Saturday, February 20, 2010

Metaphors, Carrots, Sticks, and the Divine Authorship of Scripture: A Few Thoughts on Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament

I've enjoyed engaging recently with Richard Hays' book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, not least because he is convinced that, for the Christian, moral reasoning is an exegetical matter. As the best theology centers on unpacking and integrating the teachings of the canonical writ, so developing a Christian ethic centers on attending to and practicing biblical directives for the church. Another strength of the volume is Hays' affirmation of both the determinacy of the meaning of biblical texts and possibility of genuine knowledge of that meaning and also the culturally-conditioned nature of our exegesis and attempts at principlizing our way from the sacred page to the contemporary setting. This leads his work away from the mire of hermeneutical and ethical relativism, but not without a firm grasp of the primacy of the particularity of the text and the significant limitations of abstracting from the Sitz im Leben of the original readers in order to relate Scripture to the church's current milieu. In turn, he lays stress on the need, under the tutelage of the mind-independent meaning of the text, to exercise the imagination in order to discern ways in which the world of Scripture connects up metaphorically with the world in which we now dwell and must make decisions. This, he says, fosters proper contextualization in the task of Christian moral reasoning as we seek to deploy and enact the normative teaching of Scripture, once displayed in previous historical-cultural situations, in the church's present situation. In short, contextualization depends less on pristine principles and more on discovering analogies that enable us to relate the canonical to the contemporary.

One of the helpful points he makes in examining the Pauline ethical material is that "Paul generally prefers suasion to sanctions." That is, the apostle will endeavor first to hold out the incomparable riches of new life in Christ before using the dangers of rejecting Christ as motivation for repentance. He opts for "the carrot over the stick as a strategy of moral exhortation" (p. 40). Of course, as Hays adds, Paul isn't afraid to spell out the real prospect of divine judgment in hopes of prodding Christians to pursue a life of obedience. However, the point is still worth noting for our own interactions with other believers: amplify the joy of a faithful life before resorting to the threat of divine condemnation when aiming to persuade someone to continue along the path of Christian maturity.

In addition to these positive remarks, there are a few questions I would raise. Chiefly, I wonder how a certain subterranean perspective on God's relationship to Scripture affects some of Hays' exegetical and methodological judgments. For example, when he considers the difficult passage on women and teaching in 1 Timothy 2, Hays concludes that the author (not Paul, in Hays' mind) ventures a "lame exoneration of Adam" (p. 67). However, if we believe that in each biblical text we find both the divine and the human voices harmoniously addressing the church, and, if we believe that central to the exegetical task is determining the (unified) "normative stance" (Wolterstorff's phrase) of those two authorial agents, then it seems that both complementarians and egalitarians must do better than to concede a poorly devised bit of argumentation in the Bible. If God through the human author and without violating said author's personality and agency inscripturates the normative stance found in each section of the biblical literature, including a section that posits arguments, I would hesitate to dismiss even a seemingly odd thread of reasoning as "lame." The other options seem to be 1) downplaying God's involvement with certain texts or aspects of texts (which texts? which aspects?) and/or 2) broadly rejecting the claim that God is speaking to the church in the text. (Notice that this concern could be shared by those who do believe Paul wrote all of the Pauline epistles and by those who do not. The question is one of God's relationship to the Bible.)

Any thoughts?

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