What Is a Figural Reading of Scripture?

David I. Starling

Narrative, Allegory and Figural Reading

One of the perpetual challenges faced by readers of the Bible lies in the narrative form of so much of the Bible’s contents—a challenge that is compounded by the alien and peculiar content of so many of the stories the Bible tells. How can a story about someone else (and someone so far removed from me in time and place and situation) function as a form of the living and enduring word of God, speaking with relevance and power to me, in my own time and place (and indeed to all the people of God, in all times and all places)?

For centuries, in late antiquity and the middle ages (and into the modern era too, in portions of the church), the commonest way of responding to that challenge was to adopt a strategy of allegorical reading. According to this mode of interpretation, the characters, events, and circumstances of the biblical stories were to be read as pointing beyond themselves to timeless, eternal truths, carrying meaning and significance that extended far beyond what could have been understood and intended by their original authors. The strategy of allegorical interpretation could also be applied to non-narrative texts (e.g., biblical law-codes, or the descriptions in Exodus of the layout and furnishings of the tabernacle). Origen, for example, famously appealed to the interpretation of the story of Hagar and Sarah that Paul offers in Gal 4:21–5:1 in support of a sweeping assertion that “all the narrative portion [of Scripture], relating either to the marriages, or to the begetting of the children, or to battles of different kinds, or to any other histories whatever” is to be interpreted as “the forms and figures of hidden and sacred things” (Princ. 4.9 [ANF 4:358]; Origen’s appeal to the allegory in Gal 4 is in Princ. 4.13).

The allegorical approach to interpretation did not go unchallenged. In both antiquity and modernity, critics of the method protested that this made the Scriptures into a wax nose that the interpreter could twist and stretch into any shape he or she chose, robbing the biblical narratives of their historicality and replacing the literal sense with some new meaning foisted on the text by the interpreter. But in the premodern period, even the sharpest critics of the allegorical approach and its interpretive excesses were happy to grant that a figural reading of some sort was warranted by the character of Scripture as the word of God and the interpretive practices modeled by the biblical writers themselves. Chrysostom, for example, was skeptical about whether the “allegory” offered by Paul in Gal 4 was really an allegory in the conventional sense of the word but was still prepared to acknowledge that, in light of the way Paul interprets and applies the Gen 21 story for his readers, “this history not only declares that which appears on the face of it, but announces somewhat farther” (Hom. Gal. 4.24; similarly (quoting Chrysostom), John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries [Eerdmans, 1965], 85).

The rise of the modern historical-critical method across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw figural modes of biblical interpretation fall into disfavor (within the academy, at least, and to a lesser extent in the church as well), as part of a larger move away from regarding the Bible as a single, divinely authored book and toward engaging with it as (merely) a diverse and disparate collection of human compositions (see especially Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics [Yale University Press, 1974]; Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies [Oxford University Press, 2010]). Over the last half-century, however, a growing number of biblical interpreters and theologians have called for its recovery, partly as a reassertion of the inspiration of Scripture and the canonical function that it serves for the church (see especially Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures [Eerdmans, 2016]; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship [Cambridge University Press, 2010]; Chase Kuhn, “Figural Reading within Contemporary Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” in Revelation and Reason in Christian Theology, ed. Christopher C. Green and David I. Starling [Lexham, 2018], 127–44), and partly in recognition of the rich intertextual dynamics immanent within the biblical texts themselves (as an outworking, in many cases, of the reading practices of the biblical authors and the communities for whom they wrote; see especially Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Fortress, 1979]; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [Yale University Press, 1989]; idem, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels [Baylor University Press, 2016]; Christopher R. Seitz, Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture [Westminster John Knox, 2001]).

Learning the Art

If our primary warrant for retaining or recovering a practice of figural reading is the interpretive approach modeled by the biblical authors (and Jesus himself, according to their testimony), then those same canonical interpretive practices ought also to be the primary source to which we turn for the wisdom that we need in exercising it. The process through which we learn that wisdom is largely, as Kevin J. Vanhoozer puts it, one of being “apprenticed to the canon,” which involves having one’s capacity for judging (a capacity that involves imagination, reason, emotion, and volition alike) formed and transformed by the ensemble of canonical practices that constitute Scripture” (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology [Westminster John Knox, 2005], 331).

The canonical practices Vanhoozer is referring to are pervasively present across the two testaments of the Bible. Within the OT itself, for example, the mighty works of God performed in the past frequently serve as a pattern or paradigm for the future deliverance that the psalmists long for or the prophets announce (e.g., Ps 85; Jer 16:14–15; see especially Michael Fishbane, “The ‘Exodus’ Motif: The Paradigm of Historical Renewal,” in Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts [Schocken, 1979], 121–51; idem, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel [Oxford University Press, 1985], and within the NT the stories of those who testified to Jesus can be told in a way that is unmistakably reminiscent of the story of Jesus (e.g., Luke 22:66–23:49; Acts 6:8–8:1).

