In his influential study on intertextuality, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Richard Hays argues the apostle Paul’s hermeneutic is “functionally ecclesiocentric rather than christocentric” (xiii). In a series of essays, he shows how the apostle applies Old Testament texts to the New Testament church, and in so doing he questions the commonly held assumption that Paul wrote with a Christocentric approach to the Old Testament.
In comparison to the Gospels, especially Matthew and John, Hays shows that Paul is much more reticent to cite messianic prooftexts. Rather, writing to local churches who are comprised of the eschatological people of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11), he applies the Old Testament scriptures semi-directly to the church. I say semi-directly, because the old covenant scriptures only apply through the mediation of Jesus Christ, a point Hays goes on to affirm: “christology is the foundation on which [Paul’s] ecclesiocentric counterreadings are constructed” (120).
For Hays, his aim is to observe the hermeneutical principles at work in Paul’s letters. My question is more systematic. What does Paul’s method of interpretation say to us about the relationship between Israel and the Church? Debates rage between Dispensationalists who make a clear division between Israel and the Church and Covenant Theologians who have ostensibly replaced Israel with the Church. Thankfully, these hard divisions have been revised in recent years—Progressive Dispensationalists see more continuity between Israel and the Church (even as they retain a unique place for Israel), and Covenant Theologians like Richard Gaffin and Anthony Hoekema have centered Old Testament promises in Jesus Christ and his new covenant people. Still, the debate continues: how should we relate the testaments?
Enter Richard Hays. His textual observation that Paul’s hermeneutic is more ecclesiocentric than Christocentric brings to light a number of passages that show how Paul applied the Old Testament to the church. Accordingly, they supply textual support for a view that neither squares with Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology. For that reason—he is not defending a theological position—his observations evaluate competing theological systems and deserve careful consideration.
In what follows, define a few terms that may be unfamiliar to readers. Then, I will show Hays’ argument for an ecclesiocentric reading of Paul. Next, I will show how this reading helps explain 1 Corinthians 10. Last, I will draw a few conclusions about the relationship between Israel and the Church.
Intertextuality — Hays defines intertextuality as “imbedding fragments of an earlier text within a later one” (14). In literary studies, intertextuality may apply to the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, or any writers whose works compose a “canon, a body of traditions” which draw upon one another (15). In the Scripture, intertextuality relates to the way in which New Testament authors cite or allude to Old Testament texts; however, Michael Fishbane (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel) has shown intertextuality began in the Old Testament itself (cf. R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament)
Christocentric — The hermeneutical approach of the New Testament authors, according to Richard Longenecker and E. Earl Ellis (cited by Hays, 84, fn1). Following Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44–49; John 5:39), the apostles saw Christ throughout the Old Testament. A Christocentric reading of the Old Testament pays attention to the typological features of the events, persons, and institutions, such that the reader/preacher moves from the text to Christ; i.e., Christ is the fulfillment of (every passage in) the Old Testament. For the record, Longenecker sees this approach in the apostles and then calls modern interpreters to reject it—i.e., we can’t do what the apostles did.
Christotelic — As I have argued elsewhere, I believe Christotelic (i.e., Christ-at-the-end) is a better description for true typology (i.e., typology as we find it in Scripture). Instead of reading Christ (backwards) into the Old Testament, we should see Christ as the terminus and goal of the Old Testament who comes at the end of time (eschatologically-speaking) and who is the end (goal) of Scripture. Hence, all types and shadows find their eschatological fulfillment in Christ. Therefore, we read the Old Testament in its historical situation as given to the people of Israel, all the while waiting to see how it to Jesus through the progressive revelation of redemptive history. Christotelic (as a descriptor) better captures the eschatological progression of Scripture.
Ecclesiocentric — The hermeneutical approach Richard Hays finds in the Apostle Paul (84–87). By affirming Paul’s focus on the church, he isn’t denying Paul’s Christological reading of Scripture. Rather, he is observing the fact that Paul only cites messianic prooftexts in a few places (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:25–27; Galatians 3:16), while he regularly moves from Old Testament text to New Testament church.
