Theology on the Road to Damascus

Ben Quash,
University of Cambridge

Vision on the Road to Damascus , Norman Adams RA (1997)

In recent English-speaking theology David Ford has been one of those who has seen most acutely the particular importance and urgency of addressing how Christians use the Bible, and of stimulating a renewed engagement with it. He has seen that much contemporary theology like Paul on the road to Damascus – needs to be overwhelmed all over again by the unsettling energy of the biblical material: toppled from the high horse of its received positions, deprived of its grand overviews, and spoken to afresh. Many ordinary Christians (and their leaders and pastors, too) need to open themselves up to this scriptural speech; ‘hearing the word, holding it fast, and letting it bear fruit in them’ (to paraphrase Luke 8:15, to which we will return). Part of the immense value of David Ford’s work is that way that it allows itself constantly to be surprised, disturbed and delighted by the Bible transformatively overwhelmed in almost Damascene ways and this essay is an attempt to commend and enact that theological habitus through an approach to Scripture that is my own, but which is nonetheless more deeply indebted to David than I can say.

Prolegomena: A Canterbury Tale

I was part of a small team that worked with David Ford in preparing two key plenary presentations to the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury in 1998 a conference that by convention meets only every ten years, and brings together all the 800 or so bishops of the Anglican Communion together for worship, study and deliberation. David was the obvious choice to be the theologian who would set a tone for the conference, and would capture and celebrate its achievements at its end. This is partly, first, because he is such a capacious and generous theologian a ‘co-thinker’ who can work with very varied others, and whose work is therefore singularly well-suited to ecclesial contexts where a multitude of insights and possibilities ask to be related to one another and done justice to. He has a lively and sympathetic Christian mind that allows him to do this supremely well. Second, he was an obvious choice because he is an unusually engaging communicator, and concerned to make the fruits of the work of the academy available to the church and to society wherever and whenever possible. And, third, he was an obvious choice because he is so deeply Anglican in his attention to history, to varied social contexts, and above all to the Bible when doing theology, and in his concern for the good interplay of insights drawn from attention to each. This respect for scripture, history and indigenous human contexts as sites of God’s self-explication are central to a ‘sapiential’ habit of thought which is utterly shaping of David Ford’s theology in its instinctive reluctance to privilege ‘system’ over ‘wisdom’. Such theology was just what the Lambeth Conference most needed, even if many failed to recognise the fact.

The Anglican debate about its traditions own character in the face of renewed controversies about scriptural interpretation and ecclesial authority across the Communion was rarely fiercer than at that Lambeth Conference. David Ford’s response then, as now, was to relativise the terms of immediate debates in Anglicanism by eschewing any direct engagement with their detail. Instead, he used a deep meditation on the Bible, born out of months and months of regular scriptural study with our small group in Cambridge in the run up to the Conference, to invite the Conferences renewed consideration of a wider horizon – in fact, that widest of horizons (against which any sort of Anglican conviction needs to measure itself if it is to have integrity at all): the horizon of God’s saving will and work. He invited all sides in the various fights (and indeed the cynical but uncommitted onlooker too) to reflect that there might be more at stake in arguments over scripture than ecclesiastical politics, and that God might have something to disclose of himself in the positions even of those with whom one found oneself differing profoundly. But he also issued a warm but firm challenge to ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike to be more God -centred. (His not uncritical but always respectful schooling in the work of Karl Barth has probably done much to add to his conviction in this respect.)

So in the context of a conference riven with bitter disputes and politicking his generous capaciousness stood out; and in a conference where there was so much misinformation and miscommunication the attractive sincerity of his speech gave the bishops refreshment and encouragement; and in a conference where the theological debate, to quote Rowan Williams, ‘so readily polarise[d] between one or another variety of positivism (biblically fundamentalist, ecclesiastically authoritarian, or whatever) and a liberalism without critical or self-critical edge,’ [1] his wise inhabiting of the Bible with a mind alert to the demands of history and ethnography was a timely and gracious gift.

