Review of "Time and the Word" by Ephraim Radner
Review of Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures by Ephraim Radner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 326 pp.
reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
What both the historicist-materialist and the fundmentalist-inerrantist approaches to Scripture have in common is that both are stuck on the question, “Did it really happen?” It’s not like that’s a bad question—by no means! It does actually matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not. It may not matter in the same way whether Joshua led a genocidal invasion of Canaan—but whether the report is of factual history or serves a different kind of purpose will undoubtedly have an impact on how we interpret that book.
In Time and the Word, Ephraim Radner proposes a new point of departure for the church, primarily in its preaching and communal reading of Scripture, no longer beholden to either dead-end method. In so doing, he is not trying to dispense with the question of facticity. He’s rather trying to point out how limiting it is if that is the chief or only purpose of Scripture—to provide an accurate (or as it may turn out, inaccurate) reporting of events. And even presuming it is accurate, so what? Why does what happened then impinge upon the now? How does it impinge? The aforementioned approaches usually get hung up on moralism or nostalgia, and Scripture withers away on account of its sheer irrelevance.
What other way forward? Radner was trained at Yale in the heyday of scholars who were looking at the wreckage of the historicist model and the non-answer that is inerrantism and trying to forge a different path—chief among them Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Brevard Childs. Building on their foundation, Radner proffers the figural approach, though he would claim that he has only brought it back to the church’s attention after a long dormancy. In his telling, figural exegesis was the dominant form of interpretation from the early church well into the eighteenth century, in both East and West, and among Protestants as well as Catholics, until the full-blown modernism of the Enlightenment took hold.
As with all of Radner’s works, this book covers vast territory. To make for a manageable review, here I will address one major area that I find troubling, another that I find promising, and, with that, commend the book to the reader’s own careful study, which it certainly merits.
A caveat is in order before I proceed with any criticism: Radner may be so far ahead of me that I’m only seeing in a glass darkly, so that my remarks miss the mark. Another possibility is that those who break new ground necessarily follow false trails on the way, then double-back and start fresh, so it may well be that Radner is not only excavating a forgotten form of exegesis but pioneering a distinct approach, in which case we are witnessing something new and fertile being begotten, missteps included. In either case, any criticism I offer here is in the interest of furthering the task of figural exegesis, not invalidating it.
What persuades me least is Radner’s metaphysical basis for figural reading. In a sense, for him, Scripture is everything; it contains all things; it is the Word to the point that the text and the Second Person of the Trinity seem to be elided into one. It reminds me of Jewish understandings of the heavenly Torah, and perhaps that is no accident. For Radner, this understanding of Scripture is directly joined to God’s “creative omnipotence”: everything that exists, down to the smallest item or detail, exists because and only because God has so willed it. Thus Scripture is the text that contains all existent things since and as it reveals this creative God. Hence: “‘Figural’… finally refers to the ‘everything’ of God’s act in creation, as it is ‘all’ given in the Scriptures” (7). The scope is deliberately vast—in fact, universal. Figural reading is not a “method,” Radner says, but “about the nature of a world that God has made in relation to which a certain divine text rises up, hovers over, and orders” (7–8). Ours is “the one world that God creates according to the Scriptures” (13).
I hardly wish to deny that this Scripture is the one God intended us to have (though one might well ask, in conversation with people of other faiths, why this one? and is there any reason beyond the Christian faith’s own assertion that it is?), or that God is the omnipotent creator. It seems to me, though, that the linkage of the two in order to assert that everything is found in Scripture not only claims more than is needed to be claimed for Scripture, but has a flattening effect—indeed, on the very creation that God has called into being! Radner’s claim for the Scriptures extends to every single thing and event—such that “we should seek the meaning of such events in their figural identity” (8). His ostensible purpose is to counteract the constriction of the Bible’s meaning to the modern obsession with “did it really happen?” and “what did the author intend?” Events of biblical history are not limited to any supposed chronological timeline but impinge and repeat and claim people of all times. “[I]f the Scripture is somehow true in its reference,” Radner says, “then its referents cannot be limited to chronologies of signification that exclude a clear relationship to the present” (33). He gives “exile” as a primary example, as something experienced by God’s people again and again, alongside (even at the same time as) restoration.
It’s not that these figures are meaningful outside of their strict “original” location in time, but the totality that Radner claims for them (and other figures of Scripture) that makes me uneasy, on two scores.
First, the gap between us as temporal creatures and God as eternal appears far more at stake than the gap between us as sinners and God as holy. Granted there is a difference between time and eternity; still, the difference between sinful humanity and holy God strikes me as far more central to the Bible’s reporting of events and claim on us in these later days. I detect little in Radner’s work of the apocalyptic battle for creation that so pervades the New Testament, and Paul especially, such that “creative omnipotence” cannot simply be taken as read without further dispute. “Creative omnipotence” is the very issue at stake in the battle with sin, death, and the devil!
