Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On Synthesis, Canon, and Context in Richard Hays' Moral Vision

I first read Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) in the summer of 2007, while serving in a missions internship in Tomsk, Russia. At that time Hays’ work affected me powerfully; and there is no denying that the book is a towering achievement of biblical scholarship. In it Hays accomplishes a remarkable synthesis of ethical insight, biblical expertise, close readings of texts, serious attention to the latest scholarly trends and findings, and theological thinking in its highest form, coming together as a cohesive whole that is a gift to the practice, ministry, and moral discernment of the church.

I later re-read the book for a class taught by Luke Timothy Johnson in the fall of 2010, and since then have encountered more than a few substantive critiques of it. Though the original confluence of factors—cross-cultural, ministerial, personal, missionary—in my first reading led to the book leaving a lasting impact on me, time and reflection have helped in gaining some critical distance. In the following, then, I want to focus my engagement of the book into three modes: defending, extending, and/or problematizing particular arguments, points, or claims made by Hays. I will then take up further concerns (of a bit more playful nature) in my next post.

To begin, Hays states the “primary goal” of the book thus: “to engage the theological problem of how the New Testament ought to shape the ethical norms and practices of the church in our time” (p. 9, emphasis original). The book’s structure reveals Hays method and proposal for undertaking this goal: (1) the descriptive task of attending to the individual witnesses; (2) the synthetic task of discovering a coherent witness within the diversity of texts; (3) the hermeneutical task of reading these ancient texts as somehow texts for today; and (4) the pragmatic task of practicing the New Testament’s moral vision in the lives of concrete communities (pp. 3-7).

The first question that arises out of this methodological proposal is that of synthesis: Is it possible, and even if so, is it to be commended? As regards the former, Hays wants to preserve the diverse voices of the New Testament in their integrity, not imposing an alien vision upon them, much less an arbitrary unity; but nonetheless he believes that there is a real unity to be discovered when all the witnesses are read together. Instead of a unifying principle or single thematic thread, Hays proposes three focal images: community, cross, and new creation (p. 5). Though he will explore this in much greater detail later, mention of them suffices to answer the question of the possibility of synthesis.

As for the commendableness of the synthetic task, Hays addresses this challenge as well, but I want to extend the conversation in a different direction. Fundamentally, one must have a theory or, better, a theology of Christian Scripture in order to posit both real unity (rather than accidental) and a normative ethical vision drawn out of that unity. Hays understandably assumes the straightforward fact that the Bible functions authoritatively in the church, and rightly so, for (somehow) God acts to speak, guide, order, judge, and renew the believing community through it. But even granting this assumption—though it too ought to be argued—it is not thereby clear that the form or substance of the various canonical texts will articulate the same vision; for what if the very heart of their authoritative ordering word is their canonically approved diversity? That is to say: What if the authority of the New Testament (see below for the Old) were to be found precisely in the disparate and ultimately differing moral views found within it—a formative event of communal moral thinking frozen in ember as a decisive image of how the church should do its ethics?

This challenge raises the question of the Old Testament. Again, Hays addresses the issue head-on, responding that “the reader of the pages that follow will see that my approach to the New Testament is fundamentally shaped by the conviction that the New Testament is intelligible only as a hermeneutical appropriation of Israel’s Scriptures” (p. 9). The ensuing work should “show how deeply the convictional structure of the New Testament writers is shaped by the witness of the Old Testament.” The topic arises more extensively in the much later chapter, “How Shall We Use the Texts?” (pp. 306-9), as well as practically in the chapter on violence when Hays explicitly cites the New Testament’s witness over against that of the Old (pp. 336-7).

