Tag Archives: interpretation of scripture

Review of Reading With The Grain of Scripture by Richard B. Hays

READING WITH THE GRAIN OF SCRIPTURE, by Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. 467pp. $55.00

Richard B. Hays is a phenomenal interpreter of scriptures and a provocative thinker whose writing and teaching over the past thirty-five years demonstrate a deep passion for a close and careful reading of scripture. Professor Hays’ writing has broken new ground and unearthed often overlooked treasures for decades and his persistent and careful work has helped reshape the discipline of biblical studies. This collection of essays which span a wide range of topics from the past twenty-five years of his writing and speaking, collected after his retirement from Duke Divinity School, reflect the efforts of the author who in his own words has:

“For the past forty years I have been seeking to learn how to read closely and faithfully the testimonies of the early authors who wrote about these world-shaking events. The essays gathered here are the fruit of my effort to listen carefully to their testimony-bearing texts.” (2)

The collection covers topics including: interpretation of scripture, dialogues between Hays’ canonical approach to Jesus and the quest for the historical Jesus, the writings of the apostle Paul and their theological importance to our faith, and how the New Testament might shape the theology of its hearers. Hays lists six unifying themes among the diverse articles which make up the collection:

  1. The importance of narrative as the “glue” that holds the Bible together.
  2. The retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old Testament and the New.
  3. The centrality of the resurrection of Jesus.
  4. The hope for new creation and God’s eschatological transformation of the world.
  5. The importance of standing in trust and humility before the text.
  6. The importance of reading Scripture within and for the community of faith: the ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. (3)

Richard B. Hays’ career began looking at the apostle Paul’s writing through both a narrative and as an interpreter of Israel’s scriptures. His classic works The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 and Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul began his career of illuminating the importance of narrative and refining his retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old and New Testament. For those who have followed Hay’s writing through the years, many familiar themes will emerge in these essays on interpretation including the narrative and figural coherence mentioned above as well as the importance of reading from the perspective of faith using what Hays’ has coined a “hermeneutic of trust” and the centrality of the resurrection for understanding the scriptures.

Hays’ essays in the historical Jesus engage a diverse set of dialogue partners, from the Jesus Seminar to Joseph Ratzinger and N.T. Wright and concludes with his own modest sketch of what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth. Hays evaluation of the Jesus presented by the Jesus Seminar is summarized when he states:

Does the passive, politically correct, laconic sage who speaks in the red type of The Five Gospels have the capacity to remake our imaginative world and provde a new fiction within which millions might find meaning for their lives? Surely not. (102)

While Hays’ views their method of this entrepreneurial scholarship which provides easy sound bites is decidedly negative and their arrival at a non-Jewish Jesus is “one particularly pernicious side effect of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology.” (99) His response to N. T. Wright is far more favorable as they have been dialogue partners in New Testament scholarship for decades, but even in a paper where he appreciatively but critically engages the work of N. T. Wright he can bring his critical insights to refine and improve the work of his colleague and friend. His engagement with Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth can demonstrate both respect for the author and his perspective while pointing out that most of Ratzinger’s dialogue partners are scholars of a previous generation and that much of New Testament scholarship has revised its methods and opinions as well as highlighting Ratzinger’s “pervasive tendency to treat the texts as transparent to the historical facts about Jesus.” (128) Hays’ conclusion of this section with his own modest proposal on what can be known about Jesus illustrates his careful approach which seeks coherence with first century Judaism, some relation of continuity with the church that would come after Jesus, a narrative that can explain both the emergence of the church as well as the crucifixion and which aims to include within its description of the canonical gospels including, as much as possible, John’s gospel.

Continuing his long career engaging with Paul’s writings continues with essays delivered at various times dealing with major topics of Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Israel as well as his engagement with Stanley Stower’s A Rereading of Romans and engaging the relationship between the Pauline letters and Acts. Hays’ essay on Paul’s Christology is constructed around narrative identity of Jesus presented in the letters of Paul from Christ’s preexisting glory to his cruciform abasement, transformative exaltation and finally will conclude with Christ’s eschatological consummation. Hays’ brief examination of Paul’s narrative soteriology focuses on two texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28 and Romans 5:6-11 in response to Francis Watson claim the Paul’s is essentially a non-narratable vertical incursion of God’s grace. (178) The essay on the apocalyptic reviews themes in Galatians which highlight Paul’s insistence on divine initiative to bring about the conclusion of the present evil age and the genesis of the new creation. Hays returns to Romans to examine how Paul envisions the Spirit of God which gives life, leads God’s adopted children and groans and intercedes for us. His dialogue with Stanley Stowers Rereading of Romans and N.T. Wright’s reading of Romans 11: 25-27 in Paul and the Faithfulness of God to argue that Paul’s gospel is for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles. The final article in this section demonstrates some overlaps between Luke and Paul in explicit citations of the Old Testament to begin seeking an intertextual common ground of theological themes and convictions shared by Paul and Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s gospel in Acts.