It is this advocacy of a Bible-saturated theology and a Bible-sifted Church (which is nevertheless not biblically positivist, and does not shy away from the claims of temporality and the world ) whose possibilities I want to explore further in the present essay. I share with David Ford a belief that Scripture is a central means by which God seeks to unite us to himself. It is a deep well, a source of life, refreshment and transformation (whose delivery to us, incidentally, by the conduits of morning and evening prayer can hardly be bettered, as David will passionately argue). Yet the ways in which the Bible is habitually related to in a modern Western context continually fall into difficulties, and on two fronts.

First is a sort of extrinsicist view of the Bible a concentration on it as a source of clear and definitive indicative (‘descriptive’) statements and of binding imperative (‘ethical’) ones, at the expense of its other moods and possibilities. This attitude is often accompanied by a rhetoric about the Bible’s supreme authority to decide all matters of faith, doctrine and life. A cry for authority goes up as it does, I have found, with lots of the students I have worked with in a pastoral context over 12 years or so of ordained ministry. ‘We need something firm and unshakeable,’ they say, ‘in a world which is in the grip of total anarchic relativism; a world in which anything goes. We need an anchor in a storm.’ And it is the Bible which is made to perform this function. Views like this played an important and politically significant role at Lambeth 1998.

The principle alternative on offer at the Conference made great play of the importance of experience in reading Scripture. It was very prominently there in the daily Bible studies, in which bishops were encouraged to tell their stories, to share their diverse experiences, and then to consider how these illuminated the assigned text for the day. Now as Dan Hardy remarked in unpublished notes on the Conference, it is undoubtedly true that Bible study groups of this kind learn from each other, and seem to come to shared insights, but the fact is that these insights often have a very uncertain relation to the scriptural text itself. The surface meaning of the text may be explored, but the rest usually remains untouched. As a method, it inevitably gives primacy to experience in a way that should raise real questions. In Hardy’s words, ‘it certainly allows its practitioners to be swayed and moved by the retelling of impressive experiences, but inductive reasoning almost always proves incapable of yielding anything other than very weak generalizations, and their connection with the solid, cognitive content of theology (biblical, historical or doctrinal) goes unexplored.’ What was clear was that another kind of authority was being appealed to here, and one that was meant to stand as unquestioned and unassailable as the authority of Scripture endorsed by the ‘extrinsicists.’ ‘My experience tells me such and such a thing, and let no one dare to deny it. My experience is my own; you may not question it. It is the touchstone of what is true for me.’

Experience as one form of reason therefore stood over against a certain sort of scriptural positivism at Lambeth 1998 in a classic polar opposition which it has always been very Anglican (when Anglicanism is at its best) to try to mediate.

What David Ford sees emerging from this continuing virulent opposition between experiential and positivist uses of Scripture is an urgent theological task: an obligation on theology to examine its methods of relating to the Bible, and share its reflections with the wider Church for the good of the world. He responds by modelling a theology which is first overwhelmed by the Bible, and must then learn to inhabit it and not just to operate from a position apart from it. It is this that the remainder of my essay will seek to give some articulation to, initially with the help of Luke Timothy Johnson (whose work was an inspiration to some of our discussions at the time of the Lambeth Conference), and then by way of my own exercise in inhabiting scripture, with the help of a modern work of art and the historic riches of the Churchs tradition of figural reading.

Inhabiting the Bible

‘The Bible is extraordinarily complex and multi-dimensional,’ said David in his opening address to the Lambeth Conference. ‘How do we take account of dramatic narratives, of prophecies and radical questions, of passionate poetry and visions, of laws, teachings and letters, of cries and longings, of Abraham, Solomon, Ezekiel, Ruth, Job, Mary, Paul, and the angels of the seven churches? Who can do justice to them all?’

