How Should the Bible Form Our Ethics?

A review of The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays, continued.

As discussed in my previous blogs, I have found Hays’ book to be insightful as well as very interesting (and easy to read, which is not always the case with theological books!) However, when he starts to discuss actual ethics that he has gleaned from the Bible—that is, the final conclusions of his study, I disagree with him. I agree with his evidence, the way that he has formulated his views, but I don’t agree with where he lands. Not always. As the book was published in 1996, maybe he has now changed his position, but chunks of the book I disagree with. It’s still worth reading though.

Hays writes that even if we say that we form our ethics from the Bible alone (referred to as Sola Scripta by theologians) this is actually impossible, because everyone brings their own understanding and we all live in a culture that influences us. He suggests then that we should be aware of other factors when we form our ethics. He lists these as: Tradition (what the Church has believed for centuries—this is what the Reformation struggled with) reason (what we know to be true from science and logic—this is what the Enlightenment struggled with) and experience (what we have personally learnt about God, and what our church has experienced of God—this is what I struggle with!). These three will influence the type of authority we give to the teaching of the Bible.

The teaching itself falls into various categories. It might be a rule (it’s obvious what this means!) Or it might be a principle (like when Jesus explained about love). Or a paradigm (which is when a story or character teaches us something—like the parable of the Good Samaritan). Finally, it might be the symbolic world (for example, throughout the Bible we learn that humans get things wrong, though this might not be specifically stated).

The most important point that Hays makes (in my opinion) is the more pragmatic one: what is the outcome of our ethics? It’s all very well claiming they are Bible-based and the result of genuinely seeking God’s will—but what actually happens? What, in other words, is the fruit that these ethics will produce? The good ‘fruit’ is listed as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Do our ethics illustrate those things? (Notice that ‘being self-righteous’ is not one of them!)

Hays then takes various teachings from the New Testament, and looks at how five different theologians have interpreted them in light of the above. Which is very interesting. He then forms his own conclusions about certain ethics, which is also very interesting, though I strongly disagree with some of his conclusions.

One such view is that Christians should be pacifists. Hays explains very clearly how he has formed his view, how the life and teaching of Jesus show that we should not retaliate when wronged, that we should ‘turn the other cheek’ when hurt. He shows that Jesus never used force, and rebuked his followers when they did, even when in defence of someone else. Hays logic is very clear, and I cannot argue with it—but I think he is wrong. I believe that in certain situations, force is correct. For example, I do not believe that God would have wanted Christians to remain pacifists when Hitler was gassing all the Jews. If people had not fought, then Hitler’s evil would have continued unstopped. I agree with Hays that often nations fight when they shouldn’t, that economics are often the motive, and innocent people are hurt unnecessarily due to greed or power-hungry politicians. But sometimes, I think it is necessary to fight.

I also find it telling that the only time we read of Jesus being slapped in the face, he did not ‘turn the other cheek’ but instead told them they were wrong. I think this teaching is a principle, something we should strive to follow, whilst knowing that there are situations when it does not apply.

I also strongly disagree with Hays that homosexuality is wrong. Again, his logic is sound, but I feel he has come to the wrong conclusion. He looks at the various biblical passages that are used to condemn homosexuality, and concludes that only the passage in Timothy is definitely written in condemnation of homosexuality (as the other passages are either unclear or are discussing other issues). He then makes a strong case for homosexuality being wrong. I disagree.

Although Hays’ evidence is sound—and I do agree that Paul probably believed homosexual activity was wrong—I believe that this should be interpreted in the light of today’s culture. Paul lived in a different culture in a different age, and what he wrote was applicable then, but today, when loving same-sex couples can live in monogamous relationships, the world is different. In the same way that I would agree that Paul believed women should cover their heads in church—but I think this no longer applies (and he possibly believed that slavery was acceptable, as he never explicitly wrote against it). As Hays said, one test of our ethics should be the fruit they produce. When the church preaches against gay relationships, it alienates a whole sector of society, it encourages gay people to look elsewhere for guidance, it causes untold harm to gay people who are taught they are ‘wrong’ (not infrequently leading to suicide of gay teenagers within the church). None of this can be right.

Hays discusses several other issues, including divorce and remarriage, abortion, anti-Judaism. Whilst you might disagree with his conclusions, I would still recommend this book to you. I think you will learn something, and that is always good.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day, and try to think about what ‘fruit’ you are producing today.

I’ll let you know if I read anything else that’s especially interesting. To be honest, many of the books I read are pretty boring, and they tend to use a lot of language that sounds very intelligent but I suspect is more to do with the pride of the author than actually necessary. If I ever meet of the the theologians who write like this, I will ask if they would like feedback. (Unless they will be marking any of my assignments of course!)
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Thank you for reading

3 thoughts on “How Should the Bible Form Our Ethics?

  1. Read ur blog on the ‘bible forming ethics ‘ issues. Interesting, and couldn’t resist sending you some fiction (actually ‘historical fiction’) that has its’ own perspective on biblical ethics in the 21st century.

    Sincerely, ________________________________


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