Wednesday, 19 September 2007

R. Hays: Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis

I'm excited to a have my first copy of the newly developed Journal of Theological Interpretation (see blog reactions here and here). In the comments below a potential parallel was pointed out between Childs' hermeneutical presuppositions and the first article of the journal by Hays (pp.5-21). I've given it a read and have decided that Hays' definition of what constitutes theological exegesis would be palatable to Childs. Like Childs he believes that we come to the text with a particular angle of vision, which can be inhibited or enlightened depending on our presuppositions. As Hays says,

"what we ordinarily take to be "real" is in fact a distorted picture of the world, and it is only the revelatory power of God's word that casts a true light on the landscape of human experience and, at the same time, heals our capacity to see" (p.6).

This is a non-foundationalist approach in that it recognises the central role of community in forming us as interpreters and thus seeks to locate interpretation of the Bible within the broader context of church tradition. I'll limit my review to what Hays considers 12 identifying marks of "biblical interpretation oriented to the knowledge of God":
  1. Theological exegesis is a practice of and for the church. These texts have been passed onto us by the church's tradition as the distinctive and irreplaceable testimony to events in which God has acted for our salvation. As such the are to be regarded at the outset as Scripture, not merely as a collection of ancient writings whose content is of historical interest. These texts are to be normative for the community.
  2. Theological exegesis is self-involving discourse. Interpreters themselves are addressed and claimed by the word of God that is spoken in the text, and we are answerable to that word. As a result theological exegesis will frequently contain pronouns in the first and second person. Such readings are closely interwoven with worship.
  3. At the same time, historical study is internal to the practice of theological exegesis. The reasons for this are theological: God has created the material world, and God has acted for the redemption of that world through the incarnation of the Son in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
  4. Theological exegesis attends to the literary wholeness of the individual scriptural witnesses. The Bible must be read neither as an anthology of disconnected theological sound bites nor, on the other hand, as a single undifferentiated story. Rather, the Bible contains a chorus of different voices, and the distinctive integrity of each part in the chorus is essential to its polyphonic performance (cf. the fourfold Gospels).
  5. The fifth point is the dialectical converse of the previous one: theological exegesis can never be content only to describe the theological perspectives of the individual biblical authors; instead, it always presses forward to the synthetic question of canonical coherence. We must seek the big picture, asking how any particular text fits into the larger biblical story of God's gracious action.
  6. Theological exegesis does not focus chiefly on the hypothetical history behind the biblical texts, nor does it attend primarily to the meaning of texts as self-contained works of literature; rather, it focuses on these texts as testimony. This means we need to learn to stand where these witnesses stand and look where they point in order to learn to see as they see. In this way we will find our vision trained anew.
  7. The language of theological exegesis is intratextual in character, i.e we should remain close to the primary language of the witnesses rather than moving away from the particularity of the biblical testimony to a language of second-order abstraction that seeks to "translate" the biblical imagery into some other conceptual register.
  8. Theological exegesis, insofar as it stays close to the language and conceptions of the NT witnesses, will find itself drawn into the Bible's complex web of intertextuality. This includes citations, allusions as well as typological correspondences between the testaments.
  9. Theological exegesis thereby is committed to the discovery and exposition of multiple senses in biblical texts. OT texts, when read in relation to Jesus, take on new resonances.
  10. Learning to read the texts with the eyes of faith is a skill for which we are trained by the Christian tradition. Consequently, we can never approach the Bible as if we were the first ones to read it - or the first to read it appropriately. Theological exegesis will find hermeneutical aid, not hindrance, in the church's doctrinal traditions.
  11. Theological exegesis, however, goes beyond repeating traditional interpretations; rather, instructed by the example of traditional readings, theological interpreters will produce fresh readings that encounter the texts anew with eyes of faith and see the ways that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to the churches through the same ancient texts that the tradition has handed on to us.
  12. Finally, we must always remember that we are not speaking about our own clever readings and constructions of the text but, rather, of the way that God, working through the text, is reshaping us (cf. Hebrews 4:12). This means that theological exegesis must always be done from a posture of prayer and humility before the word.

