the idea, he argued, that “God must finally vindicate Himself” in the world really belonged to an “early stage of spiritual education.” This type of relegation, Mansel would have argued, rendered straightforward scriptural statements — “God must finally vindicate himself” — confusing and ultimately irrelevant.
At times it appeared Mansel was rubbing the difficult portions of Scripture in people’s faces, but this was far from his intent. Much to his credit, he perceived that the Church of England was teetering on the brink of an incredible apostasy, and it troubled him deeply. To Mansel, if the Scriptures could not be perceived, as a whole, a unified witness to God, then Christian faith would begin to crumble (see here David Ney’s initial post on the “allness” of Scripture):
It is painful … to trace the gradual progress by which an unstable disciple often tears off strip by strip the wedding garment of his faith,—scarce conscious the while of his own increasing nakedness,—and to mark how the language of Christian belief may remain almost untouched, when the substance and the life have departed from it. While Philosophy speaks nothing but the language of Christianity, we may be tempted to think that the two are really one; that our own speculations are but leading us to Christ by another and a more excellent way. Many a young aspirant after a philosophical faith, trusts himself to the trackless ocean of rationalism in the spirit of the too-confident Apostle: “Lord, bid me to come unto thee on the water.” And for a while he knows not how deep he sinks, till the treacherous surface on which he treads is yielding on every side, and the dark abyss of utter unbelief is yawning to swallow him up. Well is it indeed with those who, even in that last fearful hour, can yet cry, “Lord, save me!” and can feel that supporting hand stretched out to grasp them, and hear that voice, so warning, yet so comforting, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
Mansel’s lament still sounds rather raw and threatening. The gradual decline of North American Anglicanism has happened even as Scripture has been read in church services on a continual and comprehensive basis. What exactly have people been hearing when the Scriptures are read? It would be hard to deny that the “dark abyss of utter unbelief” has not been “yawning” beneath our churches for decades, in part because our confidence in Scripture’s witness to God’s character has been eroded by powerfully persuasive moral and rational ideas. In many ways, this erosion has been propagated by many of our clergy and scholars, and it is no small wonder that people in the pews now struggle to find their lives and their God described and revealed throughout the entire Bible.
Of course, reading the Bible as a coherent whole does not render one single vision of the world. Scripture is united in Christ, but it is as diverse as the spaces and times in which it is read. Mansel’s goal was to retain Scripture’s unity while holding it open to every possible moment in time. The words of Scripture, for Mansel, are “expansive,” not because their individual meaning grows and becomes something else, but because they are spacious enough to hold the immensity of Creation and its complex relationship with its Creator.
It was Mansel’s goal simply to create a space, in an increasingly contested context, in which Christian people could continue to read the Bible as if the words were actually happening around them. In this sense, figural reading is a discipline I learned first from my mother and father, who searched the Scriptures regularly to discover who they were in God’s world. As a young adult I learned it from Christians in Northern Sumatra after the 2004 tsunami, who found great comfort in the prophets and the Psalms. Only later in seminary did I discover that such a practice had a name and that it was under serious threat. As a pastor, I have studied the Bible with miners and grandmothers for whom such a way of reading was obvious. So there are many reasons to be hopeful.
Seeing the world scripturally, of course, requires faith because it is often far from obvious how our world is scriptural in any way, how the God described in the books of Esther, Amos, or Jude is one God, past, present and future. In Mansel’s eyes, we should thank God when such unity and coherence are apparent. But when they are not, we are to “believe that that will be true concerning the method of Scripture in time to come, which has been true concerning the method of Scripture in time past.”
It may very well be that our present moment requires such belief, which for God’s people is a frightening but familiar place to be.
I have heard of your renown
and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
In our own time make it known. (Hab. 3:2)
 Mansel, The Limits of Religious Thought (Gould and Lincoln, 1860), p. 160.
 Charles Gore, “The Holy Spirit and Inspiration,” in Lux Mundi, 5th ed. (John Murray, 1890), p. 350.
 Mansel, The Limits of Religious Thought, p. 71.
 Mansel, “The Spirit, A Divine Person, to be Worshipped and Glorified,” p. 12.