This is the midway point in our journey through Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament. If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, I recommend skipping ahead to this section (see the schedule here), since this is the place where Hays’ contribution becomes especially important.
(If you want to read my synopses of the previous chapters, here is the post that sets the stage for how we understand the ethics of the New Testament, a summary of Paul’s moral vision, the ethical vision of Mark and Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John’s Gospel, letters, and Revelation.)
So, now that we’ve worked our way through the New Testament, what are we to do with the different emphases we see? Hays asks the question: Is the New Testament a cacophony or polyphony when it comes to its ethical vision?
His answer is nuanced:
“We must let the individual voices speak if we are to allow the New Testament to articulate a word that may contravene our own values and desires. Otherwise, we are likely to neutralize the force of any particularly challenging passage we may encounter” (188).
So how do we proceed? With three guidelines…
3 Procedural Guidelines
- Confront the full range of canonical witnesses. The more comprehensive the attention to the full range of NT witnesses, the more adequate an ethical proposal is likely to be.
- Let the tensions stand. The individual voices must be allowed their own voices. Do not force harmony through abstraction away from the specific messages of the NT texts.
- Attend to the literary genre of the texts. Do not extract universal maxims or principles from texts whose literary form is not readily amenable to such procedures.
These guidelines lead us to an important question: If we allow the individual voices to stand, how will we discover unity?
Here’s where Hays makes his most unique contribution to the study of New Testament ethics. His proposal is to identify certain key images that all the different canonical tellings of the biblical story share. These focal images then become the lenses to focus our reading of the NT, without replacing the texts.
The next question is, of course, how in the world do we determine what these lenses should be? Hays has three criteria:
3 criteria for evaluating themes or images proposed as focal lenses
- Does the image find a textual basis in all of the canonical witnesses?
- Is the image in tension with the ethical teachings of any of the NT witnesses?
- Does the image highlight substantial ethical concerns of the texts in which it appears?
Once we’ve analyzed possible “lenses” through these criteria, we are ready to move on to what Hays considers the three focal images of the New Testament that best help us synthesize a coherent vision for morality and ethics.
Hays’ 3 Focal Images
Community: The church is a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives.
Cross: Jesus’ death on a cross is the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world.
New Creation: The church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world.
After presenting these images, Hays anticipates objections and other possible submissions. Why not choose love or liberation as the focal images? Because love does not meet Hays’ first criterion (it is not a major theme in all the sources), it is an interpretation of the second criterion, and it has lost its meaning in today’s society. Liberation, on the other hand, is best understood through the focal image of new creation.
My Considerations: The three focal images that Hays provides here make up the most helpful part of Hays’ overall proposal. Community, cross, and new creation are three excellent choices as “lenses” through which we analyze and synthesize the New Testament’s ethical reflections. I would have liked to see more emphasis on the cross as the source of salvation, not merely Jesus as example, though I must admit Hays’ emphasis on example is to be expected in a book about ethics!
Hays’ determination to let the individual witnesses speak forcefully without being muted or harmonized is admirable. This is one of the book’s strengths. The only downside appears in his ethical reflections later on in this book, where, in my opinion, he does not live up to this ideal (downplaying John’s portrayal of the Jewish leaders, or Paul’s view of women). There are places where he waves away difficult texts that do not correspond to his interpretation of other passages. We’ll get to that later…
Right now, let’s focus on Hays’ three images: community, cross, and new creation. Do you agree that this matrix of images helps us speak meaningfully about the unity of New Testament ethics?