He went on to remind the delegates of the complex pre-history of the biblical texts even before they became the Bible. ‘Many were spoken, passed on, written down, edited, compiled, and interpreted over hundreds of years, and in many places and contexts.’ And then he reminded them that that dynamism in the texts has been as much a feature of them after their formation into a canon of Scripture as it was before. Since the canon of Scripture was fixed it has been translated and retranslated, and it has been interpreted generation after generation and all around the world:

Those interpretations are not only in sermons, commentaries, teaching, creeds and academic studies. They are also in liturgies, prayers, hymns, music, art, architecture, poetry, novels, film, drama and dancing. The Bible lives in many ways

Both of the ‘thin’ versions of relating to Scripture that we have identified as problematically dominant types in our present context seem not to take account of this multi-dimensionality and layering in the library of books we call the Bible. The first one in particular (the ‘extrinsicist’ model) in its frequent reduction of the Bible to only indicative and imperative moods tends towards seeing the Bible as a monolithic entity, with a single structure and design behind it. But both models in different ways tend to reduce all the Bible’s textures all the different surfaces which reflect the glory of God in different ways to our eye; all the various literary genres; and all the other moods of speech which include the interrogative, the subjunctive and the optative (the mood of desire) to just a handful. Yet the Bible is a great deal more than a source of information about God and his will like a sort of instruction manual and a great deal more than a screen on which to project and view our existing presuppositions and experiences. And we do not stand wholly apart from it when we relate to it.

I have often had recourse in my thinking to a fascinating television programme in the mid-1990s presented by a man called Stewart Brand, and entitled How Buildings Learn . [2] Brand’s thesis was very simple, and rested on a contrast between buildings on the one hand, and architecture on the other. Brand said this:

What I’m really interested in is not architecture; its buildings. The problem with architecture is that it’s allergic to time, because architects keep being asked to create lasting monuments, frozen in time. But buildings have no such presumption. Buildings live in time, the same way we do. In time, we learn. In time, buildings learn.

And he illustrated this by showing the Ca’ d’oro in Venice: its 1434 facade, as he put it, ‘faking permanence’ (apparently unchanged since it was an architect’s plan on paper); and round the back, a building showing layers and layers of historical change and adaptation.

What would happen if one were to view Scripture less as though it were an architect’s plan and more as though it were a changing building to which a whole range of builders and inhabitants and the environment itself had made a difference? Or to extend even further Stewart Brand’s vision of the way that buildings are responsive to their environments and their inhabitants, and to the passage of time what would happen if one thought of the Bible as a whole city, full of buildings? For, despite rare attempts (like Lutyens’s New Delhi), cities are even less the product of a single mind, and a single unified scheme, than buildings. They are even more the products of time and adaptation. They are therefore even more like the Bible.

This is the engaging premise of Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay ‘Imagining the World Scripture Imagines’, [3] which gave such stimulus to our thinking about the Lambeth Conference presentations in 1998. Johnson invites his readers to imagine the world of Scripture ‘as a living city that one might inhabit’:

How do people who have grown up and continue to live in such a city know it? Their knowledge is instinctive, connatural, geared to the practices of the city and its own peculiar ways. They understand how things are done in the city even if they cannot explain such customs to outsiders. They know how to get to places in the city quickly and easily even when they do not know the names of streets. They move about the city largely by means of images and landmarks which inform their every move even if they never consciously advert to them: a storefront here, a park bench there, a billboard hanging overhead.

Johnson suggests that such knowledge is ‘deep, intimate, non-systematic, comprehensive, practical.’ An outsider might spend decades trying to memorize and master the intricacies of accent, nomenclature, body language and so on that are the mark of native inhabitants, and still not get them quite right. Native knowledge is a key form the past of the city takes in its present; ‘the past is not memorialized but incorporated’:

The city’s history is not external to its inhabitants, but is part of their own story; indeed, their story cannot be told without telling the story of the city. […] In this city there is constant change, yet the change is contained within a deeper continuity, as this city remains, undeniably and indefinably, this and only this city. [4]

