Richard B. Hays

J. Ross Wagner

Several years ago, I introduced a Festschrift in honor of Richard B. Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament and Dean of Duke Divinity School, with these words:

Perhaps no modern biblical scholar has argued more eloquently or more compellingly than Richard Hays that those who would read Holy Scripture rightly must be prepared to engage in a thrilling, unpredictable, and even perilous endeavor…. Through field-defining monographs and thought-provoking essays, Richard has apprenticed a generation of exegetes in the art of reading Scripture, sensitizing their ears to intertextual echoes, focusing their vision through the interpretive lenses of community, cross, and new creation, and directing their attention to the narrative of God’s righteousness displayed through the faith of Jesus Christ that runs like a golden thread through the Christian Bible. (The Word Leaps the Gap [ed. J. Ross Wagner et al.; Eerdmans, 2008], xxi)

Taken together, Hays’s two major monographs on Paul (see below) and his collection of essays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Eerdmans, 2005), make a compelling argument that “Paul call[s] his readers and hearers to a conversion of the imagination.” That is, the apostle to the Gentiles urges his churches “to understand their identity anew in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ – a gospel message comprehensible only in relation to the larger narrative of God’s dealing with Israel” (Conversion, 5). In The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), Hays extends this seminal insight to the whole canon, charting a course by which the church might shape its life in imaginative engagement with the scriptural story of how God is redeeming all creation in Jesus Christ.

The following overview of Hays’s groundbreaking monographs in Pauline studies and in NT ethics is offered in the hope that a new generation of Christians will take up his challenge to engage in Scriptural interpretation as a theological discipline for the sake of the church’s life and witness.

The Faith of Christ

In his doctoral dissertation, defended at Emory University in 1981 and published two years later as The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1–4:11 (SBL, 1983; 2nd ed.; Eerdmans, 2002), Hays takes up a notoriously intractable problem of Pauline scholarship: given the diverse, contingent, and fragmentary expressions of Paul’s thought that we encounter in his various letters, how is it possible (if at all) to speak of coherence in Pauline theology? Rather than searching for a conceptual “center” to Paul’s thought (e.g., “justification by faith”), as many before him had done, Hays suggests instead that Paul’s reflective theological discourse is rooted in a narrative.

In passages such as Gal 3:1–4:11, “the framework of Paul’s thought is constituted neither by a system of doctrines nor by his personal religious experience but by a ‘sacred story,’ a narrative structure. In these texts, Paul ‘theologizes’ by reflecting upon this story as an ordering pattern for thought and experience; he deals with the ‘variable elements’ of the concrete situation (for instance, the challenge of his opponents in Galatia) by interpreting them within the framework of his ‘sacred story,’ which is a story about Jesus Christ…. [I]f there are ‘constant elements of the gospel’ for Paul, they are to be sought in the structure of this story” (6).

Hays deftly employs the insights and methods of literary critics such as Northrop Frye, Paul Ricoeur, and A. J. Greimas to uncover the “narrative substructure” of Paul’s discourse. But as he himself notes, “The thing that matters is the message of the text, the story that it tells and interprets. Methodology is a secondary and instrumental concern” (xxvii). Consequently, the heart of the book is a careful and lucid exposition of Paul’s argument in Gal 3:1–4:11. Here, Hays discovers “two tellings (‘performance manifestations’) of the same story” (107) about God’s sending of his Son, Jesus the Messiah, who loved us and gave himself to liberate us, Jews and Gentiles alike, from the power of sin and death.

