Editor’s note: This is the conclusion to 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.
For the past few months we have looked at how certain Anglican interpreters have engaged in figural practice, that is, how they have read the Bible figurally. The different articles have emphasized that the individual interpreters had their unique approaches to figural interpretation, but they all approached their craft from a particular standpoint: As members of the prayer book tradition they received the “allness” of Scripture, and their particular figural practices therefore must be seen as particular responses to this allness. In this final post, I will suggest that these figural practices are far more than merely idiosyncratic responses to Scripture’s breadth. These practices help us to see that, for Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike, the Christian interpretation of Scripture has little to do with the division between subject and object that modern critical studies take for granted. Instead, Christian readers are drawn into the Scriptures, unveiled for who they are, and, through the integrative reach of the divine Word, transformed. When pursued in common, the figural interpretation of the Bible finally refashions and transfigures the Church as a whole.
Figural practice can be imaginatively described as a five-fold movement: sowing, tending, gathering, sorting, and enjoying. There is nothing inevitable about this imaginative framework, of course, although it does have the advantage of having some scriptural resonance. In sowing, a biblical word is cast into the soil of the Scriptures and allowed to resonate, collide, scrape, and wander. In tending, there is a deliberate effort to let this seed do its resonating work — time, prayer, reflection, study. In gathering, the reader (ultimately the Church) consciously collates the accumulated connections and associations the original word or words have taken on. These become a fund or treasury, and at this point are most clearly given over to documentation. With sorting we come to the articulated effort to make sense of this collation. This is the stage we associate with theology or homiletics, dogmatics or controversy. Finally, in scriptural delight, the reader (and Church) turns all this work to God, and returns to prayer, considering the nurture the word has offered, and praising its speaker and person.
One might take a straightforward example of this five-fold movement: the ark mentioned in Matthew 24:38: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark.” The practice of figural reading would begin by sowing this word, allowing it to engage other texts. There are some complications here — the English word ark is used both for Noah’s boat and for the container of the Law, just as is in the Latin Vulgate; while in the Hebrew and Greek these referents are linguistically distinguished, although in all cases the word can also refer to baskets (e.g., where Moses is placed), boxes, or even coffins. The reader must tend to this word, which has been sown in Scripture. The reader must encounter and engage the diversities, nuances, and plethora of these references in their contexts, and let them rumble around the heart and mind. At some point — and figural reading must always take time to work itself out (no last-minute figural sermons) — all these texts as they have been collected (like fish in a net) are collated, ordered, and considered. One may well see laid out, in this case, elements touching on creation, judgment, legal demand, holiness, death, redemption, sacrifice, election, life and death, and the body of Christ, stretching from texts in Genesis, Exodus, Kings, all the way through 1 Peter and Revelation. What one does with these resources as they touch upon Matthew 24:38 is precisely where the sorting work occurs. But it is inevitable that the reading of this text has now been enriched, and as with every word received, it will now be “running over” with a surplus of uncontainable grace (cf. Luke 6:38). All of this brings us to the fifth movement of figural practice: enjoying. It nourishes our prayer and praise, as we sing, “Lo, He comes with clouds descending.”
This general form of reading has been practiced in the Church for centuries and in most Christian cultures. Anglicanism, however, has made a special commitment to its pursuit. Someone like Tyndale was, in his own right and embodied labor, a framer of this practice. Building on this, the tota scriptura vernacular lectionary reinstituted by Cranmer, ordering the daily common prayers of the people over years of listening and devotion, acted as a kind of figural sensorium for this practice in a way that was unparalleled in Christian tradition, at least for a while. Every aspect of figural practice, if not in some exact sequence, found an encouraged place in this corporate discipline. Its fruit can be found in the prayer book, in the figurally rich marriage service, as well as in the blossoming reflection and commentary of Anglican religious writers. While theologians and controversialists (the two seem to be too often woefully synonymous) tend to concentrate on the sorting function of figural practice, in fact Anglicans have often majored in the practice’s other moments, perhaps because of their prayer-book formation. John Donne was surely remarkable here, yet less intricate Anglican preachers were nonetheless at one with turning whole sermons into experiences of sowing, tending, and gathering, a movement in which the doctrinal claims of sorting texts were not even the goal, but rather an aid to the final aim of delight. It is no surprise that Anglican Scripture reading finds its apogee mostly in devotional and poetic works, reaching into the 19th and 20th century in such diverse writers as William Jones, Richard Chenevix Trench, and even T.S. Eliot.
