Editor’s note: This is the 11th 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.

Lionel S. Thornton (1884-1960) was far and away the most prolific and talented practitioner of figural exegesis in the 20th century, as well as its most consistent theorist. Thornton has unjustly fallen into oblivion, because in some measure figural reading contradicts key presuppositions of modern theology. According to Thornton, every jot and tittle of Scripture is an extension of the Incarnate Lord — with an independence vis-à-vis Scripture’s writers. Scripture is more than a reflection of history’s processes, more than a witness to the Word. It is taken up into the very being of God, and its language is not limited by sequential time.

A foundational error that contemporary Anglican scriptural theology inherited from both modernism and John Henry Newman was the belief that Scripture’s verbal forms could be pulled apart from the divine content of revelation. Four generations into Oxford Movement Anglicanism, Thornton took for granted this dualism in his landmark The Incarnate Lord (1928).[1] There he affirmed the priority of revelation, but he set experience between it and the Bible’s language. According to Thornton, the experience of revelation is pre-linguistic and conceptual; Thornton thereby suggested that unchanging or “terminal” concepts stand behind varied doctrinal developments. The idea was already a concession; Thornton recognized that concepts and language were sometimes inseparable, which meant that on certain vaguely defined occasions a change in language would distort the concepts that the language expressed.

The formulation of terminal concepts was Thornton’s short-lived attempt to plug a hole in a theory that he soon dropped. In his next major work, The Common Life in the Body of Christ (1942), he worried, “What if the Gospel becomes obscured by our presuppositions and preoccupations, so that we neither see the scope of its application nor suffer it to speak for itself?”[2] In Revelation and the Modern World (1950), he fully articulated a view of Scripture that did not set experience between divine content and Scripture’s linguistic form. Both concepts and language are forms of human response to revelation. In Scripture the divine and human were inseparable. This position radically reassigns the role of historical criticism.


On analogy to natural science, Thornton taught that the unity of Scripture, like the unity of nature, was the condition of knowledge. In both cases the scientific interpreter was not trying to prove this unity but to show how particular things could be lawfully reconciled given the fact of unity. Faith and biblical criticism were complementary approaches to truth. In Thornton’s words, the “totality principle of faith” was the assumption of unity and order in nature and supernature without which biblical science was impossible. It followed that within the biblical cosmos, as in the natural world, every detail, no matter how small, represented some unifying law.[3] Indeed, the most overarching law ordering Scripture and nature was, by virtue of the Incarnation, “the form of the servant” embodied in Jesus.[4]

Theologians and exegetes have remained hindered by atomistic approaches to Scripture and ecclesiology, however. According to Thornton, a “law of deterioration” set in after the division of Christendom, birthing the current dualism between form and content. In brief, Europeans sought after a pure Church behind the divided Church because the form of Christendom had failed to correspond to the unity of Christ himself. Without a unified frame, churches and Christians were atomized. It was only a matter of time before liberalism would similarly divide Scripture into content and atomized form.[5] But a Church so divided could not be put together easily. And an atomized Scripture could not be interpreted figurally. Thornton’s solution to the problem of Christian reunion, therefore, was to call into question the modern dualism between form and content by systematically reconnecting the doctrine of Creation to the doctrines of Scripture and Church. This allowed him to reengage the Bible figurally.[6]

Having rejected the various contemporary doctrines of development, Thornton reclaimed a place for tradition. Doctrinal development was a fact, but Thornton rejected any concept of tradition in abstraction from biblical interpretation. He admitted that the process of passing on tradition was already evident within the New Testament — the Apostles were Old Testament exegetes, after all. As such Scripture and tradition had the same source in the biblical writers.

Nevertheless, Scripture had ontological priority over tradition just as being had priority over becoming in metaphysics. Put differently, Thornton taught that the eternal mind of God contained the plan of creation, a plan unified in Christ and unfolded in time. The Incarnate Lord looked at how the temporal process of creation unfolded in a way that reflected and repeated aspects of Christ’s life; in his later works, Thornton identified the mind of God with Scripture and concluded that the history of theological interpretation was already contained within Scripture.[7] For one, Scripture exhibited the pattern and “the unchanging law of the relation between religion and culture.”[8] Scripture was an exemplar for any later cultural responses to revelation.

Thornton’s shorthand term for this normative cultural response to revelation within Scripture and the early tradition was “Hebrew psychology.” This mindset was shared by the Apostles and Fathers, particularly St. Irenaeus. And it was characteristically holistic. The unity of Scripture was not demonstrably the result of this holistic mindset. Scripture’s unity was in Christ, while “the Hebrew mind is a product of the response to revelation and depends on it for its unity.”[9] But the two are inseparable.

Interpreters must learn to think like Hebrews, which means to think synecdochically, or in Thornton’s terms, “organically,” i.e., seeing the whole reflected in each part. For example, Scripture is full of “corporate personalities” where kings and fathers represent those under them; humans, as part of creation, microcosmically reflect the cosmos; progeny pre-exist as “seed” in their ancestors (Adam, Abraham, Israel, Levi); people can even be “extended” into the artifacts they possess.[10] Pre-eminently, Christ’s life, like Adam’s before him, included the whole time process. The many events spread out over biblical time were included in this One, in whom “time is altogether transcended.”[11] As Shen put it, “[t]he time process is not a causal sequence.”[12] Obviously, such commitments have huge implications for ecclesiology and hermeneutics.

