Books in Review

The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 78 (December 1997): 61-64.

In His Steps

The Moral Vision of the New Testament. By Richard B. Hays. HarperSanFrancisco. 508 pp. $25.

Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender

This book is both a reviewer’s dream and nightmare. From one perspective it is simple to review. Long as the book is, its contents can easily be outlined, so clear and carefully developed is Hays’ fundamental framework. But on the other hand, so many topics are treated in the book—topics on which a reviewer might be tempted to comment—that in frustration one is tempted simply to reprint the table of contents and let it go at that. I will try to summarize the framework without entirely ignoring some of the larger questions that might fruitfully be pursued in conversation with Hays. At the outset, however, it needs to be said that this is an excellent and important book, likely to be widely used and discussed. The book needs to be read as a whole, but it is also a book to which one might return on many occasions to look again at Hays’ treatment both of particular New Testament writings and of particular moral problems.

On Hays’ account we can best use the New Testament for moral reflection by engaging in four distinguishable but overlapping operations—the descriptive, synthetic, hermeneutical, and pragmatic tasks. The first, the descriptive task, is simply the attempt to read the text of the Bible with care. Here Hays emphasizes the need to avoid any "premature harmonizing" of these texts, looking instead for the distinctive emphases of the different New Testament writings. His focus is not on historical developments that may lie behind the texts nor on the texts as a window through which to try to see the social practices of the first Christians. Rather, reading the New Testament as the Church’s scripture, he turns to these texts as the norm for the Church’s life yet today.

To this end, Hays has chapters discussing most of the major "visions of the moral life" in the New Testament—that of Paul and the Pauline tradition, of each of the four Gospels (combining his discussion of Luke with that of Acts, and his discussion of John with the Johannine epistles), and of the Apocalypse. Although one might raise questions about his decision to discuss these texts in (roughly) historical rather than canonical order (placing Paul before the Gospels, Mark as first of the Gospels, and Acts together with Luke rather than after the Gospels), and although one might quarrel with his treatment of any of these witnesses (as I would, for example, with the emphases in his treatment of Paul), these are wonderfully instructive chapters to which readers may return time and again for clear and accessible discussions.

Having first attempted to hear the "individual voices" of the New Testament in their particularity, Hays then turns to the task of synthesizing them. After all, if the one God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth speaks to us in these texts, we ought to be able to hear a coherent message in them. How can that be done? Hays suggests, on the one hand, that all these texts in their different ways "retell and comment upon a single fundamental story" of how the God of Israel has acted in Jesus to rescue a lost world, how the Church has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness to this good news, and how until the end of history it is to live as a sign of God’s redemptive purpose for the world.

Nonetheless, each of the New Testament witnesses emphasizes different aspects of this story; hence, Hays still resists any attempt to produce "a single harmonized telling of the story." (In passing, one wonders whether he really should resist quite so much. If the search for synthesis is, as he emphasizes, an imaginative act "analogous to a director’s reading of a Shakespeare play," perhaps a little imagination—of the sort exemplifed in Dorothy Sayers’ The Man Born to be King—would be useful. If such imagination is not the forte of biblical scholars, as it need not be, there is still much to be learned from artists such as Sayers.)

In any case, having rejected the attempt to tell a single story, how can Hays undertake the task of synthesis? He does it by searching for certain key images shared by all the New Testament witnesses. These images "encapsulate the crucial elements of the narrative and serve to focus our attention on the common ground shared by the various witnesses." The three images he finds most adequate to the task are community, cross, and new creation. Other possible candidates for focal images—the orderly household, freedom from law, love, and liberation—are less adequate, in part it seems, because they are not present in the full range of witnesses. There is something peculiar about such a criterion, inasmuch as it inevitably provides a "lowest common denominator" in focal images, which may not be the same as images that press most deeply to the heart of the story.

The virtue of love is rejected as a focal image not only because it is not a central emphasis in some of the New Testament witnesses but also because it is really no more than an interpretation of an image embodied concretely in the Cross. Perhaps so. But here we may also note one of the more general problems buried in the structure of Hays’ discussion. The Cross is the embodiment of Jesus’ vocation. The several crosses taken up by his followers in different times and places will not be reenactments of his. We do not simply follow "in his steps"—to use the language of Charles Sheldon’s widely read novel. The language of love—precisely because it is more general and pliable than the image of the Cross—may be more suited to serve as an image for many disciples in many ages.

Likewise, the image of "new creation" might better have been brought into connection with the language of covenant fidelity—language that never emerges in Hays’ discussion as a serious candidate for focal image status. If the new creation is a restoration of the creation—if, in Karl Barth’s language, creation is the external basis of covenant and covenant the internal basis of creation—we need moral language that makes more contact with God’s work of creation than is accomplished by any of Hays’ focal images.

If, through use of Hays’ focal images or by any other method, we synthesize the several moral visions in the New Testament, our task is still not completed. The texts whose instruction we have synthesized stand at some remove from our own time and place. The hermeneutical task aims to bridge that divide, to read the New Testament as guidance for the Church today. This involves, for Hays, first paying careful attention to the different "modes" of moral language (rules, principles, paradigms, and symbolic worlds), and then relating the New Testament’s moral vision to other possible sources of moral authority (the Church’s tradition, reason, and experience). Hays illustrates the interplay of descriptive, synthetic, and hermeneutical tasks through lengthy discussions of five theologians—Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

I suspect that the distinction between different modes of moral language may be one of the most difficult sections of the book for readers to pin down. Indeed, I myself doubt that the distinction between rules and principles is a useful one. The most specific of rules will still have to be prudentially applied to cases, and, therefore, they may not ultimately differ from seemingly more general principles. More important, Hays’ emphasis upon the way in which the texts shape a symbolic world that provides paradigms for action—the way in which we must seek analogies between New Testament narratives and the life of Christian communities today—may blur more than it ought the distinction between what the Bible narrates or reports and what it teaches. In Hays’ hands Jesus becomes in large part a moral exemplar—a move that fails to distinguish Jesus’ calling from our own. And the shape of the early Christian communities, as we learn of it from the New Testament, tends to become normative for later generations of believers. "The hermeneutical task is to relocate our contemporary experience on the map of the New Testament’s story of Jesus." I do not wish to underrate this approach, on which the influence of Barth is palpable, but I think it would be more successful if Hays were drawing on both Old and New Testaments, not the latter alone.