Second, the task of finding everything in Scripture would seem to prompt a flattening of the detail and distinctiveness of unfolding time and place, almost as if the creative act were over, while at the same time newness could not really count as new and nothing could be admitted as real at all unless somehow ingeniously tied to Scripture—which I fear would only give rise to more of the ambitious eisegesis that has been the Achilles’ heel of allegory. “History consistently looks like Jesus,” Radner writes, “even as that one narrative is ordered by its appropriated narrative figures” (34). But does it? Must it? Can God grant a history that does not look like Him? I don’t see the need to claim this, and many reasons to deny it—to which again the apocalyptic perspective of the New Testament bears witness. I am especially unsettled at Radner’s acknowledgement of the ways in which dispensationalist readings work hand in hand with this method (e.g. 76, 78).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it was Radner’s two examples of failed figural exegesis that commended the figural method to me most strongly, because the internal checks-and-balances of the method were on display. One was the Arian reading of Proverbs 8 denying Christ’s eternal divinity, against which Athanasius counterposed a much richer, cross-canonical interpretation. The other was Radner’s own experiment in Christian exegesis of Isaiah 54 that deliberately tested and excluded a certain kind of identification of the Trinity in the passage. While Radner affirms that the Christian reader encounters the Trinity in the Old Testament, it is not a case of finding the holy Three-in-One popping up all over the place, such that virtually anything can be made to squeeze out a trinitarian figure. It’s perplexing and rather a shame that the positive examples of figural sermons at the end of the book did not actually commend the practice to me—I honestly had a hard time seeing how they were not either allegory or a kind of thematic cherry-picking—especially since it was Radner’s figural commentary on Leviticus that made me see for the first time the immense promise of this interpretive strategy.
In short, Radner’s view of Scripture totalizing: “One thing, which is all things, has ever happened. It is given in the Scriptures, in all of its parts, and at every time, for all times” (110). And: “‘To really happen’ is in fact to be figured in the Bible; nothing more or less” (261). Elsewhere: “…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” (103). My own inclination would be to say that the Scripture does not include everything and does not need to. It rather sets the course for the ongoing task of the church, a subset within the human race, to encounter all the new and contingent things and events that arise. The Book of Acts, for instance, is all about the weird eruptions of the gospel among different peoples from the people of Israel, and how apostolic fidelity is worked out in those contexts. Likewise the Pastoral Epistles illustrate the actual business of the gospel seeping into a specific Greco-Roman context and transforming it from the inside out—something that is not necessarily to be repeated in detail but in kind in other times and places. From the novel problems encountered by missionaries in lands far from Jerusalem to the novel challenges of our era (among them the huge human population, weapons of mass destruction, drugs and pharmaceuticals, space travel, and bureaucracy), there are immense areas to which the Scripture indeed may and must speak—but I am much more doubtful about saying all these things are already contained therein. For myself, I am more intrigued and excited by the encounter between the two than the all-consumingness of the one.
Let me give one last example to make my point. Radner writes that “God’s purposes are presented in the experienced—temporal—becoming of human creatures into a full conformity with the figures of the divine text” (109). If I understand him aright, then a problem arises for me that has not been a problem before, namely the extreme paucity of women’s voices and personae in the Scripture. Certainly there are more women in more situations than the tradition has generally paid attention to. Nevertheless, the limits are rather severe, and all the more so in the light of the changes in women’s social standing over the past several centuries. (And perhaps this is why there is such resistance to these changes in some religious quarters!) If Scripture contains all, I feel rather suffocated by it, especially as a woman. If Scripture is the Word of God speaking to me, a woman, and all women, in many diverse times and places, inviting our lives to this encounter with the living God, then by contrast I find the resources to be rich and the prospects exciting. I wonder if it would be the same for, say, a Pacific Islander, whose experience of the earth itself is so different from what is depicted in the lands of the Bible.
Enough of these concerns. I hope very much that the practice of figural reading can be sustained without Radner’s proposed metaphysic: not least of all because, not too far into the book, I realized that I’ve done it! In fact, quite a lot of it! I just never knew it was “a thing” with a name. Forthwith the features of figural reading that I find so illuminating and truthful.
First, maybe even foremost, is that figural reading takes things as real and good in themselves. Things may refer to other things, but not because they are insubstantial or mere ciphers for the “real” thing or “spiritual truth.” “If… Genesis speaks of light and dark,” Radner explains, “it is not so much that these referents are constructed metaphors for something else, but that their very substantive factual reality marks a mysterious passage into the much more enveloping being of God” (48). “The figures of Scripture are not ‘themes’ or reminders or attitudes or spurs to reflection: they actually are what we are created as both being and becoming in time” (11). So: not just light and dark, stars and sun and moon and night; but also feet, hair, skin; tents and houses, bread and meat and wine and milk, children and gazelles and lions and lambs—all real, and really what they are, even as in the great interconnectedness of creation they always share, refer, remind, point, and signify as well. Again Radner: “[D]urable artifacts are the epistemic visage of the fact that God lovingly creates. They are nothing in themselves, except that they are his. As a result, there is no reason to go beyond the artifactual durability of things to some further metaphysical substratum: ‘time,’ ‘being,’ or the rest. Rather, the only substratum is God’s loving creation of something other than himself” (91).
