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Spring 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 1 · pp. 71–73 

Book Review

New Testament Ethics: The Story Retold

Richard B. Hays. Winnipeg, MB: Canadian Mennonite Bible College, 1998. 81 pages.

Reviewed by Doug Heidebrecht

This publication by Richard B. Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, represents the J. J. Thiessen Lectures he delivered at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in 1997. These lectures were essentially an adaptation and expansion of his earlier work, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1996.

Hays recognizes the difficulty the church experiences when attempting to identify the message or application of Scripture amidst diverse and often variant readings of the New Testament. The problem is that “unless we can give a coherent account of how we move between the biblical text and normative ethical judgments, appeals to the authority of Scripture will be hollow and unconvincing” (2).

Hays begins by “mapping the field” with a survey of six current approaches or models of New Testament ethics. These approaches include the attempt to merely describe the ethical teachings of the New Testament or the morality of the early church. One model seeks to use Scripture as an abstract source for principles or moral ideals with little concern for a detailed exegesis of the text. Other approaches use contemporary experience as a grid through which the New Testament text is evaluated or assert that it is the moral character of the church which enables it to faithfully read the biblical text.

Hays defines his approach as a “metaphorical embodiment of narrative paradigms” (18). The contemporary church is called to read the Bible as a story in which it discerns the correspondence between the present community and the people whose story is told in the New Testament. Hays affirms the priority of the canonical story, the need for careful exegesis, and a recognition that the “right understanding of the texts is possible only when we act in obedience to them” (19). He asserts that “New Testament ethics requires a confessional, self-involving commitment to put what we read into practice” (19). {72}

Hays suggests that New Testament ethics involves four overlapping tasks. First, the descriptive task calls for a careful reading of the text. The synthetic task seeks to discern a coherent perspective within the diversity of the canon. Hays claims that the unity of the New Testament is centered around the gospel story, which itself requires a cluster of images (community, cross, new creation) to adequately identify what is fundamental to the ethical witness. The hermeneutical task is to place “our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts” (33) and to “see our lives anew by reading them in metaphorical juxtaposition with this story” (35). The church is called to stand under the authority of Scripture and to allow its life to be confronted with the vision of the New Testament. Finally, the pragmatic task is for the church to embody the meaning of the text as it is continually being shaped by the text.

Two further issues are addressed by Hays. He raises the question of the significance of the historical Jesus for Christian ethics in light of the renewed discussion regarding the canonical story of Jesus and recent attempts (particularly that of N. T. Wright) to develop an historical reconstruction. Finally Hays applies his approach to New Testament ethics to the relationship between women and men in Christ, which he did not address earlier in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. His brief discussion of this debated issue illustrates well how his approach wrestles with “internal tensions within the canon” (63).

Hays’ approach to New Testament ethics, which sees the church as embodied metaphor, resonates surprisingly well with an Anabaptist confessional “hermeneutic of obedience.” The holistic nature of Hays’ overlapping tasks provides a helpful pathway that moves the text into the life of the church, not unlike the more traditional movement from biblical theology to systematic and practical theology. Hays’ three focal images for synthetic reflection (community, cross, and new creation) are intriguing in their profound simplicity. These images not only revolve around Jesus (his body, the church; his death; and his resurrection), but also summarize accurately the significant ethical themes in Paul’s letters.

New Testament Ethics: The Story Retold is an excellent primer for Hays’ more substantial work, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. However, it is well worth the read for its introduction to various approaches to New Testament ethics and Hays’ example of taking seriously the divergent voices within the New Testament regarding the relationship of men and women in the church. His concern to bridge the chasm between the New Testament texts and the contemporary church along with his appreciation for the canonical authority of Scripture {73} establishes this approach to ethics as a relevant resource for pastors and teachers.

Doug Heidebrecht
Instructor in Biblical Studies
Bethany Bible Institute, Hepburn, Saskatchewan

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