From 1998-2002, fifteen pastors and scholars participated in what has come to be known as the Princeton Scripture Project. Their intention was to explore how to read the Bible in an age we have come to know as postmodernity. Their reflections are published in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. It is a thoughtful work that gives us nine theses that the contributors agreed on. These are;
- Thesis One: Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
- Thesis Two: Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
- Thesis Three: Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
- Thesis Four: Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
- Thesis Five: The four canonical gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
- Thesis Six: Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action — the church.
- Thesis seven: The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
- Thesis eight: Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
- Thesis nine: We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.
Richard Hays is coeditor of The Art of Reading Scripture. We are fortunate that he included a sermon “Who is the God Who Will Deliver.” The texts are Daniel 3.16-29 and Hebrews 11.32-12.2. Hays introduces Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as superheroes. He describes the escape of the fiery furnace like a modern action movie. I enjoy this introduction yet agree that marveling too much in the special effects will cause us to miss the story.
Hays does not work with an assumption that listeners have any biblical literacy. So he retells the story of Daniel as a story of political resistance. He talks about King Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and the three who refused to bow down. He emphasizes the king’s question, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” I enjoy his commentary. It is one thing to talk about how this God rescued you in Egypt, “but this is the real world now.” Nebuchadnezzar was certain he held the power.
Hays is right to highlight the three Hebrews trusted God without knowing how the story would turn out. This is important because not all resistance stories have a happy ending. This is important because our resistance may get us thrown into the fire as well. This is important because we must trust our future to God.
Hays creatively introduces the fourth figure in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar says “the fourth has the appearance of a god.” Hays gets my attention as he reports that only three men come out. The fourth figure does not follow but remains in the furnace of suffering. He then turns to the Hebrews text where there is a great cloud of witnesses who have trusted in the power of God to deliver. At the end of this is Jesus, the “author and finisher” of faith. Jesus did not escape his enemies. He did not emerge from the furnace unscathed. He remained in it and “endured the cross” in order to deliver us. Hays answers the question, “Who is the god who will deliver?” with “the God who enters the furnace with us.” Hays then brings in a text from Isaiah to affirm this response.
I enjoy Hay’s discussion about audience context and his attempt at early Christian exegesis of the OT deliverance stories. Equally helpful is his conversation about the need for resistance in today’s church. Perhaps most interesting is his discussion of how his involvement in the Scripture Project led him to focus on the fourth man in the sermon. I love the way he preaches an Old Testament text while emphasizing the New Testament Jesus and maintaining the integrity of the text. Both this sermon and The Scripture Project emphasize the salvation of God. Both presume Old and New Testament as the ongoing story of God’s intervention. Both address the saving presence of God in a way that prefigures what is later claimed about Jesus. Both have confidence in God as the author of the entire drama. I applaud his effort to preach in a way that places Jesus in the role of the saving God of history.