Monday, May 21, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: A Theological Engagement of Richard Hays' Proposed Focal Images

(This is my second engagement of Hays' text; see the first here.)

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In The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), Richard Hays proposes three focal images as a kind of hermeneutical key for reading, interpreting, and performing the various texts of the New Testament as a coherent witness to a Christian form of life. These images are community, cross, and new creation. Hays argues both that he has discovered these within the texts themselves and that, while perhaps arbitrary and only a suggestion toward further discussion, they remain faithful to the voices of the texts themselves and therefore offer a reliable guide for moral textual discernment.

In the following I will undertake, rather than a straightforward critique of Hays’ argument or explication of the text, a broader, more reflective theological engagement, particularly of the focal images themselves, their relation to the rest of Scripture, and their generic applicability to other communities as well. Though I am often in agreement with Hays’ interpretations—if not necessarily with his authorial assumptions or method—I want to question the implicit originality of Hays’ proposal and to see how it “shakes out” after sustained theological interrogation. I suspect that an inductive exploration will unearth interesting facets to the images that are not immediately evident on the surface.

Hays’ argument is that there is “a single fundamental story” (p. 193) at the heart of all the New Testament documents, the latter being merely different expressions and articulations of the one story as captured in disparate genres and forms—letters, narratives, history, apocalyptic. On the one hand, a single flattening account would silence the particular voices’ witness, while on the other hand, if left on their own, the church would be left with cacophony, rather than (an intended?) polyphony (pp. 187-89). Thus, the church may “identify certain key images that all the different canonical tellings share,” grasping “the unity and sense of Scripture . . . only through an act of metaphorical imagination that focuses the diverse contents of the texts in terms of a particular ‘imaginative characterization’ ” (p. 194). These will “serve as lenses to focus our reading of the New Testament: when we reread the canonical documents through these images, our blurry multiple impressions of the texts come more sharply into focus” (p. 195).

The three focal images are, as noted above, community, cross, and new creation. With a bit further elaboration: community names the eschatological people of God, redeemed and called by God in Christ to be witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 196-97); cross names the concrete pattern of life, embodied in the life and death of Jesus, to which the church is called as a paradigm of servanthood, love, and obedience (pp. 197); new creation names the eschatological tension of cross and resurrection, of the “now” of new life in Christ and the “not yet” for which the church longs along with the rest of creation (p. 198). Among other explanations and comments, Hays notes that the images’ given “sequence is important”: the community did not begin with the church, but with Israel, whose prior existence is mere fact (p. 199). From there, the cross serves as a reminder “that the death of Jesus is the climax and pivot-point of the eschatological drama,” and new creation signals the anticipation and final not-yet at the heart of the church’s life in time (p. 199).

In an interesting footnote, Hays notes that he “would not object” “if these same images were described by the terms ‘Israel, cross, and resurrection,’ ” albeit with some qualifications (p. 205n.21). This observation raises the intriguing question: To what extent might these focal images, or others like them, already apply (or be able to apply) to the Old Testament—indeed, to all of Scripture?

The only way to answer this question would be to offer potential answers to the more pertinent question of what the Old Testament’s own focal images might be. Sticking with the number and pattern of Hays, a first set might be: covenant, exodus, and conquest. Covenant would include both circumcision (a restrictive image, in more ways than one), the promise to Abraham (“promise” is not much of an image), and the initial covenant with Abraham as well as the covenant at Sinai (and beyond). Exodus would of course be the equivalent to the cross as the dramatic climax of Israel’s constitutive story, and conquest would stand as the fulfillment of the promise, the dénouement of slavery and deliverance, and the more generic idea of “the land” (though that certainly could be exchanged as an equally valid term).

But of course, the Old Testament does not end with settlement in the land; in a sense, it begins there. So what might another set of images be? Modifying the previous three, we might say: exodus, covenant community, and exile. In this formulation, the constitutive event would be the exodus, launching into the cohesion of the community as bound and set forward by the covenant at Sinai (as well as prior and subsequent covenants). But at this point, the third image would be exile, with both negative and positive overtones: negative, insofar as the exile is God’s decisive judgment on Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness and the lingering condition of Jewish existence; positive, inasmuch as exile is transformed by Jeremiah into mission and God promises to fulfill new and final promises in the gathering of the exiles on the last day.

