Sunday, March 9, 2014

Paul Griffiths on the Figural Reading of Scripture: "possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable"

"I assume that figural reading of scripture is possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable. There are many reasons for this, among the more important of which are these: that scripture itself self-referentially performs and depicts such reading; that the practice and teaching of the church requires it; and that it is axiomatic for Christian theological interpretation that scripture as a whole and in each of its parts is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ.

"But what, in more detail, is figural reading? One event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself. Eve’s assent to the tempter and her consequent taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree figures, in this sense, Mary’s fiat mihi in response to the annunciation and the consequent incarnation of the Lord in her womb. The second event—the figured—encompasses and includes the first, without removing its reality. The first—the figuring—has its reality, however, by way of participation in the second. This is in the order of being.

"Ontological figuration may, however, be replicated at the level of the text, and in scripture it inevitably is. Here, a depiction of a person or utterance or event—say, the lover’s praises of the beloved or the details of the construction and ornamentation of Solomon’s bed—may figure a textual depiction of some other person, utterance, or event. Christian theological commentators on the Song, as on any other scriptural text, must, in seeking their text’s scriptural reverberations, be attentive not only to the sheerly verbal, but also to the figural. Allegory—which may or may not be present in scripture, unlike figure, which necessarily is—differs from figure in that it dissolves the allegorical text into what it allegorizes. Following allegorical method strictly means that an allegorical text’s literal sense must be ignored except in so far as it permits understanding of what it allegorizes. The figural text’s literal sense—like its ontological reality—does not dissolve in this way: Eve remains Eve, the lovers of the Song remain the lovers of the Song (as will be apparent, I do not read them as if they were figures in a parable), and the text of the Song remains what it is: a constant demand for interpretation whose results are not determined and which may, for Christians, often be uncomfortable."*

*"Commentators on the Song with historicist or literary interests often dismiss figural reading along with allegorical reading on the dual ground that both (if any distinction is made between them) obscure the particulars of the Song because they treat it as piecemeal support for a general theory arrived at independently and because they advocate reading the text for itself, free from assumptions imported from elsewhere. Jill M. Munro, Spikenard and Saffron: The Imagery of the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 10–16, is representative (if a little extreme) in making these criticisms. But neither is defensible: figural reading, as defined, requires rather than calls into question attention to textual and literary particularity; and it is not possible to read a text for itself."

—Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), pp. lvii–lviii (with a portion of footnote 36 on p. lviii)

1 comment:

  1. The concept of space/time is rather loose in the bible. Mainly because you have God who is outside of time acting upon time. A lot of theologians criticize that God is outside time, but I take the genesis account and the ex nihilo creation of the universe to include a creation of time. Even if you place God inside of time (which seems theologically incorrect) he is not limited by time as we are and the bible is more God's story in which man responds to God.