Reviews of

Richard Hays, “Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics”

In Edinburgh, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Gunning Lectures, HB/OT, Hermeneutics, Intertextuality, John, Kerry Lee, Luke-Acts, Matthew, New Testament, NT Theology, Richard HAYS, Scripture on February 8, 2012 at 10:41 am

A report on a paper given by Richard Hays (Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University in Durham, NC), 26 January 2012. Professor Hays is delivering this year’s Gunning Lectures at New College, University of Edinburgh, on the topic “Israel’s Scripture Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers.” I should note that Professor Hays has let me know that he is preparing a book for publication based upon these Gunning lectures.

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The last of Richard Hays’ lectures in the 2012 Gunning series was part overview of the previous four lectures and part return to and exploration of the somewhat troubling assertion he made in his first lecture that modern hermeneutics (speaking, for the most part, in terms of the Christian church’s life and teaching) could and perhaps should imitate that of the Gospel writers. This assertion he expounded through nine proposals.

Rather than reporting on all of the first half of Hays’ lecture, let me refer the reader to the reports already posted on Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. However, there were a few comments in this half of the lecture which were new and noteworthy. First, looking at the four Gospels as a whole, Hays’ stresses the uniqueness of each writer’s hermeneutical strategy, appealing to the image of musical polyphony to clarify how he envisages the value of both similarities and differences among the Gospels. The fact that four texts with such different methods of scriptural interpretation were canonised creates a de facto canonisation of a principle of diversity where lines of emphasis shift in time and space, according to the needs and contexts of individual writers and, presumably, Christian communities. While Hays considers Luke’s approach to offer the most adequate load-bearing framework for the modern church, he considers Mark’s to be the most theologically generative in a post-modern context.

Next Hays returns to the question of what a hermeneutic for the modern church that was shaped by the methods of the Gospel writers would look like. He offers nine principles:

  1. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic depends upon a reader who inhabits a world shaped by scripture. Scripture is not just a repository of ancient writings with true ideas, but it tells a compelling story. The emphasis is on large story-arcs, less on individual texts.
  2. Reading is not undifferentiated. Each Gospel author seems to operate with a de facto canon within the canon. In particular, one sees a preference for the Torah, Isaiah, and the Psalms, though each author gives a slightly different set of emphases. Generally, the emphasis is not even given to whole books, but particular passages (Daniel 7, for example). The Gospel authors appear to be conscious of this aspect of their writing (Matthew’s emphasis on Hosea 6:6, for example).
  3. In light of the fact that most of the citations in the Gospels (with a few exceptions) are derived from the Septuagint, Hays suggests that it, rather than the Masoretic Hebrew text, may be the more appropriate version of the Old Testament for Christian Scripture.
  4. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic reads backwards. In other words, it reads scripture in light of the resurrection, and this requires reconfiguration.
  5. Reading for figuration. By this idea, Hays appears to be suggesting that “figuration” (which is indistinguishable in most respects from allegory in Hays’ usage) is an acceptable hermeneutical method for modern readers (we must assume that he is referring to Christian readers, inasmuch as reading strategy depends largely on what questions one is trying to ask of a text, and allegory cannot answer, for example, historical questions addressed to a text).
  6. Through scriptural linkages, all four Gospel writers are identifying Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel, forcing readers to rethink what they mean by the word “God.”
  7. The Gospels are open-ended stories. All four stories are unfinished and invite the reader into an ongoing process of understanding and proclamation.
  8. Scripture is rightly to be read in the counter-cultural communities which are the implied audience of the Gospels.
  9. One God: the Shema and the Gospels. There is a consistent presupposition that the God of the Old Testament is living and active. Only on this ground can the hermeneutics Hays has suggested be accepted; that is, only because God is the primary active agent in the story. Apart from the truth of that claim, any talk of the unity of Old Testament and the New Testament is nonsense.

Some of these principles can be accepted by both Church and Academy with hardly any disagreement, particularly those principles regarding the implied audience of the Christian Bible (1, 8). Obviously, one needs to understand the likely presuppositions of the implied reader in order to more and more intelligently read the text. Few would disagree with this (other than those who see meaning being created exclusively in the reader, but this is a minority position). Furthermore, as uncomfortable as principle 2 might make those in the Church, it is clear that New Testament writers favoured certain texts above others in practice. The Christian Church has itself done this with the New Testament (albeit in different ways – the Western Church has generally favoured Pauline writings above Johannine writings and the Epistle of James, for instance).

Principle 6 is, in my opinion, the single most significant contribution Hays has made to the Academic (and, to a lesser extent, faith-based) study of the Gospels. He has made a compelling argument that all four Gospel writers, not just John, had a very high Christology, and this was done with skilful and intelligent (not to mention modern) hermeneutics. The burden of proof is now on those who would understand early Church Christology as an evolution to show that Hays’ readings of the Gospels do not demolish their position.

