Learning from Paul

(Guest Post by Ben. T)

This weekend I finally made my way through Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays. As expected, the book was loaded with helpful insights from a seasoned Pauline scholar. Surprisingly, though, I found the book personally challenging on a number of practical levels.

Hays writes as both a scholar and a churchman, seeking to make accessible and practical his insights to the community of faith. He writes, “Paul’s readings characteristically treat Scripture as a living voice that speaks to the people of God. The Bible for Paul is not just a chronicle of revelation in the past; the words of Scripture sound from the page in the present moment and address the community of believers with authority.” [1]

The book ends with several points aimed at summarizing his proposal. His observations and trajectories are not new in the sense of being unique, but it is refreshing to read a scholar who is so candid regarding the functional role of Scripture in the formation and transformation of the church as God’s eschatological community.

He writes:

If we learned from Paul how to read Scripture, we would read it in the service of proclamation. Christian biblical interpretation has its original and proper Sitz im Leben in preaching or (as in Paul’s letters) in pastoral counsel–that is to say, in acts of reading that construe Scripture as a word of direct address to the community. When Bonhoeffer read in 2 Tim. 4:21, ‘Do your best to come before winter,’ and took it as God’s word to him, he was operating with hermeneutical assumptions faithful to Paul’s example. This may not be good exegesis, but it was never proposed as exegesis of the text; rather, it was a charismatic, prophetic transference of the text’s sense. Indeed, Paul’s way of using Scripture suggests that homiletical and prophetic readings can sometimes be more faithful than rigorously exegetical ones. Exegesis gives us critical distance from the text; preaching thrusts the text’s word directly into our faces. The word is near us, and it demands a response. This strategy of reading is risky, because it strips away critical controls, exposing us to the danger of arbitrary or manipulative interpretations. On the other hand, unless we learn from Paul to read Scripture as a word addressed directly to us, we will never proclaim the word of God with power. [2]

I am constantly wrestling with the divide that exists between the academy and the church. How do we go about bridging the chasm between the two while moving towards synthesis over mere supplementation? Is it even possible?

Whatever the case, Hays presents a vital starting point—we must (re)capture the kerygmatic function of Scripture. It is God’s living and active word to us.

See also:

Richard Hays on “Why we need Eschatology

Richard Hays on “Reading the Bible with Eyes of  Faith”

[1] Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 165.

[2] Hays, Echoes, 185.


2 Comments on “Learning from Paul”

  1. peterjosephgarcia says:

    Great post.

    The Church has shut the door on the academy because, more often than not, the Church is unwilling to look critically at its own tradition––something the academy does quite easily and often threateningly to the common churchgoer or religious consumer.

    The danger in reading the scriptures as words “directly to us” is the rampant individualism within dominant Christianity; it becomes so focused on what the text is saying to us that we lose sight of ways in which we make the text exclusively for “us.” How can we reclaim a kerygmatic function of the scripture for women and men, rich and poor, displaced and comfortable, etc., that urges radical discipleship and kingdom building?

  2. bthocher says:

    Peter, thanks for the thoughtful reply! I agree that rampant individualism has long dominated the evangelical world at large. Thankfully, I think, the corporate aspects of our calling as God’s people has been re-claimed in various aspects of the New Perspective on Paul and even in some of the more recent interest in the “mission of God” (cf. Chris Wright). I agree if we read “us” in the singular we’ve missed the point of Paul’s ecclesiology!

    Regarding the first point, I’d be hesitant to place the blame primarily with the Church for the door being shut. I think there is an element of truth to your observation, though. I think thoughtful, critical, and engaging biblical scholars are at a premium in our current ‘celebrity context.’ The church is certainly not critical enough of its own tradition, but at the same time I don’t think the academy is appropriately critical of itself in terms of its methods and goals.

    Our primary concern should be the “common churchgoer,” right? If it is, then what does it look like to helpfully engage and appropriate the conclusions and input of the academy? I think many pastors have (unfortunately) given up on the task, but I think I understand why–perhaps we need more people standing in the gap?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s