One can, of course, hardly fault an author who has written a five-hundred-page book for having confined his attention to the New Testament alone, and, in fact, Hays himself responds to the possible criticism that he has abstracted the New Testament from its larger canonical context. Nevertheless, in that larger context the uniqueness of Jesus’ vocation and the difficulties of turning him into a moral exemplar might be more apparent. In that context it might be somewhat more difficult to move from what the New Testament narrates of the earliest Christian communities (as, for example, how they shared their possessions) to moral instruction applicable to all Christians in every time and place. General principles, and general understandings of human nature and the human condition, might be emphasized more as a necessary supplement to symbolic worlds (and one might become more sympathetic than Hays is to the approach of Reinhold Niebuhr). And keeping in mind the entire Bible might make it somewhat more difficult to write a sentence such as the following: "If the Church is to be a Scripture-shaped community, it will find itself reshaped continually into a closer resemblance to the socially marginal status of Matthew’s nonviolent countercultural community."

Hays tends for the most part to negate the cultural worlds in which we live—which are, of course, the creation of God, even if corrupted by sin. There is no arguing with that negation, but it must be negation of what is also affirmed—and that note is sometimes missing. Even in terms of the New Testament alone, one might emphasize more than Hays does that Christians live in two aeons simultaneously. For Hays this means only that they are being constantly transformed into the image of Christ, constantly drawn into the new creation, which he seldom thinks of as a restoration of the old.

The pragmatic task yet remains—that is, the need to make judgments about particular moral questions. It means bringing to bear upon some aspect of the moral life all that has been done in the descriptive, synthetic, and hermeneutical operations. To illustrate this last task Hays provides extended discussions of five issues—violence, divorce, homosexuality, anti-Judaism, and abortion. He takes up these questions not because they are necessarily the five most important moral problems Christians face, but because they require rather different ways of drawing upon the New Testament.

At least in Hays’ mind, the issue of violence is one where the New Testament’s witness is clear, pervasive, and univocal; by contrast, the New Testament’s texts, while sharing an underlying agreement, show some development of perspective on the matter of divorce; on homosexuality they are clear and of one accord, though few; anti-Judaism illustrates a problem in which the texts seem to stand in fundamental opposition to each other, almost forcing us to choose among them; and abortion is an issue on which the New Testament is silent. Thus, one faces five different ways of trying to use Scripture for moral reflection.

I will not here attempt to trace Hays’ full argument on any of these issues. Each of these chapters will repay careful study, and I will limit myself to brief comments on two of them. It is, I think, puzzling that Hays should suggest that the New Testament—indeed, the entire Bible—has no texts about abortion. This is especially puzzling for an author who defends nonviolence—as "integrally related to the heart of the kerygma"—as strongly as does Hays. What can he mean by this? The commandment in the Decalogue he takes as proscribing only murder, not killing. With that we need not quarrel. But if this command does not therefore address abortion (since it does not tell us whether this killing is murder), it also does not directly address my desire to go across the street and strangle my neighbor who is once again playing loud music late at night.

Of course, moral reasoning is necessary to decide whether the Decalogue’s prohibition is applicable, but such reasoning is always necessary, not just in the case of abortion. We need only remind Hays of Oliver O’Donovan’s point, quoted by Hays himself in his introductory chapter: "Interpreters who think that they can determine the proper ethical application of the Bible solely through more sophisticated exegesis are like people who believe that they can fly if only they flap their arms hard enough." But perhaps Hays means that the Bible does not directly tell us whether a child in the womb is (what we today call) a "person," a human being equal in dignity to the rest of us. True enough. But, of course, it doesn’t tell us when anyone becomes a member of the human community or what qualifies one as a member. Once again, moral reasoning is necessary.

Certainly, however, the chapter most important to Hays is that on "Violence in Defense of Justice." It is a long and carefully argued chapter, though not one that I myself find persuasive. The fact that Hays regularly refers to "violence" rather than "force," that he seems unable to make any distinction between them, already suggests that a stronger dose of moral reasoning is needed here. Thorough—and passionate—as Hays’ discussion is, the several difficulties noted in passing above all come to focus in this chapter: a failure to treat more extensively the Old Testament (and not just the holy war texts there, but God’s constitution of Israel, and other nations, as peoples); a reluctance to think through what it means that Christians should live simultaneously in two ages and that government should be the means God uses to order human life in this time where the ages overlap; a tendency to think of following Jesus as simple imitation of Jesus’ own vocation; a tendency to think of what God does in Jesus as only negation of the old creation rather than its renewal and restoration. That "violence" should always be renounced by Christians is true enough. But I cannot find in this chapter persuasive arguments that Christians should always renounce the use of "force" as love’s strange way of defending the needs of others.

All fraternal disagreements aside, this is a book that should be highly recommended—not just for scholars but also for general readers. It manages to be both learned and readable. It is marked by deep Christian conviction and commitment to the biblical texts as normative for the Church’s life. It can be read with profit from cover to cover, but also, again, in bits and pieces, and it promises to be a very important book for a long time to come.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.