The final section on New Testament theology brings together a diverse set of articles dealing with the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Revelation, examination on the idea of covenant in the book of Hebrews, and engagement with the Rudolf Bultmann’s reduction of Pauline theology to anthropology in his classic Theology of the New Testament, a lecture on what Christian theology could offer the world of law, an essay examining the Holy Spirit in light of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Nicene Creed, and an essay which examines various perspectives on eschatology to discern how Christians may continue to engage the in light of the eschatological witness of the New Testament. The conclusion lifts up Hays’ recommended hermeneutic of trust, rather than the dominant hermeneutic of suspicion that is prevalent in biblical studies.

This collection of essays is a gift to the broader church after years of labor. I have read everything I could find of Professor Hays for the past sixteen years of my ministry and every piece is tightly written and brings new insights into whatever text or topic he presents. If you have followed Richard B. Hays work this work will bring forward both familiar themes and engagement with topics that may not have figured as strongly in his other works. For those unfamiliar with Hays’ work these essays could form an entryway into the major themes of his thought and writing. Like all of his previous works it will force you to think critically and enrich your appreciation of the treasures, new and old, that can be brought out by a faithful student of the scriptures.

Revelation’s Interpretation Through Time

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw any strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”(Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier, 2012, p. 11) Particularly in the last couple hundred years we have seen some strange creatures emerge as interpreters of Revelation. Certain groups within Christianity, who are looking for certainty and answers, have found the book of Revelation as an irresistible puzzle to decode as they attempt to find a way to predict the future. Yet, the church has always puzzled with how to use the book of Revelation. While its original readers would have heard this as a text in a way that helped make sense of their position as a small minority in a hostile empire the position of the church in society would continue change. How does a church which eventually would become the religion of the land deal with these odd visions? Sometimes Revelation would be virtually ignored within the larger canon of the scriptures, while at other times it would capture the imagination of writers, interpreters, and artists.

John, the stated author of Revelation, probably writes somewhere between the year 80 and 100. The book of Revelation, as it is originally written, is a sharp challenge to the claims made by the Roman empire. As Christianity strove for recognition within the Roman empire Christian apologists tended to distance the anti-imperial rhetoric from the way they discussed Revelation. Revelation’s images would be used by early witnesses of the western church, like Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, in their apologetics to attempt to show how Christianity was related to Judaism. Ireneaus in his conflict with Marcion used the image of the four beasts around the throne to argue why there should be four gospels in contrast to Marcion who wanted only an edited version of Luke’s gospel along with Paul’s letters. In the eastern church the book of Revelation received even less usage. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) showed that the Revelation and the Gospel of John could not have been written by the same person due to literary form, writing style, and theological content. The church historian Eusebius (d. 339) listed Revelation as one of the recognized books but acknowledged that some grouped it with the rejected writings. The first known commentary on Revelation wasn’t written until the end of the second century by Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304) and this work would inform many future writings on Revelation. As Craig Koester can relate on this commentary, “In his view, the vision of the Lamb breaking the seals on God’s scroll shows that Christ reveals the meaning of Scripture through his death and resurrection (In Apoc. 1.4; 4.1-5:3; Huber, “Aspekte”). Like many modern interpreters, Victorinus observed that the beast has traits of the Roman emperors, especially Nero.” (Koester, 2014, p. 33)

In the time after the edict of Milan (313), which made Christianity tolerated throughout the Roman empire, the church had a new struggle: to define the faith. Within this struggle to articulate how they would talk about who Jesus was and how Jesus was related to God images from Revelation would continue to play their role along with the gospels and letters of Paul. Particularly the identity of Christ as the Alpha and the Omega would become decisive for the way the church would talk about Jesus in the time after the council of Nicea (325). In this time artwork of Christ victory and reign over the world would begin to integrate Revelation motifs. Yet, the Roman empire itself would be challenged by both internal and external forces and as Christianity continued to exist in this world Revelation would provide some of the theologians of the church a lens to view the world. St. Augustine’s adapted a reading of Revelation (from Tyconius) which saw a conflict between the city of God and the city of the world: interpreting both the present age but also the internal spiritual struggle between the powers of sin and grace in the life of the believer. St. Jerome, best known for his translation of the bible into Latin, created his own spiritualistic reading of Revelation where separating oneself from Babylon means resisting sin, but it may also involve retreating to a monastic lifestyle.

