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The Moral Vision of the New Testamant

Richard B. Hays (Harper San Francisco: September 1996), 528 pages.

This is an amazing book — solid scholarship and well thought-out interpretation delivered with a sense of urgency and sincerity. If you are at all interested in Ethics or the state of New Testament scholarship, this book is an absolute necessity. Hays sees distinct (though overlapping) tasks in the process of “doing ethics” and is able to explain and apply them clearly. His emphasis on seeing ethical questions through the “focal lenses” of Cross, Community and New Creation is a wonderful guidepost for anyone concerned with faithful, Spirit-driven scholarship. He stresses that an “integrative act of the imagination” is required to be able to apply the Scripture to our world and suggests methods for achieving it. Hays analyzes five theologian/ethicists in light of his approach (including Barth, Hauerwas, and Schussler-Fiorenza) and, in doing so, further clarifies how his approach can be used by others. The final section of the book applies Hays’ approach to contemporary issues. Partly because of his obvious authority in Greek and New Testament scholarship, and partly because of his honest, passionate approach, his conclusions are bold and very persuasive.

Table of Contents

    • Preface
    • Introduction: The Task of New Testament Ethics 1
    • 1 Paul: The Koinonia of His Sufferings 16
    • 2 Developments of the Pauline Tradition 60
    • 3 The Gospel of Mark: Taking Up the Cross 73
    • 4 The Gospel of Matthew: Training for the Kingdom of Heaven 93
    • 5 Luke-Acts: Liberation through the Power of the Spirit 112
    • 6 The Gospel and Epistles of John: Loving One Another 138
    • 7 Excursus: The Role of “the Historical Jesus” in New Testament Ethics 158
    • 8 Revelation: Resisting the Beast 169
    • 9 Diverse Voices in the New Testament Canon 187
    • 10 Three Focal Images: Community, Cross, New Creation 193
    • 11 How Do Ethicists Use Scripture? Diagnostic Questions 207
    • 12 Five Representative Hermeneutical Strategies 215
    • 13 How Shall We Use the Texts? Normative Proposals 291
    • 14 Violence in Defense of Justice 317
    • 15 Divorce and Remarriage 347
    • 16 Homosexuality 379
    • 17 Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict 407
    • 18 Abortion 444
    • Conclusion 462
    • Works Cited 471
    • Permissions 485
    • Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Writings 486
    • Author Index 497
    • Topic Index 502

An Excerpt

Chapter One: Paul

The Koinonia of His Sufferings

l. Is Paul’s Ethic Theologically Grounded?

Paul was first of all a missionary, an organizer of far-flung little communities around the Mediterranean that united clusters of disparate people in the startling confession that God had raised a crucified man, Jesus, from the dead and thus initiated a new age in which the whole world was to be transformed. The letters of Paul that survive in the New Testament are his pastoral communications with these mission outposts. Though separated from them, he continued to offer them exhortation and counsel about how to conduct their common life “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27)

All of the letters except Romans were written to communities that Paul himself had founded, communities that were well acquainted with his preaching and teaching; consequently, much is left unsaid, taken for granted. As belated readers of the letters, we are left to imagine how the gaps should be filled in. How had Paul preached the gospel to them originally? What norms of behavior had he already sought to inculcate? What shared assumptions were so fundamental that they remained implicit rather than explicit in Paul’s correspondence? The letters give us some clues, but when we read them we repeatedly encounter the tantalizing challenge of the unspoken, just as though we were listening to one end of a telephone conversation.

Paul nowhere sets forth a systematic presentation of “Christian ethics.” Nor does he offer his communities a “manual of discipline,” a comprehensive summary of community organization andduties. Such summaries were not uncommon in the ancient world: in various ways, the genre is represented by the Community Rule (1QS) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the presentation of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, the Didache, and the codification of Jewish Halakah in the Mishnah. Paul, however, does not formulate such a code. As we shall see, he has theological reasons for preferring not to do so. Instead, he responds ad hoc to the contingent pastoral problems that arise in his churches. Should Gentile believers be circumcised? Should converts to Paul’s movement divorce their unbelieving spouses? Are Christians obligated to obey the Roman authorities? In every case, Paul offers answers.

But are his answers based on some coherent set of theological convictions?’ Has he unreflectively taken his moral norms from traditional sources, or are they derived from a logic internal to his gospel?

New Testament scholars have sometimes suggested that there is no direct connection between Paul’s ethical prescriptions and his theological proclamation. Martin Dibelius, one of the founders of form criticism, proposed that the blocks of moral advice that characteristically occur at the end of Paul’s letters should be understood as parenesis, general collections of maxims adopted from popular Hellenistic philosophy. According to Dibelius, the early Christians expected the end of history to occur almost immediately; consequently, they did not concern themselves with formulating an ethic. When the parousia did not occur as expected, they filled the ethical vacuum by appropriating philosophical parenesis. Thus, in Dibelius’s view, the ethical teachings in, for example, Galatians 5-6 and Romans 12-15 are not integrally related to Paul’s gospel or derived from “revelation” (see Gal. 1:12); rather, they recycle a general moral wisdom widely shared in Hellenistic culture.’

Although Dibelius’s description of the Pauline ethical material has been strongly challenged ,4 his sharp disjunction between the theological and ethical aspects of the letters has continued to find significant support. For example, Hans Dieter Betz, in his major commentary on Galatians, writes this with regard to Galatians 5:1-6:10:

Paul does not provide the Galatians with a specifically Christian ethic. The Christian is addressed as an educated and responsible person. He is expected to do no more than what would be expected of any other educated person in the Hellenistic culture of the time. In a rather conspicuous way Paul conforms to the ethical thought of his contemporaries.

According to Betz’s account, Paul’s gospel may provide motivation to do what is right, but it does not generate a singularly Christian account of “what is right”; Paul adopts his moral norms from the surrounding educated culture.

The implications of such an analysis are great: if there is no integral relation between Paul’s ethics and his theology, the nonnative status of his particular ethical teachings is tenuous. When the Christian gospel moves in time or space to a different culture, one could presumably substitute a different set of cultural norms without difficulty. (One frequently hears this sort of argument made with regard to Paul’s pronouncements on sexual ethics.) If, on the other hand, Paul’s ethic does have a material relation to his theology, then the normative status of his moral teaching is inextricably bound up with the authority of his gospel. Such hermeneutical concerns cannot, of course, predetermine the result of our analysis, but it is well to recognize what is at stake in the question.

Thus, we confront a cluster of critical questions for our study of Pauline ethics: Are Paul’s ethical norms grounded in the gospel? On what is his pastoral counsel based? Is Paul a sort of early Christian advice columnist or editorial writer who addresses the issues of the day by appealing to commonsense standards of morality and decency? Or is his advice distinctively shaped by the gospel? Does the truth of the gospel require the particular counsel that he gives?

In the pages that follow, I will offer a reading of Paul that seeks to demonstrate how his ethical teachings are rooted in his theological thought. Only if we back off some distance from the actual content of the Pauline letters can we posit a dichotomy between Paul’s theology and his ethics — or between kerygma (the proclamation of the gospel) and didache (the teaching of standards of conduct), or between indicative (what God has done in Christ) and imperative (what human beings are called upon to do).