Not just poetry, however: Anglicans constituted some of the greatest collators of biblical meaning since the Glossa ordinaria. These included more Puritan authors like Andrew Willett, the unusual Samuel Parker, and the marvelous project of commentary begun by John Pearson’s Critici Sacri that eventually drew in Continental scholars and issued in the popular commentaries of Anglicans like Thomas Scott and of non-Anglicans like Matthew Poole. All of these set the stage for an entire genre of modern Bible study saturated in dense intertextual readings. Meanwhile, as we have seen in this series of essays, Anglican theologians continued to argue in various ways against the tides of critical disenchantment and skepticism, for the living fruitfulness and power of the Scriptures as God’s actual Word. From Butler to Mansel, they did this with care and penetrating intellectual sophistication. But they did this for the purposes of a Christian way of life in reading Scripture, not for conceptual system-building; in the process, though, they opened (as with L.S. Thornton) profound windows onto the very nature of God and the world. To be sure, the sorting function of scriptural practice was not rejected, as the very rise of various theological movements like Evangelicalism and Tractarianism indicates. Still, these movements may have more to do with the currents of Bible reading in its larger figural scope than with dogmatic crusades.
Anglicanism as a whole could even be viewed as an extended and organized figural practice. I suggest that this would be more helpful and accurate than viewing Anglicanism as a specific corporate entity or character — say, as the “comprehensive” church, the via media, the “Reformed Catholic” compromise, or even, in Aidan Nichols’s famous negative reading, the entity that fails in all these integrative hopes, and is but the basket of warring tribes. Taken as a whole, the evangelical, Catholics, Reformed, and liberal elements of Anglicanism have in fact functioned as moments within, and drawing upon, the various moments of figural practice. To be sure, each of these Anglican groups has been characterized by a specific sorting move, which has tended toward specific doctrinal claims or at least orientations. But these sorted commitments —the evangelical concerns with justification or the Anglo-Catholic focus on sacramental life — have usually been funded by an ongoing connection with the broader practices of sowing, tending, and gathering that were given in common prayer and in the wide variety of writings Anglicans and others had made available to the Church’s public. At least until the end of the 19th century, many of the great commentary series, like those brought together by Adam Clarke (a non-Anglican who nonetheless anthologized Anglicans), were shared by all parties. When it comes to the final moment of figural practice — ingestion and delight — most Anglicans could in fact find interlocking joys, again as shared devotional works like Horne’s commentary on the Psalms demonstrated. One might even sing the same scripturally infused hymns, or end in the same contemplative delight as Charles Wesley and Edward Bouverie Pusey. Diverse readings of Scripture might have provoked theological differences; but consistent figural reading of Scripture in its wholeness prevented these differences from decisively rending the body.
Looking at Anglicanism this way can also serve as an evaluative tool: where reliance on the full breadth of figural practice, within groups and among groups, has been curtailed, the descent into Nichol’s picture of warring tribes, as well as into stunted ideologies, is sure to follow. This is one way of measuring the current Communion’s travails. The fundamental issue is the allness of Scripture as the Church’s ordering and nourishing form, which figural practice sustains from the creaturely side. The demise of a full-orbed lectionary in common prayer, the bracketing of whole portions of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, the insistence on sorting Scripture apart from the other moments of its reading, the reduction of hymnody and devotion to biblical snippets and tendentious homiletics, the shrinking of the arena for delight and praise — these have as much to do with disintegrating ecclesial life as do (very real) doctrinal and moral contradictions in our midst. Reading the whole Scripture together over time is the life blood of the Christian Church, because the Word is “living” and “active” (Heb. 4:12) in a way that is “transfigurative” of all its touches.
The healing of the Christian body, for which we yearn, is thus joined at the root to how we read Scripture in its figural breadth. For in the end, the Church is gathered by Scripture, not the reverse.