The following review first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 1998/ 3, pp. 30-2. It is reproduced here with permission.
Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997) ISBN 0567085694 Paper pp. xviii + 508 £16.95
New Testament Ethics has always been a boring topic, a poor relation of New Testament Theology, not least because of the failed attempts to squeeze a meaningful, distinctively Christian ethic out of the New Testament. This is now no longer the case. The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays is one of the finest books on the Bible to be published in recent years. It is an informed, challenging, controversial, splendidly written book set to transform the study of New Testament ethics.
Hays’s book is divided into four parts, ‘The Descriptive Task’, ‘The Synthetic Task, ‘The Hermeneutical Task’ and ‘The Pragmatic Task’. Part One, ‘The Descriptive Task: Visions of the Moral Life in the New Testament’, provides a survey of the relevant materials that is better than any contemporary New Testament introduction. Always conversant with the scholarship, Hays grounds his ethical discussion of each part of the New Testament in the key issues, ‘the prophet like Moses’ and ‘the righteous martyr’ in Luke-Acts, ‘the man from heaven’ in John and the author’s own ‘faith of Jesus’ perspective on Paul. There is a discussion too of the role of contemporary Jesus research in New Testament ethics (featuring the startling claim that ‘the resurrection, just as much as the other events of the story, must be assessed as a historical event’, p. 165). The discussion of Paul, in particular, is so good that it makes an embarrassment of the frequent claims that Paul has no distinctively Christian ethic.
Part Two, ‘The Synthetic Task: Finding Coherence in the Moral Vision of the New Testament’, provides the book with its first subtitle, Community, Cross, New Creation, three images that ‘bring the moral vision of the New Testament canon into focus and provide a matrix within which we can speak meaningfully about the unity of New Testament ethics’ (p. 204). These images are applied in Part Four, ‘The Pragmatic Task: Living Under the Word: Test Cases’ after a discussion, in Part Three, of ‘The Hermeneutical Task: The Use of the New Testament in Christian Ethics’ in which, along the way, Hays interacts with Niebuhr, Barth, Yoder, Hauerwas and Schüssler Fiorenza. Having asked in this section ‘how the New Testament should function in the construction of normative Christian ethics’ (p. 309), Hays produces ten proposals which ‘offer practicable guidelines for New Testament ethics as a normative theological discipline’ (p. 310), some of which are controversial (for example ‘Extrabiblical sources stand in hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority’, p. 310).
The success of this book is that it convinces the reader that New Testament ethics might actually, after all, be not only possible but also desirable, a success that proceeds as much as anything else from the book’s sheer lack of superficiality or glibness. There are genuine signs here of a skilled New Testament theologian at work, in dialogue with both the academy and the Church, producing careful, reasoned and often agonised decisions about delicate issues. He neither shirks from asking the pertinent questions, nor from providing forthright answers. Typical is the discussion of ‘Violence in Defense of Justice’ (Chapter 14), with the conclusion ‘only when the Church renounces the way of violence will people see the way of Jesus re-enacted in the Church' (343); or the discussion of Divorce and Remarriage (Chapter 15), ‘If marriage is the New Testament’s final symbol of eschatological redemption, then divorce cannot be consonant with God’s redemptive will’ (p. 366).
Elsewhere, especially on homosexuality, Hays is willing to risk alienating readers at the expense of arguing towards conclusions that are not always perfectly PC. In a moving chapter (itself a very rare thing in critical writings on the New Testament), Hays does his scholarship partially in dialogue with a college friend called Gary who died of AIDS in 1990. But I am loathe to draw special attention to the conclusion of this and other chapters lest their apparent conservatism deter the reader of this review from consulting Hays’s Moral Vision.
This is not a book for skim-reading, nor one for skipping to the end in order to digest a selection of easy answers. Those engaged in teaching or studying courses on New Testament ethics should read this book straight away. Those who are not should read it anyway.
University of Birmingham