Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A)

Romans 1 Continued:  The Argument of NT Scholar Richard B. Hays

I have repeatedly hesitated to write this post.  It involves publicly disagreeing with a scholar whom I respect enormously and that is never pleasant.  But, here goes anyway.

Richard B. Hays is a United Methodist minister and the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament  at Duke University Divinity School–who previously taught at Yale Divinity School.  His book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament:  Community, Cross, New Creation:  A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), is widely agreed to be the best volume of its kind in decades. Christianity Today selected it as one of the 100 most important Christian books of the 20th C., and, for once, I agree with the editors of CT.  It is truly a remarkable book and I have used it my own teaching.  Most NT scholars, if and when they write works on New Testament ethics, confine themselves solely to the descriptive task, surveying the ethical contents of the biblical passages.  A few go on to make contemporary application.  Hays, instead, understakes a 4-fold task, and does it remarkably well:  First, descriptive:  surveying every major strand (and writer) of the New Testament and outlining the major themes in some detail.  Second, the synthetic task, searching for the canonical unity of these disparate moral teachings.  Hays rejects placing all the NT under one overarching theme (e.g., “love,” or “liberation,” etc.) and instead uses three concepts or focal images as guides: community, cross, new creation.  Third, the hermeneutical task, bridging the chasm between the meaning of the texts for their original audience and what they should normatively mean for the contemporary church.  In accomplishing this task, Hays does something few other biblical scholars bother to do: He reads widely in the writings of theologians and Christian ethicists, asking how they actually use Scripture in their work.  From this he develops a series of diagnostic questions about the adequacy of a given theologian/ethicist’s approach–illustrating this for the reader by surveying the use of Scripture in the ethics of Reinhold NiebuhrKarl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  Hays finds appreciative points about each of these significant voices and things to criticize about each, as well, but he finds Barth, Yoder, and Hauerwas to be more helpful than Niebuhr or Schüssler Fiorenza. (It is significant that none of these figures is a racial or ethnic minority, nor comes from the Two-Thirds World. Still, this is more examination of theological ethics than done by MOST biblical scholars–who usually interact ONLY with specialists in their own field.)  From here, Hays proposes a series of guidelines for using Scripture in contemporary moral reflection in the churches.  Finally, he engages the pragmatic task  (“Living Under the Word”) of presenting case-studies for his proposals: seeking normative guidance from the New Testament on the issues of Violence in the Defense of Justice (Hays argues for Christian pacifism); Divorce and Remarriage (forbidden except in rare cases); Homosexuality (His view is what I have called, following the late Stanley Grenz, “welcoming, but NOT affirming”); Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict; and Abortion (a subject never mentioned directly in Scripture–and so a good test case for using Scripture for other forms of moral discernment).

Now, in Hays’ section on “Homosexuality,” he first examines the biblical texts, as most of my posts have done to this point. I have very little quarrel with his exegesis, including his exegesis of Romans 1. As with many others, Hays’ rejection of the “full inclusion” or “welcoming and affirming” position (i.e., that would have the church bless same-sex unions analagous to marriage as I argue it should) rests most thoroughly on Romans 1.  But what I argue is that, unintentionally, Hays’ conclusion shows him violating his own guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–and stands in some tension to the way he handles some of the other test cases.

To argue this carefully, I must conclude this post (which would otherwise be too long) by listing Hays’ hermeneutical guidelines.  Then, in the next post, I shall (a) examine closely Hays’ conclusions about Romans 1, (b)point out where extra-biblical influences are apparent in his conclusions, and (c) contrast this to how Hays handles the texts in two other test-cases.

Here are Hays’ normative proposals for using Scripture in Christian ethics:

  • Serious exegesis is a basic requirement.  Texts used in ethical arguments should be understood as fully as possible in their historical and literary context. [This is in contrast to “proof-texting” which, surprisingly, is done by theologians and ethicists as often as by laypeople or fundamentalist preachers.]

            a. New Testament texts must be read with careful attention to their Old Testament subtexts.

  • We must seek to listen to the full range of canonical witnesses.
  • Substantive tensions within the canon should be openly acknowledged.
  • Our synthetic reading of the New Testament texts must be kept in balance by the sustained use of three focal images: community, cross, and new creation. [Presenting Hays’ argument for these 3 images, which I largely find persuasive, is beyond the scope of these posts.  Read the book.]
  • New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak (i.e., rule, principle, paradigm, symbolic world). [This is very important for my argument. Hays argues against taking a paradigmatic narrative, say, and transforming it into a rule.]

               a. All four modes are valid and necessary.

               b. We should not override the witness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode.

  • The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action. Thus, the paradigmatic mode [of NT moral discourse] has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics.
  • Extrabiblical sources [of moral discernment] stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. [Here, Hays is reacting primarily to the more liberal wing of his own United Methodist Church which cites a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Hays will, with some nuancing, also refer to this fourfold process, but wants to subordinate Tradition, Reason, and Experience, to the final authority of Scripture.  He believes that those, like myself, who argue for revising the Church’s teaching to allow for same-sex marriages have violated this guideline. He believes we/I use reason (i.e., recent scientific study on “homosexuality”) and experience (e.g., meeting gay or lesbian Christians whose lives are more holy than our own) to “trump” or counterbalance the Scriptural testimony, instead of merely using such sources hermeneutically, to illuminate the meaning of the biblical texts.  In reply, I will argue three things: A. It is much harder to make sure that Scripture is the final norm in all ethical matters than appears at first glance as the second post in this series argued. B. Hays himself finds it difficult to hold to this principle in the way he handles the test-case of anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  C. Hays’ conclusion on “homosexuality” is far more influenced by his own experience and by his reading of church tradition than he admits.]
  • It is impossible to distinguish “timeless truths” from “culturally conditioned elements” in the New Testament. [I find this the most problematic of his guidelines. While difficult, it is not impossible–and Hays himself does it in at least one test case.]
  • The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination; thus, whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making.  [THIS is one of his best insights and I will return to it in the next post.]
  • Right reading of the New Testament occurs only where the Word is embodied.

July 18, 2008 - Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues

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