Famously, Hays contends that Paul’s pithy phrase pistis Christou functions as a shorthand reference to this larger story, in which “Jesus Christ [occupies] the role of Subject, with πίστις [pistis] as the power or quality which enables him to carry out his mandate” (115). As a result, pistis Christou refers not to human “faith in Christ” but to “the faith of Christ” himself, the deep trust in God and the unwavering fidelity to God’s purposes that Jesus exemplified in giving himself for us at the cross. Human faith arises as a response to and participation in Christ’s own faithfulness as a human being. “The death and resurrection of Christ are the pivotal events in human history, cosmic events in which we are included vicariously…. Because Jesus Christ is the prototype of the new humanity, those whom God calls are conformed to the pattern defined by him, and the characteristic mark of this pattern is precisely πίστις [pistis]” (212). Baptized “into Christ Jesus,” we are caught up by the indwelling Spirit into the story of Jesus, where our lives are progressively conformed to the pattern of his self-giving love in trusting obedience to God. Thus, Paul’s ethic, like his theology, is firmly “grounded in his gospel story” (226).

Echoes of Scripture

Hays’s insight into “the story-shaped character of Paul’s theology” (Faith, xxiv) develops further in his second book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989). Once again, he turns to literary criticism for help in elucidating Paul’s letters, adapting from John Hollander an approach to “intertextuality” that seeks to discern the “poetic effects and larger meanings” created by an author’s evocation of a prior text through citation or allusion (Echoes, 18). While Hays may refer to a faint allusion as an “echo,” the term frequently bears a more specific sense: “Allusive echo can often function as a diachronic trope to which Hollander applies the name of transumption or metalepsis. When a literary echo links the texts in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed (transumed) points of resonance between the two texts…..” Metalepsis…puts the reader within a field of whispered or unstated correspondences” (20).

Paul’s frequent use of this trope, Hays maintains, lends to the apostle’s discourse the character of a conversation, allowing the voice of Scripture to speak apart from – and occasionally in some tension with – Paul’s authorial voice. The Letter to the Romans offers a striking example of this sort of dialectical engagement with Scripture (177). Rereading Torah and Prophets through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection with astonishing “imaginative freedom,” Paul finds that ancient prophecies of Israel’s eschatological restoration prefigure the gospel of Christ, by which Gentiles are now engrafted into God’s people. Nevertheless, the relentless pressure of Scripture’s testimony to the faithfulness of God drives Paul to conclude that, in the mysterious economy of God’s mercy, “all Israel” will finally be saved.

The seven criteria Hays proposes for identifying intertextual echoes have sparked considerable debate, although his strongest examples of metalepsis center on the “resonant interplay of significations” between Paul’s developing argument and an explicit quotation, together with its transumed (unstated or suppressed) elements (88). As in The Faith of Jesus Christ, however, Hays is finally less interested in honing a methodology than in listening attentively to the text. In this, he succeeds admirably. Time and again, his eloquent and evocative readings mediate a fresh encounter with the poetic artistry of the apostle’s densely allusive discourse.

The notion of “narrative” once again proves crucial to Hays’s exposition of the apostle’s thought: “Paul finds the continuity between Torah and gospel through a hermeneutic that reads Scripture primarily as a narrative of divine election and promise…. Within this narrative framework for interpretation, Paul’s fragmentary references to and echoes of Scripture derive coherence from their common relation to the scriptural story of God’s righteousness” (157).

Hays characterizes Paul’s hermeneutic as “ecclesiocentric” and eschatological. Scripture both prefigures and addresses the community of Jews and Gentiles God is calling into being in Christ. “Reading Scripture at the culmination of the ages, Paul discovers himself and his readers at the center of God’s redemptive purposes.” Illuminated by the Spirit, their encounter with Scripture transforms the readers, shaping them into “a people whose vocation is to proclaim the message of reconciliation by embodying the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20-21)” (173).