Johnson argues that a problem shared by many modern biblical scholars, by many modern Christians, and by all of the unchurched, is that they relate to the Bible as though it were simply ‘another place.’ The unchurched may be forgiven this. But the stance when adopted by a Christian reader is implicitly that his or her right relation to the Bible is that of an archaeologist or else of a tourist. It is a claim that this is not a living city to be inhabited, but either a dead one to be unearthed, or mined, or else a foreign one to be dropped in and out of. But the way in which dead cities can be known is fundamentally different from the way that living ones are known just as (so we have just argued) the way in which foreign cities are known even by regular visitors to them is always going to contrast with the way in which ones native city is known. Johnson writes:

Through archaeological exhumation […] some pieces and some sense of those cities can be recovered. In fact, the archaeologist can know the city in ways that none of its original inhabitants ever did. The archaeologist can dig through the various strata of ruins, exposing to light and synchronic examination the changes in culture that none of its former inhabitants noticed. The archaeologist can date with some precision the stages of the city’s former life, can mark the streets and houses with great precision, can uncover the systems of aqueducts and sewers, can compare this city at its various stages to other places similarly covered over and then uncovered. The archaeologist might even imagine what the people were like who created this city. [5]

But the one thing the archaeologist cannot do, as Johnson points out, is imagine what it was really like to be an inhabitant of that city or be an inhabitant herself.

This archaeological approach, it seems to me, is what is embodied in the style of biblical studies which has in recent decades been most heavily sponsored in western university settings: it is a sort of literary archaeology. This historical-critical method has been ‘preoccupied with the precise detection of literary seams equivalent to strata in an archaeological dig and with the use of those seams as clues to the people who produced the literary evidences still visible, in order to trace a history of Israel and early Christianity.’ [6] It is therefore always a somewhat distanced approach that regards the biblical texts as objects of supposedly ‘scientific’ scrutiny, rather than as a drama into which one is oneself caught up, with the heart and the will, as well as the mind. The view that you can actually only fully understand what the Bible is talking about if you are not seeking an objective or neutral position will generally be opposed by the historical critic. But most of Christian tradition has claimed such a thing: it has claimed that you can only really understand what the Bible is talking about if you are involved or invested in the realities it is talking about. This claim is as vivid as ever today in the hermeneutics of liberation theology (or, in a way that encompasses the faith of Jews and Muslims too, in the ways of reading characteristic of Scriptural Reasoning). It has meant for the Church a belief that we need to have felt the touch of God’s grace, we need to have experienced forgiveness, and learnt what it is to see our sin (and need of God) in the light of that grace if we are ever truly to appreciate what the Bible is saying to us. All of which is another way of saying that we need to know at least a bit of what the life of faith, hope and love is if the Bible is to speak to us. Or to put it yet another way, we need to be in the Church, to be alongside other believers, and to have tasted the worshipful form which Christian living and speaking and thinking should have in the Church.

One of the oddities of our present situation is that the historical-critical tendency to treat the Bible and what it contains with a sort of objectifying neutrality to visit it as though it were ‘another place’ is in certain surprising respects comparable to the approach of the ‘conservative’ Christian readers of the text who represented one pole of the Lambeth conflict over Scripture. This is because, as I have said, in its extreme form this approach to the Bible makes just as much an extrinsic object of it as the archaeological approach. The Bible is set up over against the worshipping community as an external and free-standing authority. It is not inhabited at all. Methods quite like those of the historical-critical school (and sometimes identical) are used to try to establish the single and correct meaning of scriptural texts. There is not much space for play, here; for the imaginative developments of biblical metaphors for new situations; for thinking with and out of the Bible; for adapting features of the Bible-city to ones own needs. There is only the application of texts.

The question we face in the light of this is whether it is any longer possible to do what earlier Christians once did who knew instinctively how to find their way around the Bible-city, and in their theological imaginations to ‘roam freely through the Sacred Writ.’ [7] Many of those early Christians, as Johnson points out, may not have been able to say much about the details of the citys history or the technicalities of its architecture, but they did know how to live a full life there, how to cope with the many problems of their complex urban life, and how to pass on this vital understanding to family, and even to strangers. Can we do the same? Are we as at home as they were with the different quarters of the city which is to say, perhaps, the different ways in which the Bible speaks and the different ways in which we ought therefore to read or listen? Do we know how to adapt our behaviour when we visit the different parts of this city (just as we would behave differently depending on whether we were in a private house, a museum, or a night club)?

