Book Review: The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays

As I read different theology books, there are some authors who I find very easy to learn from. Richard Hays is one of them. There are many insightful comments about the books of the New Testament, and I wrote several blogs to explore the themes in detail. (You can find these under the red-writing headings on the menu tab.)

Hays gives an overview of the gospels, for example, the Gospel of Mark was written as a whole, and the order of events matter. Mark begins with a declaration, that Jesus is the Son of God. The reader therefore reads the book knowing this fact, whilst watching all the characters in the book grapple with the question—who is Jesus? It’s not until the end, when he dies, that the centurion declares the same statement: ‘Truly, this was the Son of God.’ Mark is making the point that to understand who Jesus is, we need to understand the way he died.

The Gospel gives examples of all the disciples failing to ‘follow’ Jesus. But despite their failures, they are still disciples, the call to follow is still there. In Mark’s Gospel, the key to following Jesus is obedience, not love. He does mention love, when he quotes Deut.6;4-5. These verses are known as the Shema and they were (and are) recited by Jews morning and evening. Jesus adds a Leviticus quote, about loving people, and Mark uses it to give an overview of the Law (but not especially as a definition of being a follower of Jesus). The Gospel gives fairly vague hints about future hope, basically teaching that this is in God’s hands, and we should trust him. He teaches that the Son of Man will return soon, before the disciples have died. In Chapter 13 Jesus tells them to watch, and stay awake (spiritually), in Chapter 14 there is a scene in the garden, when they fall asleep (physically). The original ending of the Gospel describes the death of Jesus and the empty tomb, but no sightings of the risen Jesus. This illustrates the futuristic element of Jesus’s mission, that the Kingdom of God is still to come. In brief, the Gospel is about the disciple’s calling to follow as servants, the replacing of the Jewish Law with the teachings of Jesus, the promise that Jesus will return in glory. Mark gives a picture of the ‘world torn open by God’ and a new order established. History is re-established, but in an unexpected manner. Old prophecies are fulfilled, and there is a ‘sense of urgency’ in the book. Mark writes about Jesus’s ministry like someone today might describe having an ice-bucket thrown over them. It is lowly, suffering people who receive the message, and the power of God is expressed by suffering and death. (Which sort of makes no sense logically.) People constantly fail to understand Jesus, especially the people trying to follow him. (I really like this point. Sometimes today, the church, and Christians, are way too smug about thinking they understand God. Mark mainly shows how the disciples didn’t understand, and they had direct access to Jesus. We should remember this when we think we understand something. God was, and is, unexpected.)

Facts like the above examples are hugely interesting, and add depth of understanding when reading the New Testament. However, when Hays starts to discuss actual ethics that he has gleaned from the Bible—that is, the final conclusions of his study, I sometimes 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. 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 we form our ethics from the Bible alone (this is referred to as Sola Scripta by theologians) it 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. I will give two examples below.

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 the greed or power-hungry politicians. But sometimes, I think it is necessary to fight.

I also find it telling that although he didn’t hit back, 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. Hays writing is clear and easy to understand, and he makes points that make you pause and ponder.

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