Last week, I introduced Richard Hays’ important work, The Moral Vision of the New TestamentIf you’d like to read along, we are starting today with the introduction – “The Task of New Testament Ethics.”

Hays begins by acknowledging the difficulty in discerning New Testament ethics. First, “everybody wants to claim the Bible” (2), so merely appealing to Scripture is not sufficient for determining which perspective is closer to the biblical author’s intent. Second, the New Testament itself contains diverse points of view. How does one determine which point of view is normative?

“Unless we can give a coherent account of our methods for moving between text and normative ethical judgments, appeals to the authority of Scripture will be hollow and unconvincing” (3).

Hays believes the task of studying New Testament ethics must engage four overlapping critical operations. I put “steps” in the title of this post, but Hays is clear that these shouldn’t be seen as a strict sequence, but as a simultaneous and overlapping series of judgments.

Now, on to the fourfold task of New Testament ethics!

1. The Descriptive Task

The descriptive task is the responsibility to read the text carefully. This stage is fundamentally exegetical; it requires paying attention to the developmental history of moral teaching traditions within the canon as well as the church’s moral world, expressed in symbols, stories, and practices.

2. The Synthetic Task

The synthetic task moves beyond the individual biblical texts and seeks to understand them within their canonical context. At this stage, we seek a coherent vision of ethics across the canon. As we encounter intra-canonical tensions, we seek to understand them within a comprehensive characterization of the New Testament’s moral concerns or themes. (Hays will later suggest three themes that govern our ethical reflection: community, cross and new creation.)

3. The Hermeneutical Task

Next comes the hermeneutical task. How does the ethical demand of a text (understood within its canonical context) relate to our situation? Hays believes hermeneutical appropriation requires an integrative act of the imagination:

“Whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts” (6).

To summarize his line of thinking here, I’d put it this way: New Testament ethics is not merely looking for biblical rules and seeking to follow them. It involves inhabiting the world described in the Bible and creatively discerning what obedience will look like in a context different from that of the original authors.

4. The Pragmatic Task

The final task is pragmatic; it is living the text, applying the New Testament’s message in our situation. This is the point where we move from understanding how the text applies to our context to obeying the text. Hays writes:

“The living out of the New Testament cannot occur in a book; it can happen only in the life of the Christian community” (7).

Possible Objections

Hays anticipates several objections to the fourfold task.

Is the fourfold division artificial?

Hays answers this objection by reminding readers that his fourfold task is not a series of simple steps. For the purposes of this work, however, Hays finds it helpful to analyze them in this fashion.

Does Hays pay too little attention to the historical development of the New Testament?

Hays acknowledges his work builds upon research regarding sources and development and context, but his primary goal is “to engage the theological problem of how the New Testament ought to shape the ethical norms and practices of the church in our time” (9).

Why does Hays leave out the Old Testament?

Mainly because of the amount of space it would take to treat both Old and New Testaments. However, Hays sees the New Testament as intelligible only as a hermeneutical appropriation of Israel’s Scriptures. So, in a sense, Hays is not “leaving out” the Old Testament.

Why give authority to the New Testament?

To argue for why the New Testament should be given authority would be a different book. Instead, Hays explains:

“This study proceeds on the working assumption that the canonical Scriptures constitute the norma normans for the church’s life, whereas every other source of moral guidance (whether church tradition, philosophical reasoning, scientific investigation, or claims about contemporary religious experience) must be understood as norma normata. Thus, normative Christian ethics is fundamentally a hermeneutical enterprise: it must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture of the life of the community of faith” (10).

Some Personal Considerations

Hays has laid the groundwork for his proposal by carefully articulating his assumptions, explaining his process, and expressing his motivation. The fourfold task is a helpful way of analyzing the different elements involved in moving from text to application. He is right to show that we are usually engaging in all four of these tasks simultaneously, in an overlapping fashion. We often do these things intuitively, and where we don’t, we should.

I like his emphasis on exegesis, and yet, as we will see in future chapters, I believe his higher critical approach to biblical interpretation leads to an inconsistent appeal to Scripture’s authority.

What about you? What are your thoughts on Hays’ proposal so far?