David Ford’s argument as much exemplified as argued for, in fact is that we can still achieve this instinctive habitation. His theology is evidence that one can have a tremendously high view of Scripture without wanting to set it up as a solitary source of divine directives. He has done a huge amount to recover a scriptural imagination within contemporary theology. As Luke Timothy Johnson has so persuasively shown, one of the most destructive effects of the historical-critical method’s hegemony over biblical studies has been its suppression of scriptural imagination. But extrinsicist and experientialist readers of the Bible alike must also take some of the blame for this starving of a genuinely scriptural imagination as they flatten its possibilities or reduce it only to what is already known , whether because of prior doctrinal commitments or else a belief that the bits that do not immediately speak to me are irrelevant, archaic or immoral. There has been a dangerous dismissal on all sides of ‘fifteen hundred years of biblical interpretation within the church and based on the multiple levels of meaning in the text (the literal, the moral, the allegorical)’; this long history of citizenship of the Bible-city is reduced to ‘a mere prologue’ of dangerous, pre-critical, inexact or superstitious interpretative excess. ‘But if Scripture is being read in order to enliven the mind and the heart,’ writes Johnson, ‘or to expand the imagination, or simply to play contemplatively in the fields of the Lord, then multiple ways of reading are important, indeed imperative.’ [8]

At Lambeth 1998, David helped us do this wonderfully by weaving a world of meaning from the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Jabbok Ford and his subsequent reconciliation with Esau, as well as the themes of the activity of God in blessing won from conflict, suffering and death that are central to 2 Corinthians. He did it with the help of a combination of text, film, music and live drama. He showed how it was possible to bring alive the Bible-city as a world of interconnected insights centred on the reality of the one, living God and how the making of such connections can draw us inside the biblical world deeply and transformatively.

What I want to do in the final section of this essay is something comparable: to explore how a scriptural imagination might be brought alive through the stimulus of the texts themselves but also their interpretation in a work of art (in ways that have analogies with the figural, or ‘spiritual’, interpretations of scripture that are characteristic of patristic, rabbinic and medieval interpretation). My wider interest is in how interpretations of Scripture through visual art, literature, music, and so on, may be capable of re-educating the modern reader of biblical texts to read more richly – more traditionally but simultaneously more creatively. Such figural or associative reading is itself a scriptural way of reading it is a way of working with the grain of the Bible; of doing what the Bible itself does as it acknowledges and registers the patterns of the divine performance in history (Paul is a classic figural reader). And it brings to the fore the fact that scriptural texts are texts in living religious traditions, and have transformative effects in the present. To pretend that one has exhausted their significance and potential by looking only at what they meant to their original authors and hearers (as far as that can ever be known for sure) is a way of artificially severing them from the communities in which they are still performed every day. And these ongoing performances are, I would argue, not always just impositions on the texts, they are resident possibilities of the texts, as the canonical texts of a worshipping, developing, and interpreting religious community. So what Im going to do in the final part of this essay is allow a modern work of art to stimulate the performance on my part of a patristic-style allegorical reading of scripture. My intention is to show that the work of art (in this case, it is a painting) permits a rich engagement with a scriptural narrative which opens up associative meanings and inter-textual possibilities that an interpreter like Origen or Tertullian or Bernard of Clairvaux would instantly recognise, but that do not naturally emerge for many modern readers.

An Exercise in Bible Habitation

The painting has had its influence on the title of this essay, in that it is a picture of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. It also, in its concentration on faces, has a fittingness to David Ford’s own theology of the face in so much of his work, and especially Self and Salvation . The theme that unites the painting and the scriptural texts I will focus on is the ‘cursed earth’, the earth determined by the effects of the Fall, as when God says to Adam in Genesis chapter 3 ‘cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.’ In Jesus’s hands, as we shall see, this hard earth also becomes a metaphor for the human heart.

