OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday I continue my series on Richard Hays’s forthcoming book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. You can find part 1 and part 2 by following the links.


In the chapter on Matthew Hays asks the question, “What sort of a reader of Scripture is Matthew?”

Unlike Mark, Matthew is far more overt than Mark in his interpretative strategies. “In many passages we find him providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions.” Hays describes it as Matthew producing an annotated study Bible with much of the information spelled out.

At least 13 quotations follow similar rubric, “This took place to fulfill what has been spoken through the prophet…”

Hays then turns to some specific texts. In line with the first post about the readings being retrospective he views Hosea 11:1 not as a prediction of a future Messiah but a reference to past events of the exodus. Matthew, however, transfigures Hosea’s text by seeing it as a prefiguration of an event in the life of Jesus.

Hays steps back from Matthew and reflects on his strategy compared to Mark.

He has preserved these narrative details from his source while at the same time adding much material to make Mark’s affirmation of Jesus’ divine identity more explicit and robust. In short, Matthew’s redactional tendency is to strengthen the claim of Jesus’ divine identity, without erasing the Markan narrative elements that would complicate such a claim (52).

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God, and that to worship him is to worship YHWH….The one who was crucified and raised from the dead is himself the embodiment of the God who rules over all creation and abides with his people forever. (53)

Direct and Subtle

Although I think Hays’s point about overtness is partially true, one wonders if it is a bit overstated? This seems to be confirmed by Hays proceeding later in the Matthew chapter to attribute to Matthew “allusive subtlety” (40). The thirteen formula quotations only make up a small portion of Matthew’s quotations of the OT. Donald Senior counts sixty-one OT quotations in Matthew’s Gospel.

Maybe Matthew is both overt and subtle and his forthrightness might be overplayed by Hays.

R.T. France has pointed out that even in the formula quotations there are different levels of potential readership. There is the lowest common denominator (or the surface meaning) but also exegetical bonuses. These rich readings and understandings of the person of the Messiah make Matthew allusive in a different way than Mark, but still allusive and subtle.

Although Matthew does strengthen the claim of Jesus’ identity, he does it in a way that is direct, yet second, third, and fourth readings hide treasures to be discovered.

Below is the lecture on Matthew.







I am continuing my series on Richard Hays forthcoming book “Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.” The first post covered the introduction and the first chapter honing in on the distinction between prospective and retrospective readings.

After the introductory chapter, Hays turns to the four Gospels and how they employ Israel’s scripture. He first looks at Mark. The reason he chooses Mark is obvious, due to the widespread consensus that Mark was written first. However, I think a strong argument can be made for starting with Matthew because of the canonical form with which we have received the Gospels. Matthew stands at the head of the NT canon for numerous reasons. First, Matthew echoes Genesis with the genealogy, the theme of the new creation, and the opening words. Second, Matthew most clearly of all the Gospels presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah. Third, Matthew directly speaks to 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Hebrew canon. Fourth, Matthew held pride of place in the early church.

Nevertheless, Hays decides to start with Mark. The Gospel does fit his “echo” theme better than Matthew and also provides a good contrast to Matthew’s use of OT Scripture.

Hays asserts that many of the key images in Mark are drawn from Israel’s Scriptures and a reader who fails to discern the significance of these images can hardly grasp Mark’s message (17). But Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style, is indirect and allusive.

Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection…for the most part his scriptural references are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. The story is intelligible, at one level, for readers who do not hear the scriptural echoes. But for those who do have ears to hear, new levels of complexity and significance open up.

Let the Reader Understand

Hays’s subtitle of the chapter is “let the reader understand” which comes from Mark 13:14. This phrase is one of those rare occasions where he steps out from behind the curtain, but it also gives clues to how Mark is using Scripture. The reader needs to understand! In other words he is not going to make is at plain as Matthew who says, “This happened to fulfill Scripture.” Hays gives the example of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt without any authorial comment about scriptural fulfillment, but for those who have ears to hear will perceive the symbolism of Zechariah 9:9.

His remarks about Mark are divided into two parts. First he explores a few passages in March which allusively draw on Scripture to shape his narration of the identity of Jesus. Then in the second part he steps back for a broader reflection on Mark’s hermeneutical strategy.

Remember that the book is about Christology and how Mark uses Israel’s Scripture, therefore Hay’s focuses on the passages that show Jesus’ identity through Israel’s Scripture.

