Rudolf Bultmann described Karl Barth’s sermons as difficult to endure. He wrote:
With you the text is interrogated according to a dogmatic formula and does not speak with its own voice. After a few sentences we already known everything you are going to say, and only on occasion ask, now, how is going to extract all that from the following words in the text? . . . . I am not engaged by this exegesis; the text does not speak to me. Instead, the cover of dogmatics is thrown over it.1)Quoted in Konrad Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: Eine Biographie, p. 320.
It seems that every year another book comes out about Jonathan Edwards. But very few of them, to my knowledge, discuss his hermeneutical strategy.
Stephen J. Stein is one who has dealt with Edwards’s hermeneutical strategy in great detail.1)A sampling of Stein’s work on Edwards and the Bible includes “Jonathan Edwards and the Rainbow: Biblical Exegesis and Poetic Imagination,” New England Quarterly 47 (1974) 440–56; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 5 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) 1–93; “The Quest for the Spiritual Sense: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards,” HTR 70 (1977) 99–113; “ ‘Like Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver’: The Portrait of Wisdom in Jonathan Edwards’s Commentary on the Book of Proverbs,” CH 54 (1985) 324–37; “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience (ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 118–30; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 15 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 1–46; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, The “Blank Bible” (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 24 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) 1–117; and “Edwards as Biblical Exegete,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (ed. Stephen J. Stein; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 181–95. David P. Barshinger in a newly released book is also examining Edwards on Scripture. He asserts Edwards’s love and view of the Scripture is neglected. He writes:
But for all the ink devoted to Edwards over the past three centuries, this [Edwards's love and view of Scripture] is not the Edwards that has been preserved. Instead, a distorted portrait of Edwards remains the reigning image in scholarship today. While Edwards as an eclectic was interested in fields ranging from theology and philosophy to science and nature, he was at his core devoted to the glorious God of Scripture and to mining that Scripture for truth–an aspect left out of Edwards by examining his lifelong devotion to the Bible particularly through his engagement with the book of Psalms, exploring his theological engagement with the Psalms in the context of his interpretation, worship, and preaching. (3)
Stein begins his 1977 article in the Harvard Theological Review in a similar way.
It is an irony and something of an enigma that the Bible, one of the shaping forces in the theological development of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), has largely been ignored in the assessments of this colonial divine. Edwards himself acknowledged its influence, especially during his youthful years. “I had then,” he wrote, “and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.”
Despite Edwards’s love of the Scripture, Stein says few have taken seriously the place of the Bible in Edwards’s thought. He argues that in contrast to the Reformation’s accent upon the sufficiency of the singular literal sense of the Bible, Edwards himself underscored the multiplicity of levels of meaning in the text and the primacy of the spiritual. Although Edwards shared certain assumptions with the Reformation tradition, he also departed from them in significant ways.
Brandon Withrow, in his analysis of Edwards, agrees and claims that Edwards explored Scripture on many levels. “The spiritual reading of Scripture found in the writing of ancient Christians…clearly have a kindred spirit in the ideas of Edwards.”2)Brandon G. Winthrow, Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality within the Christian Tradition (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011) 174, 204. In Withrow’s view, Edwards’s interest in the spiritual sense connects him with early church exegetes. Withrow says, “Edwards was interested in reading between the lines and looking for a christological message intended by the Spirit.”3)Winthrow, Becoming Divine, 177, 185 Withrow even says he embraced the medieval tradition of seeing multiple senses.
So although Edwards embraced the literal sense, he also had some misgivings. Stein says:
The literal meaning Edwards pursued was not singular in appearance. Rather it embraced a variety of aspects, manifesting itself in numerous ways. The sensus literalis was a mixed interpretive category for him, united only in its basic communicative function. The various dimensions Edwards ascribed to the literal must be derived from examples of his exegesis. He wrote no systematic treatise on hermeneutics, although he commented at length on hermeneutical issues in his commentaries and notebooks, his sermons and published works. (107)
Unlike many, he did not glory in the literal meaning of Scripture. For him investigation of the grammatical and syntactical intricacies of a text, exploration of historical and cultural contexts, and examination of prophetic dimensions produced at best a “speculative knowledge” of divinity. The fullest application of the mind to the biblical text results only in a “rational knowledge of the things of religion.” Speculative knowledge of the text has no redemptive value and is obtainable by all. According to him, such knowledge alone merely results in greater condemnation for those who have access to God’s Word but reject it. Edwards described the Bible as “a sweet, excellent, life-giving word,” but efficacious use of it requires a second step beyond the mastery of the literal sense of the text.
