Editor’s note: This is the 10th piece in our Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition series. See the introductory essay to the series 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.
Richard Chenevix Trench (1807–86) was an influential churchman and polymath. He eventually became Archbishop of Dublin, and his work served as a catalyst for the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was an expert in ancient languages, a poet, a historian, a biblical scholar, and a theologian. His work was vast and covered many fields, but whatever the subject at hand, he continually returned to the importance of words, and indeed the importance of the Word, Christ Jesus, given to us in Holy Scripture.
Over the years, I have found Trench a congenial character because of his focus on the nature of Scripture and how it should be read. This concern continues to drive me. Trench did not read the Bible the way most modern academics do, though this is beginning to change. My hope is the works of ressourcement in this series on Anglican figural reading might have some small part to play in such a change.
As a figural reader, Trench would be more at home in the world of Augustine and Jerome than in today’s world. For Trench, reading Scripture is all about the “fittingness” of Scripture for the spiritual life of humanity. God has fitted Scripture to all things so that his Word speaks to all things, and the Church thus has the tools and resources to deal with all things. The doctrine of providence is woven into Trench’s understanding of Scripture. For this world in which we live is created by God, and is upheld by him. Scripture speaks to the world because it comes from the mouth of the same God.
In his 1845 Hulsean Lectures, The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men, Trench attempted to grasp the allness of Scripture, as David Ney alluded to in his introduction to this series. That is, the lectures did not offer a theory of biblical interpretation or a doctrine of Scripture that can somehow fit into a larger systematic theological framework. Rather, Trench took the whole of Scripture and attempted to hold it together at once in his mind in order to step back and examine it in its allness, and to say something about its character. As a result, Trench was constantly peering into the Word from different perspectives, all of which were fragmentary. When taken together, however, they formed a tapestry (an image he employs) of Scripture. All of this is true so far as it goes, but we can only grasp at a thread here or there in this grand work of weaving that God has intricately fashioned; we might also with blurred vision catch the image of the Son, crucified and risen, being woven with strands of different dyes.
For Trench, just as humanity has always lived in the world and yet continues to discover new truth through scientific investigation, so the Church continually discovers new insights into the Word of God as history unfolds. It is not that scientific discovery illuminates further nuance in Scripture or that our understanding of Scripture is progressive, but rather the increasing discovery of empirical data is analogous to the way in which Scripture continually opens up to humanity. The notion of discovery in both cases is key: reality is far more vast and complex than it appears; we continually deepen our gaze, only to find more truth that has always existed but has been inaccessible to our eyes. He notes, “And this it our confidence, that as the Scripture has sufficed for the past, so also it will suffice for the time to come; that it has resources adequate to meet all demands which may be made on it; that it has in reserve whatsoever any new conditions of the world, any new shapes of evil, any new, if they be righteous, cravings of the spirit of men, may require.”
God has so given us his Word to speak not to one age but to many, so that as history proceeds, Scripture always provides the tools and resources to correct heresy as it comes — even if it has not yet been invented. This was how God brought the Church through the early christological heresies, not as Christians sought the “original” meaning of the text, but rather as they understood that Scripture spoke to their time in its inexhaustibility, just as it spoke in the first century, as it speaks today, and as it will speak in ages to come. For Trench, just as the rod of Moses swallowed all the others, so the religion of Christ — as it is given in Scripture — will swallow all heresy throughout all of time.
When Essays and Reviews appeared in 1860, it sent shockwaves through English-speaking churches. Benjamin Jowett’s essay “On the Interpretation of Scripture” argued forcefully that Scripture should be read just like any other book, and that each text only has one single meaning. Despite the trenchant critiques of Jowett that subsequently emerged, his sentiments permeate our churches and our seminaries. We often take his view for granted. We don’t expect the Bible to have anything to say about our distresses, our joys, or our sorrows. We are convinced that Scripture was written by people unlike us, and at best we can only extract godly principles and apply them to our current lives. This is not how Trench saw Scripture, however, and I would argue that we ought to follow his lead.
