The Ways of Figuration

The Ways of Figuration November 8, 2016

In his Apocalypse Commentary, Nicholas of Lyra pauses from his comments on Revelation 11:11 to describe the various ways a figure can figure. He starts from the reasonable premise that “a figure of another thing is necessarily something in itself, because what is nothing cannot figure or signify something.” And from this he develops the point that “a figure can be taken in three ways”: “In one way only as the thing in and of itself. In another way only as the figure of another. In the third way as the thing in itself and the figure of another” (132).

The triple figuration matches the medieval logic of res and sacramentum: The Eucharistic body of Christ is sacramentum tantum, the historical body is res et sacramentum, and the ecclesial body is res tantum. The structure of hermeneutical reasoning, in short, tracks with the structure of sacramental theology.

Nicholas offers one of many biblical examples to illustrate this threefold figuration, this “gift of the word.” 1 Kings 11:4 speaks of Solomon’s wives turning his heart to idols. This refers to Solomon only, and does not figure Christ. Psalm 72, however, speaks of a king who is blessed forever, enduring as long as the sun; this cannot refer to Solomon, but alludes to Solomon only insofar as he is a figure of Christ. In this case, “the literal sense refers only to Christ.” In 2 Samuel 7, however, the promise that Yahweh will be father to David’s son is literally a statement about Solomon and at the same time literally a promise of Christ. It refers “to Solomon himself and that he was a figure of Christ, because he was the son of God through the grace of adoption. . . . He was a figure of Christ, who is the son of God by nature, which sonship is more perfect” (132).

This last example is figurative in the third way, referring both to the thing itself and to the thing of which it is a figure. Nicholas describes this as a duplex sensus literalis, “referring to Solomon by reason of his adoptive sonship” while also “referring to Christ by reason of his natural sonship figured through this.”

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