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Salvation by Trust? Reading the Bible Faithfully

by Richard B. Hays

Richard B. Hays, who teaches New Testament at Duke Divinity School, recently wrote The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco). This article is based on an address he gave to the Society of Biblical Literature this past November (1996) in New Orleans. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 26, 1997, pp. 218-223. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Protestant reformers of the 16th century proclaimed that God’s word in scripture must serve as the final judge of all human tradition and experience. Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it, the Reformers insisted, in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed. Only through the biblical writers’ testimony do we encounter the message of God’s grace; only the revelation of Jesus Christ, disclosed uniquely and irreplaceably through the testimony of the evangelists and apostles, tells us the truth about the merciful God and our relationship to that God. Without this word which comes to us from outside ourselves, we are lost.

Clearly, the climate in which we read the Bible has changed drastically since Luther and Calvin put pen to paper. Living as we do on this side of the Enlightenment, we cannot escape the intellectual impact of the great "masters of suspicion": Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and more recently Foucault, along with other purveyors of "critical theory." These thinkers have sought to demystify language and to expose the ways in which our linguistic and cultural systems are constructed by ideologies that further the interests of those who hold power.

The Bible has not been exempt from such suspicious scrutiny. One need only consider the book display at the annual American Academy of Religion convention. Anyone who spends time browsing there will find the stalls flooded with books that apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to biblical texts. Some portray the apostolic witnesses less as revelatory witnesses to God’s mercy than as oppressive promulgators of abusive images of God. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, writes that "a feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion places a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival" (in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty Russell).

I’m not suggesting that suspicious interpreters categorically reject the Bible; most of them believe it can contain both liberating and oppressive messages. They insist, nonetheless, that the Bible be subjected to ideological critique. Elsewhere, Schüssler Fiorenza explains: No biblical patriarchal text that perpetuates violence against women, children, or "slaves" should be accorded the status of divine revelation if we do not want to turn the God of the Bible into a God of violence. That does not mean that we cannot preach. . . on the household code texts of the New Testament. It only means that we must preach them critically in order to unmask them as texts promoting patriarchal violence (Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation)~

I welcome the moral passion of statements like Schüssler Fiorenza’s. Sadly, our common history is marked by epidemic violence, including violence against women, children and the powerless. Certainly this violence is to be condemned, and interpreters of the Bible have good grounds for proclaiming such condemnation. The difficulty in which we find ourselves, however, is this: If the Bible itself, the revelatory, identity-defining text of the Christian community, is portrayed as oppressive, on what basis do we know God or relate to God? A corollary question has crucial implications for biblical interpretation: If the Bible is dangerous, on what ground do we stand in conducting a critique of scripture that will render it less harmful?

For Schüssler Fiorenza the answer to the latter question is clear: a feminist critical hermeneutic "does not appeal to the Bible as its primary source but begins with women’s own experience and vision of liberation." Experience (of a certain sort) is treated as unambiguously revelatory, and the Bible is critically scrutinized in its light. Regrettably, many practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, and by no means only feminist interpreters, are remarkably credulous about the claims of experience. As a result, they endlessly critique the biblical texts but rarely get around to hearing scripture’s critique of us or hearing its message of grace.

While the hermeneutics of suspicion—rightly employed—occupies a proper place in any attempt to interpret the Bible for our time, I want to argue that a hermeneutics of trust is also both necessary and primary. In order to get our bearings on the question of our fundamental attitude toward scripture I propose that we take our cue from the Reformers and return to scripture itself.

If we attend carefully to Paul’s treatment of trust and distrust in his Letter to the Romans, the apostle may lead us to suspect our own suspicions. We can gain a purchase on Paul’s thinking about trust and distrust by examining how in Romans he uses the words faith (in Greek, pistis) and its opposite, literally unfaith (apistia). According to Paul, those who stand in right relation to God are those who hear and trust what God has spoken. He laments Israel’s tragic failure to do this, and the name he gives that failure is apistis. The term refers both to the failure of the people of Israel to obey God’s Torah and to their failure to trust God’s covenant promises—and the two things are bound closely together. Their apistia has been brought into stark focus for Paul through their negative response to the proclaimed gospel of Jesus Christ. He addresses the problem explicitly in Romans 3:1-4:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful (epistesan)? Their apistia doesn’t nullify the pistis of God, does it? By no means!

