Hauerwas Defends His ‘Hermeneutic’

Hauerwas Defends His ‘Hermeneutic’ January 29, 2009

In the new Richard Hays FS (The Word Leaps the Gap; Eerdmans, 2009), the very first essay is by Stanley Hauerwas who defends himself against Hays’ criticism. Hays has argued that Hauerwas has a freewheeling approach to the Bible which does not seem to depend on a close reading of the text especially from a historical standpoint. Hauerwas states quite bluntly that Hays accuses him of not actually doing exegesis (though Hays never says it in this way).

Hauerwas, though somewhat sympathetic to Hays’s concerns, still admits: ‘I hope to make it clear why I do not believe a “Coherent hermeneutical position” is much help for reading the Bible’ (p. 2).

Though Hauerwas is not much of a bandwagon person, he is still representing a burgeoning attitude that is suspicion of the gains of the historical-critical method (which Hauerwas thinks that Hays still operates within).  Hauerwas is particularly suspicious of the usefulness of word studies.  ‘Historians will do what historians will do, and often we may learn something from them that may be of use, but I remain unconvinced that the so-called historical knowledge is a trump or even is necessary for how Scripture is to be read by the church’ (p. 9).  He goes on: ‘I simply do not believe that I will learn from word studies the “meaning” of the word teleios.  I do not believe that I will learn the meaning of the word teleios because I believe it is a philosophical mistake to think that the word has a [= just one] meaning’ (p. 9).

Hauerwas’ modern example is not surprising: ‘For example, if I wrote that Hays was an “asshole,” most would think I was making a very negative judgment about him.  But where I come from, Texas, “asshole” is a term of endearment males use after they have scored a touchdown’ (9 fn. 20).

My criticism of Hauerwas here would be that if an exegete is doing his historical work rightly, he or she will locate the given Hauerwasian statement in its original socio-historical milieu and discover this unique insight about how Texans use the word “asshole.”  So, here I think his analogy fails.

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  • All those Hauerwas quotes weren’t feeling quite right until I saw the swear word.

  • I’ve lived in Texas for about 35 years and played some football. But, I am unfamiliar with that anatomical term being used that way! But Texas is a big state.

  • poserorprophet

    But, Nijay, it’s not as simple as that. After all, Texans, as Charles points out, also use the term ‘asshole’ in the more derogatory sense. Thus, the exegete, even after the most careful historical work, will still be left making a choice between more than one possible meaning of the word at hand (reminds me of the pistis christou debate…).

  • At one time, I flirted with the idea that historical-critical work is dead/useless. But, at that time, I was pretty much just feeling lazy about diving into all the headache-producing tedium of details. I do share skepticism over any of us historians finding *the one true meaning* of anything. I am quite turned off by scholars puffed up in their certitude. But you can loosen up the certainty of scholarship without throwing the entire historical enterprise under the bus!

  • I finally read this essay by Hauerwas last night. I think it is fascinating not least because Hauerwas and Hays are both involved in my project here at Duke. There is just too much to comment on but I would merely say that in 1996 when writing Moral Vision of the New Testament, Hays was trying to explain how one might draw from the insights of biblical studies (i.e. what is done at SBL) in order to engage life’s issues (sometimes called “ethics”). In other words, Hays took on the project of explaining how “preaching” or “writing a commentary” or “doing theology” should happen–a monstrous task. He embarked later with a cross-disciplinary group of scholars to put out The Art of Reading Scripture in 2003.
    Meanwhile, Hauerwas’s life work has been to argue through philosophy why the Bible should not be the arena of specialized scholars in the academe. He has tried to explain why his area “ethics” cannot be done in a universal way by a guild of scholars from differing religious communities. In other words, Hays is trying to explain to biblical studies scholars that their work can be used for ethics. Hauerwas is trying to explain to ethics scholars that their work can only be done within a community–specifically arguing that Christian ethics should be done with the Bible and in conversation with other Christians. In the end, they come down very close to one another–both United Methodists worshiping with Anglicans–Hauerwas at Church of the Holy Family and Hays at Duke Chapel with Sam Wells. (Wells wrote his dissertation–a sympathetic treatment–on Hauerwas). Both appreciate John Howard Yoder because Yoder as an ethicist is savvy about the ethical methodology that Hauerwas appreciates–doing ethics in the church by the church while his work is infused with references to Scripture like a New Testament scholar.
    A side note: evangelicals, though to a great degree in agreement with Hauerwas and Hays, often don’t understand them. It is important for everyone to understand the backgrounds and situations Hays and Hauerwas are writing against–both grew up in nominal American liberal mainline Christian homes where they learned little about the Bible, Christ and the Church–they came to warm-hearted faith later in life–and then labored in the halls of the fragmented theology university departments where New Testament, ethics and theology are different disciplines and never should intersect–this is what they are arguing against. Many others at Yale (where both did their Ph.D. work) also had this experience and thus some call them “post-liberals.” For evangelicals, one has to first understand where these people are coming from to understand why they are arguing the way they do–the folk they came from have a series of presuppositions that Hauerwas and Hays feel responsible to engage.