I will not cover each intertextual note, but one is noteworthy. In Mark 6:45-52 Jesus walks on the sea. Hays argues this alludes to Job 9:8 where it speaks of God “who alone stretched out the heaven and walks upon the sea.” But in verse 48 there is the cryptic remark of “he intended to pass them by.” Interpreters have been troubled by the comment, even Matthew deletes the clause (Matt 14:25). But Hays argues that if you look at the entire context of Job 9 there is a clue to what this means. Job 9:11 says the following:

Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him; he moves on (LXX: παρέλθῃ με “he passes by me”), but I do not perceive him.

Thus, in Job 9, God’s passing by is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. Hays says, “This metaphor accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus.”

Hidden in Order to Be Revealed

Hays then steps back to reflect on Mark’s strategy.

If the scriptural intertexts in Mark are ignored, a diminished Christology inevitably follows. The full impact of Mark’s Christology can be discerned only when we attend to the poetics of allusion imbedded in Mark’s intertextual narrative strategy.

Like in the parables, Mark hides the message but at the same time the hidden communication become instruments of revelation. Mark 4:22 states the masking somehow belongs to the revelatory purpose, or even promotes the revelation. Hays therefore concludes:

Mark’s hermeneutical directive, however uncongenial for modernist interpreters accustomed to seek a single clear and explicit “original sense” in texts, is in fact precisely attuned to the way that figurative language actually works….Metaphors do not deal in direct statement; rather, they intensify the meaning precisely by concealing it, by speaking in an indirect mode and saying something other than what is meant. (30)

As Hays notes in passing the indirect and allusive use of OT Scripture fits with the “messianic secret” of Mark.

Brevard Childs rightly asks why Mark should have continued to recount the pre-resurrection tradition in which Christ’s true identity was hidden at a time in which the secret had been revealed. He argues the form of Mark’s presentation makes it clear that the avenue which the first hearers had gone through to understand the resurrected Christ was one of initial hiddenness.

According to Mark, the relation between the hidden and revealed savior is not simply chronological, but ontological. The two forms of revelation are inextricably bound together. The shape of Mark’s Gospel thus establishes an analogy between the first generation of disciples who experienced Christ in his hidden revelation and every successive generation of hearers which confronts a similar challenge. (Childs, 85)

In other words the allusive and indirect use of Scripture recreates the experience of not having everything spelled out, but one where you stumble towards the answer and finally see the light.

In some sense then, is the entire Gospel of Mark a masal–intended to both reveal and conceal the true meaning.

Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.

- David Brooks, The Social Animal

Teaching Character

Reading Backwards Part 1

August 29, 2014 — 4 Comments

reading-backwardsToday I am starting a blog series on Richard B. Hays’s forthcoming book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.

Hays has impacted my reading of the Scriptures in significant ways. His book on Paul’s use of the OT was groundbreaking for me and he writes with winsomeness and great insight. Because my focus has been the Gospels, I was eager to hear what he has to say about how the Evangelists read the OT.


Hays begins his book in the preface by letting his readers know that these were originally lectures, listing his goals and telling a little bit about who influenced him. His project is not a historical Jesus find, or a sociological study, but rather an analysis of how the Gospel writers used the OT Scriptures proposing that all four canonical Gospels are deeply embedded in a symbolic world shaped by the Old Testament. The Gospel writers have been “thunderstruck” by the paradigm-shattering implications of their fresh encounter with Israel’s Scripture in light of the story of Jesus. Therefore, a careful interpretation of the Gospel stories will require patient attention to their evocation of intertexts from Israel’s Scripture.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 is an introductory chapter framing the issues. Hays begins with a quote from Luther exemplifying a figural reading. He argues that Luther indeed learned this figural hermeneutical strategy precisely from the Evangelists. The task in this book therefore is to search out some of the ways in which the four canonical Evangelists read Israel’s Scripture.

But what is a figural reading? He quotes Erich Auerbach who says the following about figural readings.

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself, but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure or separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spiritual act

Consequently, Hays asserts there is a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors–or characters they narrate–were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective. The act of retrospective recognition is the intellectus spiritualis.

Because the two poles of a figure are events within “the flowing stream” of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. But once the pattern of correspondence has been grasped, the semantic force of the figure flows both ways, as the second event receives deeper significance from the first.

A word of the state of the debate on retrospective and prospective readings is in order. Although Hays’s assertion may not sound controversial, it is. Arguing for a retrospective reading means that the OT authors may have not been conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. This does not mean there is contrast or contradiction, they work in concert, but it is still truly more than the OT author intended.  This touches on the blog post back and forth that I had with Jim Hamilton (Jim’s 1st post, my response, Jim’s 2nd post, my rejoinder, Matt Emerson also chimed in).

