A Review of Richard Hays’ “The Conversion of the Imagination”

Hays, Richard B. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.


In many ways, Richard Hays’ The Conversion of the Imagination functions as part-two of his seminal work Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. In both books, Hays endeavors to analyze and understand Paul’s use of the Old Testament (OT) in his New Testament (NT) letters. Hays employs the same methodology in Conversion of the Imagination as he does in Echoes, a methodology that sets out to identify citations, allusions, and echoes of OT passages in Paul’s NT letters in order to use these intertextual connections to better understand the NT passages and Paul’s broader theological constructs. A reader of Hays’ Echoes will recognize the familiar term metalepsis, a term that Hays borrows from the discipline of literary criticism to explain the literary phenomenon that occurs when an author cites or alludes to a text in order to bring a previous text’s entire context to bear on the author’s current theme. Throughout Conversion of the Imagination, a collection of essays whose common thread is the exploration of Paul’s employment and deployment of the Scriptures, Hays advances three theses: “(1) the interpretation of Israel’s Scripture was central to the apostle Paul’s thought; (2) we can learn from Paul’s example how to read Scripture faithfully; (3) if we do follow his example, the church’s imagination will be converted to see both Scripture and the world in radically new ways” (viii). Hays’ stated purpose of writing such a work is to “explore what Scripture looks like from within Paul’s imaginative narrative world” (x).


In Chapter 1, Hays turns to the book of 1 Corinthians to examine the question of the eschatological identity of the church of Corinth in Paul’s correspondence. He begins by looking at the direct quotation of Isaiah 45:14 in 1 Corinthians 14:25. Via the concept of metalepsis, Hays analyzes the context of Isaiah 45, which is alluded to in Zechariah 8:20-23 and Daniel 2:46-47, to point out that in their original contexts these passages are about the Gentile outsider being brought to worship Israel’s God after having recognized God’s presence with Israel (3). Hays argues that Paul has intentionally placed the predominantly Gentile church into the theological shoes of OT Israel by identifying the church not simply with OT Israel but as OT Israel. Hays calls this Pauline reading of these texts “apocalyptic,” since it makes use of an “eschatological hermeneutic” that has been shaped by the revealed event of the cross (4). According to Hays, this was “Paul’s missionary strategy in his confrontation with pagan culture … [to] draw[] upon eschatologically interpreted Scripture texts to clarify the identify of the church and to remake the minds of his congregations” (5). Hays sees this “hermeneutical move” deployed by Paul elsewhere—this time typologically—in 1 Corinthians 10:1-22. Here Hays argues that Paul describes the Corinthian church in terms reminiscent of the wilderness generation, which again identifies the church as occupying the theological space of OT Israel. Hays argues for the same church-Israel re-identification in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and from all of theses passages taken together Hays makes the case that Paul intentionally connected the NT church with OT Israel in order to affect a “conversion of the imagination” in NT believers, an imagination that allows the NT church to read Israel’s history as their history, and even to read themselves into Israel’s history.

In Chapter 2, Hays sets forth his seven criteria for detecting allusions and echoes in the letters of Paul which he has previously outlined in Echoes. As a test case for the validity of these criteria, Hays examines Paul’s use of Isaiah in his NT letters. A key argument for Hays in this chapter, which is similar to an argument he makes in Echoes, is that Paul read Isaiah ecclesiocentrically, not christocentrically. According to Hays, Paul interpreted Israel’s history as laid forth in the book of Isaiah—a history that includes a prediction of the future in-grafting of the Gentile nations into the people of God—and then wrote his NT letters with this Gentile-inclusion as a prominent theme to his ministry. Hays refers to this reading of Isaiah as ecclesiocentric, which, surprisingly, even to Hays, neglects the more obvious christocentric passages like Isaiah 53 (48).

