Published on May 6, 2015 by James M. Hamilton

Baylor University Press, 2014 | 177 pages

Reviewed by Edward W. Klink III


In a book that is manageable in size, Richard Hays raises some hermeneutical issues that are much less manageable, especially for a large majority of evangelicals for whom interpretation is directly and probably simplistically linked to the original author. Hays offers a retrospective reading of each Gospel (chs. 2-5) framed by an introduction and conclusion (chs. 1 and 6) in which he gives definition to his theoretical concerns and methodological procedures.

Hays begins in his preface, however, with a more low-flying example of the kind of assumption he is trying to make. Hays argues that common human discourse “is inherently intertextual and allusive” (xiii). He uses as an example a letter written by the investor Warren Buffett to his shareholders in the aftermath of a catastrophic economic downturn in which he warned them to adopt a cautious attitude toward the optimistic projections of economists and investment agencies. In this letter Warren phrased his counsel this way: “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.” The rhetorical punch of the line, as Hays explains, derives from its resonance with the common English proverb, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” which is a paraphrase of a famous line from Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid. Buffett was not simply making a cute echo but using a phrase that carries a particular weight of its own that adds to Buffett’s intended warning: a warning against accepting a gift that was in fact booby-trapped, like the Trojan Horse in Vergil’s story. According to Hays, this common mode of human discourse is also common in Scripture: “The language of the Gospels works in the same way” (xiii). More specifically, Hays argues in this book that there is an innate and intentional intrabiblical intertextuality between the Gospels and the Old Testament that must be grasped if both (yes, both!) are to be rightly understood. 

It is in chapter 1 where Hays lays out his methodological concerns and principles. Hays begins by agreeing with Martin Luther that the Old Testament is “the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies” (1). Hays argues with Luther that it is necessary to read Scripture figurally, a necessity based upon Scripture’s reading of itself (cf. Jn. 5). Hays relies heavily on Auerbach’s classic definition of “figural interpretation” and argues that this is not prediction but prefiguration. What this means is that a figural reading does not require the assumption that the Old Testament authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence within Scripture “is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective … an intertextuality of reception rather than production” (2).

Hays admits that this kind of reading is “distinctly out of fashion” (3) since the advent of modern historical criticism. For historical criticism some of the correspondences Hays would promote would be, quite simply, twisted misreading. But Hays suggests that this figural sensibility is exactly how Scripture reads between itself. The four Gospels declare that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms mysteriously prefigure (again, not predict) Jesus Christ. This happens, Hays argues, by “a conversion of the imagination,” with both testaments (or in this study the Old Testament and the Gospels) each teaching us how to read the other – simultaneously a forward-backward reading (4). The Old Testament guides us to see the full significance of the Gospels, which they could not communicate on their own (6-13). The Gospels teach us how to read for figuration (13-16). Hays offers this explanation:

The literal historical sense of the Old Testament is not denied or negated; rather, it becomes the vehicle for latent figural meanings unsuspected by the original author and readers. …precisely because figural reading affirms the original historical reference of the text, it leaves open the possibility of respectful dialogue with other interpretations, other patterns of intertextual reception (15).

Hays concludes that not reading backwards (and forwards) is to fail to understand Scripture (16). This is no small claim.

In chapters 2-5 Hays reads Scripture with each of the Gospels. In brief, each Gospel guides the reader to understand the significance and fulfillment of the Old Testament: Matthew is “Figuring the Mystery” (17-33), Mark is “Torah Transfigured” (35-53), Luke is “The One Who Redeems Israel” (55-74), and John is “The Temple Transfigured” (75-92). In each chapter Hays covers numerous examples of how reading backwards with each of the Gospels guides to a figural reading of the Old Testament that fleshes out the full significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Finally, in chapter 6 Hays concludes with a summary of “retrospective reading,” in which he speaks to the challenges (but necessity) of “gospel-shaped hermeneutics.” Besides exploring how each of the Gospels presents a unique portrait of Jesus – and the gospel – and yet is incomplete outside of the four-fold Gospel witness, Hays also lists ten ways in which the Gospels teach us to read Scripture. The final chapter pulls together a summarizing reflection of the judgments drawn from the plethora of exegetical samples Hays performed throughout the book.