More importantly and recently, it seems that this issue even caused a forced retirement of Douglas Green at Westminster Theological Seminary (although I do not know all the facts). William B. Evans has a really helpful post on the entire debate.

All this leads to a programmatic distinction between “first reading” and “second reading.” In the first reading we encounter the text without reference to the conclusion of the story, while in the second reading we see levels of meaning we did not see before precisely because we know how the story ends and how things fit together.

Given the dual authorship of Scripture and the vast gulf between the creator and the creature, why is it impossible or unlikely that God intended levels of meaning that were unknown to the original human author? Of course, the Catholic interpretive tradition has a long history of such notions of sensus plenior or a “fuller sense” of Scripture.

In sum, although Hays does not spend a lot of time defending his view, I for one “follow Hays” in arguing that the OT authors may have not been conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. A temporal gap exists, and therefore the OT authors spoke better than they knew.


947436_f520The thesis of the book is that “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.”

Hays says the assertion that the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels is less controversial than the thesis that the Gospel teach us to read the OT. Reading backwards may sound like a category mistake, but that is how Jesus seems to have instructed his disciples to read (Luke 24:27).

For Hays’s introductory lecture that forms the backbone of the book see the video below.



Through Ecumenical Glasses

August 28, 2014 — 3 Comments


In George Marsden’s fascinating book on the first twenty years of Fuller Seminary he briefly covers one of their faculty members who was hired in 1948 and then dismissed, Béla Vasady.

Vasady was a highly accomplished Hungarian Reformed theologian. Fuller was trying to position itself in the midst of fundamentalism as a non-separatist school because separatism had plagued the movement and Fuller increasingly viewed the rifts as destructive and embittering. Worst of all, separatism hurt evangelism.

Harold Okenga, the president, was therefore made a bold move in hopes of cultivating their image and gain an entree into the mainline denominations. He offered a faculty position to Béla Vasady, a man of international credentials. But Vasady, according to Marsden, had two strikes against him. First, he had some admiration for Karl Barth. Second, he was among the founders of the much-maligned World Council of Churches, feared by most evangelicals as part of a modernist effort to dilute the faith.

Marsden says the episode between Fuller and Vasady was a microcosm of Fuller’s struggles to determine whether Fuller was a fundamentalists movement or if they were more open.

Vasady came to Fuller, but he became puzzled over the divisive state of American churches. He published in Religion in Life a short essay called “Through Ecumenical Glasses,” which contributed to his dismissal.

501618He sought for unity, but his Presbyterian friends were telling him his work at Fuller made him too “divisive” to be fit for the local Presbyterian ministry, while his colleagues at Fuller concluded he was too ecumenical to remain with them.

Ecumenism Today

These historical happenings are interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is because in every generation ecumenicism is a topic of conversation. Learning from past theologians about their reasons for ecumenism can both encourage ecumenical efforts and guard against missteps.

Most recently Peter Leithart has called for more solidarity between Protestants and Catholics, and a few Baptist theologians are working towards more unity. There will even be a session at ETS on the topic.

Through Ecumenical Glasses

Because I found Vasady such an interesting figure in Fuller’s history, I did some research and found his short article which contributed to his dismissal. The entire article is linked here, but I have highlighted the main points.

Vasady begins with the following.

Now that the World Council of Churches has been formed in 1948 at its First Assembly in Amsterdam, the question of what it means to be an “ecumenical Christian,” a member of the universal church of Christ, must become a pressing concern to all of us. We must examine ever more closely just what obligations are involved in viewing and evaluating all national and international, all economic, social, cultural, and political issues, but chiefly all churchly and theological problems, always through ecumenical glasses.

The aim of this article is to answer these questions in three concise statements.

Through ecumenical glasses! This means, first of all, the consistent fostering and cultivation of a one-church-consciousness.

Christ himself did not think in terms of the “fold,” i.e. the institution, the external, visible organization and its oneness. Rather did he anticipate the oneness of the “flock,” which is oneness ins spirit and in truth. Ubi Christus, ibi Ecclesia–”Where Christ is, there is the church. The one, ecumenical church! This is the church of which we read in the New Testament that it is the “body of Christ – Corpus Christi. Its members stand in a living, organic relation, first of all with Christ, the one head, but also with one another. This is how the communion of saints (communio sanctorum) comes about.