Acceptance of others of Hays’ principles depends on the identity of Hays’ own implied audience. If he is speaking to the Christian Church, and if the implied reading process reflects this, principles 4, 6, 7, and 10 make sense (perhaps also principle 5). But here I admit I am somewhat confused. I had been under the impression that part of Hays’ purpose was to bring the hermeneutics of the Academy and that of the Church into closer union, not split them further apart. But according to these nine principles, if in fact Hays’ implied audience is the Academy, the reading methods and questions of the Academy are to be subordinated to the believing community’s faith presuppositions. But this cannot be. The Academy asks questions of these texts which do not, at this point, find a home in the faith context, and this has as much to do with presuppositions about the nature of the texts (the concept of inspiration, for example) as anything. The faith community believes that it is appropriate to do certain things with texts which are inappropriate to an academic pursuit, that, in fact, these certain things are intended by their divine origin.

Principles 3, 4, and 5 are the most questionable. The use of the Septuagint as the Christian Old Testament presupposes quite a bit. First of all, it presupposes that there is such a thing as a “right” Old Testament that is recoverable, that one of the early text traditions of the Hebrew Bible is more … inspired, I suppose … than the others. There is now evidence that a Hebrew text tradition different from what became the Masoretic Text stands behind the Septuagint, so are Christians to accept the Hebrew behind the Septuagint, or the Greek translation? Furthermore, Hays himself admits that the NT use of the Septuagint is not universal. At times, the NT writers pick and choose among a variety of versions of OT texts, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, some of which we cannot identify with 100% accuracy.

Principle 4 risks subordinating OT texts to Christian understandings of NT texts (not even simply to the NT texts themselves). Even in a faith context one wonders at the wisdom of this strategy, at least as an exclusive hermeneutical strategy. The fact that a modern reader unconsciously brings foreign presuppositions to ancient texts creates an ever-present danger of suppressing certain features of those texts. The task of a skilful reader is to try, as much as possible, to align his or her presuppositions with those of the implied audience of a text. Scholars do consciously bring foreign presuppositions to texts in an effort to subvert that text and bring out its hidden features (feminist readings, Marxist readings, etc.), but this is to be never confused with understanding what the text itself is saying. Is Hays suggesting a kind of reader-oriented subversion of the Christian Bible, a “Christian” reading? In what way is this different from the way Christians have always read the Old Testament, and has not Old Testament scholarship been trying over the last 200 years or so, often in Christianity’s interest, to be doing precisely the opposite of this? The danger, which has long been recognised, of overtly Christian readings of the Old Testament is that 1) it assumes that Christians’ own self-understanding is not flawed, and 2) it risks suppressing rhetorical emphases of the Old Testament which do not match the sensibilities of more recent readers.

With regard to principle 5 and Hays’ use of the word “figuration,” I must again ask how this differs from traditional Christian interpretation of the Old Testament over the last 2000 years. Hays would make a distinction between allegory and figuration, but the distinction is extremely subtle and does not solve the problem of allegory, which is precisely that the validity of an allegory does not derive from its source material but from the creator of the allegory. Some ancient writers appear to have understood this, but others did not, and many Christian teachers over the centuries have not understood this. This principle, once again, in trying to unite modern and ancient hermeneutics inadvertently re-drives a sharp wedge between Church and Academy.

This is an unfortunately critical conclusion to a report on what were, in fact, some truly fascinating and important lectures on the Gospel-writers’ usages of Old Testament texts. Hays’ careful and intelligent study of a survey of citations in all four Gospels reveals that scholarship has been unduly dismissive of their hermeneutical strategies as composed primarily of isolated proof-texts. On the contrary, in different ways, Hays has shown, the Gospel writers took up the writings of the Old Testament in sometimes surprising but always careful and usually enduringly defensible ways. He has called into question the evolutionary theory of Christology which has been a consensus for generations in New Testament scholarship. While I remain unconvinced that the Gospels can teach modern believers and scholars everything about hermeneutics which Hays claims, nevertheless I have been delighted to discover that Mark’s and Luke’s use of the Old Testament is very compatible with the post-modern emphasis on story over against proposition as a bearer of truth. In some things, at least, the Gospels truly can teach modern audiences a thing or two about reading texts.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh

  1. […] haven’t caught up with the whole series yet, but there were some points in the review of the concluding lecture that particularly caught my attention. First, looking at the four Gospels as a whole, Hays’ […]

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  3. […] Richard Hays, “Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics” ( […]

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