Saturday, September 16, 2006

Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul

I'm not sure if this will be that interesting to anyone, but most of the writing I'm going to be doing these days will be for seminary. The following is a 1200 word review of a controversial book which I thoroughly enjoyed. It can be a bit wordy, sorry, that's kind of how the book was and so I think it affected the way I wrote. If anyone reads this review let me know, I'd be curious ......

The intertextual approach put forward and practiced by Richard B. Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul adds volume to some muffled themes of Paul’s letters and provides the impetus for a hermeneutic that is both exhilarating and frightening. Although at first glance it appears that this book is merely offering one more critical method to the exegetical tool box, it ends up challenging current boundaries of biblical interpretation and pushing the Church to not simply read and interpret but to take part in and embody the living Word of God. Though written in 1989 this book takes the reader into relatively uncharted territory, lacking many of the hermeneutical comforts of home yet provoking good dialogue in the community of faith.

Hays’ intertextual approach is influenced by literary critical methods that recognize the echoes of past literature in later poetic writings. By alluding to a former expression a poet can play off of already established imagery and either turn the tables on the expression to say something new or revamp it to plumb even further depths of meaning. The recognition of this phenomena in Paul’s letters, so richly interwoven with Old Testament quotes and allusions, is essential to Hays’ approach. He presents the rationale of the approach this way:

The phenomenon of intertextuality–the imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one–has always played a major role in the cultural traditions that are heir to Israel’s Scriptures: the voice of Scripture, regarded as authoritative in one way or another, continues to speak in and through later texts that both depend on and transform the earlier (Hays 1989, 14, emphasis mine).

It is one thing to recognize that later portions of Scripture depended on previous ones for significance, but to allow for transformation of meaning is to open a door few evangelical exegetes would be eager to walk through. Indeed it would be tempting to dismiss Hays approach from the outset, except for the fact that this is exactly the type of hermeneutic that Paul himself seems to employ.

Introducing them as apparent misreadings of Old Testament Scripture, Hays points out several instances when Paul transforms the original meaning of the ancient text and applies it in a new way to contemporary issues. Hays then highlights the intertextual dynamic in a way that illuminates Paul’s meaning. Although it is not his declared motivation, the result is a compelling defense and further advocation of Paul’s unique hermeneutical style. Some of Hays’ readings are more convincing than others.

One of the best examples of this may come in Hays’ description of Romans 10:5-10, where Paul takes the meaning of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 and flips it completely upside down. Whereas Moses was using a rhetorical argument to emphasize the availability and attainability of the commandments (“the word is very near you”), Paul alludes to it in order to assert exactly the opposite. What the people were searching high and low for was Christ, who had now come (“the word is very near you”). Since Christ had of course not come at the time of Moses’ writing this could be easily be written off as bad exegesis.

At the very least it seems highly unfair to the Hebrews, until we give Paul permission to reinterpret Deuteronomy 30 and in light of recent events. Christ fulfilled the Law and offered righteousness to all by faith. Looking back, Paul understands that when the Hebrews were pursuing the Law they were actually participating in the covenant to come, inasmuch as they were doing it as an expression of their faith in Yahweh. Moses was inadvertently calling them to faith in the same gospel as Paul. Through intertextual echo Paul is able to assert a meaning that Moses and his original readers would not have asserted, while staying faithful to the principle and the truth of what Moses was saying.

It is difficult to summarize Hays readings in such a short space, but two other examples merit mention. One of the weaker “echoes” is his treatment of 2 Corinthians 3:7, which is an allusion to Exodus 34:30, the passage about Moses veiling his face because the people could not bear the sight. Hays posits that what Moses was hiding was the “transitory” nature of the glory on his face because what the Hebrews really wanted was the “script” rather than the “spirit.” As a result they were unable to see that which pointed so clearly to Christ. While the argument as a whole is somewhat convincing it is so convoluted that one begins to wonder how anyone could have ever got it or ever could–and how “near” the Word of God actually is. It would be interesting to try to better Hays description of the echo to see if it is actually preachable.

One of the more amazing insights gained from Hays’ intertextual reading is the puzzling case of Galations 4:21-31 where Paul equates Hagar, rather than Sarah, with Sinai. Since the Sinai covenant came to the descendants of Sarah this seems like Scripture-twisting to the extreme. However, by allowing Paul freedom of metaphor Hays recognizes that Paul is playing the Mosaic covenant against the Abrahamic covenant rather than the New. The promise to both Jew and Gentile goes back to the Abrahamic covenant, and while the Mosaic covenant came after, the promise was still to be claimed by faith. Once the leeway for intertextuality is granted, Paul’s point is able to shine through. The Law was righteous, but on its own it could only produce slaves. The playing of ancient covenants against each other points the Hebrews to the fulfillment, the power, and the freedom that had finally come in Christ.

