Thursday 20 August 2009

Richard B. Hays on New Testament Ethics

Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperCollins/Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 508pp.

[The following review was written in June 1998 and published on London School of Theology’s website. Although the book itself is now over ten years old, it still ranks as a significant piece of work; everyone who writes at length in the area of New Testament ethics now has to go through Hays.]

Richard Hays addresses head on the issue of how the New Testament ought to shape the ethics of the contemporary Christian church. In doing so, he has written a book which combines clear scriptural insight with a deep concern to relate it to today’s world.

In his opening chapter, he speaks of four operations in the task of New Testament ethics. This fourfold task is then used to divide the book into its four main parts.

1. The descriptive task: reading the text carefully
At this level, we look at the individual New Testament documents, noting their distinctive emphases. For instance, we study the particular features of Paul’s ethics or of Matthew’s understanding of the law or of John’s understanding of love in the believing community, and so on.

2. The synthetic task: placing the text in canonical context
We move on from description to raise the question of coherence among the various writers. Hays suggests a cluster of three focal images to govern our understanding of New Testament ethics, images that arise from the texts themselves: community, cross, and new creation. Community, because ‘the church is a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives’. Cross, because ‘Jesus’ death on a cross is the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world’. And new creation, because ‘the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet redeemed world’.

3. The hermeneutical task: relating the text to our situation
Even if we succeed in working out what Matthew and Paul (for example) each have to teach about divorce (for example), and even if we succeed in synthesising them together at a canonical level, we still need to bridge the cultural and temporal gap between their world and our world. How do we move from the Bible to today?

Hays here outlines some of the different ways the Bible itself offers modes of ‘doing ethics’ – whether in stating rules, or in suggesting principles and paradigms, or offering examples, for instance.

Hays suggests that the hermeneutical task requires an act of the imagination. When we are trying to reappropriate the message of the New Testament in a world far removed from the original writers and readers, we are necessarily engaged in the process of placing the life of our community imaginatively within the world which is articulated by the biblical texts. We work by analogy. It’s a job of correlating our world with the New Testament’s world. He says, as an example, that that’s what Paul does in his letters, when he compares the Corinthians, say, to the Israelites wandering in the desert; and that provides a model for how we should do our ethical reflection today. Under the guidance of the Spirit, we re-read our own lives into the narrative framework of the Bible, discerning analogies between the canonical stories and our own.

He also considers other possible sources of authority (e.g., tradition, reason and experience) and their relationship to Scripture. He then moves on to appraise the work of five theological ethicists.

4. The pragmatic task: living the text
Scripture is to be embodied in the life of the Christian community. After all the careful exegesis, the careful synthesis, the careful move from the New Testament to the modern world, all is worthless without the test of good fruit. He concludes by looking at how the church today should address particular issues: violence, divorce, homosexuality, racism, abortion.

Hays wants to argue, along with some other ethicists, that exegesis, synthesis and hermeneutics is intricately tied to pragmatics. There is no true understanding of the text apart from a lived obedience in conformity to the text. The value of our interpretation will be tested by its capacity to produce a community of people who truly are transformed into the character of Christ.


Hays has already been criticised for not taking the Old Testament into consideration, or for focusing excessively on the issue of pacifism, but none of this should detract from a truly excellent book, which deserves to be read widely and carefully.

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