For example, in his lecture on “The Future Development of Scripture,” Trench spells out concretely what it might mean for Scripture to continue to offer the resources to deal with current and future assaults on the faith. He notes:
[W]hen we translate St. Paul’s words, with which he characterizes the final Antichrist, as though he had simply called him “that wicked one” [2 Thess. 2:8], we lose a confirmation of this view which his words more accurately rendered would give us. He is not simply the wicked one, but … the lawless one; and the mystery is not merely a mystery of iniquity, but of lawlessness. … Law, in all its manifestations, is that which he shall rage against, making hideous misapplication of that great truth, that where the Spirit is, there is liberty. Then, when this shall have come to pass, then at length the great anti-trinity of hell, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet, will have been fully revealed in all deceivableness of unrighteousness;—and yet not so mighty to deceive, but that the Church of the redeemed, armed and forewarned by this Word of God, shall see in all this, only what it looked to see, only what it had been taught to expect; and in the might of the counter-truth, in the confession of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, shall be saved even in its weakest and simplest member, from that strong delusion, which shall be too much for every one besides.
Consider how this works. Writing more than 170 years ago, Trench was able to see that one of the next attacks on the Church was given in Scripture, not as a precise foretelling, but with the figure of “the lawless one,” and we see that he was correct as we observe repudiation of any kind of law in our society and our Church. Whether it is maintaining a traditional teaching about family or conforming to Church canons, the law is blasted away to make way for what has become our arguably ultimate value: an individual’s freedom of choice.
Like others writing in this series, I turn to Trench and other earlier figures, in the mode of ressourcement, not in the hopes of conjuring and re-establishing some golden age within the Anglican Communion, but because I find the holiness and comprehensiveness of Trench’s vision compelling. My hope is that the consistency and explanatory power of the approach to Scripture outlined in this series, along with its beauty, is enough to provoke a holy desire to enter into the mystery of reading the Scriptures as God has so given them to be read.
Trench is no outlier, though he may seem like one from our standpoint. In view of the Thirty-Nine Articles, for example, his perspective is deeply Anglican. For example, his belief that Scripture supplies us with all the resources we need coheres well with Article VI’s reference to 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Similarly, Article VII’s convictions about the harmony of Scripture, that the Old Testament is not contrary to the New Testament, represent one of Trench’s fundamental convictions. Nothing in Scripture will be contrary to any other part, for in all the diversity of Scripture the harmony produced brings us again and again to the one man, Jesus Christ, the thesis of the Bible. And, as David Ney discussed in our opening article, the very arrangement of the Book of Common Prayer exposes us to this harmony and trains us to perceive it; as we pray together, we receive the allness of Scripture as that which provides “all things” necessary for our spiritual life.
This means that Scripture has the resources to deal with any vexing questions, like euthanasia and same-sex marriage, for instance. Ephraim Radner put it this way in his summary of figural reading: “Scripture … names all artifacts in a primary way. Hence, although the name “Napoleon” does not appear in Scripture, the person we call Napoleon is in fact named in the Bible. A figural reading will discover how this is so.” When Scripture is approached rightly, with humility, an ear to listen and a heart to obey, we will find that indeed it does contain all that we require – and more – for our lives as individuals and as a Church, because the Lord has so lavishly given us his Word which endures forever (1 Peter 1:25).
Richard Chenevix Trench, St. Augustine as an Interpreter of Holy Scripture (J.W. Parker, 1851).
Idem, The Hulsean Lectures for M.DCCC.XLV and M.DCCC.XLVI (Macmillan, Barclay and Macmillan, 1847).
JohnBromley, The Man of Ten Talents: A Portrait of Richard Chenevix Trench, 1807-86, Philologist, Theologian, Archbishop (S.P.C.K., 1959).
Timothy Larsen, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
 Richard Chenevix Trench, The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men: Being the Hulsean Lecture for the Year M.DCCC.XLV (Macmillan, Barclay, and Macmillan, 1845).
 For a more recent engagement with the image of “tapestry,” see Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (W.B. Eerdmans, 2010).
 Trench, Fitness of Holy Scripture, p. 150.
 Ibid., p. 155.
 Trench, The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men, pp. 153-54.
 Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016), p. 103.