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Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture

As part of my role as Director of Ph.D. Studies at Southeastern Seminary, I welcomed Dr. Richard Hays to the campus. Professor Hays is a prolific scholar in the field of NT studies, Jesus studies, Pauline studies, and Christian ethics, to name but a few. He is widely known for his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in my view the finest book on the subject, and for his two works on the use of the Old Testament in the New, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) and The Conversion of the Imagination (2005). The following is an excerpt from my remarks introducing Dr. Hays who led a session of the doctoral integrative seminar for Ph.D. students.

I am not a Pauline expert, and I know my limitations. But if you permit me just a few personal remarks: A few years ago I participated in a symposium on the topic of the use of the OT in the NT at McMaster University convened under the auspices of Stanley Porter. The revised seminar papers have been published by Eerdmans under the title Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament. At that conference, presenters read papers on the various authors of the NT and their use of the OT. I had the unenviable assignment to respond to each of these presentations.

The Paul of Acts vs. the Paul of the Epistles

I will restrict my remarks to the paper on Paul at that conference, which was given by James Aageson, professor of Biblical Studies at Concordia College. Aageson wrote a book that argues, innocently enough, that Paul’s words (including his use of the OT) were “written also for our sake” (an allusion to 1 Cor 10). In his conference paper he elaborated on this thesis. The first thing Aageson did is pit the Paul of Acts against the Paul of the Epistles, saying that in Acts Paul is shown to prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (e.g. 17:2–3; 28:23) while in the Epistles Paul, according to Aageson, rarely cites Scripture to establish his Christology. My response to this was that even if for argument’s sake we concede Aageson’s point, the difference very probably lies in the fact that in Acts Paul is shown to engage in missionary preaching (hence his effort to show from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ) while his letters are by and large addressed to believers. If so, there does not seem to be any incongruity between the two “Pauls.”

Paul’s Context vs. the Contemporary Context

Second, Aageson raised the question whether or not we should seek to reproduce Paul’s hermeneutic or scriptural exegesis in our day. Aageson’s answer: not only is this impossible because of our different contexts, it is not even desirable because it would be “a violation of our own responsibility to come to the texts of Scripture, Paul’s letters included, as interpretive agents who take our contexts as seriously as Paul took his own.” So what Aageson does here is pit Paul’s context against the context of the contemporary interpreter, and then proceeds to affirm the priority of the contemporary context over against Paul’s.

He goes on to say that “scriptural interpretation ought not (perhaps cannot) be reduced to a mere task of trying to discover meaning in the texts of Scripture. . . . Rather, it is a generative and creative task that is invariably open-ended.” My response to this collapsing of the two horizons of biblical interpretation is, “Why not first try to identify Paul’s meaning and then determine the significance of his message for the contemporary reader?” In the end, the problem looming for Aageson here is that of a vacuum of authority, if that authority is wrested away from the biblical author (Paul) and transferred to the contemporary reader(s). He seems to sense this when he speaks of “the risk of entering into a post-modern interpretive house of mirrors,” but he is undaunted, adding that just as “Paul’s reading of Scripture added yet one more element to the rich tradition of post-biblical interpretation” [i.e. the interpretation of the OT], so “our readings of Scripture will do similarly.”


In my response to Aageson, I registered my astonishment at this statement. Is there really no difference between Paul and you and me? What about Paul’s regular assertion of his apostleship at the outset of his letters? Aageson objected that a traditional approach in interpreting Paul’s use of the OT (of which I apparently am guilty) results in “render[ing] the texts mechanical, archaic, and lifeless.” He does say “may,” but does it have to? Later in his paper Aageson took his position one step further, arguing that the church ought not merely to repeat Paul’s thinking on a given issue but rather understand that “Paul invites each theological generation into the question anew.” To which I replied: —and come to conclusions different than Paul?

This seems to be the implication of Aageson’s statement, and, indeed, he proceeds to state that “Paul did not pronounce the final word” on the subject of Israel and the church in Romans 9–11 but rather “prompted and contributed to the church’s ongoing conversation on the subject.” So, Paul got the conversation started and made his contribution, but we must not feel bound by his conclusions and pronouncements. This seems to be a surprisingly low view of Paul and a surprisingly high view of Aageson himself and of you and I as interpreters today.

If that were not enough, Aageson presses on, saying that in our reading today, Paul’s apostleship will “be fulfilled once again in our time.” Not merely did Paul have “rough edges” and “conceptual gaps” in his use of Scripture, but Aageson detects “even misreading” of Scripture on Paul’s part (though Aageson does not elaborate on this point). Reading Paul’s letters, one does not get the impression that Paul saw himself merely as starting the conversation and as voicing his own humble opinion. Rather, his writings by and large exude the confidence that, by the grace of God and owing to his apostolic commission, Paul settled certain controversial issues, such as Gentile participation in the church on equal terms with Jews, once and for all.


It is one thing to say that Paul wrestled with difficult issues that defied easy resolution or that he humbly acknowledged his own limitations in understanding divine mysteries, as he does in Rom 11:33–36, and quite another to maintain that Paul misread Scripture and that we must find theological solutions on our own. Thus I submit that there are other, better, ways to conceive of Scripture having been written “also for our sake” than to substitute our own reading of Scripture for that of Paul and the biblical writers.

For Further Study

For a helpful critique of Hays’s hermeneutic, see the Preface to the Second Edition of Richard N. Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), especially pp. xiv–xxii and xxxiv–xxxix.