In Chapter 3, Hays turns to the third chapter of the book of Romans to argue that Psalm 143 “provides the intertextual matrix within which Paul’s argument in Rom 3 finds its coherence” (xii). After identifying various allusions and a citation to Psalm 143 in Romans 3, Hays employs the concept of metalepsis—thus bringing to bear the context of Psalm 143 onto Romans 3—in order to defend his understanding of the much contested phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. For Hays, when Paul speaks of the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, Paul is referring to God’s faithfulness to the covenant, or God’s integrity. Since Psalm 143, which is cited by Paul in Romans 3:20, is largely about God saving on account of his own loving-kindness and righteousness, Paul speaks of God’s righteousness in the same way, which is to say that Paul speaks of the righteousness of God as an attribute of God.

In Chapter 4, Hays takes up Paul’s argument in Romans 4, beginning first with verse 1. Hays offers a “fresh approach” to the problem of the textual variations, differing translations, and numerous interpretations of Romans 4:1 (63). Following a structural argument for the book of Romans that identifies the recurring rhetorical question τί [οὖν] ἐροῦμεν in key places (Rom 3:5, 6:1, 7:7, 8:31, 9:30), Hays argues for the following translation of 4:1, “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham (to be) our forefather according to the flesh?” (67). This reading is in opposition to the majority reading that favors seeing an allusion to the phrase εὑρίσκειν χάριν in Genesis 18:3, which would make the question in 4:1 about Abraham’s search for grace, or justification. Hays argues that the “Western exegetical tradition’s characteristic preoccupation with the problem of how Abraham found justification” is misguided (66). Instead, Hays argues that the fundamental problem that Paul is wrestling with in Romans is how “to work out an understanding of the relationship in Christ between Jews and Gentiles” (69). To this point, Hays turns to the rest of chapter 4 to argue that Abraham is not used as an example of one who is justified by faith, whose example believers are to follow in faith, but instead as father of both Jews and Gentiles, who are blessed—and justified—by being his descendants not according to the flesh but according to faith. In this way, Abraham prefigures the Christ, “whose faith / obedience now has vicarious soteriological consequences for those who know him as Lord” (84).

In Chapter 5, Hays analyzes the role of the Law in Paul’s thought, specifically with respect to the context of Romans 3-4. Hays argues that Paul understands the law to have three specific uses, which explains Paul’s seemingly varied approach to the Law in Romans. The three uses of the Law that Hays identifies in Paul are, “(a) the Law defines the identity of the Jewish people; (b) the Law pronounces condemnation on all humanity; and (c) the Law is an oracular witness that prefigures the righteousness of God disclosed in Jesus Christ” (85). For Hays, Paul’s phrase νόμος τῶν ἔργων refers to the Jewish identity markers, which are not to be boasted in (89). Instead, for Paul, the Law is what condemns humanity, including Jews, and thus puts them in utter dependence on the righteousness of God. This is how, according to Hays, Paul shifts from reading the Law “as commandment to a reading of Law as narrative of promise.” (96) This narrative reading of the law points “forward to the coming of Christ and to God’s intent to call Jews and Gentiles together into a community that simultaneously confirms the fidelity of God and glorifies God for his mercy” (99). These three “themes” of the Law mark a hermeneutical progression in Paul’s own reading of the Law (100).

In Chapter 6, Hays turns to Romans 15 to examine Paul’s christological reading of the lament psalms. In Romans 15, Paul quotes Psalm 69:9 and Psalm 18:49 on the lips of the Christ. For Hays, this represents a christological reading of the psalms that Paul both inherited from exilic and post-exilic Judaism and then developed through living in his own Jewish-Christian community. This christological reading of the psalms, according to Hays, would have been present in 1st century Judaism due to the failure of the Davidic line in spite of the eternal promises made to his heir, which would have forced a reinterpretation on the Jewish community that was likely messianic in its later development. Hays argues that Paul read the lament psalms as pointing forward to the Christ, but also that the pattern of suffering that is depicted in these psalms is exemplary for the life of the Christian.