Let’s look at the painting. It is a beautiful picture by the English painter, Norman Adams, once Keeper of the Royal Academy. It is now in a private collection in Israel, and it depicts Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. It is an extraordinary image—on a huge canvas (more than 6 ft high)—in which Paul’s head is depicted at the bottom of the canvas in dark black and browns.

Our eye is I think drawn to the darkness first the long, strangely root-like fingers (T.S. Eliot’s words from the Waste Land ‘s first poem, The Burial of the Dead , come to mind here:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man…

These fingers shield the great blinded eyes of the head there in the darkness below. And I think we are invited by this to make our first inter-textual move from Paul’s experience as testified to in the Book of Acts, to Paul’s own words in the letter to the Romans:

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Norman Adams invites us to see Paul’s head as a huge groaning earth in travail. He covers the surface of his head with those long root-like fingers, as if to repel all attempts to reach him to harden his surface and remain untouched. Adams has discerned that when Paul talks of the earth as being in darkness and awaiting ‘somehow a liberation into light’ (I am indebted to Peter Walker for this phrase, as for so much of the discussion of the painting which follows), into a new awareness and a new fruitfulness, this description of the earth is also an autobiographical description. But the gold is hard at work in this picture, gathering the light against the gloom (here I echo Ezra Pound: ‘In the gloom the gold gathers the light against it’). After the dark head has arrested us, and as our eyes turn to the gold in the upper half of the canvas, we begin to see a radiant heavenly face emerging in blues and golds, with flowers for eyes, weeping with compassion, and sending penetrating rays of light which are just beginning to find a way through the tight outer fingers of the agonised head below. This second face is of course Christ’s.

And here I want to make our second and third inter-textual moves on the back of our first and to make them simultaneously . For the earth that groans in travail, and which confronts us here in this painting, is the earth after the Fall. Part of what this painting is doing is showing us the cry of this earth, this world of ours. And as such it directs us back to Genesis 3. But, at the same time, in showing us that glowing face which gathers the picture from above, it shows us the compassionate identification of Christ with his suffering people; it meditates on the redemption of that earth and its inhabitants who share its hardened condition. And in this regard, we may also find ourselves directed to Jesus’s own equation of the fallen earth with the human heart in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8), and his discussion of how it can hope for a new fruitfulness. And we may feel justified in trying to read the two Luke and Genesis – together.

Origen would have done so. As he writes in De Principiis :

[L]et us take from the Gospels the similitudes of those things which we have mentioned, in which is described a certain rock, having on it a little superficial earth, on which, when a seed falls, it is said quickly to spring up; but when sprung up, it withers as the sun ascends in the heavens, and dies away, because it did not cast its root deeply into the ground. Now this rock undoubtedly represents the human soul, hardened on account of its own negligence, and converted into stone because of its wickedness. For God gave no one a stony heart by a creative act; but [the human] heart is said to become stony through [its] own wickedness and disobedience. (Book III, Cap. 1, §14)

Origen too (following Jesus) concentrates on the fact that the ground or ‘earth’ in the Parable of the Sower is to be understood as the human heart, suffering the effects of its wickedness and disobedience. It is the fallen heart. Meanwhile the human heart that will be commended by Christ at the end of his interpretation of the parable will be the human heart that is open to God, that can receive God’s Word deep into itself and nurture it there, and that in doing so will bear fruit that outlasts any trials that come to afflict it.