The Medieval Period (500-1000) would see Rome’s empire divided: North Africa would be captured by Islamic forces, Germanic kingdoms would rise in the west and the Byzantine empire would rise in the east. It was a time of plagues and instability, of invasions by Vikings from the north and Magyars from the Balkans. During this time of instability the church continued to grow in power and influence. There would be frequent calls for reform of the church but frequently these reforms would be resisted by the church’s leadership. This resistance made some turn Revelation’s vision of Babylon into a critique of the papacy—which would continue into the sixteenth century and beyond. In the late Medieval period, Joachim of Fiore’s (d. 1202) mystical view of history where there were three ages (the age of the Father, the age of the Son and the age of the Spirit) reawakened an interest in the thought of Revelation. He believed that history was progressing towards the age of the Spirit and reforming pope might lead the way into that age. In his view the seven heads of the dragon symbolized the persecutors of the church from Herod and Nero to the Muslim warrior Saladin in his own time.

The age of reform in the sixteenth century would bring about very different views about the book of Revelation. Erasmus (d. 1536) reopened the question about the status of Revelation, and Revelation held little attraction for his piety centered on the imitation of Christ. Luther (d. 1546) also questioned the place of Revelation, especially since in his view, “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” (LW 35: 399) Yet, even as Revelation would be added at the end of the New Testament with Hebrews, James, and Jude (the other books Luther questioned) and be unnumbered we also see within the artists of Luther’s time the capturing of Revelation’s images. For example, Revelation was the only book in Luther’s German NT that was fully illustrated by woodcuts from Lucas Cranach and Philip Nicolai (d. 1608) used images from Revelation to respond to an outbreak of plague that took thousands of lives by writing “Wachet Auf,” or “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”

Although Zwingli also believed that Revelation was not a biblical book and it would be the only book in the New Testament that Calvin would not write a commentary on, the reformed church’s theological belief in an orderly history allowed many later writers to see Revelation as a part of God’s prophetic outlying of how history would unfold. In the seventeenth century figures like John Napier, Joseph Mede and even Isaac Newton became fascinated with using mathematics to attempt to decode the imagery of Revelation. They desired to see order even within the book of Revelation and that showed God’s overarching providence. The anabaptist movement was also heavily influenced by Revelation. In 1525 Thomas Müntzer would call for the common people to take up arms as instruments of the four horsemen bringing the wrath of God to the world. Müntzer’s rebellion would be dealt with brutally by the armies of the authorities. Other anabaptist communities would form communities of purity and nonviolence interpreting the book as an image of the church’s spiritual life on earth.

Music continued to be a place where the images of Revelation would resonate. Handel’s Messiah, focused on the hopeful aspects of Revelation’s imagery and worship. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862 to advocate for the abolition of slavery and turned these images to rally support for the Northern war effort. Robert Lowery would use the image of the river at the end of Revelation for consolation in “Shall We Gather at the River.” Revelation would figure prominently in African American worship of the time and several songs, perhaps most famously, “When the Saints Go Marching In” utilize imagery from Revelation.

Futuristic interpretations begin to arise in the 1800s particularly in England and the United States. When the French Revolution brought in an era of terror and conquest rather that hope and peace, interpreters began to lose the optimism that reason would bring us into God’s kingdom and began to look for a sudden, cataclysmic return of Christ. In the United States, William Miller (d. 1849), whose theological heritage would lead to the Seventh Day Adventists, attempted to predict from Daniel and Revelation when Christ would return. When October 22, 1844, his predicted date, passed he continued to look for mistakes in his calculations and when he died in 1849 others would continue this work. One of the most popular interpretive frameworks in the United States is Dispensationalism which goes back to Nelson Darby (d. 1882) and was brought in popular form to the United States by Cyrus Scofield (d. 1921) in his Scofield Reference Bible. Two markers of this interpretation are that Revelation 4-22 prophesied times yet to come, rather than referring to events that have happened, and that the faithful church would be raptured (removed) prior to the seven years of tribulation on earth. This theology would be put into narrative form in the Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Revelation has proved illusive to being locked into a single interpretation, and perhaps that is a part of why it resonates. Its images are powerful and poetic, and particularly for the artists and musicians of the church Revelation has provided some fertile ground. There are interpretations, like Dispensationalism, which I don’t find particularly helpful and do not make sense from the perspective of a first century audience or for the way I read scripture. As an heir of Luther’s tradition, I can understand his hesitance in assigning Revelation a place within the canon alongside the gospels and Paul’s letters, and yet I am convinced that read alongside these writings we can hear Revelation as a witness to Christ. My goal is to attempt for a reading of Revelation that can be faithful to its original intent but also continue to speak to the church in its context. I am humble enough to realize that I am a part of the long history of readers attempting to make sense of this book and yet I do believe that we need, in a time where Revelation’s imagery is all around us in popular culture. I am heavily indebted to Craig Koester for the above discussion on the history of interpretation and you can find a much fuller witness to the history of interpretation in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 29-64)

 

Violence and the Bible

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

If you spend much time with scripture you have to come to some sense of resolution about how you will approach the question of violence within the Bible. If you are following what I am writing about Esther, we are entering a portion where when you take seriously the violence that is being talked about, which I will do, it should force you to ask some really difficult questions.