Paul’s use of the text of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 is the topic of discussion in Hays’ seventh chapter. Appealing to 1 Enoch and all of the NT texts containing the concept of a righteous one, Hays argues that the “Righteous One” in Habakkuk 2:4 was a messianic title for the “eschatological agent of God” (121). Therefore, according to Hays, Paul presupposed this christological interpretation of the “Righteous One” in his quotation in Romans 1:17, which supports Hays’ thesis elsewhere that it is the faithfulness of Jesus, not faith in Jesus, that is in view both here and in Romans 3:21-26. Turning to Galatians 3:11, Hays suggests that Paul, just as he has read Genesis 17:8 as a messianic prophesy, reads Habakkuk 2:3-4 as a prefigurement of the Christ, which would have been a radically apocalyptic hermeneutical move for Paul (141).

Chapter 8 explores the use of the OT in Paul’s ethics. Hays sees Paul using the OT in several ways: (1) as a narrative framework for community identity, (2) as a call to righteousness and love, (3) as an implicit source of particular norms, (4) as a paradigmatic narrative, (5) as a specific word addressed to the community. All of these revolve around Paul’s overall concern for shaping the church’s “ethos and identity,” a theme reminiscent of Hays’ first chapter (161).

In Chapter 9, Hays addresses specific critiques that were leveled against his previous work Echoes. Perhaps most noteworthy in this chapter is Hays’ response to an issue raised by James Sanders. Sanders has a problem with Hays’ argument that Paul’s hermeneutic was “ecclesiocentric.” Instead, Sanders suggests that Paul’s hermeneutic was “theocentric,” a point that Hays willingly concedes (170-171). Though it is hard to see where this is worked out in the rest of the book, the fact that Hays recognizes the problem is at least interesting.

Hays finishes his work by laying forth a way forward for biblical scholarship via what he calls a “hermeneutic of trust.” This is accomplished through a posture of trust before the text (197), a suspicion of ourselves rather than a suspicion of the text (198), and a commitment to the performance and not just a critique of the text (198).

Critical Evaluation

Following this brief summary, I will offer my critique of Hays’ Conversion of the Imagination. Overall, I found Hays’ Conversion fresh, stimulating, thought-provoking, and well-crafted. It is clear that Hays has grappled with Paul’s arguments for many years, paying meticulous attention to each jot and every tittle within his letters. I respect Hays for taking Paul seriously as a thinker and as an exegete; it is clear that Hays has great respect for Paul and the Scriptures. The concept of a “hermeneutic of trust” resonates with my evangelical sensibilities, and I am happy to find this notable advocate for such an idea.

Prior to reading Echoes and Conversion, I did not have a label for the idea of a biblical author importing the context of another passage of Scripture through citation or allusion in order to make a theological point in the author’s immediate context. Hays makes a good case that Paul does just that in his letters, which he refers to as metalepsis. While this concept is helpful, I do think that Hays’ use of metalepsis in Echoes and Conversion may be a prime case of the Baader-Meinhof effect, the phenomenon that happens when something comes to someone’s attention and then is subsequently seen by that person everywhere. Ironically, it is Hays’ use of metalepsis, the same concept that I thank him for defining, that causes me to be less convinced of some of his more substantial arguments.

In chapter 3, where Hays examines Romans 3, it is the metalepsis of Psalm 143 that finally seems to control Hays’ reading of Romans 3. Psalm 143 contains the concept of the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, which is the phrase under scrutiny by many scholars in Romans 3. Since Paul cites Psalm 143 in Romans 3, Hays argues that Paul has in mind the psalmist’s use of the concept δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, which Hays argues is an attribute of God, even though this phrase or concept is not directly accessed by Paul in the citation. Instead, Hays argues that it is accessed by Paul metaleptically. On top of this, Hays asserts that Paul wrote Romans to answer the question of God’s integrity (53). These two evidences combined are convincing enough for Hays to conclude that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is referring to an attribute of God, thus overturning the reading of the majority of Reformed exegetes from Luther forward that sees δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as including the idea of gift-righteousness. This causes problems for Hays, for when Hays comes to verse 8 in Romans 3, he is forced to conclude that “Paul has gotten ahead of himself here.” (56, footnote 21). Why does Hays conclude this? Because it doesn’t fit with his reading of the text as a theodicy. The question Paul raises in verse 8 is concerned with the charge that his gospel is license for libertinism, which, if Romans 3 is not about human justification but about the justification of God, then this question does not fit the flow of the argument. Admittedly, Hays has “put aside the presupposition that Romans is a treatise answering the question ‘How can I be saved?'” (57), a hermeneutical move that Hays does not explain apart from putting forth his own reading of the text. If Hays’ reading is correct, then the theme of Romans 3—God is righteous even though from a human perspective he appears not to be righteous—is rehashed again in Romans 9-11, a reality that Hays recognizes but does not think to be problematic (57, footnote 25). Overall, Hays use of the metalepsis of Psalm 143 to read Romans 3 seems to break down the internal logic inherent in Romans 3 instead of support it.