  • I understand I am joining this conversation quite late, but as a Duke alum and former student of Dr. Hays, I can’t resist at least a brief comment (brief due to the assumption it may not get read at all!).

    My view is that Hauerwas is ‘dumbing down’ the work Hays actually does. “Word study”? Certainly this is a PART of Hays’ overall methodological practice of intertextuality and the OT in the NT, but to label it ‘word study’ is a caricature, in my opinion. I am, however, amenable to his claim that the meaning of a given word is not always static . . . but at the same time, context tells us very much – Hauerwas almost makes it sound as though ‘word study’ is an overly simplistic enterprise, a claim with which I would sharply disagree.

    Also, I have expressed on my own blog (click my name, please) my own apprehension towards historical-critical scholarship. Of course, I offer that hesitancy within the context of the history of HEBREW BIBLE scholarship. In my view, the NT is an entirely different animal. OT has 8-10 centuries within which its literature was composed (and not nearly the same amount of comparative literature), NT has 2 centuries roughly. I do not wish or intend here to diminish the difficulty or complexity of NT historical-critical methodologies; no doubt, my work in the historical Jesus has proven such reconstructions are quite complicated (and as Schweitzer reminded us, quite subjective and self-reflective). But having been in class with Hays, I would say I think his practice of the historical-critical method (inasmuch as I would even call that his primary method of operation) is done responsibly and with care.

    I am not entirely familiar with Hauerwas’ readings of biblical texts (and I call myself a Duke alum!!! I just haven’t checked out his Matthew commentary by Baker/Brazos yet), but I suspect his questions, assumptions, and the impetus behind both are quite different than many biblical scholars (at least in Hauerwas’ own opinion). The historical-critical method is a helpful and worthwhile–albeit difficult and problematic endeavor, to be sure–but at the same time, there are plenty of biblical scholars, I feel, who are offering readings of texts (theological, ethical, etc.) that are wholly relevant for the contemporary life of faith today. Perhaps this is another caricature Hauerwas has of the discipline of biblical studies.

  • I would just add that I think Hauerwas’s piece is carefully done and entirely worth reading. Nijay has picked out a few provocative parts but it is really very thoughtful. Most readers I think will like it (including Hays!)

  • I think Hauerwas is incredibly thoughtful and insightful. I also, however, am not convinced he is adept at (or has a full appreciation for) biblical scholarship.

  • It seems to me that as much as a “hermeneutic” is layed out by Hays (at least as he explains it in Moral Vision), Hauerwas is correct in his emphasis on the Church. Whether or not historical insight is gained (and it often is) by historical research, the appropriation of Scripture into the lifeblood of the Church reaches well past “historical readings.”

  • You can read the entire piece by Hauerwas free if you go to
    The Word Leaps the Gap at Google Book Search.


    In the upper right corner where it says “Search in this book” [GO] put “Hauerwas” and click GO. Then click on page 1 and then scroll through pages 1-20.

  • I have come across Hauerwas only lately but am not all that impressed by his argument. I admit I need to read his original argument, however the understanding of language and hermeneutics leaves much to be desired. of course words do not only one meaning but the inference that it is therefore unlimited is wrong. words have limited meaning, cat does not signify dog, the meaning is decided by the context, in other words the sentence, paragraph, book etc.
    It’s disengenuous to imply that word studies are all you need. The texas analogy shows this as fallacious.

    If you take his approach as outlined above, in regard to his own works “a coherent position isn’t much help in reading him!”