By William N. McKeachie
The most esoteric of the Inklings, Charles Williams, used the adage serving as the title of this essay as the epigraph for his many-dimensional history of Christendom, The Descent of the Dove. It struck me as complementary to another phrase that Ephraim Radner and David Ney plucked from a poem extolling the “configurations” of the Holy Scriptures by the 17th-century Anglican priest George Herbert. That phrase, “All Thy Lights Combine,” serves as an apt title for their jointly edited collection of essays about “Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition.”
This anthology incorporates a number of examples and analyses of a figural approach to biblical interpretation and application, a tradition that traces its lineage to late antiquity and beyond. Here, at long last, is the book for which I in particular, and indeed Anglicanism at large, have been waiting for lo! the past half-century! That’s a bold claim; allow me to bear it out.
In the late summer of 1972, I was pulling together texts and thoughts for a paper — my first “commission” in Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue — to be delivered the following year at an ecumenical conference in Germany. My paper’s assigned title was “Anglicanism: A Via Media through History and Theology.”
To my initial bafflement, the ecclesiastically innocent German graduate student deputed to be my translator — who was unfamiliar with either Anglicanism or the notion of via media — rendered my title as “Anglicanismus: ein Querschnitt durch Geschicte und Theologie” (Anglicanism: A Cross-section Through History and Theology).
Little could that ingenuous translator have guessed that his word choice would come to characterize my own increasingly ironic perspective on Anglican history and theology. “Ein Querschnitt”? Has Anglicanism — notwithstanding its 16th-century formularies — ever, in subsequent historical practice, been anything more substantive than a “cross-section” of constantly shifting, self-revising, design-built facades? In my view, such an assessment seems to have come to suit ecclesia anglicana to a T!
But now along come Radner and Ney. While the last five decades have seen numerical and ecclesial decline in Western and Northern Anglicanism, its explosive growth in the Global South has reflected what Radner identified in his seminal 2016 study, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures, as historically and spiritually foundational to faithful biblical hermeneutics; namely, that the whole Bible’s figural witness is to the fulfilment in Christ of all things, both in heaven and earth.
From Genesis to Revelation, it is Christ who forms the soteriological heart of the Scriptures, making the overall biblical narrative so compellingly coherent, bestowing upon it a timeless canonical unity.
The Word of God Eternal is prior to history and, indeed, speaks all history into existence. The Word of God Incarnate redeemed and reversed the wages of sin for all history, yours and mine included. The Word of God Written, in both Testaments, confronts, judges, forgives, and saves (or, in John Donne’s figure of speech, “translates”) one and all who experience that Word, figurally, in history. To quote the marvelously counter-intuitive, truly “comfortable” phrase used by Thomas Cranmer in the prayer book Commination: even “in thy wrath, [thou, O good Lord] thinkest upon mercy.”
In sum and substance, whenever the Bible is personally, figurally apprehended and appropriated, in spirit and in truth — from Adam to Moses to the Prophets, from John the Baptist to the apostle “born out of time,” to the last verse of the Book of Revelation — it is the person of Christ who is at work, as always, to save and to sanctify, to “translate” deprivation into incorporation, condemnation into “transfiguration.”
In All Thy Lights Combine, the contributors bear out the basic thesis of Radner’s earlier Time and the Word, by showing it to characterize a representative group of Anglican authors — from William Tyndale through Cranmer and Hooker, to John Donne, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge though Christina Rossetti, to C.S. Lewis (as well as a dozen more). This christocentric approach to reading and applying the Bible can plausibly be claimed to represent the heart and soul of Anglican hermeneutical tradition at its best, perhaps indeed at its most quintessential.
In his philosophically and theologically magisterial chapter on “The Poetics of Law,” Torrance Kirby focuses on Book I of Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, as I myself had done in 1974 when tasked by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission to write an Anglican Response to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. But now, as I reflect on the resonances of the figural aspects of God’s Word Written in relation to all God’s creatures, I find myself recalling a passage in Book II that might well reflect the most fecund of all the implications of “Figural Reading in the Anglican Tradition”:
Whatsoever either men on earth, or the Angels of heaven do know, it is as a drop of that unemptiable fountaine of wisdom, which wisdom hath diversly imparted her treasures unto the world. As her waies are of sundry kinds, so her maner of teaching is not meerely one and the same. Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature: with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some things she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practice. We may not so in any one special kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored. (‘Lawes’ II.I.4, 5)
In any case, so overwhelmed with personal and vocational gratitude am I for the publication of All Thy Lights Combine that I am almost hesitant to mention my one quibble and my one suggestion. Nevertheless, with the very greatest respect, first, my small quibble: a more assertive editorial hand could have streamlined the prose of some of the essays (and footnotes) in this important book, thereby making the anthology as a whole all the more compelling.
Finally, my large suggestion: follow up this volume with at least a second, to include more extensive coverage of George Herbert and several additional, figurally-inclined authors in the Anglican tradition, such as Fulke Greville (Lord Brooke), Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Christopher Smart, Jonathan Swift, Frederick Denison Maurice, William Porcher DuBose, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, Rose Macaulay, R. S. Thomas, and W. H. Auden, whose Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being,” is chock-full of wondrously figural applications of Scripture, such as:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has
expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions
shall dance for joy
William Noble McKeachie is dean emeritus of the Diocese of South Carolina; formerly he served in the dioceses of Maryland, Toronto, and Oxford. In 1991 he was one of six Episcopal priests who co-authored The Baltimore Declaration. Together with Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, Dean McKeachie was a founding director of the Mere Anglicanism conferences held annually in Charleston from 2007 until 2017.
Thank you for this lovely reflection on the heartbreakingly beautiful heritage of biblical interpretation that is our Anglican patrimony. Hooker has the keenest theological and philosophical mind and yet writes with the pen of a poet and so do everyone of the other worthies mentioned in this study. May you suggestion for a follow up volume find a receptive hearing.