Paul’s wordplay highlights the contrast between human infidelity and God’s fidelity. God’s faithfulness (pistis) to Israel is declared to Israel through the word of promise ("the oracles of God"). But Israel, failing to trust that word, is guilty of unfaithfulness—apistia. We might well translate the word here as "distrust" or "suspicion." Rather than trusting the scriptural oracles of God (which, in Paul’s view, point to Christ and the church), they have slid away into unfaithfulness just like the gentiles. Nonetheless, their unfaithfulness cannot negate the faithfulness of the God who has embraced them through the covenant promise spoken to them.

The paradoxical relation between Israel’s unfaithfulness and the divine faithfulness creates the problem that Paul wrestles with throughout the letter. His reflections on these issues culminate in chapter 11, where the theme of Israel’s apistia arises once again in Paul’s metaphor about the olive branches broken off the tree: "They were broken off because of their apistia, but you [gentiles] stand only through pistas....But even these, if they do not persist in apistia, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again."

Earlier in the letter, Paul has depicted Abraham, in contrast to unfaithful Israel, as the figural type of trust in God:

Hoping against hope, he trusted that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be" [Gen. 15:5]. He did not weaken in trust (pistis) when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No apistia made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in trust (pistis) as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised (4:18-21).

This passage is particularly interesting because Abraham’s pistis is interpreted explicitly as his trust in God’s promise despite the promise’s incongruity with Abraham’s own experience of sterility and frustration. Abraham might have had good reason to exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion toward the divine word that had promised him numerous descendants; all the empirical evidence—his experience—seemed to disprove God’s word.

Nonetheless, according to Paul, Abraham wrestled with his doubts, discounted his own experience, rejected skepticism, and clung to the promise of God: "No apistia, no suspicion, made him waver Thus, Abraham becomes the prototype of the community of faith, which interprets all human experience through trust in God’s word. In short, Abraham exemplifies a hermeneutic of consent, a hermeneutic of trust.

A trusting hermeneutic is essential for who believe the word of the resurrection but do not yet see death made subject to God. The hermeneutics of trust turns out read to be, on closer inspection, a hermeneutics of death and resurrection—a way of seeing the whole word through the lens of the kerygma. Our reliance on God entails a death to common sense, and our trust is validated only by the resurrection.

For Paul the theme of trust—pistis—is also intimately related to the formation of right relations between God and humans. Another way of saying this is that for Paul the themes of trust and atonement are in-separable. But I must sound an important caveat here. We must not suppose that we can place ourselves in right relation to God through our own act of trust, as though faith were a meritorious work. Rather, Paul’s argument is that covenant relationship is restored by God’s initiative "through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ." Thus, for Paul, trust and atonement are inextricably linked, but they are linked in the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s view of the relationship between trust and atonement is most compactly articulated in Romans 3. The argument goes like this:

1. Israel’s apistia cannot nullify the pistis of God (3:3-6a).

2. Jews and Greeks alike are under the power of sin (3: 10-18).

3. The Law holds the whole world accountable to God but has no power to justify those who are under the power of sin—to set them in right relation to God (3: 10-18).

4. Therefore God’s justice has been manifested apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (3:21-22)— through his obedient, self-sacrificial death on the cross.

Thus, according to Paul, God has overcome our apistia through a dramatic new act of pisti—the pistis of Jesus Christ whom God "put forward" as a definitive demonstration of God’s own covenant-faithfulness (3:25). That is the meaning of "the righteousness of God" (3:21). Our relationship of trust with God is restored through the faith of Jesus Christ.

Those who receive this good news respond to it in turn with trust. Their pistis, which is prefigured in the Old Testament story of Abraham, becomes shaped by the pattern of Jesus’ own faith-obedience. That is part of what Paul means when he says that those whom God calls are to be "conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29), and when he calls on his readers to model themselves upon Christ Jesus who emptied himself and became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-13).

Thus, atonement for Paul is not merely the forgiveness of sins through a vicarious blood sacrifice. Atonement also entails the transformation of God’s people into the image of Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of trust in God. Because Jesus trusted, we are both called and enabled to trust.