Ecclesiotelic — The hermeneutical approach Paul uses in his letters to relate Old Testament Scriptures to the Church. Markus Bockmuehl “The Conversion of Desire in St. Paul’s Hermeneutics,” in Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard Hays, 499) uses this term, and Hays may use it later—I’m still in processing of reading his works. Like Christotelic, it better captures the eschatological movement from Israel to the church via Christ. Rather than centering Paul’s hermeneutic on the church, the church becomes the end-times people of God composed of Jew and Gentile who are created by their common faith in Christ. In this way the church is goal (telos) of Christ’s work, and hence stands on this side of Christ’s completed work. (Israel, as God’s covenant people according to the flesh, stand on the other side).
Hays’s Ecclesiocentric Argument
Hays argues that Paul’s primary approach to the Old Testament is not Christocentrc, but ecclesiocentric. Noting that Paul “does sometimes discover christological figurations in Scripture” (84), he is far more likely to cite and apply Old Testament verses to the church. Shockingly, but accurately, Hays notes, “in contrast to other early Christian writers [e.g., John and Matthew], Paul shows little interest in messianic prooftexts. . . . we rarely find Paul using Scripture to define the identity of Jesus Christ or to reflect theologically about it” (85–86). Hays surmises that because Paul wrote to churches, his concerns were not primarily evangelistic but ecclesiological (86).
Therefore, when he reads what would later be known as the Old Testament, Paul does so looking for what it says to the church. And this is what he finds, according to Hays:
What Paul finds in Scripture, above all else, is a prefiguration of the church as the people of God. (By church, I mean, of course, not the institutional hierarchy that took shape over time but the community of people who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.) . . . Paul uses Scripture primarily to shape his understanding of the community of faith; conversely, Paul’s experience of the Christian community—composed of Jews and Gentiles together—shapes his reading of Scripture. In short, Paul operates with an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic. (86)
While his final point (“the Christian community . . . shapes his reading of Scripture”) may make Paul sound like a postmodern, reader-response interpreter, there is merit to his point. The coming of Christ and the formation of the church shine light backwards into the Old Testament. Just as Christ gave substance to the Law’s shadows (Colossians 2:17), so the church reveals God’s long hidden but now revealed plan. We know this because Paul described the union of Jew and Gentile as mystery now revealed (Ephesians 2:11–3:6). Therefore, the church provides epistemic clarity to the Old Testament scriptures, even as the Old Testament prefigures the eschatological community of Jesus.
Indeed, this, Hays argues, is how Paul read the Old Testament. To Paul Israel served as a type of the church to come. This is evidenced in a number of passages, but none more clearly than 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul speaks of the events of Israel as typological for the church in Corinth. More exactly, in addressing the issues in Corinth, he appeals to sins of Israel (e.g., sexual immorality, idolatry, and grumbling) to warn the church: These are your fathers, don’t walk in their ways. This passage provides a number of insights into the relationship between Israel and the Church, and thus we turn our attention to the theological question: What has the church to do with Israel?
1 Corinthians 10: A Test Case for Continuity and Discontinuity
To understand the way in which Paul is relating Israel and the church, it is necessary to observe ways in which the church both continues the redemptive history of Israel and transcends it, as a people who are experiencing the new creation life in Christ. From there, we can better grasp the redemptive-historical differences. So let me suggest 5 points of continuity and 4 points of discontinuity between Israel and the church, which I believe are evident in 1 Corinthians 10 .
- Paul speaks to the church about Israel as “our fathers.” Comprised of Jews and Gentiles, it is mildly shocking that Paul would identify patriarchs of Israel as the church’s fathers. And yet, this frames his argument and reveals his biblical theology. Polemically, Paul wants to bring the Corinthians in close proximity to Israel in order to show their similarities, so he can warn them, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of Israel.” Theologically, his identification reveal what he explicitly describes elsewhere, that in Christ, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), the church as God’s people of faith becomes the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). Therefore, the first step of continuity is made in teaching the Gentiles that their history now runs through the heritage of Israel.
- Paul makes a point of connecting Israel’s experience in the wilderness with the church’s two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Paul goes out of his way to speak of Israel’s experience in terms that the Corinthians could appreciate. The fathers went “under the cloud” and “passed through the sea,” just like the Corinthians were baptized (immersed) when they identified themselves with Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14–17). Next, he speaks of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink,” not implying immaterial supplies, but supernatural supplies. Just as the Corinthians ate the Lord’s Supper, a spiritual meal with Jesus, so the Israelites also received food and drink from the Lord. Of course, there are dissimilarities here, but Paul is working to connect Israel’s experience with the church.
