Time and the Word

Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures

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Ephraim Radner
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the publication of Time and the Word Ephraim Radner adds his voice to a chorus of theologians pleading for a theological reading of the Bible over and against the historical-critical method. “The historical-critical enterprise,” Radner comments, “must always face into its own incapacities in the face of a reality—of ‘history’ understood simply as a temporal set—that is resistant to definition and comprehension” (42). The historical-critical method simply cannot grasp the full richness of scripture. Radner defines figural reading as “the temporal explication, through the juxtaposition of her multiple texts, of Scripture’s divine ‘allness’” (210). He clarifies that it is not “a method of interpretation; it is an uncovering, and ‘being confronted’ and then taken in” (275). His aim with this work is to show how figural reading is mandated by the nature of scripture itself.

Radner opens by examining the notion of “exile” within the Christian exegetical tradition through the seventeenth century. This tradition consistently understood descriptions of exile in scripture to be more than a reiteration of history. “Exile” is a signifier with referents in the present. “Exile” can be reformulated in different ways through the creation of a “figural time” that finds consummation in Jesus. “Figural time” latent in scripture thus mandates a figural reading, and the tradition has dutifully testified to this reality.

Such readings were typical for Christian exegetes into the early modern period. Scripture was located within a metaphysical framework that connected the words of scripture written in history with a God standing outside of time. It is not until the arrival of Protestantism that figural readings face restraint, though they linger as typology until the tradition slowly fades away. Ockham and Ockhamism are allegedly a culprit in the downfall of figural reading as well, though Radner concludes that this is based on a misunderstanding of Ockham.

Radner reconstructs the metaphysical framework that allows him to claim, “Scriptures’ own being is bound up, in a prior way, with the true being of individual creatures, and finally with their perceptions as their limited lives are so defined” (89). Chapter 3 largely consists of a list of theses that could stand some development, but the thrust is clear. God stands before time, and God’s Word—understood both as Christ and scripture—are metaphysically prior to creation. All creatures are artifacts that are ordered by God in such a way that they may be used to refer to God. This is true of scripture, but because of scripture’s relationship to God, it straddles human history and the atemporal reality of God. Scripture organizes human history beyond what it literally narrates thus requiring a figural reading.

Radner then considers the Christian language of God. He illumines passages in scripture that describe God, but that fail to unveil God fully. God is most fully revealed in Christ, thereby locating a central referential point in scripture that allows for a distinctly Christian worldview. With Christ as the central and authentic referent, other scriptural analogies and metaphors are unlocked. Christ becomes a synecdoche that legitimizes Christian discourse about God.

The function of Christian language finds a terminus in the lectionary and preaching. The last three chapters are occupied with application. The lectionary rests upon the juxtaposition of texts that seem opposed to each other, but that can be understood within a framework of Christian language. Radner points to the debate between Athanasius and Arius over Proverbs 8:22-31 as symbolic of the different hermeneutics that attempt to unravel tensions in scripture in disparate ways. Antinomial readings come together in the lectionary where passages such as Proverbs 8 are placed within a web of Christian linguistics, eliciting an orthodox understanding. Juxtapositional reading has importance for understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and Jews and Gentiles on a Trinitarian foundation. Rather than simply identify traces of the Trinity in the Old Testament, Radner seeks to show that “the truth of God’s being as Trinity is given by God as an actual act (or acts over time) in which he brings order to the often knotted and even rival plain-sense referents of both Old and New Testaments in their juxtaposition and conjunction” (237). It is in this correlation of the Old and the New that the doctrine of the Trinity can be understood.

The final chapter attempts to reverse the modern historical hermeneutic toward a figural reading. The question of historicity—framed as “Did it happen?”—is irrelevant for Radner. “‘To really happen is in fact to be figured in the Bible” (261). This is as close as he ever comes to directly addressing the question of inerrancy. Radner views his program as a corrective to modern preaching. The intent here is to reverse the relationship between reader and text. “The Bible is not the object of our varied gazes; rather, it is the subject,” he contends. “The Divine Word, the Bible, acts on us, not us on the Bible” (275). A figural reading of scripture is critical to  restoring an understanding of the transformative power of the Word—as it is the Word that invites the reader into God’s time narrated in scripture. The volume concludes with an appendix containing four figural sermons from the history of exegesis, including one from Radner.

Radner’s book is a challenging, but rewarding work. It is provocative and likely to be criticized, especially by more conservative scholars for whom he does not do enough to defend the inerrancy of scripture and who are anxious about non-literal readings of scripture. Practitioners of the historical-critical method and historians will likely take issue with some of his interpretations as well. But it is precisely those individuals who would benefit from reading  Time and the Word. Radner’s text is a carefully argued and complex study that is a must-read for anyone working in scriptural hermeneutics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David M. Barbee is assistant professor of Christian thought at Winebrenner Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ephraim Radner is Professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and an ordained Anglican priest active in ecumenical affairs. His other books include A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church and Leviticus: A Theological Commentary.


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