Probably the simplest answer that many people come to is to simply ignore it.  The bible like so much of the media we consume simply assumes violence is a part of life. In the book of Esther the violence is never ascribed to God or God’s will, it is simply a result of the way things are and the characters in the book work and live out of the societies assumption towards violence and revenge.  At other times the violence is directly attributed to God’s will, for example this is the prophet Samuel speaking to King Saul to get him to go and wipe out the Amalekites:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. 1 Samuel 15: 2-3

I choose this one because it may have some relevance to the story of Esther since the villan in the story is an Agagite (King Agag is the one Saul did not kill, but Samuel the prophet did and perhaps some think this is the cause of the animosity). But this is one of many throughout the Old Testament where God seems to tell the people in effect ‘wipe them out, all of them.’ At other times God is behind the violent action, whether in the plagues in Egypt or even God being behind the armies of Assyria and Babylon taking the people into exile. Yet on the other hand Jesus effectively argues for non-violent lifestyle, and throughout much of the Old Testament, particularly in the prophets, we see a hope for a vision of peace and harmony where swords are turned into plowshears and nations no longer train for war. The contrast was such that one of the earliest heresies in the church, Marcionism, argued that there were two gods, the New Testament God of Jesus and the Old Testament demiurge who was the violent and evil creator (more about Marcion in the Place of Authority 2-3: The Early Church’s Identity Problem).

At some level, I have had to reconcile how I approach this issue because within it rests a broader question on how we approach and value scripture:

An approach, but not one I advocate, followed by many conservative Christians is to fully embrace the picture of the violent God, hence God’s wrath and holiness become central parts of their theology. Within this approach violence may have a divine sanction, especially towards the other. This was the way of thinking that was operative during the crusades or the colonization of the Americas where the options presented were convert or die. This is in my opinion a very dangerous ideology and ripe for abuse in many ways, where the other is de-humanized and can be eliminated as offensive to God. Within this theology the spokesman (and it typically is a man-although not always) gets to determine what is holy and what is profane and as a mouthpiece of their god. Much violence, abuse, and destruction has been sanctioned by advocates of this theology and while one can make a biblical justification for it-it goes completely against the vision of Christianity I practice.

Another approach which tries to engage the question faithfully, is represented by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who states God is in recovery from violence. Brueggemann attempts to take the Old Testament witness very seriously as a whole and is a phenomenal interpreter of texts and theologian, yet this is still not the approach I would advocate. You can see Brueggemann talk about this way of thinking here.

As a Lutheran pastor there are several pieces of my tradition that form my approach to this question:

  1. Ultimately as a Lutheran I am focused on God’s action of coming down in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Christ, as the lens through which the rest of scripture is viewed. Jesus words and ministry interpret and critique the rest of scripture, and so it is here that I look to find what God is like.
  2. Lutheran interpretation of scripture has always advocated for ‘a cannon within the cannon’ which is a fancy way of saying not all scripture has equal weight or value. As I mentioned a couple times going through Esther, Martin Luther didn’t like Esther (or James or Revelation for that matter) because what was important was what reveals Christ.
  3. Finally from a Lutheran perspective God is ultimately a gracious God and so while I would not go the direction of Marcion and eliminate the Old Testament, rather I read the bible back and forth, and even in the times of darkness and violence to ask the question of ‘where is the God of love in the midst of this’ and there may be parts where we say ‘the God of love does not seem to be in this’ at least at this point as we read, but sometime later we may see something different.

The scriptures are in dialogue with each other and are not one unified voice, but rather a chorus of different voice trying to point to God. I attempt to take scripture very seriously, but there will be times when I struggle against a certain piece (as I will with the ninth chapter of Esther) because it seems to go against the grain of the ultimate direction of where scripture is hearing, it may be out of tune with the rest of the chorus. Yet my own voice is just one voice within the larger chorus of voices trying to wrestle with the God scripture tries to point us to. The Old Testament in particular deals with the parts of life that we may not think God has much part of, yet it puts the place of God right in the middle of the messiness of life (violence, broken families, living in exile and many other situations). I think Ellen Davis does a very nice job talking about this here and I would like to think my way is similar to hers. Sometimes it means we will wrestle with scriptures and the pictures of God  it paints, but to me that is a part of our vocation as the people of God.

The perfectionist part of me struggles with putting out such a rough reflection, and I may come back and do some more work on this at another point, but I am also trying to put limits to how long I spend on any one project.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com