Paul’s understanding of trust not only shapes his view of atonement; it also informs the apostle’s own hermeneutical theory and practice. Israel, he says, failed to trust the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2-3), but he is determined that this error not be repeated in the interpretative practices of the new community of faith constituted by the trust of Jesus. With his mind remade by the gospel, Paul goes back to scripture and reads it anew through a hermeneutic of trust.

Rereading scripture from a new perspective was as challenging a task for Paul as trusting God’s promise was for Abraham. The actual experience of Paul’s missionary preaching had created a serious difficulty for both Paul and the new community. As the scholar Paula Fredriksen has expressed it, among those who believed the gospel, there were "too many gentiles, too few Jews, and no end in sight." If God’s purpose was to overcome Israel’s apistia, what had gone wrong? Why did Israel persist in apistia even when it heard the good news proclaimed?

The Jews’ rejection and the gentiles’ acceptance of the gospel drove Paul back to scripture. The promises of God to Israel must be true, he reasoned, because "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). But how can this be true in light of his own experience? Jews refused to accept the good news, and God apparently had conferred grace upon those who had not even been seeking righteousness at all—the gentiles. Scripture must be true, but how can this situation be understood?

The problem comes to a head in Romans 9-11. "I say then, has God abandoned his people?" (11:1). Paul’s answer is a ringing "By no means!" Trusting that God had not abandoned Israel, he wrestled with scripture and found his way to a powerful new reading of God’s promises.

Romans 9-11 is a powerful example of the hermeneutics of trust in action. In these chapters Paul achieves a transformative rereading of scripture through the lens of the conviction he articulated earlier in Romans 5:8: "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." This conviction, applied to the problem of Israel’s apistia, leads Paul to discover in scripture both the prefiguring of God’s calling of the gentiles ("Those who were not my people, I will call ‘my people’"—9:25, quoting Hosea 2:25) and the prefiguring of God’s ultimate mercy on Israel ("’God has not abandoned his people,’ whom he foreknew"—11:2, quoting Psalm 94:14).

In Paul’s fresh reading of scripture the whole mysterious drama of God’s election of Israel—Israel’s hardening, the incorporation of gentiles into the people of God, and Israel’s ultimate restoration—is displayed as foretold in scripture itself, but this foretelling can be recognized only when scripture is read through the hermeneutics of trust. God’s oracles and promises are interpreted anew, in ways that no one could have foreseen, in light of the experience of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus. (At the same time, the church’s experience in Paul’s own historical moment is interpreted in light of scripture, which leads Paul to warn gentile believers against being wise in their own conceits. Events are in God’s hands. Gentiles have no reason to boast.) The process through which experience is positively correlated with scripture is possible only through the hermeneutics of trust.

What consequences follow from this analysis of Paul’s hermeneutic of trust for our own work as interpreters of the word? At least three things can be said. First, in order to read scripture rightly, we must trust the God who speaks through scripture. As Schüssler Fiorenza rightly insists, this God is not a God of violence, not an abuser, not a deceiver. This God so passionately desires our safety and wholeness that he has given his own Son to die for us. "The one who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also graciously give us all things, along with him?" (Rom. 8:32). Like Abraham, like Mary, like Jesus, like Paul, we stand before God with empty and open hands. That is the posture in which the reading of scripture is rightly performed. The German New Testament scholar Peter Stuhlmacher says something similar when he speaks of a "hermeneutics of consent"—a readiness to receive trustingly what a loving God desires to give us through the testimony of those who have preceded us in the faith.

Second, if we adopt a hermeneutics of trust, what becomes of the hermeneutics of suspicion? Is all questioning to be excluded, all critical reading banished? By no means. Asking necessary and difficult questions is not to be equated with apistia. When we read scripture through the hermeneutics of trust in God we discover that we should indeed be suspicious—suspicious first of ourselves, because our own minds have been corrupted and shaped by the present evil age. Our minds must be transformed by grace, and that happens nowhere more powerfully than through reading scripture receptively and trustingly with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Reading receptively and trustingly does not mean accepting everything in the text at face value, as Paul’s own critical sifting of the Torah demonstrates. Cases may arise in which we must acknowledge internal tensions within scripture that require us to choose guidance from one biblical witness and to reject another. Because the witness of scripture itself is neither simple nor univocal, the hermeneutics of trust is necessarily a matter of faithful struggle to hear and discern. Consequently, we welcome the readings offered by feminists and other interpreters whose experience enables them to hear the biblical texts in new and challenging ways.

