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The Oxford Movement’s sacramental interpretation of Scripture

Editor’s note: This second essay on Oxford Movement exegesis is adapted from part of a convocation address at Nashotah House Theological Seminary (Sept. 25, 2015). This is also the eighth 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.

In my last post, I began exploring how the Oxford Movement’s understanding of spiritual renewal was based upon a specific approach to Scripture and the vision of God. But above all, they were convinced that the Incarnation provided the model for how divine life and truth are communicated by sensible means in human words or earthly sacraments. They are “earthly Sacraments, yet full of Heaven, earthly words, yet full of the Word, λογοι proceeding from and setting forth the Λογος.”[1]

The Incarnation is the mystery of human nature divinized, and the goal of the Christian life is “union with that mystery, whereby we are made partakers of the Incarnation.”[2] Learning from the Fathers how to see, as well as how and where to look, is a form of instruction in the character of that mystery, but this seeing, this reading, is also a way to come to share in, to participate in, the truth that is known. The basic insight of the incarnational approach is that the truth that is known is also the life into which one is drawn by participation, sanctification, and illumination.

C.S. Lewis offers a wonderful description of this desire for union, a desire for a sacramental or real connection rather than an external or nominal one:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.[3]

Recovering the patristic approach to Scripture is not just Bible-reading, but a means of progressing into what we learn to see. For the Tractarians, reading the Bible was a form of instruction, and also a means of sacramental participation with the Word who speaks in the words and who is manifest in the histories, people, institutions, and rites of the Scriptures. Newman, Keble, and Pusey affirmed the “real presence” of Christ not only in the sacramental elements, but also, in a different way, in the lettered body of the Scriptures.

Pusey describes the Old Testament as “a living and true Body, which it hath pleased God to take, in order to be accessible to us; and wherein alone we can see Him ‘Full of grace and truth.’”[4] The Bible in its very human character appears to be a frail and imperfect vehicle for such a vocation. However, in this sense also, it is like the Incarnate Christ, like “the personal appearance of Him, who had in man’s sight ‘no form or comeliness.’” It is in the light of the resurrection that the frail figures shine more transparently with heavenly revelation.

Newman uses the same kind of sacramental imagery: “Every word of revelation has a deep meaning. It is the outward form of a heavenly truth, and in this sense a mystery or sacrament.”[5] Keble also compares apprehension of heavenly truth to a kind of sacramental communication, describing the written word of the Old Testament as a veil that must be lifted in order to discover the spiritual reality that it communicates: “Such is the letter of the Old Testament, clothed with the wrappings of carnal sacraments, or tokens; but if you once come to its marrow, it nourishes and satisfies.”[6]

For Newman, Keble, and Pusey, the mystical or sacramental interpretation of the Bible is inextricably bound up with the doctrine of the Incarnation and the sacraments, so that to neglect a sacramental or allegorical interpretation is in some way to fail to appreciate, or even to deny, these doctrines. In Newman’s words, “it may almost be laid down as an historical fact, that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.”[7]

Pusey offered a striking analogy to illustrate this argument. Following a line of interpretation offered by Ambrose of Milan, he searched to uncover the deeper meaning of the fig leaves that Adam and Eve sewed together to cover themselves, and of the “coats of skins” that God made them (Gen. 3:6, 21). In the Fall, Pusey argues, Adam and Eve lost the clothing of virtue and the robe of sanctity. The clothing God gave them was a sign of the mercy of God by which sin is covered or forgiven. Exemplifying this approach, Keble’s poem for Sexagesima in The Christian Year presents the mundane and necessary act of putting on clothes as an abiding testimony to divine mercy: “Yet mercy hath not left us bare: / The very weeds we daily wear / are to faith’s eye a pledge of God’s forgiving might.”[8]

More particularly, Pusey found in the clothing provided by God a prophecy of the need for vicarious sacrifice in order to forgive sin. Abel’s offering of the “firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” (Gen. 4:4) looked back to the gift of skins to his parents and forward to the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the one who would crush the serpent’s head, cover human sin, and provide a new and more lasting garment of grace and sanctity. Since Adam and Eve’s need for clothing was a result of sin, and since providing this clothing in the form of animal skins necessitated the death of unoffending animals, God’s act in providing clothing for Adam and Eve taught that the shedding of innocent blood would be necessary in order to forgive or “cover” sin. In other words, Cain’s first sin was not murder, but the failure to read the history of his parents spiritually or allegorically. In offer this example, Pusey presents in a shocking way the theological and moral challenge of his assessment of the implications of the Incarnation for the reading of the Bible. It also explains why even many of the Tractarians’ friends and allies saw their approach to the Incarnation to be both radical and problematic.

A union of the speculative and affective, of doctrinal apprehension and the response of the whole person to God in love, is also characteristic of Oxford reformers. Pusey, warned of the dangers of a dry and stiff approach to religion, an “orthodoxism” less reclaimable for the gospel than atheism, and urged an emphasized the revealing and transforming power of wonder and awe.

This is perhaps a topic for another time, but I will say briefly that this emphasis is particularly relevant in relation to contemporary needs. Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic lament a split between theology and spirituality. But, for now, I will close here; in my third and final post on Tractarian exegesis, I will take up the topic of sacramental ontology.


[1] George Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord: E.B. Pusey’s ‘Types and Prophecies of the Old Testament.’” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Durham (2012), p. 183, referring to archival material at Pusey House, Oxford, and especially to E.B. Pusey’s “Lectures on Types and Prophecies.” Cf. 1 Tim 3:16.

[2] Pusey, Scriptural Views of Holy Baptism, Tracts for the Times 67, in Vol. II, Part II, 4th edition (J.G.F. and J. Rivington, 1842), p. 49.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a  Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011), p. 82. Cf. p. 24-5.

[4] Westhaver, “The Living Body of the Lord,” p. 188.

[5] Lectures on the Prophetical Office, Lecture X, ‘On the Essentials of the Gospel’ (1839), p. 314.

[6] John Keble, On the Mysticism attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church, Tracts for the Times 89 (J.G.F. and J. Rivington, 1851),  p. 121.

[7] John Henry Newman, An Essay Concerning the Development of Christian Doctrine, (James Toovey, 1845),  p. 324.

[8] John Keble, The Christian Year, ‘Sexagesima’.


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