On Figural Interpretation

This week, I’m focusing a bit on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. I’ve been sort of inspired by Richard Hays fantastic new book, Reading Backwards.  In it he argues that we need to learn to recover a figural reading of the Old Testament, specifically we need to learn to do this with the gospels. He ways that “all four of them [Mathew, Mark, Luke, John], in interestingly distinct ways, embody and enact the sort of figural Christological reading that Luther recommends.”

But what does Hays mean by “figural reading?” He uses Erich Auerbach’s classic definition to explain his point:

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained int the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spiritual act.

In other words, figural reading, means that we move beyond merely saying that the Old Testament predicts stuff in the New Testament, we say that the stuff in the Old Testament prefigures or foreshadows stuff in the New Testament. All of this happens within history, thereby ensuring that the things in the past retain their value and significance as historical events, all the while maintaining that they contain a second level of significance, namely the meaning given to those events by latter occurring events.

To put it quite simply:

The Old Testament, read in light of the New Testament, contains types/figures of Christ and of the gospel.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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