At the same time, we should be suspicious of the institutions that govern and shape interpretation. That means not only ecclesiastical but also academic institutions. If our critical readings lead us away from trusting the grace of God in Jesus Christ, then something is amiss, and we would do well to interrogate the methods and presuppositions that have taught us to distance ourselves arrogantly or fearfully from the text and to miss scripture’s gracious word of promise.

My concern that distrust may impede our reading of the Bible leads me to my final point. The real work of interpretation is to hear the text. We must consider how to read and teach scripture in a way that opens up its message and both models and fosters trust in God. So much of the ideological critique that currently dominates the academy fails to foster these qualities. Scripture is critiqued but never interpreted. The critic exposes but never exposits. Thus the word itself recedes into the background, and we are left talking only about the politics of interpretation, having lost the capacity to perform interpretations.

Most of us in the academy are weary of these tactics of critical evasion. And perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. This past fall, Frank Lentricchia, who teaches English at Duke University, published a remarkable public recantation of his prior complicity with an approach to literary criticism that concentrates on theory and ignores literature. The piece, which appeared in Lingua Franca, is titled "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic."

Lentricchia, whose earlier work earned him the epithet "the Dirty Harry of literary theory, is the author of Criticism and Social Change (1983), which urges us to regard all literature as "the most devious of rhetorical discourses (writing with political designs upon us all), either in opposition to or in complicity with the power in place." But Lentricchia has grown impatient with having his own critical perspective parroted by graduate students who have no love of literature, no appreciation for the themes and content of great literature—indeed, who rarely read it at all because they are so enamored of "critical theory." So now Lentricchia repents publicly:

Over the last ten years, I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary criticism, because most of it isn’t literary. But criticism it is of a sort—the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to the writers that one is supposedly describing. This posture is assumed when those writers represent the major islands of Western literary tradition, the central cultural engine—so it goes—of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism: a cesspool that literary critics would expose for mankind’s benefit. ... It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary criticism... . The fundamental, if only implied, message of much literary criticism is self-righteous, and it takes this form: "T. S. Eliot is a homophobe and I am not. Therefore, I am a better person than Eliot. Imitate me, not Eliot." To which the proper response is: "But T. S. Eliot could really write, and you can’t. Tell us truly, is there no filth in your soul?"

Lentricchia’s question, "Tell us truly, is there no filth in your soul?" reaches back, perhaps unwittingly, to the deeper roots from which the Western literary imagination springs—an imaginative tradition that owes much to Paul’s hermeneutic of trust in God and suspicion of ourselves. Precisely because there is filth in our own souls we come to the texts of scripture expecting to find the hidden things of our hearts laid bare and expecting to encounter there the God who loves us.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare. Kernan’s work predated the academy’s current infatuation with ideological criticism. Even though it was the late 1960s and we were all living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw?

He loved the texts. His teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings of the Shakespeare tragedies and comedies, delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex central themes—moral, philosophical and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, "Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before." And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death and hope.

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure the self-righteous villain Angelo pronounces a death sentence on Claudio, who is guilty of committing fornication. Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to Angelo to plead for the life of her brother, but Angelo, who is trying to manipulate Isabella into bed with him, spurns her suit, saying,

Your brother is a forfeit of the law,

And you but waste your words.

Isabella’s reply alludes to the great theme of Romans and calls upon the hypocritical judge Angelo to see his life anew in light of God’s judgment and grace:

Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;

And He that might the vantage best have took

Found out the remedy. How would you be

If He, which is the top of judgment, should

But judge you as you are? 0, think on that;

And mercy then will breathe within your lips,

Like man new made.

Isabella resists the oppressor by applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to his pose of righteousness and by appealing to a hermeneutic of trust in the biblical story of God’s mercy. Isabella is a profound interpreter of scripture. We should follow her example.


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