Despite the many points of commonality with Childs' approach, there is still room for qualification (especially the overly NT emphasis of point 8!). Hays goes on to give a case study in relation to the Christology of Luke 7:18-23. I have to say, I find it hard to see the difference between his exegesis and that of a more talented historical-critic in tune of intertextual issues and the implications of the text for the bigger picture. For an example of theological exegesis which more seriously works with the two testamental nature of the Bible, I recommend Seitz's essay "Isaiah in New Testament, Lectionary, Pulpit" (1998:213-228).

Nevertheless, this is promising stuff and will definitely be a reference point for work to come.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm in general agreement, and I appreciate the wisdom contained in the interaction of the points taken together.

Four and five call for some comment. Although I appreciate that both points are valid, I think every interpreter leans in one direction or the other. I'm with Brueggemann, who stresses the multivocal witness of scripture and, indeed, sees it as beneficial. Childs, on the other hand, reputedly strives to interpret the biblical texts in such a way as to achieve coherence between them.

Regarding the point about staying close to biblical language instead of theological abstractions — would Hayes apply that principle to the Trinity?

Phil Sumpter said...


having posted Hays' 12 'characteristics' I'll come back to your comments from yesterday here. “Seeking to define "theological exegesis" by roping off certain gestures as inappropriate” is indeed what both Hays and Childs try to do. In the light of the list, it would be inappropriate: 1) to consider the texts as dead documents from the past with no normative implications for us today; 2) for the interpreter to distance himself from the claims of the text in order remain 'untouched' and thus 'dispassionate'; 3) to treat the text as a repository of abstract propositional or spiritual truths; 4) to break the text down into various sources or disjunctive voices and leave it at that; 5) to avoid the implications of hearing the various voices from the whole canon in symphony (or not); 6) to treat these texts as 'sources' for historical reconstruction, rather than as a guide to living (similar to point one: in my post from yesterday scripture and testimony/witness are related terms); 7) to privilege alien concepts when translating the text into our categories; 8) to ignore the greater literary/canonical context in terms of which the authors operated (this is one definition of the complex concept of 'intertextuality'); 9) to operate solely with a 'historical-grammatical' definition of meaning; 10) to shed our exegetical heritage as unwanted baggage; 11) to think that once we've figure out the meaning of a text that' it, i.e. it can no longer speak in fresh ways to changing contexts; 12) to think that genuine theological interpretation is a matter of human imaginative construal rather then a response to a theocentric force (to use Childs' language when criticising Brueggemann).
Yes, it is clear that reading the text as a Christian includes a whole host of negative judgements. That is the whole point of the idea of 'interpretation within boundaries', it's the idea behind the construction of a canon ('rule') in the first place. But from what you've said (“there's a place for telling *how* to do it”) I would think that you agree with me. How do you feel about the individual points?

As for defining “theological interpretation” itself, Hays is explicit that these 12 points are his personal attempt to give shape to something that may be hard to pin down. As he says, it is rather like pornography: “we do not know how to define it, but we know it when we see it” (p.11).

You say that we cannot take over the NT's view of the OT as our own, as the NT kerygma spoils that option for us. Interesting; that is exactly Childs' criticism of Hays, who says we should use the NT as a lens through which to read the Old (cf. Hays' book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989). This means that the Old loses its own voice and becomes a puppet of what the New wants say about it (a common 'sin' commited by most in the NT guild who want to do “theological exegesis”). Such a move is 1) historically unacceptable because it changes the voice of the original witness; 2) theologically unacceptable because it confuses a word of promise with that of fulfilment; 3) hermeneutically in error for is assumes that “every time-conditioned feature of the NT can be used as a warrant for its continued use without properly understanding the theological relation of its authority to its function as kerygmatic witness” (Childs, 1992: 84, 5).
I think we differ on just what the kerygmatic narrative is, which has implications for the relation of witness to witnessed-to.