That something extra Edwards called spiritual understanding or knowledge.
But Edwards also spoke about the spiritual sense of Scripture in a different way. He used the concept of the spiritual sense to denoted a fuller understanding of the Bible which is one result of the sense of the heart implanted by God. This second usage, according to Stein, more properly constitutes a hermeneutical category than the first.
This spiritual sense Edwards also distinguished from the literal, contrasting the restricted, confined character of the literal meaning of the text with the sweeping breadth and possibility of the spiritual interpretation. Spiritual understanding in this second sense was the goal and the focus of Edwards’s exegetical efforts.
This seems to be different than the modern portrayal of a “literate hermeneutic”, closer to a “thick” meaning, but more subjective than both of those.
So what are the practical implications of this?
He seldom rested content with an explanation of the literal meaning of a passage. Grammar, history, and prophecy were not enough. At best the literal sense provided the materials for reflection and meditation. Edwards described his own method of study in the following words: “Often-times in reading it [i.e., the Bible], every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt an harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seem’d often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading. Used oftentimes to dwell long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.” The wonders on which he reflected were the deeper insights into the text he ascribed to the spiritual sense.
Jonthan Edwards is the homeboy of many people, and for good reason. But it may come as a surprise to some that he followed the Church Fathers in his hermeneutics more than the Reformers. One does not necessarily have to agree with him, but it is interesting that one of the best thinkers in history took this position.
A sampling of Stein’s work on Edwards and the Bible includes “Jonathan Edwards and the Rainbow: Biblical Exegesis and Poetic Imagination,” New England Quarterly 47 (1974) 440–56; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 5 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) 1–93; “The Quest for the Spiritual Sense: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards,” HTR 70 (1977) 99–113; “ ‘Like Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver’: The Portrait of Wisdom in Jonathan Edwards’s Commentary on the Book of Proverbs,” CH 54 (1985) 324–37; “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience (ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 118–30; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 15 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 1–46; “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, The “Blank Bible” (ed. Stephen J. Stein; vol. 24 of WJE; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) 1–117; and “Edwards as Biblical Exegete,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (ed. Stephen J. Stein; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 181–95.
As noted in my first post, his thesis doesn’t seem controversial on first reading.
The Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and–at the same time–the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and–at the same time–we learn to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT.
However, the retrospective reading raises questions concerning authorial intent. If we are reading retrospectively, how much did the OT understand of what they wrote. The psychological state of the author is a tricky subject.
Hays presents a good case for the necessity of a retrospective reading in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. However he could have also put more emphasis on the forward reading. In other words sometimes the OT writers did have some sense of a messianic referent (although I would agree with Hays that they did not always have this sense). It must be on a case by case scenario.
Surely Genesis 3:15, the OT sacrificial system, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah all pointed towards a perfect sacrifice. These authors had some sense of what was to come, or what Beale calls a “cognitive peripheral vision.” Yet it is also evident that this visions was muddy, and the disciples confusion and bewilderment at the cross illustrates this in the Gospels.
Hays never makes the assertion it is all backwards reading, but one could walk away thinking everything is retrospective. For example in the last chapter Hays asserts “it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus.”
But are not some of them deliberately predicting the events? Doesn’t Acts 2:31 say that David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ.” Certainly we must balance this with 1 Peter 1:10 where it says they “searched and inquired carefully,” yet even this statement implies there was a sense of understanding and a sense of mystery. Both must be held in tension. One of my critiques of Hays is that this tightrope of tension could have been walked more finely. Sometimes the OT writers were in the dark about messianic meanings, but at other times the clouds parted and a ray of light shone.
