Reading Backwards Part 6 (Summary)

September 30, 2014 — 4 Comments

reading-backwardsI am continuing my series on Richard Hays’s forthcoming book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. You can find part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 by following the links.

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

Four_Evangelists_Jordaens_Louvre_Inv14041. 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.






Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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