The remaining question, however, is that of the moral authority of the Old Testament in its own integrity as a source for Christian ethical reflection. The broad spectrum of the Christian tradition has assumed that one can find moral answers in the Old as well as the New Testament, and though few have attempted to discern there resources apart from or in opposition to the gospel or the revelation of Christ, they have not always been functionally routed or read through the lens of Hays’ three focal images (or some other filter). In other words, when asking about wealth and possessions, or the relationship between women and men, or societal governance, and so on, do Proverbs, Exodus, Ezekiel, or Genesis not offer a moral vision in their own voice? Are they not also legitimate sources of ethical discernment for the church?

On the one hand, it would seem as if Hays has implicitly excluded them from Christian moral discernment, for insofar as they are present, they are so as found within the New Testament, or as the backdrop for its writing. What, then, does the Old Testament finally have to offer? Presumably if one is able to consider five pressing contemporary ethical issues in almost sole reliance on the New Testament (along with other, non-textual moral sources), then one has effectively lost what representatives of an older generation called “the whole counsel of God.”

On the other hand, Hays may really be presenting an alternative vision to the ordinary way of doing things which, though radical, just so is faithful to the gospel and to the canon as a whole. For perhaps the question is wrongly stated. Rather than presume something called “the Bible,” then presume its authority such that Christians ought to be “biblical people,” then presume that to be a “biblical person” involves living a life properly defined by “biblical ethics”—why not come at the question from the reverse direction? That is, perhaps we ought to ask first, How is the Christian community supposed to live? and thus, What funds the form and substance of that way of life?

Hays’ answer is simple at root: the gospel of Jesus Christ—that is, the paradigm for all human life revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in relation to God his Father and the Spirit who empowered him. Insofar as this life and the events surrounding it is are not merely an example but the central crux of the ages, the cosmos’ own proleptic redemption and the beginning of the Spirit-led welcoming of the Gentiles into Israel—how could one simplistically “look into the Old Testament”? If “the ends of the ages” have indeed come upon us, and the life of the church is ordered by the end rather than the beginning, then there can be no choice but to read the Old in light of the New! Not as a dismissal of the Old, but as an honoring both of what came before and of what God has done today, in obedience to the central Christological and eschatological question for Christian ethics: “What time is it?”

A final question raised by Hays’ account is one of context in relation to textual authority: Are Christians today, or Christians at any time after the first century, meant to hold and perform the very same moral vision as that of the first century writings in the New Testament? Put differently, is the only substantive difference between the (normative) ethics of the first Christians and that of Christians at any other time or place simply one of context? Given Hays’ method and proposal, it would seem that the answer is yes: the “enterprise” of “normative Christian ethics” “must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith” (p. 10). But what are the implications of this position?

One implication comes late in the book, when the New Testament texts, not having dealt with the issue of abortion, cannot speak decisively on the matter (pp. 444-61). Further, a second implication follows Hays’ “working assumption” of “the commonsense acknowledgement that texts do have determinate ranges of semantic possibility and that a text’s world of signification can be meaningfully distinguished from the tradition’s construal of it” (p. 8). Even allowing for a generous construal of authorial intent or internal textual meaning, this perspective implies that, to some extent, the entirety of Christian ethics and moral discernment is exhausted in the minds of the authors of the canonical texts, in the texts themselves, and/or in the formative communities of faith that led to their writing. For if “normative Christian ethics” both begins and ends in the hermeneutical appropriation of the New Testament, what resources exist to speak and act confidently and constructively to new challenges and ethical situations nonexistent or unimportant in the first century?

An interesting consequence of this apparent self-cornering is Hays’ “Appendix” discussing gender in Paul (pp. 46-56). Though I substantially agree with Hays’ argument in this section, in a real sense he must be right, for if not, the relations between men and women in the church would forever be set by the New Testament’s (contextually comprehensible!) patriarchal perspective. But this seems to back Hays even deeper into a corner, for what if his account were demonstrated conclusively to be wrong on this matter—as seen, for example, in the beliefs and practices of nearly the entire tradition before him? I suggest that Hays would benefit from thicker, more flexible theological resources for gospeled moral reflection, not confined solely to the text.

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