Skip to content

Richard Hays Targets Misreading Scripture at Loma Linda University

Duke University New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays took aim at “Four (or Five) Ways Not to Read the Bible” before a standing-room only audience in the Carrol Small Amphitheater of the new Centennial Complex at Loma Linda University on Thursday evening, October 15. He lectured throughout the day on Friday, October 16 as well.

This was the first public event in the new structure. It was organized by Sigve Tonstad, a professor in LLU’s School of Religion. Audio and video recordings are available at (909) 558-4536 or

More than two hundred people from several regions and academic institutions in southern California came to hear Hays. One of his most influential books is The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1 – 4:11 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001). It contends that it is not our faith in Jesus Christ that most concerned the Apostle Paul but rather His faithfulness to us. This puts questions about God’s fairness (theodicy) more than inquiries about our salvation (soteriology) front and center in our understanding of Paul’s letters.

Hays is also well known for The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). After dealing with more general matters, he addresses violence, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, anti-Judaism, and abortion. He goes well beyond the so-called “clobber texts” in helpful ways despite his conservative tendencies on some topics.

According to Hays, the “Four (or Five) Ways Not to Read the Bible” are to use it as nothing but:

  1. An advice column;
  2. A map on how to get to heaven after we die;
  3. A predictive text that tells us what will happen at the end of time;
  4. A source of information about antiquity;
  5. A Rorschach Blot on which oppressors impose their views in order to justify their unfair power.

He holds that each of these methods rests upon a partial truth; however, none of them, and no combination of them, does justice to Scripture.

Hays thinks it best to think of the Bible as the grand story of God’s endeavors to redeem the word, a story in which we ourselves continue to live today. [This should come as no surprise to people who read books with titles such as “The Story of Redemption,” “The Drama of the Ages” and “The Great Controversy!]

He offered five good ways to read the Bible:

  1. As a story that it is primarily about God;
  2. As a coherent narrative from Genesis to Revelation, requiring each portion of it to be read in light of the whole;
  3. With awareness that specific texts can have multiple meanings;
  4. In collaboration with others in contemporary Christian communities; and
  5. A willingness to be surprised, challenged, and transformed.

Hays emphasized the importance of reading the Bible with others who also approach it with a willingness to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12: 1 – 3) No individual can be a symphony all alone, he observed. Neither can any individual successfully read the Bible.

He recommended mentors who can demonstrate how to read the Bible well, people from whom we can learn by observing. We should enter apprenticeships in reading the Bible faithfully as an act of discipleship, he proposed.

On Friday Hays took up three case studies in Biblical interpretation. The first was a discussion of “The Bible and the Story of God’s Faithfulness,” especially as articulated in Paul’s letter to the early Christians at Rome. He made a special call for greater emphasis upon the faithfulness of Jesus to us and less on our faith in Jesus. Among other things, this switch (from an objective to a subjective genitive in Koine’ Greek) makes the ethical portions of Romans the summit of Paul’s message rather than the slope on its other side.

The second example was “The Bible and Nonviolent Reconciliation.” He argued from many passages in the New Testament that in our time it is the special vocation of Christians to refuse to exercise military power. He criticized the “just war” tradition in Christian thought as a compromise, in the worst sense of the term, that has allowed and often encouraged, at least since the time of Augustine in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, the very kind of violence that Jesus explicitly rejected. He did not address what those who are not Christians should do and how Christians should relate to them on this issue.

Hays’ third example was “The Bible and Future Hope.” Admitting that on this topic he was “probably preaching to the choir,” he outlined what every Seventh-day Adventist should be able to explain: This is that, although there are contrary hints here and there, in the main the New Testament rejects the idea of the innate immortality of the soul in favor of the resurrection of the body. Like many of us, Hays was not content to leave it there. Instead, he pushed forward in reflections on how a positive view of the human body and all things physical might improve the ways we interact with each other and with the world of nature. If anything, his remarks on this topic had more of a political edge than do many of ours.

The last session of the day was reserved for more questions than were possible at the end of each of the previous meetings. A number of these questions focused on his rejection for Christians of the use of military power, including the depictions of God mandating genocide in some portions of the Old Testament. He resisted the suggestion that his emphasis on the “coherent narrative” of the Bible blurs the distinctiveness of each author. He conceded that the Bible might contain scientific errors; however, he swiftly added that it is a mistake to read the Bible as though it were attempting to do anything like modern science in the first place. If not so much in the final session, throughout the entire series he made evident his dissatisfaction with exclusively or primarily using legal analogies to depict God’s ways of reconciling the world.

In the end I was struck by how congruent Hays’ interpretations were with what we Seventh-day Adventists often believe. That in different ways and degrees we share with him the theological legacy of John Wesley probably has something to do with this!

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.