- Paul highlights the sins of Israel and the inconsistency of God’s people chasing idols, immorality, and discontentment. The whole point of his argument is to show how God’s people missed their blessings because they refused to resist temptations—the same error that threatened the Corinthians. Paul, therefore, makes an analogy between Israel’s rebellion and the church’s. We will see that the important discontinuity stands at this point (i.e., the spiritual nature of God’s people), but clearly the history of Israel stands in continuity with the church.
- Paul describes the judgment of Israel as an example, or better a type, for the church. He doesn’t explicitly say that Israel is a type of the church; he says that what happened to them is a negative type, or warning. In fact, going further, he says that what was written down was not for Israel but for the predominately-Gentile church. This line of reasoning is not uncommon for Paul; he says in Romans 15:4 and 2 Timothy 3:16–17 that Scripture has an abiding and even future-oriented focus, but what is shocking is the way he describes the holy Scriptures as written for Gentiles. Those who look for a way to divide Israel and Church along ethnic lines will have to explain what Paul means here.
- Last, Paul describes the church—made of Jews and Gentiles—as the people “on whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11). Throughout the Old Testament, Israel had waited for the messiah to usher in a new age. Even in Acts the disciples of Christ continued to ask about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (1:6), one of the hallmarks of the new age. There, Jesus replied that it was not for them to know the times or seasons, but they would receive the Spirit and become witnesses of the resurrected king. In short, it was in the coming assembly (i.e., the church), where Spirit-filled ambassadors of King Jesus would experience the kingdom. The church in Corinth is proof of Jesus words. Acts 18 tells of how the gospel of the kingdom came to Corinth and how Jews and Gentiles came to faith. Now as a multi-ethnic assembly, the gathering of disciples in Corinth (i.e., the church) bore witness to gospel of King Jesus. In this way, they were the people who currently experienced the blessings of the new age, even as they waited for the return of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15).
All together, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 depends upon a deep-seated, redemptive-historical continuity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of in the New Testament. Paul is doing more than making superficial comparisons; he truly sees the multi-national church as the continuation of Israel, but in a way that has been transformed by the person and work of Jesus Christ, which leads us to elements of discontinuity also evident in 1 Corinthians 10.
Taking into consideration the context of 1 Corinthians 10, a passage aiming to liberate the Corinthians from their various idolatries, the importance of the church’s continuity with Israel is significant. The effectiveness of his warning depends on them seeing their shared spiritual experience with Israel. Yet, that is not all that Paul has to say. He doesn’t merely make the church in Corinth the next stop in the history of Israel, rather as 1 Corinthians 10:32 indicates, he sees the church as a third race—a people set in contrast to Jew and Gentile. Hence, in the midst of emphasizing continuity, he also highlights discontinuity which gives disciples of Christ hope they will not perish in their sin as “most” of those who came out of Egypt did when they grumbled against God died in the wilderness.
Here are four evidences of this discontinuity:
- Israel is a type of God’s eschatological people, not the ultimate fulfillment. Again, to speak more exactly, the people of Israel experienced events that were typological of experiences in the church. There is reason to believe the gathering at Sinai functions typologically for the gathering of the church (see Hebrews 12:22–24), but that is not Paul’s point here. Rather, Paul aims to show the continuity of experience. Still, in that continuity there is the plain difference: the church is not the same as Israel. The people of God in Corinth stand on the other side of the cross and the empty tomb; they are a multi-national congregation; they are not trusting in shadows, but the substance of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1–2). If anything, the church—composed of a remnant of Israel and people from every nation—is the substance (in Christ) to which the nation of Israel pointed.
- The end of the ages has come upon them. Verse 11 clearly speaks of the church possessing the unique place of God’s eschatological people. Importantly, there is not a full divide between Jew and Gentile, Israel and the church, because when Paul went to Corinth, he first preached in the synagogue (Acts 18:1–11). He witnessed to the Jews about Christ and he saw some come to faith (v. 8). But very shortly, the remaining Jews rejected him and he went to the nations. This international mission indicates the eschatological makeup of the church. Throughout the Old Testament, God promised to bring the Gentiles into blessings of Abraham (see Genesis 12:3; Psalm 67; Isaiah 49:1–7; etc.). Now in Christ, the blessings of Abraham have been manifest, and all who trust in Christ may enjoy them. For this reason, Paul says the end of the ages has come; he points out how the Old Testament is written down for this eschatological people of God. As noted above, this highlights continuity, but not without discontinuity, for Israel (by itself) has not experienced the end of the ages—it is God’s people, Jew and Gentile, who have experienced it in Christ.
