Editor’s note: This is the 12th 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.

In my previous post I began to describe Lionel Thornton’s figural hermeneutic, based as it was on a doctrine of Scripture unique in the twentieth century. The division of Christendom, he wrote, put the Church’s “form” at odds with the divine “content” of its life; the body of the divided Church contradicted the wholeness it was supposed to have in Christ. The West’s alienation from Christ’s ecclesial form further produced a skeptical division between Scripture’s creaturely form and its divine content as modern theologians looked for pure concepts or facts behind the concrete words and images of the Bible. Thornton rejected this dualism, arguing instead that we must presuppose that Scripture is a unity on analogy to creation, that its parts all reflect the whole embodied in Christ, that Christ is “extended” in the Hebrew and Christian members of his body, that Scripture serves a moral purpose, and that it is the eternal mind of God. As such Scripture’s figural links transcend a strict temporal sequence and contain in advance the whole history of “traditional” interpretation. In today’s post I spell out what this means for the modern preoccupation with discovering the historical “facts” behind the text and with the “authorial intent” of the biblical writers. That is, that if Scripture is the divine mind, it has an objective status logically prior to and independent of the intentions of its writers. It is also more real than humanly reconstructed histories.

According to Thornton, Scripture’s words and images possess a unique potency. For, as part of the divine mind, they have a logical pre-existence vis-à-vis Scripture’s authors — indeed the authors themselves were figures. It naturally followed that words and images had a field of relations independent of the authors’ intentions. Later interpreters, therefore, could in many ways understand the significance of the prophets’ words better than the prophets. Speaking of the peculiarly symbolic character of events in John’s Gospel, Thornton wrote,

We must leave open the possibility that [John] was concerned only to produce a simple record of facts; always supposing that he would do so in accordance with the literary habits of his time and place, and of the Christian community to which he belonged, equipped, also, with the power of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration. The qualifying clause, however, is sufficiently wide to leave room for great varieties of interpretation — for any in fact which do not simply prejudge the historical issue. The effects, if not consciously intended by the evangelist, would issue from the given revelation of the Word, bearing its own testimony in and through the facts thus faithfully recorded by the inspired author.[1]


Philip Shen explained that “to question whether a certain meaning read out of the text is really there or not is to Thornton, in principle, a secondary question. ‘It may well have been in the author’s mind,’ is his attitude, but what does that really matter?”[2] The objective connections were all latent in Scripture waiting for later interpreters to discover.

But a more radical conclusion followed from Thornton’s ontology of Scripture regarding the historical Jesus: “We may speculate as to the exact form of the ipsissima verba; but what is given to us in the gospels is the revealed Word of God, whether verbally identical with Christ’s spoken word or not.”[3] From the axiom that the Bible is the divine mind we can conclude that there really was nothing “behind” the text to which its words point. Thornton believed that “[a] clear-cut distinction … between the factual and the symbolic, so important to the modern mind, is not drawn by the ancient authors.”[4]

What this means methodologically is that seemingly fortuitous verbal links have objectivity in the eternal order regardless of authorial intent. Interpreters could freely make these links because they were christologically regulated. Every part of Scripture was immediately related to Christ, and through him to every other part.

As such, ambiguities and apparent discrepancies were the result of the holistic quality of Hebrew sentences; they were aids to understanding not problems to smooth over.  For, the Hebrew way of thinking was not logical but analogical. The Hebrew psychology “strives after totality,”[5] and this resulted in a form of thinking and speaking in which the identities of things, figures, and events were not fixed.  Rather they dynamically interchanged their qualities and properties; they fused and recapitulated over the course of Scripture.[6]

The ancient world to which scripture and Christian origins belonged lived much nearer to the vivid associations of the concrete whole where likeness and contingency easily melt into all-embracing unities. Accordingly the Hebrew mind did not move primarily along logical lines, at least in the sense in which we understand logic. The pillars upon which the biblical chain of thought rests are not abstract propositions but concrete images, one image suggesting another, sometimes through purely verbal associations …. The unity of the whole is presented to us in scripture through a succession of picture-images. The Revelation of St John is a dramatic presentation which is wholly composed of such images moving across the pages of apocalyptic history. In such a world of image-thinking it is a serious mistake to suppose that logical distinctions are consistently observed; for where logic might emphasize difference the imagination may emphasize likeness or close association.[7]

Shen explains,

As a result the same image may be retained through changing contexts with a richness of details that may be logically incompatible with one another. But they exist together in multiple contrasts and varying likeness in the harmony of an all-embracing whole. The more an image can perform this, e.g., the “form of the servant,” the more valuable it is. The resultant whole, it can be seen, can hardly be logical, because it is a composite of different lines of analogy or contrast, whereas the essence of logical thinking is the pursuit of a single line at a given time and for a given purpose. Another way of stating this is that logical thinking keeps identities relatively distinct, clear and constant, whereas thinking in images is the opposite.[8]

In this brief article I haven’t been able to offer up any examples of Thornton’s rich exegesis, which defies summarization anyway. I have only pointed at the way his ontology of Scripture and figural hermeneutic sidesteps modern problems of facticity and intentionality. George Westhaver has pointed out that the articles in this series have not satisfactorily articulated a “sacramental ontology” on which figural hermeneutics must rest. I agree up to a point. Scripture speaks in images because created things speak of their Maker. But the creatures we bump into everyday are mute unless we turn to Scripture’s images to provide us with the alphabet, lexicon, and grammar of nature. “Sacramental ontology” must be founded on a prior scriptural ontology. If not, we run the risk of making the book of Scripture a chapter in the book of Nature. The Modernist theology to which Thornton objected did this when they tried to explain the supernatural, including Scripture, in natural terms –– as the result of human intentions and causal forces. For Joseph Butler and H. L. Mansel as for Thornton one could accept “that” Scripture was God’s word without knowing “how” it was inspired. But total explanations are necessarily naturalistic. By striving for such explanations, their opponents, the Deists and Modernists, pulled apart the Bible’s supernatural content from its form. Having banished the supernatural, liberal theology had to reinsert God as an immanent force within nature.[9] Thornton’s hardy Scriptural ontology, on the other hand, resists the flattening logic of naturalism. The book of nature is recapitulated and redeemed in the book of Scripture, but the two are irreducibly distinct.

Further Reading

For a select bibliography of Thornton’s works, see Project Canterbury.

Secondary Resources

Ellis, Harold. “Lionel Thornton,” CR: Quarterly Review of the Community of the Resurrection 230 (1960), pp. 10–13.

Kelsey, David H., Proving Doctrine: The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology (Trinity Press International, 1999).

Mascall, E. L., Saraband: The Memoirs of E.L. Mascall (Gracewing, 1992).

Ramsey, Michael, “Lionel Thornton: Theologian,” in The Common Life in the Body of Christ, ed. by Lionel Spencer. (4th edition. Dacre Press, 1963).

Shen, Philip S.Y., “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton: A Study in Interpretation,” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1963).

Smith, Robert Virgil, “The Philosophical Backgrounds of Lionel S. Thornton with Particular Reference to the Doctrines of Creation, Revelation and Incarnation,” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1953).


[1] Ibid., p. 182, n. 1.

[2] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” pp. 107-108.

[3] Lionel Spencer Thornton, The Dominion of Christ, Being the Second Part of a Treatise on The Form of the Servant (London: Dacre Pr, 1952), 53.

[4] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” p. 112.

[5] Thornton, Revelation and the Modern World, p. 152.

[6] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,” pp. 117-119.

[7] Lionel Spencer Thornton, Confirmation: Its Place in the Baptismal Mystery (Dacre Press, 1954), pp. 5-6.

[8] Shen, “The Christology of Lionel S. Thornton,”  pp.116-117. Minus the dubious Trinitarian analogy, one might compare this to Pavel Florensky’s deconstruction of the law of non-contradiction in Letter Two of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Boris Jakim, Revised edition (Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[9] This is to say, even perhaps against their best intentions they became monists since they utilized a monist hermeneutic. Butler’s famous arguments against Deism in The Analogy of Religion exploit this fact to show that they were methodologically atheistic without having the self-consistency of real atheists.

About The Author

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

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