A Figural World

In the beginning was the Word… – John 1:1

This is one of the most important passages in the Bible. John begins his gospel by making a reference to Genesis 1:1. He was not just saying in the beginning God spoke. He was saying the Word is the beginning of all things. The entire passage is so pregnant with meaning but the idea of the Logos is crucial to it. What is the Logos? What at all is a word?

Billions and billions of words are spoken and heard, written and read, every single day. How many people however stop to think what a word is? A word is not just the expression of a thought. Placing the Logos at the beginning means words transcend whatever form of expression it might take. Expressing a thought implies communication but if the Logos was there from the beginning who was he talking to? As far as the Bible is concerned there is no distinction between a word and thought. You say what you think but words are not only what you say.

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. – Hebrews 11:3 NKJ

We believe that God by his word framed the ages. Words are actually the frame of reference of reality through which we access truth and meaning.

Language is a particular mode of expression within a human society. Language is embedded into every human culture. That means words themselves transcend human society and culture. Humans have the innate capacity to recognise words because they refer to existential realities. Words inform and frame our perception of what is. They are capable of conveying meaning because they are intrinsic to meaning. As much as cells are the fundamental units of biological life there can be no meaning without words. We have a meaningful creation because it has a purposeful creator. Since words carry meaning and purpose it had to precede creation. The Word had to be with God the creator. As words define our existence as people so does the Creator define all existence. Not only was the Word with God, the Word was God.

The Logos of God transcends the pages of the Bible. The Logos is how God defines himself. It is God’s perception of himself which he then communicates to us through the scriptures. We behave according to our perceptions. We act according to how we see ourselves. God himself could not be God if he didn’t think he was God. Before the first word was uttered the Logos meant God. The first ever word was God himself. Once the most important being in all existence was defined then every other thing could have definition, meaning and purpose. I am not saying God realised at some point in the eternal past that he was God. God has always known who he is. There has never been a point that God has not known who he is. If God was to forget who he is then all reality would collapse. The Word has to be God.

The Eternal Word is a person. Words are of importance to personal beings. Truth is also a matter of interest to persons. Truth according to its very nature is propositional so it requires words. You never see animals convening to ascertain the truth about something. In the scriptures the Word and the Truth come beautifully together in the Gospel, the Word of Truth. The Gospel is a cross cultural message to all the nations of the world. If culture, according to sociologist Daniel Bell, is the attempt to find a set of coherent answers to the existential issues of life the Gospel, the Word of Truth, is of paramount importance.

Humans since the beginning have always recognized reality is not only made up of the tangible but also the intangible. Even if they deny one they would have to first assume it. Meaning for example is real but it cannot be touched. According to the Bible we co-inhabit created space with myriads of spiritual beings. How do we reconcile these spiritual realities with our mundane human experiences? In the scriptures we find a coherent answer. How we interpret the Word of God must form the basis of how we make sense of such existential realities.

Prof Richard B. Hays is New Testament scholar at Duke University. One of his major areas is how the Old Testament is used in the New Testament. He advocates for a figural reading of the Bible. This is a more symbolic and figurative interpretation within the biblical text. Figural is a postmodern term which means interpreting things more according to figures and symbols rather than reason and logic. It is what you would use to appreciate artistic work instead of logic. I think we are meant to understand the cosmos figurally.

Humans have an innate propensity to appreciate the world in terms of form and order, symbols and meaning, a figural perception of the cosmos. We are not dealing here with abstractions like Plato’s theory of forms. The Logos is a real being and not an abstract or impersonal symbol. The world is therefore made up of “real figures” defined by the Logos.

We exist because God exists. The Logos of God shapes the contours of existence. This means the  characteristics of the Logos can be found in creation too. God spoke all things into being so words do not only define real things but are characteristic of them. The cosmos, both material and immaterial aspects, is made up of real word-figures. The Logos is then like the code or DNA of all existence.

After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. – Revelation 4:1-2 ESV

Spiritual realities, like the one John saw in Revelation, are figural in nature. Unlike concrete material reality which is more rigid spiritual realities are far more liberal. In the case of John a portal was open to him to see another dimension. He was given a vision of what was going on behind the scenes. (Windows in our homes do not work like that and they certainly do not appear out of thin air!) Spiritual realities are often fantastical in nature but they are no less real. When a person has a revelatory experience of some kind certain truths are communicated using things which are outside or even counter intuitive to regular experience. We do the same thing in literature when we use various literary tropes. It is no wonder that dreams and visions are called the language of God. In many ways they are quite akin to popular graphic art.

God is an immeasurably intelligent being. He is not only capable of reasoning mechanically as in the sciences but in multiple forms and dimensions. He is not just a rational being but a creative one. Now when science descends to the quantum level it has to think differently because the rules of the macro world do not apply there. A lot of modern research in physics is geared towards reconciling these two pictures of physical space. Spiritual realities often seem strange and mysterious but the scriptures reconcile it with physical realities. When God by his Spirit raised Jesus bodily from dead, physical and spiritual realities collided to form a new creation. All dimensions of created space cohere in Jesus the Messiah, the incarnate Logos of God.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17 ESV

Essentially, a figural world is worldview term. It is how we weave our worldview narratives into the existential realities we encounter, endowing the world around is with meaning and purpose. In the scriptures it is God’s word that provides the story of reality making it intelligible.

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