It may be odd to do a book review of a text published nearly twenty years ago. Perhaps odder still, the text is a biblical commentary, and I’m not a biblical scholar. Yet I’ve recently come across a resource that’s been of immense benefit — and I think would be to others.
Important personal background: I’m a parish priest, which means (as mentioned here
last year) that since I’m not a full-time academic researcher and writer, I rely upon such scholars immensely. In my current role, I preach weekly, alongside (at minimum) two other distinct teaching opportunities in the week, so it’s not uncommon for me to be preparing five different lessons or sermons at any given time. As such, I simply must rely on those whose vocations are more clearly dedicated to scholarship to do much of the serious and faithful research lifting for me. One such scholar I’ve regularly relied upon is Richard Hays. Hays’s influence in my work of late has mainly been through his 1997 commentary on 1 Corinthians, which was published in the Interpretation
series. Rarely does one encounter a text that is both deeply engaged with the scholarly issues at hand and yet presented in such a way as to be immediately useful for catechesis. Hays avoids the so-called “choice” between serious scholarship and pastoral utility, and instead he unites both causes in a single presentation.
So how does he do it?
Not uniquely, Hays divides Paul’s epistle into pericopes of various sizes covering the entire letter. More to the point, however, Hays then rigorously adheres to the following organization:
- Introduction of the pericope and how it relates to the larger themes Hays traces through the letter.
- Near verse-by-verse analysis of textual and historical issues, often breaking the pericope down into smaller sections first.
- A concluding section organized by pericope (entitled “Reflections for Teachers and Preachers”), discussing themes previously mentioned and traced through the more analytic discussions.
Again, having such an organization isn’t unique to Hays. What’s unique is the rigor with which he sticks to it. Nowhere in the book does the reader feel Hays is giving short shrift to any of a given pericope’s three sections. Rather, the reader finds herself quickly trained to watch for ways each section will tie into the preceding and following ones simultaneously enriching both the more analytic and pastoral writing.
Hays shows a (dare I say unusual) awareness of pastoral issues potentially raised by his work — and yet he refuses to let them dominate his concerns, instead letting Paul’s text drive the discussion. It seems Hays made an important decision to be pastorally aware, but not overly pastorally sensitive. By that I mean he makes the practical connections intellectually accessible to his audience without caving into the supposed need to make them palatable. Just for an example take this paragraph from the reflections on 4:1-21:
Thus far I have spoken as though we are to take on the “apostle” role in this passage and to pronounce criticism on those who confuse the gospel with the regnant cultural systems of our day. But of course if we are to read this letter to the Corinthians as a letter also to us, we must feel the force of Paul’s critique on our own lives. Many of us are filled and rich. Whether we boast in that or not, we must at least ask ourselves whether Paul is talking directly to us in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. If so, we must wonder whether our proclamation of the gospel can have any credibility unless, like Paul, we respond to the call of God by living a visibly alternative lifestyle that bears prophetic witness against a culture of self-satisfaction. (79)
Again, notice what’s present in that example and what’s not: Hays is certainly making sure no one misses what he takes to be one of the pastoral applications of 1 Cor 4:8-13, but he resists the temptation to explain how exactly one would reasonably (palatably) live into this challenge.
Paul’s 1 Corinthians isn’t without it’s pastoral landmines — the proper roles of women, speaking in tongues, and sexual ethics all make their appearances. In a pastorally critical move, Hays doesn’t skip a single verse. Contrary to the way some commentaries are written (especially those written with a “practical” end in mind), Hays never assumes his audience is stupid or unable to see the portions of the text that may seem at best inapplicable and at worst wrong or even dangerous by our contemporary wisdom. Skipping such texts — as is popular — only decreases our understanding of, appreciation for, and obedience to the Scriptures. Hays goes an alternate route: naming the challenges and exploring how we will honestly engage with a biblical text we seek to make authoritative in our lives and our Church.
To be certain, not everything in this commentary is perfect, and, just for the record, I don’t agree with every one of Hays’s conclusions. But I found myself teaching through Paul’s letter, beginning with multiple scholarly sources that I’d assumed would have relatively equal impact as I worked my way through the text. It didn’t take long before I found myself wanting first to know what Hays had said.
There’s a question as to whether or not this model can be further explored. The basic form has certainly been attempted … but I daresay with much less success (such attempts often require either scholarship or application, or usually both, to suffer). Certainly, this purpose ought not be primary for all biblical scholarship (Hays explicitly builds upon others who’ve done work on 1 Corinthians in the past), but it’s something we could use more of. In the meantime, consider this post your impetus for that next Bible Study topic: There’s a terrific resource out there for faithful and serious engagement with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.