We may note here that the story of the Fall itself draws a parallel between the state of the earth and the state of the human heart. The hardening of the earth is self-evident as what had been a garden bursting with fruit, abundant in every way, is replaced by Adam’s new reality. Fruitful soil becomes thistly dust, from which he will have to struggle all his life to extract what he needs to live. The snake will eat this dust, the woman will cry out in pain in it, and Adam will wrestle with it in the sweat of his brow. And all creatures, human or animal, will ultimately return to it because of the curse: ‘Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.’ But the hardening of the human heart we see in these opening chapters of Genesis mirrors this other hardening indeed, in Genesiss eyes the hardening of the earth is actually caused by the human protagonists, for the human and the natural orders are interlinked and affect each other. We see Adam and Eve descend progressively from jealousy at the prohibition of the fruit, to greed for that fruit, to theft of it, to lying and concealment about it. And if we read only a little bit further in Genesis then we see that the disastrous chain of sin is still not broken for in the story of Cain and Abel there follow envy, anger and murder, as the heart becomes ever harder and dustier and more ungenerous. So that by the time of Noah, as we hear, ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually .’

Now one thing I find particularly interesting and moving about the way Christ is depicted in Norman Adams’s picture is that there is a crown not of thorns but of brightly coloured leaf forms on his head. Why? An answer has helpfully been suggested to me, again, by Peter Walker (ruefully attributing it to Sr Wendy Beckett, whose interpretations of paintings mostly get his goat). ‘Over the aeons, some plants have evolved their leaves into weapons, into the aggression of thorns. Wearing them in love, Christ draws them back to their first innocence. In accepting cruelty and death, he redeems them into life, into gentleness.’

Well, in Genesis we witness the beginning of exactly the process that Christ will one day reverse. We witness the point at which leaf forms become thorns and thistles, at which good soil becomes hard and dusty, and in which the human heart once open and trusting and receiving all its good directly from the hand of God becomes fearful, dishonest, concealed and self-serving. We see a threefold punishment of the good creation now pulled into travail a descent into degradation, pain and unproductiveness. Degradation represented by the serpent, who must crawl on his belly and be trampled on; pain represented by the woman who must cry out in labour; unproductiveness represented by the man, who cannot prosper the work of his hands but meets resistance and barrenness at every point.

The Parable of the Sower recognizes this earth. It knows what has happened to its former receptivity and fruitfulness. There are no illusions here about the fallen state. In a way that echoes Genesis, it shows good seed rendered unproductive three times . First, the seed is trampled on and we remember the degradation of the creation associated with the serpent, crushed by the heel of those who walk upright, and abject on its belly. [9] The seed comes to degraded creation. Second, the seed falls among rocks. It descends into the stoniness of the world, the place of constriction which the woman of the Genesis story – the woman who was tempted (as the hearer of the Word is liable ‘in time of temptation’ to fall away) – is promised she will experience as a consequence of her temptation. [10] The seed comes to a creation in pain. And third, the seed falls among thorns and thistles. It comes into the place where the man experiences his penalty the man who longed for the delight and pleasure of the fruit offered to him by the woman. For this desire for forbidden pleasure he is rewarded with hard labour, in which he cannot get clear of the cares of the world and back to the abundant, effortless sustenance he received in his first innocence. [11] The seed comes to unproductive creation. The Parable of the Sower knows all these aspects of the curse.

And yet, in a Christian perspective, it is into just this world that Christ comes, who as the Church Fathers interpreted the parable is both the sower and the seed; just as he is both priest and victim; both giver of the sacrament and yet present in the sacrament itself. The Fathers call him the seed sown in believers’ hearts, ( logos spermatikos ), who comes forth from God that He may be the principle of righteousness in man (Justin, “Apol.,” II, xiii, “Athan.,” “Orat.,” ii, 79, Cyril Alex., “In Joan.,” 75; and see Newman, “Tracts,” 50177). This Jesus as seed takes the curse upon himself. He is not afraid to be trampled where the creation is trampled. He accepts the pain and the impact of the creations stony ground. And he receives in his flesh the marks of the thorns that are the marks of the fallen Adam.

