essays in biblical interpretation, theology, Christian living, and more

biblical studies center header

Alternative community

A review of Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament

by Tim Gallant

Richard Hays is a United Methodist, a well-respected professor of New Testament at Duke. He is perhaps best known for his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, a scholarly study dedicated to demonstrating how the apostle employs the Old Testament in his reasoning. His valuable but controversial work on the narrative of Galatians 3-4, The Faith of Jesus Christ, has been recently revised and re-released.

As you may perhaps have guessed from Hays' church affiliation, he is not a paragon in terms of his view of Scripture. He makes plain that he believes the various writers of Scripture can say things that are in tension with one another, and even say things which are irreconcilable. Such a view of Scripture often frightens us away from reading an author, which is sad, because someone like Hays often has some things to teach us. (It should be noted that Hays does have a quite high view of Scripture's canonical authority, despite an apparently low view of the character of its inspiration. Hence, he openly says that tradition, reason and experience are all factors in hermeneutics, but factors which must be judged in terms of Scripture.)

In this book, Hays devotes a great deal of attention to foundational issues: how can we "get at" a responsible reading of the New Testament? How can we translate its norms into our current context? He suggests three New Testament images which can aid us in reflecting upon the ethical use of biblical texts, images which he suggests are at the heart of the New Testament vision: community, cross, and new creation. Despite what you may be thinking, Hays does not employ these images like a Procustean bed to malform the texts into saying what he wishes. This is due in part to the fact that he has chosen his images wisely; if I were to have been provided the task of finding three predominant and controlling themes in the New Testament through inductive study, I would likely have come out with something like these three as well.

In the latter part of the book, Hays does put his exegetical/hermeneutical method on display by dealing with several contemporary ethical issues (violence; divorce & remarriage; homosexuality; anti-Judaism & ethnic conflict; abortion). He also briefly treats the idea of sharing of possessions in his conclusion.

Hays' ethical conclusions, as a United Methodist, may surprise us. He opposes abortion (albeit allowing for certain exceptions), although he makes it clear that Scripture does not address the problem directly; he derives his opposition largely from Scripture's narrative world, and avoids settling the issue of whether the fetus is a "person." He (wisely, I think) shifts the ground of debate from the political realm and places it squarely within the church community. And this brings me to one of Hays' greatest strengths in this book: he repeatedly stresses that the church's calling is to live out an alternative way before the world, a lifestyle that exposes the bankruptcy of unbelief and the blessedness of the kingdom of God.

This is where I must also mention the ethical position which would make Hays most controversial in the Reformed world: he very strenuously advocates pacifism as a key outworking of the gospel of the cross. He derives this from many texts, including of course the Sermon on the Mount, but also the many passages which forbid Christians to resist evil.

But we must understand what Hays is doing when he advocates pacifism. He does not say that it is evil for governments to wield the sword. His reading of Romans 13, in fact, appears to take it at face value. But he notes that in Romans 12, Christians are called to leave vengeance to God. In Romans 13, we see that God (in part at least) employs the state to wreak that vengeance. So far, we may detect little difference between his position and the classic Reformed one. But his next move is to draw from the logic of Romans 12 and its conjunction with chapter 13 this conclusion: the Christian, then, is to leave vengeance to God. Since God wreaks vengeance through the state, the necessary corollary is that Christians are not called to exercise that kind of political power.

I must confess that I am not entirely convinced that Hays has adequately dealt with the N.T. material showing the conversion of soldiers and those in political power. He simply suggests that these stand on a line with the conversion of tax collectors and prostitutes (i.e. they demonstrate how God chooses the unlikely). At best, if they remained in these callings as Christians, they did so as anomalies.

While I am not convinced by that line of reasoning, I must admit that I think that Hays has struck upon something bigger that would be profitable for us to reflect on. I am not so sure that I agree with him that Christians ought to simply work outside the political machinery. (I must be careful how I phrase his position - Hays definitely does not think that the Christian life is apolitical - far from it. Unfortunately, we have been sucked into thinking that politics = involvement in the state as such.) Nonetheless, Hays touches on a vision of the kingdom of God that demands our reflection.

Here I will think out loud, and won't attribute everything to Hays. Recall that the vision of Daniel 2 foresees that the kingdom of Christ will smash the image (representing the four great kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome), and grow into a mountain that fills the whole earth. That is a political vision - but it is not a vision of the state. There is no "Christian state" that grows and fills the whole earth. It is the kingdom of Christ. In other words, our traditional separation of spheres (family/church/state) may in some ways mislead us. That tradition conceives of these spheres, essentially, as various "locations of action" within kingdom life. But doesn't the Daniel 2 vision, in some fashion, at least, suggest that the kingdom of Christ becomes an alternative to the state? And isn't it precisely in this fashion, primarily, that the kingdom of Christ is "political"?

This does not mean the state is useless to Christians. It provides a context, more or less, of peace for Christians, in which the gospel may spread, and believers may lead "quiet and peaceable lives." But interestingly, this seems to be the extent of N.T. hope for the state.

We may not agree with Hays' contention that Christians may never exercise worldly political authority, or ever go to war. But I am very much attracted to his vision of the Christian community - a community that will embody a way that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, a community that lives out the way of the cross in loving her enemies and doing good to those who treat her despitefully, a community that will be a harbinger of the new creation order by engaging in acts of self-sacrificial love.

As I think I have made clear, this book is one to be read with discretion (as are all books), one with which we will all find room to disagree - but one that I would commend to you as a stimulus for reflection concerning our lives as shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ, in the context of the new humanity He is forming (community), and in view of our share in the Spirit and future hope (new creation).

site design 2005 by Tim Gallant Creative