Reading Backwards is a wonderful book, offering the reader a succinct but potent experience with a contemporary and refined hermeneutical approach to Scripture that holds in tension critical and pre-critical sensibilities. While we could assess the influence of Auerbach or Frei in Hays’ approach, he is clearly doing something he has done well for a long time – providing an approach to Scripture that is directed by its own sensibilities. In many ways Richard Hays is attempting to read Scripture like the one with whom he opened the book, Martin Luther, calling for a hermeneutical reformation of sorts and demarcating the way forward not merely between two long-separated Testaments but even across Lessing’s Ditch. Hays is clearly attempting to place the church’s reading of sacred Scripture within or beside (even over?) the academy’s interpretation of an ancient text. Hays is also positing what is clearly a theological approach to Scripture, which requires him to criticize what he considers to be dominatingly historical approaches to interpretation. The book is right and necessary in so many things it says and promotes.

There is, however, one important issue that needs to be addressed. Hays works hard to distinguish and even prefer prefiguration over prediction when it comes to the hermeneutical movement between the two Testaments. This not only gives preeminence to the retrospective reading Hays performs, but forces him to interpret the intertextuality of Scripture at the level of reception rather than production. The preferential treatment given to reception over production has positive and negative effects on the interpretation of Scripture. While much more could be said in regard to each, one of each will be briefly summarized.

Positively, a focus on reception allows Hays to apply to his reading strategy a much more robust doctrine of Scripture that matches well the church’s belief in the unity between the Scriptures and their unified subject matter, culminating in Jesus Christ. This is most readily seen in Hays’ ability to allow not only various allusions or echoes between the Scriptures to speak in concert, but also the common subject matter present in the textual presentation. For example, Hays relies less on the history of religions background of “Son of God” as a royal title and more on its significance as part of the identity of God, directed by the full sense of Scripture, which transcends the God-relation of any of Israel’s past kings and prophets (62). This rightly makes Scripture itself the conceptual foundation of its meaning, and allows for a rich intratextual communication that would be disallowed if the locus of meaning was the event or the historical identity behind the text. Hays’ reading recovers well the confident theological reading that embraces the “complex poetic sensibility” (105) of Scripture that has long been present in the church’s handling of God’s Word; a reading to which much of the church is seeking to return.

Negatively, a focus on reception pushes Hays to minimize the interpretation of Scripture at the level of its production, which means less reliance on the original author and the original circumstances. Hays is well aware of the dominance of historical criticism, and speaks disparagingly about its abusive handlings of Scripture. For example, Hays is right to reject Schnelle’s claim that a biblical theology (a two-Testament reading) is impossible and inappropriate. He is also correct to push against the naively Marcionite tendency in much of “mainstream” Protestantism today, in which the Old Testament is basically ignored. But does his concern to read Scripture well not allow for Scripture’s own concern for the historical author, and in the Gospels specifically, the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry? While this need not lead to a rigid literalism or historicism, as often occurs in Evangelicalism, such (Scriptural) concerns should at last be present in interpretation. That is, has Hays helped to include the importance and role of reception back into the interpretive matrix only to exclude by its minimization the significance of production? Quite possibly, the curse of modern (historical-critical) interpretation is that reception and production cannot exist in hermeneutical harmony. May this not be!

Hidden in an endnote Hays reveals his book’s purpose: “My hope … is that these lectures might encourage many students of Scripture to arrive at home and to know the place for the first time” (113). This is a biblical hope; that the fullness of the two-Testament Scripture and its unified subject matter would become home for readers of the Bible. May the reception of Hays’ book match the intention of its production, and may his hope come to fruition in the contemporary church.

Edward W. Klink III is pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church in Roscoe, Illinois.


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Reading Backwards: Figurative Christology And The Fourfold Gospel Witness

Baylor University Press, 2014 | 177 pages

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