Similarly, in his next chapter, Hays lets his understanding of the purpose of the letter of Romans, which he argues is a theodicy, to control his reading of Romans 4:1 and following. After arguing that 4:1 should be translated, “Have we found Abraham [to be] our forefather according to the flesh?,” Hays contends that Romans 4 is not about how a person can be justified, but that it is about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s economy of salvation. This forces Hays to see verses 2-8 of Romans 4 as merely an excursus on justification by faith and not works, as Hays finds the main theme of the chapter in verses 9-18, that Abraham is the father of Jews and Gentiles (79). This is important for Hays’ reading of 4:1, for if Romans 4:2-8 holds contains a major theme of Romans—the theme of justification by faith apart from works— then the reading of 4:1 that Hays opposes makes more sense in the context. Instead, the majority reading of Romans 4:1 fits the verses that follow in 2-8, thus making this chapter about how a person is justified before God, whether Abraham be seen as a precursor and a type or merely as an example of one who is justified by faith.

An irony I find in Hays’ work comes in his chapter on “the righteous one” in Habakkuk. Of all the places where his concept of metalepsis could be deployed in favor of the more traditional reading, Hays opts to examine the concept of “the righteous one” by looking at 1st-century texts and their interpretation of this phrase—which may or may not echo Habakkuk 2:4—instead of in examining it in depth in its original context. Surely, if one were to import the context of Habakkuk metalepticly, it could be persuasively argued that “the righteous one” who “lives by faith” is the one who trusts God in the midst of judgment, and that it is not a prophetic word foretelling the coming of a “Righteous One” who will live faithfully. However, it must be recognized that how one reads Romans 1:17 largely depends on how one will read Romans 3:21-26, and vice-versa.

On the whole, where Hays rejects the more Reformed readings of Romans, I find him doing so on shaky ground, whether arguing from an assumed purpose (as in claiming the book of Romans to be a theodicy) or from his concept of metalepsis. Where I find his readings helpful, though, are outside of the book of Romans.

Hays’ first chapter on 1 Corinthians and Paul’s understanding of the identity of the church of Corinth is very convincing. It is striking that Paul frequently refers to the Corinthians, a church that was largely Gentile, in terms that exclude them from the current ἔθνη, or גוים, and instead refers to them in terms that place them in the theological shoes of OT Israel. Perhaps a greater understanding of Paul’s theological underpinnings regarding Israel in light of the apocalyptic cross of Christ outside of the book of Romans—such as what Hays offers in his chapter on 1 Corinthians—might help us read Romans 9-11 through a “converted imagination,” if I may borrow a phrase from Hays.


Hays is in true form in his book The Conversion of the Imagination. If nothing else, we should learn from Hays the art of reading deeply and respectfully the NT and OT while trusting that God is speaking his message of salvation to us even today. Any serious scholar looking for intertextual relationships would do well to heed the criteria set forth by Hays in this work and Echoes. And biblical scholarship is in debt to Hays for the concept of metalepsis that he borrowed from literary criticism. While the evangelical will want to read Hays with a trusty guide like Moo or Schreiner in hand in order to study the counter-arguments to Hays’ well-crafted exegesis, we find in Hays a friend who trusts God at his Word while trying to better understand the truths of his Word. And for that I am thankful.


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