In Echoes, Hays is not content simply to describe Paul’s hermeneutic. He concludes by challenging contemporary Christians to learn from Paul how to read Scripture: “as a narrative of election and promise” attesting to the righteousness of God (183); “as a word for and about the community of faith” who “embody the obedience of faith” (184); “in the service of proclamation” (184); “as participants in the eschatological drama of redemption” (185); and with an appreciation for “the metaphorical relation between the text and our own reading of it” (186) that leads the church, under the guidance of the Spirit, to “read with an imaginative freedom analogous to Paul’s” (189). In exercising this “bold hermeneutical privilege,” Hays argues, Christians remain bound by the same material constraints as Paul. Our readings must affirm with Scripture “the faithfulness of Israel’s God to his covenant promises,” proclaim “the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climactic manifestation of God’s righteousness,” and “shape the readers into a community that embodies the love of God as shown forth in Christ” (191).

Moral Vision

The challenge of living the Scriptures is tackled head-on in Hays’s third book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. This programmatic study seeks “to clarify how the church can read Scripture in a faithful and disciplined manner so that Scripture might come to shape the life of the church” (3). According to Hays, the discipline of NT Ethics comprises four critical tasks: descriptive, synthetic, hermeneutical, and pragmatic. Each activity interpenetrates the others, but for clarity of presentation Hays addresses them serially. The descriptive task requires us to listen carefully to the distinctive voices within the NT, attending not only to explicit ethical instruction but also to the “stories, symbols, social structures, and practices that shape the community’s ethos” (4).

Close reading of the individual witnesses is necessary preparation for the synthetic task, the quest to discover a coherent moral vision shared by the canonical texts. Hays finds that “the unity-within-diversity of the New Testament witnesses can best be grasped with the aid of three focal images: community, cross, and new creation.” These three interpretive lenses are interlinked by the plot of a particular story: “We can encapsulate the theological implications of these images for the church in a single complex narrative summary: the New Testament calls the covenant community of God’s people into participation in the cross of Christ in such a way that the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes a paradigm for their common life as harbingers of God’s new creation” (292).

Bridging the distance – temporal, social, and cultural – between contemporary communities and the text involves us in the hermeneutical task (5). Central to Hays’s approach is the insight that “the task of hermeneutical appropriation requires an integrative act of the imagination.” That is to say, “whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts” (6).

Readers of Hays’s previous work will not be surprised to find narrative again playing a central role as he explains how the NT functions authoritatively for the church. “For Christian theology, rules and principles must find their place within the story of God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ, and the symbolic world of the New Testament finds its coherence only in that story” (295). Similarly, while tradition, reason, and experience all play a part in our interpretation of the NT, they do not function as independent sources of authority. Standing under the judgment of Scripture, they “must find their places within the world narrated by the New Testament witnesses” (296).

Hays recognizes that the pragmatic task – embodying the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love in the concrete particularities of life – belongs to the diverse communities called into being by God and sustained by the Spirit’s empowering presence. As a contribution to such communal discernment, he concludes by articulating carefully reasoned positions on five moral problems: violence, divorce, homosexuality, anti-Judaism, and abortion. A methodological interest guides the selection of these test cases, for the NT speaks to them with varying degrees of clarity and specificity. Hays offers his normative proposals not to foreclose further discussion but to invite others, not least those who disagree with him, to “dialogue and … a deeper immersion in the New Testament texts themselves” (315).

Significantly, much of Hays’s subsequent attention has been devoted to fostering such broad conversations, most notably in The Art of Reading Scripture (coedited with Ellen F. Davis; Eerdmans, 2003), whose contributors include pastors, theologians, historians, and biblical scholars. His conviction that NT scholarship should serve the life of the church continues to be embodied in his writing for ecclesial as well as scholarly audiences (e.g., First Corinthians [Interpretation; Westminster John Knox, 1997]).

Over the past thirty years, Richard Hays has shifted the conversation in NT studies in important ways, drawing attention to the centrality of narrative, intertextuality, and the analogical imagination for Pauline theology and for NT Ethics. Even those who register significant disagreements with him have been provoked to think more deeply about crucial issues both of method and of substance. Richard Hays remains an essential conversation partner for all who seek to foster in themselves and their communities the formation of a “Scriptural imagination” by heeding the apostle’s call to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2).

Posted Apr 16, 2014