The Backward Hermeneutics of Paul

I’ve been reading posts from my students in their missional hermeneutics course. They are currently responding to Richard Hays’ book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul. I’ve read these posts alongside participation in a conference on hermeneutics I attended the last few days, and it’s got me thinking about a few things.

Hays suggests that Paul’s hermeneutical approach “seeks to overcome the estrangement between past and present by positing a diachronic resolution of the intertextual tension” (179). In other words, Paul allows older texts to speak in the present tense, overcoming the historical distance, and he does this not with methodological rules, but through certain theological commitments. These commitments allow him a certain creative liberty in using older texts in ways different from their initial usage. Hays suggests that “Paul provides us with a model of hermeneutical freedom.”

I have a former colleague who taught exegesis who claims Paul would have flunked his classes. I think he’s being somewhat sarcastic–somewhat, but I’m also convinced that if he wouldn’t flunk Paul, he would flunk his contemporary students for anything approaching the words “creative” and “freedom” in interpretation. I was taught that the text couldn’t mean anything it didn’t originally mean. In other words, there was one timeless meaning that could be uncovered through use of the right method. To this way of thinking, Paul is not a model for us in terms of the interpretation of Scripture. Do what he says, but don’t practice what he practices.

At the recent conference I attended, no one was holding on to this “one meaning around authorial intention” approach, which in my estimation was a step or two or three forward. Texts have a surplus of meaning, especially sacred texts. They don’t just represent meanings, they continue to produce meaning.

Instead, interesting proposals for theological readings of the text were offered. One call was to read them through the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Narrative and Trinitarian! Cha-ching! Another proposal was more specifically christological, Christ becoming the key to interpreting the whole of Scripture. You know, it’s hard to argue against anything when the answer is Jesus! The first approach was similar to the approach taken by others (McKnight, Wright, both Tom and Chris, Goheen, to name a few). This narrative approach moves from beginning to end, or forward. The christological approach is less narrative and more thematic, arguing for a center, one ring that controls them all.

While these approaches have their merits, they are not Paul’s. At least, not according to Hays. Paul, Hays contends, has two theological commitments that inform his interpretative approach–ecclesial, and eschatological. These are related for Paul. What God is doing toward the day of Lord is creating communities that are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. The proof of the truth of his gospel is that Jew and Gentile praise God with one voice. This is the mystery hidden for ages, and now revealed through Christ, that Jew and Gentile are being built into a new spiritual dwelling for the Spirit of God, that Christ is the first born of a large, new family, and that all of creation is eagerly anticipating the eschatological revealing of the children of God.

For Hays, then, Paul is not moving christologically, but ecclesiologically. His organizing theme is the eschatologial identity of the people of God. You might quibble with Hays at this point. James Dunn has argued that there is no single theological center to Paul’s thought. Rather, there are multiple theological trajectories that move in and out, forward and backward, to inform Paul’s pastoral responses from situation to situation.

What there is more agreement on is that there is a narrative structure to Paul’s thought, but that it doesn’t move from beginning to end. Rather, it moves backwards from the end (Dunn, Hultgren, Beker, Hays, P Achtemeier, Sampley, Gorman, Brownson, to name a few). Paul thinks apocalyptically, that the future of God has broken into the present, judging the powers of this present evil age, which is perishing, and inaugurating, not a continuation or improvement on the old age, but an alternative to it–a new thing, a new creation with a new family(“The old is passing away, behold everything has become new!” 2 Cor 5).

I think that this “backward” reading is most responsible for Paul’s hermeneutical freedom. If the future is the horizon of interpretation for what God is up to, the past becomes less of a precedent than if you’re reading from beginning to end. If you’re reading from beginning to end, previous practices or positions possess more authoritative inertia. Issues like slavery, gender, and sexuality take on a more normative force. As Moltmann has pointed out, reading from beginning to end tends to honor the status quo, the future (futurum) being the outcome of the past, or the way things are. But an apocalyptic imagination (adventus), assumes a new thing is coming, a reversal of fortunes that provide hope to those on the underside of current arrangements.

There are other hermeneutical approaches in the NT, simply because there are multiple theological perspectives among biblical authors and their communities (another argument against a meta approach). Paul’s approach is important to consider, however, as a theological model for our own readings. His apocalyptic framework makes him valuable at the level or process and not just results.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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