But within that larger pattern of correspondences and echoes between episodes and characters within the single unfolding story of the God of Israel’s saving involvement in the world, there is an additional, structural pattern that is fundamental to the two-testament form of the canon, summed up in the opening verses of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (1:1–2).

The multiple layers of contrast and correspondence established in these opening verses of the letter between God’s prior speech through the prophets and the culminating word that he has spoken by his Son are reflected in the chapters that follow. The “today” in which God spoke in the past is not swallowed up without remainder into the “today” in which he speaks by his Spirit (cf. 3:7–4:13; see David I. Starling, Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices [Baker Academic, 2016], 163–73), and the original sense in which the words of the prophets were originally intended is not overturned, replaced, or forgotten. But the various biblical quotations and allusions sprinkled throughout the letter are, nonetheless, repeatedly brought into connection with the new and final word spoken by God through the Son, and used as vehicles for the speaking of that word, in connection with, and as an extension or fulfillment of, their original meaning. (For a discussion of how a similar hermeneutical perspective is worked out within the Gospels, see Richard B. Hays, “Figural Exegesis and the Retrospective Re-Cognition of Israel’s Story,” BBR 29 [2019]: 32–48).

Frequently the typological relationships evoked within the letter occur in the context of what is being said about Jesus, who is variously compared with a host of OT characters and symbols, including the prophets, the angels, Moses, Melchizedek, the priests who offered sacrifices, and the sacrifices that they offered. But Christ is not the only antitype to whom the writer sees the types of the Old Covenant pointing forward. The readers, too, are encouraged to see in their OT forebears a model of the life of faith (ch. 11) or a warning of the consequences of unbelief (e.g., 3:7–4:13; 12:15–17), to see a typological correspondence between the earthly sanctuary into which Aaron and his sons entered to offer sacrifices and the heavenly sanctuary into which Christ entered upon his ascension (chs. 8–9), and (in the final chapter) to see a threefold pattern of equivalence between the space outside the camp in which the bodies of the sacrificial animals were burned, the place outside the city gate where Jesus suffered and died, and the arena into which the readers themselves are called to go, where they will join with Jesus and share in the abuse that he endured (13:11–13).

The framework, in other words, is constructed from an interrelated set of christological, ecclesiological, and eschatological elements: the same God who spoke through the prophets has now spoken to us by his Son, and that Son is “the exact imprint of his very being” (1:3); the people to whom God spoke in the past are not strangers, but “our ancestors” (1:1); and yet the story that connects us to them has taken a decisive turn and arrived at is defining climax in the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, so that the time we live in is not merely “our time” but “these last days” (1:2).

A similar framework, constructed from the same three elements, is implied by Paul in 1 Cor 10, where he evokes a series of correspondences and contrasts between the story of Christ, the situation of the readers, and various elements and events in the story of “our ancestors” (10:1), before concluding in v. 11 that “these things happened to them to serve as an example (typikōs), and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (see especially Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture [Eerdmans, 2005], 1–24).

The scope of “these things” in 1 Cor 10:11 (and in the similar assertion Paul makes in v. 6) is, within the immediate context of the chapter, focused reasonably closely on the events of Israel’s exodus and wilderness wanderings, but the principle he asserts has a broader applicability. As Paul says elsewhere, with unmistakable generality: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). If that is the case, then it would seem hard to escape the conclusion that the kind of reading practices he models in his own writing are intended to serve as models for imitation by his readers; figural exegesis of the kind we find in Paul’s letters is not an esoteric practice over which he and his fellow apostles assert a monopoly but an outworking of the fundamental convictions and experiences that they share with their readers, as believers in the same Jesus, sharers in the same Spirit, and readers of the same Scriptures.

Figural Reading and the Encouragement of the Scriptures

Paul’s words in Rom 15 suggest a few closing remarks about the function of the Scriptures within the life of the church and the way they must be read if they are to fulfill that function. Learning and remembering to read the Scriptures aright, in light of their center and climax in Christ, is no mere theoretical concern; it is a practice by which the church derives and maintains its life.

Figural interpretation is not, of course, the only strategy that Paul and his fellow apostles employ in reading the Scriptures and relating their message to the climactic word spoken by God in Christ, but it is a vital element of the way they approach that task. It allows them (and us, if we follow their example) to hear within the Scriptures reminders, warnings, and encouragements that continue to resonate powerfully within the memory and imagination of a community that has ears to hear them. It is a strategy that we would do well to cultivate.

[Some of the content of this essay is adapted from David I. Starling, Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices (Baker Academic, 2016), 147–62.]

Posted Feb 26, 2020