P.S. Scott responded to you on the 'alethiology' post.


good to hear from you again. Your comments about Brueggemann and Childs represent a sticking point between them. I'm glad to have a Brueggemann-fan here, as not only is he interesting, but I also went through a relatively deep Brueggemann phase. I should probably go and have a look at him again when I have time.
Despite our talk here about 'theological exegesis', however, I think Brueggemann stands in a category of his own. He has certain central concerns that drive his whole approach and which come to dominate the way he construes 'theological reading'. This isn't wrong of course, for we all do it and it is in line with the teleological way most humans go about doing things. Though his concerns are valid and no doubt important from a pastoral point of view, I feel that for a properly Christian hermeneutic they are not sufficient. At some point I want to post on the differences between the two men, especially in terms of their different understanding of the 'ecclesial context' of interpretation.

Concerning synthesis, Brueggemann misrepresents Childs on this when he talks of his 'dogmatising' tendencies and search for coherence. Coherence for Childs is at the level of the kerygma, not at the level of the text, which frees him from needing to find textual coherence (this is a problem Hays may have). In this sense his Bible can be just as polyvocal as Brueggemann's. The question is how do we evaluate and work with this polyvalency. Here, the nature of the witness and the hermeneutical significance of 'canon' come into play.

John C. Poirier said...


I'm glad to read your remarks.

Two weeks ago, I drafted a 5000-word response to Hays's article. Perhaps when I get off work today, I can comb my response for my main points and post them here. Or, if you would like, I could send you the whole thing as an email attachment. (Just tell me where to send it.)

While I have problems with some (but not all) of Hays's twelve points, my main bone of contention is that he continues what so many other in the "theological exegesis" movement are doing: he defines theological exegesis in such a way that good old pre-Barthian, propositionalist, intentionalist theological exegesis is defined out of existence.

Phil Sumpter said...

Could you do both? I doubt I'll have time to read the essay as I am struggling to stick to deadlines. The advantage of you posting the main points is that it contributes to the thread and can be discussed publicly.

You'd have to explain to me what you mean my 'propositionalist' approach to theology and in what way this is pre-Barthian. If it's what I think it is, it is pre-Barthian only up until the Enlightenment. Frei's Eclipse of Biblical Narrative has a few things to say about that.

John C. Poirier said...


I'll try to be brief on this. Let me just say that Frei annoys me quite a bit, as I don't think he plays fair, and I think that the tedium in his history of hermeneutics is ultimately a smokescreen to sell some bogus and very dangerous ideas. He is the perfecter *par excellence* of the postliberal habit of rendering a pre-Enlightenment profile of an idea by simply mirror-reading the Enlightenment: e.g., if the Enlightenment gave a lot of attention to discovering what an author intended, then pre-Enlightenment hermeneutics (according to the bogus presumption behind this logic) didn't care about the author (which, in spite of how widespread such a view has become, is patently false)! (And thus you get folks like A.K.M. Adam, Nancey Murphy, and Stephen Prickett saying that the modern quest for authorial intention was invented by the Enlightenment, when, in fact, it goes back to the earliest hermeneutical debates on record [those raged by Homer's readers], and has been a part of biblical hermeneutics throughout the ages.)

When I say "propositional", I am referring to the alethiological shape of pre-Barthian hermeneutics. There are a lot of problems with the claims made for the idea of a narrative hermeneutics. One thing that has caused me to scratch my head quite a bit is the presumption, found among postliberals, that the presence of a narrative genre somehow implies a narrative hermeneutic (a la "narrative theology"). The claim, of course, is bogus: there is nothing implicit in the narrative genre that implies that the work in question should be read on the terms of a storytime alethiology. Narratives very often are intended to be read on the terms of their referring to extratextual reality. But the correlation of the word "narrative" in the naming of a narrative genre, on the one hand, and in the naming of a narrative hermeneutic, on the other hand, somehow fools people into thinking that narratives (esp. biblical narratives) are not supposed to be read propositionally--that is, as saying things about what happened in extratextual reality. Frei tried very hard to make this sleight of hand work, and ever since his book came out, a whole slew of scholars have bought into his gross misrepresentation of pre-Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics. (Hays is one of these: the argument in his *The Faith of Jesus Christ* is basically that Paul's gospel is built upon the presupposition of a narrative, and that this somehow legitimates, on Paul's authority no less, the whole approach of narrative theology!)