The Bible, for instance, also exhibits an “organic” unity of words and images hierarchically ordered under Jesus.[13] “The form of the servant” was at the top, being the most inclusive and flexible image.[14] Insofar as “fallen” figures like Adam and Eve could be taken up into the inclusive figure of Christ and the Church, they were redeemed and the effects of the Fall were reversed. Thornton’s typological exegesis of Scripture, therefore, was based on a doctrine of “recapitulation” that brought together two principles: a temporal principle of “repetition” and a structural principle of “representation.”[15] Christ’s redemptive work represented a “new creation”: his nativity could be juxtaposed with the infancy of Adam. But Christ also repeated the process of Adam’s education, passing the test where Adam failed.[16] Therefore, the “iron laws” of causation, over which sin and death rule, have been graciously transcended by Christ through whom forgiveness is offered to humanity.[17]

This brings us to the moral force of Thornton’s typological approach. Christ’s “coeducation” with Adam reverses Adam’s mistakes, and this reversal repeats throughout history in Christ’s body, the Church. The sacraments and the figural reading of Scripture were the primary means by which Christians were transfigured into the humble likeness of Jesus. Thornton, therefore, falls within the Christian mainstream, which subordinates knowledge to the higher purpose of formation in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. This, for Thornton, was what the Bible was for.


[1] For a previous article on this book, see “The impossibility of monotheism without the Bible,” Covenant (Nov. 25, 2016).

[2] Lionel Spencer Thornton, The Common Life in the Body of Christ (Dacre Press, 1942), p. vii.

[3] Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, Being the First Part of a Treatise on the Form of the Servant (Dacre Press, 1950), p. 76.

[4] Ibid., 17. Philip S.Y. Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton: A Study in Interpretation” (Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 1963), pp. 87-88. Among all the secondary literature on Thornton, the vast majority of which was written before the end of the 1970s, Shen is the only indispensable resource.

[5]Thornton compares Liberalism in this way to Gnosticism in Revelation and the Modern World, 106-115; cf. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Gateway Editions, 1997); and Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (State University of New York Press, 2001). O’Regan’s articulation of the “grammar” of orthodoxy and Gnosticism assumes a doctrine of revelation that functions with something like terminal concepts and could be contrasted with a figural theory of heresy.

[6] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” pp. 81-82.

[7] Ibid. p. 111.

[8] Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, p. 9. Shen writes that for Thornton “[o]rthodoxy is the power for wholeness of response. It is the power of cohesion, the integrative element of tradition against the heretical dispersions from within and syncretistic incursions from without. Orthodoxy, in short, is the principle of unity in tradition as revelation is in the scriptures,” pp. 93-94.

[9] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” p. 86.

[10] Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World,149-156.

[11] Ibid. p. 152.

[12] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” p. 114

[13] Indeed, “[t]he more meanings” and the more verbal links “a word could have, therefore, the more important and dominating it would seem to be.” Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, p. 157 n. 1.

[14] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” pp. 122-124.

[15] Ibid. pp. 127-128: “Typological exegesis thus presupposes a conception of a transcendent plan of God, on the one hand, and, on the other hand the idea that his immanent activity somehow has a consistent character, i.e., is typical in so far as it can be discerned, because it is grounded in his plan and determined by his purpose.” The plan is “Christocentric through and through. For Christ is the source and the goal of creation; he is also the sphere and matrix in which it takes place. There is a distinction of two stages of the created order, namely the old and the new. But the plan is one, and it unfolds itself in the history of redemption.”

[16] Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, pp. 139-149; Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” p. 130.

[17] See Thornton’s mentor, John Neville Figgis, about the “iron laws” in The Gospel and Human Needs (London, Longmans, 1909). Figgis shows how contemporary “pantheist” (i.e. liberal) theology had made forgiveness impossible because it made the past unalterable.  This is probably the place where Thornton learned to think about time in a non-linear way.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Boldt is a professor of theology at the Alexandria School of Theology.

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2 Responses

  1. Stewart Clem

    Jeff, thanks for this enlightening essay. One minor question: can you me point to a specific place in Newman where he articulates “the belief that Scripture’s verbal forms could be pulled apart from the divine content of revelation”?

    • Jeff Boldt

      Sorry for the delay, Stewart. Almost at random I opened Newman’s “The Theory of Developments in Christian Doctrine” (1843) to section 22 where he writes that “Divine Objects” leave something analogous to sense impressions, which Newman calls “images of what is real.” Thornton would deny this distinction by identifying the Object (the person of the Son) with Biblical images that the Son has taken up into himself by virtue of his high priestly function. In other words, the Son is a microcosm of creation, and he sanctifies all things in creation by making them refer to the Father through himself. And the reference of everything in creation is given in Scripture. I could go on about Newman to observe his deep ambivalence regarding this kind of Scriptural ontology, which I think stems from the troubling polemical stances he takes over against evangelicalism. But I think I’ll stop for now.


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