However to be fair to Hays, he may have been responding to those who view most NT uses of the OT as strict prophecy and fulfillment, not realizing that some things come to light after a temporal gap. And for his rigor on the issue I am thankful.
The other question I have for Hays is about the poetic device called metalepsis. Metalepsis concerns one going to the wider context to find more correspondences. But the danger is that this can become a hide and seek game. If you widen your search enough, then of course you will be able to find more that coheres with the story you are reading. The question is really how much of the context is the NT author alluding to?
With these two critiques aside I am happy to say that Richard Hays has produced another must read book. It will not be as groundbreaking as his work on Paul, as he is simply applying parts of his theory to the Gospels. However, tying the allusions and echoes of OT Scriptures to the Christology of each individual Evangelist was a worthwhile project.
I read the book, learned, and worshiped as I saw the identity of Jesus more clearly. I also walked away with a better understanding of how each Gospel writer “uses’ the OT Scripture. They each have their own flair. Interestingly, each use of Scripture seems to be legitimate. We might have the tendency to say there is only one way to use OT Scripture, but Mark, Matthew, Luke and John work in concert, yet truly have different voices.
As Hays says, to read like the Evangelists, we need to cultivate a deep knowledge of OT texts, getting them into our blood and bones.
In the next post I will offer some reflections and critiques of the book.
Hays closes the book by asserting his two theses again and also addressing the strengths and “dangers” of the different hermeneutical approaches of the four Evangelists. The thesis of the book was twofold. “The Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and–at the same time–the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or to put it a little differently, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and–at the same time–we learn to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT.”
The comprehension of this figural interpretation is described as the intellectus spiritualis, and must be retrospective. Its retrospectiveness is a necessity in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Hays goes as far as to argue it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus.
So what about the four Evangelists? What did they share in common? Are there tensions among them? Can we read the texts in the same way they did?
Hays does a quick review of the findings, noting that the Gospels offer us four distinctive voices, that do not always speak in unison as interpreters of the OT, but they do sing in polyphony.
Mark delights in veiled indirect allusion. The power of the Scriptures and his narrative come in his deference to the hiddenness of the divine mystery. But the weakness of Mark might be that many readers miss the message of Jesus’ divine identity, or view it only as an insider message.
Matthew is more explicit than Mark and tells how Jesus carries forward Israel’s story. While Matthew offers his readers great clarity, it could be viewed as flattening Scripture.
Luke emphasizes promise and fulfillment. Jesus is the fulfillment and a demonstration of the faithfulness of Israel’s God. The weakness could be that Luke manifests an excessive confidence about the continuity of Heilsgeschichte (a weakness Hays does not accept).
John is more artistic than the rest of the writers in that he focuses less on scriptural texts and more in figures and images. The OT is a vast web of symbols that are to be read as figural signifiers for Jesus and the life that he offers. The danger of this approach is that it could be framed polemically against rival interpreters and promote forms of ahistorical quasi-gnostic spirituality.
To read like all of the Evangelists, Hays suggests we need to cultivate a deep knowledge of the OT texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones. The Evangelists give us models of how to receive and retell the scriptural story and (in typical Haysian fashion) he suggests ten ways that they might teach us how to read Scripture.
What the Evangelists Teach Us
1. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic necessarily entails reading backwards. This means some of these readings only come into focus retrospectively.
2. Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the cross and resurrection. The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they disclosed the key to understanding all that had gone before.
3. The Evangelists’ diverse imaginative uses and transformations of the OT texts summons us also to a conversion of the imagination.
4. For the Evangelists, Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world.
5. The Evangelists’ retrospective reinterpretation of Israel’s story is not a negation or rejection of that story, but a transfiguration and continuation.
6. The Gospel writers approach Scripture as a unified whole, but their reading of it is not undifferentiated. Each of the Evangelists seems to operate with a canon within a canon, giving more attention to some parts of Scripture than to others.
7. The Scripture employed by the Evangelists is, on the whole, the Greek Bible (LXX).
8. Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character. They nudge the reader to recover the wider context.
9. The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identify Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.
10. The Evangelists consistently approach Scripture with the presupposition that the God found in the stories of the OT is living and active. It is for that reason that the hermeneutic he presents can be embraced as truthful.