Hays is modest yet confident in the validity of the intertextual approach. He is honest about its inherent dangers, but he also provides a compelling argument for utilizing the method and accepting the ramifications that unravel from it. These ramifications place greater demands upon the people of God, pushing them toward a more vital dialogue with one another and with the text, but isn’t that what we ought to expect when we approach a book that claims to be the “living and active” Word of God; “sharper than a two-edged sword?”

Although I would like to put further thought into the ramifications of Hays’ hermeneutical approach (or should I say Paul’s?) and sense a need for greater definition of the criteria and constraints to be employed in this hermeneutic I cannot deny that I find within it an enticing and compelling way to approach the Bible. Certainly this creative and “free” approach to biblical interpretation opens up new dangers for the church which need to be addressed carefully. However, the risk involved may reap substantial (and much-needed) rewards for the Church today. Rather than compromising our faith in God, wielded properly this way of reading the Bible intensifies our need to trust Him and interact with Him, even as Scripture unfolds and speaks afresh write before our eyes. Rather than leading us down a path toward individual and relativistic theological sidetracks, pursued carefully this approach leads us to a humbler and more interdependent relationship with our community of faith.

Written for:
BT620 Pauline Epistles, Martin Culy, PhD, Briercrest Seminary, September 11, 2006


Tony Tanti said...

I enjoyed this Jon. Some good binding and loosing going on here. Would this style be comparable as well to Jesus' redefining of laws in the Sermon on the Mount? "You have heard it said... but I say..."

Does Hays comment at all on our responsibility in interpreting the continuing extra-biblical revelation of God? What if someone came along today and used the style that Paul uses but with our NT?

Coutts said...

that's the big issue at stake. we talked about that quite a bit in class. i ended up coming off a bit more "liberal" than most, but i basically said that we do this all the time in our interpretation and its high time we admit it, and get better at doing it (which would include figuring out when we are right and when we are wrong.)

the real danger is in that term "extra-biblical revelation" that you used. i don't know what you mean when you use it (although i caught the rob bell reference and need to go back to all that entails).

i think God still says stuff, through His Word and otherwise. I think people don't depend enough on the Word though. It does weigh our current notions and divide truth from error. Trouble is, whose Bible? interpretations are so different from each other so often that its one thing to say the Bible is the authority, and its another to say my interpretation is right.

where does that leave us? I think it makes the BIble more valuable than less, and it makes the community of interpreters more important than ever.

to answer your question, if someoen came along ... people do this all the time. what do we do with it though? WEll, I don't think GOd is going to say something totally new. He hasn't left that open to himself in the books we have recieved. But I do think GOd gives fresh insights from the Old Book, and speaks words to us today (that I'd call illumination or direction rather than revelation) and the key is for us to bring those words to the community past and present, weigh them against the body of Scripture, and let the Holy Spirit move in freedom.

THe Holy Spirit would not contradict himself. SOmetimes I wonder what the Chruch would look like today if we really believed that.

some thoughts. I'm impressed you picked up on the core debate at the heart of this book. I wasn't sure it came through.

Tony Tanti said...

By "extra-biblical" I'm referring to claims made by Christians that are not explicitly in the Bible but are not contradicted by the Bible either. We do this all the time too, and then we find scripture to back up our claims when it should be the other way around.

I also mean the continueing revelation of God's truth in context. There were shifts in God's instruction and commands in Jesus' time and I believe there still are shifts. That God is still revealing himself and that revelation is fluid. The measuring stick will always be scripture taken carefully in context. This is the whole harpoon theory of Spilsbury's.

Coutts said...

i think i buy that, but with a qualification. because of the very time-bound and unsubjective nature of our thoughts, i'm not sure how assertive we can be about any "fresh revelation" until it has stood a certain test of time, or communal-dialogue, or i don't know what else. in other words, i think there have to be safeguards against crack-pots or even against well-meaning theologians such as myself who may or may not have some blinders on.

i guess it sounds like i want some control over the holy spirit. there may be some truth to that and so i have to be careful. but so do people who point to the freedom of the holy spirit in an effort to defend their own carelessness.

i guess there is the issue of prophecy though. can a prophet arise today, that will by definition have to give a word from God against the community? i think so, but there again it would have to be in line with, in fact come from scripture, would it not?