Any storyteller will assure you that you hold your audience with the details, the local color, the specific patterns of speech. The generic and the universal may be useful in math and philosophy, but they have little hold on the imagination otherwise. Preachers, take note! A sermon’s task is not to hold forth on universal principles of faith but to proclaim the reality of the creation that we are and are in as God’s. Scripture is really about feet and children and wine; those things are not merely useful masks for vague spiritual notions—quite contrary to the popular ideal of spirituality, which aims primarily to detach people from bloodiness and earthiness and emotion. Figural reading’s “point is to ‘thicken’ our sense of the created texture of our existences in the light of and with Scripture, not to thin it out” (106).
What this further means is that God is known through the figures of the creation He has made. Just as the assertion of the reality of things contradicts an ethereal otherworldliness, Radner’s approach to figural reading contradicts an absolute apophasis or transcendence of God. He will not allow the medium of created things and words to be an obstacle to knowing God truly. Radner explains: “Describability is not the human subject’s prideful manipulation of a divine and impenetrable datum, but the very form of gracious presence itself. If this were not the case, holiness could never cause the pain or joy of recognition that it does” (174). This is the incarnation—and all of God’s other forms of communication, from the three angels visiting Abraham to the “still small voice” to the heavens opening over the Jordan—restated in another form. “[T]he unseen God makes himself seen; the God beyond speech speaks and is heard. The miraculous character of this is grasped as a figure. Figural readings, applied to God’s own being, are given precisely because, by miraculous grace, God shows himself to us in Christ; and this showing, though beyond all showings, is yet real, such that the words that describe these disclosures describes them directly and truly, insofar as they are indeed God’s words, doing the work of God as God would have it done; that is, insofar as they are Scripture” (193, his italics).
Having established that—the reality and goodness of created things, and the describability of God by means of created things—Radner can turn attention to figural reading itself. It is, perhaps in its simplest sense, a radical take on Scriptura sui ipsius interpres, “Scripture interprets itself.” A figural approach takes any given thing or image in Scripture and draws lines between it and the figure's other appearances, all across the canon, deliberately making room for surprise, allowing Scripture itself to direct interpretation. The ramifications (in the literal sense of “branchings-out”) are limitless; there are connections to be made in every which direction. (Though again to register a slight qualm, at what point does infinite meaning shade into meaninglessness? Or ramification flatten the distinctive quality of each scriptural witness back into a blurry gray of religious talk?)
On this basis Radner offers a salient critique of Sunday lectionaries. The purpose of a lectionary is to juxtapose texts for the sake of weaving these interconnections, but Radner realizes that it can do just the opposite—especially when the lectionary is controlled for connecting themes, as we see especially in the choice of Old Testament texts set with the New Testament ones in the Revised Common Lectionary (not to mention what gets left out of the lectionary altogether). To be preferred is a daily lectionary that does not overdetermine correlations but lets them arise as coincidence allows, the Spirit leads, and the attentive reader detects. The point is not to make a point, with a lectionary, but to let the Scripture itself reveal its manifold interconnections. To that extent, figural reading is about releasing control over the text: “Scripture, in God’s hands, shapes us, orders us, uses us to know him as he speaks; it does not, in the first instance, simply tell us who God is” (237). “The ‘Word’ does something to people: grasping this is itself a way of getting at its meaning and the character of God both” (275).
For Radner, further, a if not the determining quality of the Scripture is that it comes in two parts that engage in their own not entirely easy dialogue. As one chapter title puts it: “Trinitarian Love Means Two Testaments.” This may be the most important chapter of the whole book, in fact. Radner goes so far as to say “‘Divine providence’ is an abstracted synonym for ‘the scriptural canon of Old and New Testaments’” (236). These Testaments are not two antitheses that are to be resolved into a neat synthesis of perfect propositional clarity; the movement between the two, their dialogue, their mutual commentary, is itself essential to knowing God. “Distinct, non-equivalent, and absolutely necessary: the two Testaments are necessary to each other. But they are necessary not as ingredients to something greater, nor as sequential additives to a chemical process of knowledge: ‘take the Old, then add the New: the Trinity finally comes to view,’ to coin a false catechetical adage… The two Testaments are necessary because this is indeed how and constitutes the fact that God speaks, God does work, and in so doing while doing many things, God ‘reveals’” (254).
The upshot is that “the Bible, precisely in its words, as well as its stories and forms, does its own work and wends its own way; it orders its own meaning and presses its own truth. Part of our calling as readers and expositors of the Scriptures is to let this happen. Our goal as preachers is, in large part, to present the words of the Word—openly and fully, to be seen, heard, and wondered over” (279, his italics). Radner’s is very much a was Christum treibet approach to Scripture.
Having heard entirely too many sermons not about the Scripture, not interested in Scripture, not interested in things or bodies or even God, apparently partaking of postmodern despair in the possibility of meaning at all, I am convinced that figural exegesis holds out great promise for a church in desperate need of finding its voice—which is God’s voice—once again. Radner’s proposal has the potential once again to make Scripture holy, not in itself, but for us.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.
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