- God has given his spiritual ability to flee from idolatry. Accompanying the end of the age is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The New Covenant promised that the Spirit would be poured out (Ezekiel 36:26–27; Joel 2:28–32). Pentecost records this event and the rest of Acts records the power of the Spirit to draw the nations to faith. In this, the eschatological people of God (i.e., the church) enjoy a spiritual power that the nation of Israel never did. To be sure, Paul speaks of the Israelites eating and drinking spiritual food and drink (1 Corinthians 10:3–4), but this speaks of its origin more than its efficacy. If anything, Paul is correcting the notion that the Lord’s Supper has any magical or mystical power. Rather, the meaning of his words in verses 3–4 speak to the way that God supernaturally provided these elements. For the church in Corinth, the good news is that they have been made alive by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11) and thus are not destined to die in the wilderness like the Israel’s who did not have the Holy Spirit.
- Christ has come and is the way of escape. Along these lines, in Christ, the church has been given a way of escape that Israel did not have. Under the old covenant, God dealt with the nation through a variety of mediators. For instance, under David and his sons, when the king obeyed God they nation was blessed; when he disobeyed the nation suffered. As Jeremiah 31:29 put it, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words, before the new covenant, every member of the covenant depended on a series of mediators (e.g., fathers, priests, kings) in order to know God. Now, under the new covenant that has changed. Through Jesus Christ there is direct access to God: every person is immediately accountable to God, and every person has a way of escape. The destiny of an individual no longer determined by others, but by the individual who shares covenantal kinship with God in Christ. Again, this change from old covenant to new is a radical difference between Israel and the church. For Jews in the church, there is a spiritual power that did not exist under the Law of Moses (cf. Romans 8); for Gentiles there is a way of life in Christ that is totally foreign to the paganism that defined Corinth. Together, escape is offered to all those who know Christ and have been made alive by the Spirit.
In all these ways and more, the church in Corinth is distinct from Israel. Yet, they are distinct in a way that does not obliterate the promises to Israel. Rather, as Paul will say in his second letter to this church: all the promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). As the eschatological, new covenant people of God, the church does not stand against the Old Testament or the nation of Israel. Rather, as Paul explains (his motivations for evangelizing the Gentiles) in Romans 11, he believes the church is God’s means of waking the Jews from their spiritual slumber. Since the Law and the Prophets promised blessings to the nations through Israel, the church does not stand against the Old Testament, rather it is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. And hence, we who inhabit the church today and read the stories of Israel as our own, must see how the church both continues the redemptive story of Israel and transcends it through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Richard Hays helpfully delineates Israel’s relationship to the church and vice versa. Systematic theologians would profit from reading his studies on intertextuality, because they are not forcing a Dispensational or Covenant reading on the text. Rather, they expose how continuity and discontinuity arise from the text itself, and in turn shape (and reshape) our theological systems. As a systematic theologian, I’ve found much help in formulating doctrine by swimming in the lanes of biblical studies. This practice has been proven helpful again in reading Richard Hays. I commend his ecclesiocentric approach as a hermeneutical approach worth consideration for hermeneutics and theological formulation.
Even more though, I would encourage you to wrestle the patterns he has observed—namely, how Paul himself applied the Old Testament to the church. First Corinthians 10 is one prime example, but so are Galatians 4, Ephesians 2 and 3, and the whole book of Romans. As a Jew, Paul is constantly wrestling with the mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles and the ostensible rejection of the Jews. By refusing to pull Paul under the blanket category of “Christocentric,” Hays helps us to see more of his Paul’s theological method and how that in turn helps us do ecclesiology which is informed by biblical theology and eschatology.
May God continue to open our eyes to his Word, his Christ, and his plan for the ages—the union of Jew and Gentiles in Christ both now and forever. To that end we read and we preach.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds