Review: Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016). Pp. 334. $50.
In Time and the Word, Ephraim Radner offers his long-expected theology of “figural reading.” This book is a major moment for Anglican biblical theology, which can be seen as a sibling or more distant cousin of the Childsean, canonical vision of Christopher Seitz. Radner’s earlier works (and personal spirituality, as he details in the autobiographical introduction to this volume) are permeated with scriptural reflection and presuppose such an account; but despite a small, insightful essay on Keble’s Tract 89, Radner had not attempted to articulate his figuralist hermeneutics in a systematic manner. Some readers of A Brutal Unity (among whom I number myself) had in fact puzzled over the logic underlying the author’s exegetical codices to each chapter in that volume, and in the introduction to Time and the Word Radner acknowledges that these had not been wholly successful on their own and needed to be substantiated by a fuller hermeneutical account. This book is, in part, his answer to those critics, and as such comprises a companion piece to his earlier ecclesiological studies. But it is also, in larger part, a lovingly pastoral sketch of the author’s presumed hermeneutics, developed and practiced in many years of academic and pastoral ministry, and dedicated to his students at Wycliffe College in Toronto.
Although biblical scholars will be interested in Radner’s appreciative-yet-critical reception of N.T. Wright’s “ongoing exile” motif (as well as his critique of historical criticism) in the first chapter, and priests and pastors will find much of substance to the second part of the book (“Figuralism in Practice”), which includes a study of figures in the lectionary, called “juxtapositional reading,” as well as four figural sermons from different periods in history, the core elements of Radner’s proposal are laid out in chapters two and three of the first part. Radner offers, first, a history of figuralism (chapter two), from Origen to Henri De Lubac and Leonhard Goppelt. This history turns out to be a stunning defense of Origen, whom Radner construes in continuity with John Wycliffe’s later Christian Platonism. The Reformation, for its part, fragments Christian figuralism into Roman Catholic traditionalism, on the one hand, and Protestant Hebraism and typologism on the other, which are only bridged by the “sectarian” excursions into more Catholic figuralism by Keble and Newman. Wycliffe, and certain Jansenist figuralists emerge as the heroes of Radner’s history.
From this tour de force survey, Radner transitions in chapter three into a systematic mode, and constructs a theological account of figuralism. The core of this chapter — and perhaps the entire book — is a “curiously bloodless” (p. 106) 12-page, 16-section outline aimed at helping the reader “imagine figural time.” Leaving Origen and Wycliffe behind, Radner unveils (unapologetically) the Early Modern thought that funds his “common sense figuralism”: the causality and skepticism of David Hume (p. 98), the occasionalism of Nicolas Malebranche and idealism of George Berkeley (p. 63), and ultimately the analogical program of Joseph Butler (p. 107). What the second chapter demonstrates historically, the third explores systematically: that Scripture, as Verbum Domini, cannot be construed purely as a human artifact existing in time (like any other book); nor can its internal referents point solely in a unilinear direction (as in certain variants of Protestant typology). Rather, as eternal Word of God, Scripture is a divine artifact used by God in creation and redemption, one that “straddles the threshold of God’s asymmetrical time and creaturely time, and cannot be included within a simple historical frame” (p. 100). Radner’s Scripture thus emerges as a kind of metaphysical actor and instrument, similar in a certain sense to the rabbinic pre-existent Torah (see Genesis Rabbah), which has a role in the creation of the world. Scripture as “word” is also related to the Second Person of the Trinity, who bears the same title, although the latter possesses it more properly. It is only with such a high (albeit underdetermined) metaphysics — anchored in creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) as the unifying given (p. 113, n. 1) — that figural reading and Christian theology become possible.
The most important ramification of this move on Radner’s part is that it liberates the figures of Scripture from their time-bound letter and historical contexts to permeate the life of a Christian more liberally, imaginatively, and authoritatively. Exile is not only “then” — at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, or the Maccabean wars, or in first-century Judea — it is also “now,” in the current struggles of the Episcopal Church, in the flight of Christians from Syria and Egypt, and so on. Conversely, the redemptive activity of the Word is not only “now,” in a post-incarnational divine economy, it is also “then”: in the burning bush, with Elijah on the mountain, in the belly of the whale. Redescribing Scripture thus helps one understand the economic interrelationship of all time rightly, and allows one to speak, with Basil of Caesarea, of “time as a school for holiness” (p. 48) and, with Radner (Augustine, Calvin, Jansen), of “history as the grace of God” (p. 110).
In painting the history of figuralism with a broad diachronic and interreligious brush, Radner has made a compelling case for the need for Christian theology to come to terms with premodern exegesis. Radner’s attention to the convergence of Jewish and Christian figuralism (pp. 67-72) especially warrants attention. Given the importance of this recognition, one might have liked to see Radner also engage Philo of Alexandria, an A.D. first-century Greek Jewish exegete whose Logos (like Radner’s Scripture) straddles the “borderland” of the created and uncreated, serves as God’s instrument in creation, and was a critical influence on Origen’s figuralism and Logos theology and the Platonist tradition influential on Augustine.
It is precisely the breadth of Radner’s history of figuralism and the lumping together of Basil, Augustine, Origen, Amoraic midrashim, Wycliffe, and Calvin that gives it the feel of a kind of Grand Unifying Theory for biblicists, one that will certainly appeal to those tired of historical criticism, but that also seems almost too good to be true. Radner necessarily overlooks critical differences, for instance, between the Greek and Latin traditions (represented by Basil/Origen and Augustine). Even more perplexing for some will be the elision of patristic and medieval exegesis (chapter two), as well as the harmonization of Neoplatonic, Thomistic, Nominalist, and Early Modern theologians and philosophers into a single symphonic genealogy (chapters two through four) of common-sense figuralists.
An additional critique of Radner’s “common sense” proposal will be the degree to which it fails to offer a criterion for adjudicating between various figuralist perceptions and their “eristological” consequences. Martin Luther’s composition of The Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church in 1520, for instance, involved an authentically figuralist reading in Radner’s terms. But how “accurate” was his description vis-à-vis the figuralist readings of Counter-Reformation Catholics in the 17th century or a Jesuit like Hopkins who would in Newman’s day refer to Luther, in no less apocalyptic and figural terms, as “the beast of the waste wood”? Given Radner’s Wycliffite and Origenist history, one presumes that the economic instrument of Scripture is not meant merely to provide a language for the phenomenology of individual faith, but a collective rod of discipline for the entire Church, capable of transcending the misperceptions of individual consciences and grounded in the Word who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
At the same time, Radner is committed to an ecumenical and indeed Jewish-Christian history of figuralism less concerned with winners and losers (and the tired struggles of Christian schism) or particular philosophical stances, and more concerned with reconciling our history of divisive figuralism through the recognition of a shared posture toward Scripture. Radner’s performance of certain tensions throughout the study can thus be seen not only as an exercise in Christian skeptical occasionalism in the spirit of Butler, but also as part of a larger program of reconciliation among the warring factions of the faithful seeking understanding in the common words of Scripture, which takes up the mantle of George Lindbeck. This is not to say that Radner’s theological and philosophical commitments are completely obscured in the work. He nonetheless adopts a posture of ecumenical openness and invites his readers to an armistice in a no-man’s land between the historical reductionism of Scripture to a human artifact, on the one hand, and the antecedent interreligious and interdenominational warfare over appropriate figural readings of Scripture, on the other. The study reaffirms the author’s place as one of Anglicanism’s foremost theologians and ecumenists. This book is a gift to the Church, and warrants serious, sustained attention by pastors and scholars alike.