It must be apparent this one-church-consciousness is not quantitative, but qualitative; that it is the awareness not of a physical, but a spiritual, dimension. For this reason it requires, first of all, a superdenominational attitude. To view and appraise all things through ecumenical glasses demands that we become more than just Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, or what have you.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean, in the second place, to live constantly in a state of creative tension.

To be seeing everything ecumenically presupposes, then, that I must live in a historically and geographically determined denomination and congregation. I must take part in its worship services, its prayer meetings, its Sunday-school work, its administration and its benevolences. At the same time, however, the mainspring of all my church work must be found in my own divine dissatisfaction, to wit, that my congregation, my denomination, my historically and geographically determined “church” is still very far from being identical with Christ’s “one church”!

The more deeply I experience this creative tension between “the church-as-men-have conceived-it” and “the church-as-God-intended-it,” the more powerfully I shall confess the new evangelical catholicity and the more irresistibly I shall seek spiritual communion with other congregations, with other denominations, with members of which which differ from my own geographically, historically, racially or nationally; and the more diligently I shall strive for a community of prayer and work with them, that we may come to know each other’s faith, each other’s soul, every more fully. In so doing, I shall become increasingly aware of the implications of being an ecumenical Christian.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean to see everything from this catholic standpoint requires a daily about-face for the sake of Christ, right in that congregation and denomination in which God has called us to serve.

Our world and churches are threatened with disruption…[But Jesus] refuses to be party to any individual, racial, national, or denominational self-centeredness. He is insists on being the Shepherd of the whole flock, the Head of the whole body….No single denomination or church can appropriate him. Rather, he expects the members of every church to run the risk of a complete about-face, to subject their so called human, economic, and social values, all their accustomed national and international prejudices to a radical revision, until these no longer stand in the way of an absolute obedience to him, of an unconditional surrender to him as the Lord and Savior.









Excellent Sheep.What do students want from their teachers?

  • Information?
  • Good grades?
  • Friendship?
  • Leadership?
  • Knowledge?

Slate produced a helpful excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where he argues students want two things from their teachers. They want their teachers to:

  1. challenge them
  2. care about them.

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.

What they want, in other words, is mentorship.

That is why many times the best classrooms are run as a mix of lecture and seminar.

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. To put it in the language of computers, you can download all the data you want, but it won’t be any good to you unless you have the software to make use of it. That software, the ability to operate on information—to understand it, to synthe­size it into new combinations, to discover and create with it—is what college is meant to “install.” But here the analogy breaks down, for unlike actual software, the installation isn’t quick and easy, and it certainly isn’t passive.

The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them. Some of those questions should be ones she doesn’t know the answer to herself. Discussion in a seminar should be collaborative and open-ended, alive with serendipity and the energy of immi­nent discovery—a model, too, of how to think together.

Teacher-ShortageHow are teachers to both challenge students and care about them? What skills do you need to have? The first step is to be yourself.

For all the skill that teaching involves, you ultimately only have a single tool: your entire life as you have lived it up until the moment you walk into class. “The teacher, that professional amateur,” said the critic Leslie Fiedler, “teaches not so much his subject as himself.” He provides a model, he went on, “of one in whom what seemed dead, mere print on the page, becomes living, a way of life.” I developed a rule of thumb in graduate school. If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him. It’s not that I needed my teachers to be confessional; I just needed them to be present. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics,” Saul Bellow wrote about the University of Chicago eminence, “but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”

Students want you to be honest, not least about yourself. They want you to be yourself. You need to step outside the role a bit, regard it with a little irony, if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit. It often feels that there are certain things you cannot say inside a classroom—the most serious things that you want to say, the most genuine things. You want to say that life is tragic, that we are dangling above a void, that what’s at stake, when you read a book, is nothing less than life itself. But you feel your institutional surroundings holding you as if between quotation marks. You fear that your words will fall to the ground with an audible clink. That is where a little distance from the situ­ation is of service. Just because I say this stuff in class, I used to tell my students, doesn’t mean I don’t believe it.

There are two things that kids invariably tell you about their favorite professors. The first one is “she teaches about everything.” That’s never literally true, of course, so what does it actually mean? Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A student put it to me this way, about a professor in an oceanic studies program: “He made marine ecology reflect universal truths.”

You know great teaching the moment you encounter it. Yes, you feel, this is it—this is what I came for. It reaches deep inside you. It satisfies desires that you didn’t know you had. It makes the world feel newly large and meaningful—exactly, again, like art. The other thing that students say about their favorite teachers is “he changed my life.”

These insights are not only relevant for the academy, but for the church.

Maybe that is why the Bible was so wise to call the pastor not only a teacher, but a shepherd, an overseer.