Why? For the purpose of redemption. Jesus Christ the sower continues to cast his seed (the seed which is his own self), undeterred by the resistances of the hardened earth; and keeps scattering until he finally finds good soil, where he will be received and where he can be fruitful. If we pursue the terms of our reading of the Parable of the Sower as antitype to the Fall narrative, then we may say that this seed that seeks good ground does so in order to reverse the effects of the Fall. In seeking good ground, it effects a new fruitfulness. In this respect, the seed is rather like the rays of light and the runnels of water in Norman Adams’s painting, which keep up their attempt to penetrate the tightly closed fingers. While some of these rays are halted at the surface, others find their way to deeper layers and eventually, as we know if we know Paul’s story, they will reach the dark spaces within, where Paul modelling the fallen earth itself – will be illuminated and renewed, and will begin to bear the fruit of Christ in himself. Christ’s work is to break up the surface of this earth, and find its places of fertility again. Just as the leaf forms on Christ’s head are thorns won back to their primal innocence, so the light and water of the painting represent a recovery of the fertility of Eden, whose primal moments of life are so vivid: light called forth, life-giving waters released, the earth become a garden, and man formed from the dust of the earth and life breathed into his nostrils to make him a living soul.

We may remember how at the Last Supper Jesus poured water out over the feet of the disciples he had gathered to him. Norman Adams depicts this ‘watering’ by Christ in the form of his tears, which gush down towards the groaning head below. To conclude this experiment in figural reading in response to a painting, we can suggest what would for the Christian reader be a ‘tropological’ (or moral) sense of these texts. These Scriptures can be read as exhorting Christian believers to be ready, like Paul, to have their hardened surfaces broken open, so that they in turn can become fruitful with Christ’s seed, warmed and watered by him. In the words of Luke’s Gospel: ‘But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.’


‘How does one perceive the Word’s beauty?’, asks David Dawson, ‘Where is it found?’ The Word is the image of the God who creates, and for Origen, it is to the creations beauty the realm of matter and the body that one must look to discern the beauty of the Word:

For this Word ‘is the image’ and splendour ‘of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation, in whom were all things created that are in heaven and on earth, seen and unseen alike.’ If, then, a man can so extend his thinking as to ponder and consider the beauty and the grace of all the things that have been created in the Word, the very charm of them will so smite him, the grandeur of their brightness will so pierce him as with a ‘chosen dart’ as says the prophet that he will suffer from the dart Himself a saving wound, and will be kindled with the blessed fire of His love. ( Comm. Cant. , prologue 2)

David Ford’s theology is marked by its awestruck and delighted appreciation of the beauty of the Word, in Scripture and in the world. This is a gift and an inspiration to theology and has certainly been an inspiration to my own exercise in scriptural imagination just undertaken. So, in concluding, let it be said that his theology is establishing ‘good ground’ for the renewed reception of the Word by scholars and churchgoers alike, as he challenges us (just as he challenged the Lambeth Conference in 1998) to ‘hold on to [the Bible] and, like Jacob, gain a blessing through our wrestling.’ It is in characteristically (and invitingly) interrogative mode that he made his final plea:

Will [we] really inhabit scripture […]? Will our language have something of the intensity and vitality of the Bible? Above all, will we find in scripture the authoritative exposure of the deepest reality of our world, and in God and the blessing of God the deepest truth of our history and of ourselves?


[1] Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London: DLT, 2004), p.56.

[2] See Ben Quash, “Von Balthasar and the Dialogue with Karl Barth” in New Blackfriars 79:923 (1998), p.54.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, lang=EN-GB style=’font-family:Garamond;mso-ansi-language: EN-GB’>”Imagining the World Scripture Imagines” in Modern Theology 14:2 (1998). lang=EN-GB style=’mso-ansi-language:EN-GB’>

[4] Johnson 1998, p.167.

[5] Johnson 1998, p.168.

[6] Johnson 1998, p.169.

[7] Johnson 1998, p.174.

[8] Johnson 1998, p.174.

[9] ‘Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts . . .’

[10] ‘They on the rock are they, which . . . for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.’

[11] ‘And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.’

Title Page | Archive
© 2008, Society for Scriptural Reasoning