I realize, of course, that Barth very much thought that the historicity of the referents of Scripture were necessary for the Christian faith, but, as I see it, he was a huge factor in the current flight from propositionalism, because he, like so many other postliberals, didn't think through to the alethiological conundrum caused by combining an ecclesial hermeneutic with a referential propositionalist reading of the kerygma.

John C. Poirier said...

I can now look at what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and quote a few places to give you an idea of what I say.

I write that “[r]hetorically, the [theological exegesis] movement pretends to represent little more than a simple unpacking of the terms ‘theological’ and ‘exegesis’. At least, that is the impression it gives by defining itself over against exegetes who have no theological interest whatsoever, or who might promote reading programs that are essentially anti-theological.” I note that Hays does this in his article by setting up vocally antitheological exegetes such as Wayne Meeks, Hector Avalos, Heikki Raisanen, and Michael V. Fox, and then presenting what he’s doing as the opposite of that. This makes it look like anyone who doesn’t want to be doing the sort of faithless exegesis that Meeks, Avalos, Raisanen, and Fox practice should do things the way Hays does them, or at least something approximate to it. As I’ve said already, this defines out of existence the sort of reading that most theologically focused readers have given the text.

I also write that “if NT theology is to be a philosophically coherent project, we can and must subject the NT writers’ hermeneutic of the Old Testament to the alethiological demands of the apostolic kerygma. To make the New Testament’s way of reading the Old Testament determinative for our theology (and normative for our hermeneutic) would be singularly wrong-headed. It would be like writing an architectural treatise on a great cathedral, but approaching the subject by studying the scaffolding that happens to surround it.”

I also write, “[when] advocates of ‘theological exegesis’ . . . represent biblical theology as a sort of theology of the Word, are they not adopting an organizing structure altogether foreign to the Bible? And when they turn the readerly component of reading for comprehension into a hermeneutical privileging of the reader, are they not translating biblical theology into a poststructuralist project? And when they substitute a history-of-religions etic definition of ‘scripture’ (as the authoritative literature of a given religious community) in place of the early Church’s emic definition of ‘the New Testament’ (as the preserve of the apostolic testimony), are they not, once again, making a translation of the most profound sort?”

In other words, I have many of the concerns with Hays’s project that I have already aired here in connection with Childs’s project.

Unfortunately, I have little time at the moment to do much more than quote myself, but I hope this helps.

Phil Sumpter said...


I sorry, I forgot to respond to your statement about Hays on the Trinity. Yes, I also blinked when I read that. Of course it's important to remember the foreigness of the Bible and our stance as recipients of a word that comes from the outside, but ulitimately we can reify the concepts of the Bible either as the only ways to describe reality. There's too much diversity to do that. Childs himself makes a non-biblical philosophical term central to his entire approach, namely "substance" (res). People often worry that this means he's returning to a static concept of dogma or a quest of a ground of being. He counters this by saying that the term does not necessarily have to mean this, and he then goes onto give the term 'biblical content' (ie. the substance is a God in communion with himself and his creation). This would be another of the areas where I think Childs would qualify Hays' approach.


I'll get back to you tomorrow. Thanks for your thoughts, though in the light of all that I've said so far, it should be clear that your issue is with Hays and a small group within the 'theological exegesis' movement and not with Childs himself, who is different. The fact that he would make the exact same criticisms of Hays as you have made should ring some alarm bells (which I've pointed out already, in relation to Hays, Barr and Frei). Perhaps there's a third way?

WTM said...

Thanks for posting these 12 points from Hays. They are very important.

Phil Sumpter said...

Danke schön WTM.

The more I think about these points, the more I can see to criticise. But I guess that's just the hubris of a beginning OT student trying to find his own ground! They are definitely a great starting point, infinitely better then most phenomenological attempts to provide theology with a secure foundation, prior to faith.

Andy Rowell said...

Enjoyed the conversation. I'll keep this in mind. I have a doctoral seminar with Hays on Matthew in an hour.


Andy Rowell
Th.D. Student
Duke Divinity School
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Phil Sumpter said...

Wow, is he your supervisor? Feel free to post any critical comments. There seems to be a divide between New Testament Scholars and Old Testament scholars on how 'theological interpretation' should be done. I'd appreciate your views.