(A final, though highly peripheral, suggestion would be the internal and ancient triply “focalizing” name of the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Rather than focal “images” through which to read every discrete text, these would serve as textual poles around which and in relation to which every interpretation of whatever text must be read, never forgetting the witness of the whole. Moreover, these textual focalizers, simply by virtue of their being explicitly internal textual lenses, would be faithful to the heart of Judaism’s express commitment to the reading and embodiment of a particular set of texts.)

One could continue this exercise seemingly in perpetuity, not least through taking up focal images for the entire Bible (perhaps premodern exegetes might urge incarnation as a more holistic fit between community and new creation?). In any case, it is interesting that Hays’ triple lens is not only suggestive in a horizontal direction, that is, “backwards” into the Old Testament and diffuse throughout all of Scripture. It gestures also in a vertical direction: to the mapping of the triune persons’ roles in time.

This can be taken in two ways. The first is to admit, with the tradition, that any strong linkage between one Trinitarian person and a particular divine activity risks modalism, while going ahead with the caveat—hence replacement phrases like “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” when it is acknowledged by all that Son and Spirit create, Father and Spirit redeem, and Father and Son sanctify. In that spirit, then, Hays’ focal images could be loosely mapped trinitarianly: the Father calls forth and constitutes the community, the Son is the suffering Messiah on the cross, and the Spirit is the proleptically received power of the new creation. (Even Hays’ translated terms fit: the Father is the God of Israel, as the one whom Jesus called “abba,” and Jesus’ and future believers’ resurrection obtains solely in and by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

The second way is no less potentially modalistic, but is more creative in its formulations, and more dogmatic in its exegesis (here I draw on the work of Robert Jenson). In a profound sense, the life of the Trinity may be mapped to the arrows of time, such that God’s eternity is an infinite temporality of Origin, Goal, and Mediation—otherwise known as Father, Spirit, and Son. That they are one God is their perfect harmony; that they are temporal is the revelation that this God is no security against time but the fulfillment of divine transcendence within time.

The way this might be seen in Hays’ focal images is to “discover” the life of the Trinity within each image. Thus, the community will be understood as the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit—at once the theater of the trinitarian roles, while identifying the “location” of the community in the divine drama with that of what is given, that is, with the Father, the “whence” of the divine life. Just so, new creation will be located with the wild wind of the Spirit as Goal of all, yet finding the Father as the speaker of the promised final future and the Son’s return in glory as its catalyst. Finally, the cross is indeed “the climax and pivot-point of the eschatological drama” (p. 199), but not only of the human drama—the saga also of the personae dramatis who constitute the triune life. In this way the crucifixion of the Son of God is the axis upon which the very identify of God turns, for at this moment the Father gives the Son over to death, whose final breath gives up their Spirit of love.

These images are not, then, only hermeneutical tools for reading the ethics of the New Testament—they are fundamental moments in the divine drama of the triune God! Nor is this suggestion alien to Hays’ proposal, for Hays’ work in the years since Moral Vision was published have focused on and endorsed these sorts of figural and traditioned readings. What else is a theologian to find in a three-point dramatic rule of faith for interpreting the canon?

A final word, though, about the implications of connecting Hays’ proposed images with time. In a straightforward sense, all Hays has done is to arrange moral interpretation of the New Testament according to the way in which any community reads its history, texts, stories, and so on. All of created life, all of communal life, is constituted by the three arrows of time: by the perduring community, by its founding event(s), and by some particular horizon to which the community looks and for which it hopes. For example: America was founded by the crisis of the Revolution and looks forward to “a better life for our children.” How ought America then to read its Constitution, interpret its stories, live its life together? As the present community in the light of the Revolution with a view toward a better future for coming generations. Though I do not believe this realization indicts Hays’ proposal, it is at the very least a curious sociological fact to note, and one which calls either for a lessening of claims for originality or for a clarification of how community, cross, and new creation are not merely the three arrows of the church’s life in time, but something more substantial and unique to it as such.

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