I’m blogging through Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament over the next several weeks. In case you’re wondering why, read this. If you’re just joining us, don’t miss last week’s post that sets the stage for how we understand the ethics of the New Testament.
Today, we’re looking at two chapters: the first lays out Paul’s moral vision, and the second analyzes development in the later Pauline tradition. (Hays does not believe all the letters attributed to Paul are authentically Pauline. I do, and so I’ve chosen to treat them together in one blog post.)
What is the theological framework for Pauline ethics? Hays finds three major pillars:
1. New Creation: Eschatology and Ethics
- The eschatological perspective: suffering and joy are present together.
- The Christian community is engaged in a cosmic conflict.
- Believing in the imminence of Christ’s second coming heightens the imperatives of ethical action.
- God is at work preparing the community for the Day of the Lord.
- Paul’s gospel proclaims the redemption of all creation.
2. The Cross: Paradigm of Faithfulness
“In community with others, believers find themselves conformed to the death of Christ. Thus, the cross becomes the ruling metaphor for Christian obedience, while the resurrection stands as the sign of hope that those who now suffer will finally be vindicated by God” (31).
3. Redeemed Community: The Body of Christ
“God is at work through the Spirit to create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world” (32).
What is the moral logic of Paul’s vision? Here, Hays lays out “warrants, norms, and power” for living according to the moral vision of the apostle.
Why Obey God? Warrants for the Moral Life
- Through union with Christ, we undergo transformation. “We are to walk in newness of life.”
- Because God has liberated us from the power of sin, we should transfer our allegiance to the one who has set us free.
- Because the Spirit is at work, His fruit should be manifest in community life.
- We also live with the expectation of future judgment, and we recognize the threat of punishment for disobedience.
What is the Shape of Obedience? Norms for the Moral Life
- Following in the footsteps of Jesus means the relinquishment of self-interest for the benefit of others.
- We live with concern for the health and purity of the community.
How is Obedience Possible? Power for the Moral Life
- The Holy Spirit is a source of power enabling Christ’s people to “walk” in a way that fulfills the real meaning of the Law.
What about the later letters attributed to Paul? What does the development of the later Pauline tradition look like? Hays focuses on two letters in particular:
- Ephesians, where he notices a cosmic ecclesiology. The church’s moral action manifests the truth of God’s cosmic design and extends God’s reconciling power into the world through the growth of the body of Christ toward maturity.
- 1 Timothy, which lays out the proper behavior in God’s household. Hays believes the impulse in 1 Timothy is toward church stability and order, thus suppressing Paul’s earlier focus on freedom.
Some Personal Considerations
Hays’ strongest and most persuasive point is that Paul’s eschatology impacts his ethical vision. Paul’s writings are not “timeless” ethics; they are grounded in a specific vision of the world’s history and future.
Also helpful is Hays’ treatment of the cross as paradigm for Christian faithfulness, including the expectation of suffering. Whereas many in the gospel-centered movement today see “cross-centered” mainly in terms of motivation toward holiness (the gospel empowers us to obey), Hays would define “cross-centered” more in terms of the shape of what holiness and obedience looks like.
To sum up, motivation for the Christian life is eschatological, the power to obey comes from the Spirit, and the form and shape of our obedience is modeled on Christ’s sacrificial death. Overall, I find Hays’ treatment of Pauline ethics to be a solid introduction to the moral logic of the apostle’s teaching.
(As a complementarian, it’s no surprise that I find Hays’ appendix on male and female relationships frustrating. He dismisses textual evidence from 1 Corinthians as interpolation (55), and he takes a similar approach to 1 Timothy’s treatment. In my opinion, Hays’ treatment of Pauline texts that do not correspond to the egalitarian position he believes is reflective of Paul’s earlier writings undermines Hays’ previous assertions that the text stands over against us as ultimate authority. At least in this case, Hays seems unwilling to even consider or interact with a textual case for equality of men and women expressed in complementary roles in the church.)