The history that lies between

The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. HarperCollins, 1991. 530pp.

Is there a Christian response to catastrophe? What does it mean to belong to the church in a moment of global crisis? How can we connect the Bible to the Covid-19 outbreak? These are questions presently being aired in churches across the world. And that’s understandable. However, such questions should give us more pause than we (North American) Christians are accustomed to. Given the fact that the Bible is so familiar to many of us, translated into today’s vernacular, quoted and cited ad infinitim, plastered on bumpers and billboards and sometimes tattooed on skin, it may seem almost perverse to suggest that its world doesn’t neatly overlap with our own. But consider a political analogy. The word democracy can be applied to both the country of Canada in 2020 and the city-state of ancient Greece. While their forms bear family resemblances, possessing many important links, no one should mistake the one for the other. They are not the same. Between the present and the ancient past historical change and development has occurred. The same is true for the Bible and the church. Obviously there are many interesting ways in which the Biblical text, and the chorus of its many different voices, can and should be related to the life of the church today. To be a Christian is to presume that the Spirit which animated that text, and the community from which it derived, still “speaks” to us in some fashion or other. But that is not an excuse for an unreflective attitude to the past.

To ask about the import of Covid-19 for Christians is to ask about how the past relates to the present. It is to ask how a compilation of “inspired” texts, written, collected, and edited over hundreds of years, which was then preserved, maintained, and read by the Christian community for thousands of years, relates to the here and now. This is simultaneously a question of how a historical community, the church, lived in relationship to the God of whom those texts speak. In short, we are dealing with nothing less than the question of historical relevance.


In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays connects a close reading of the Christian scriptures to contemporary moral concerns about war and violence, marriage and divorce, gender and sexuality, ethnic exclusion and abortion. While these are heady matters, they are not so different from thinking about Biblical ethics in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Hays advocates for an approach to the New Testament based upon a reading of the specific narratives and texts which make up the canon, each on their own terms, as well as a more comprehensive, synthetic vision of what these different voices come together to say as a whole. That is, he believes that understanding the New Testament calls for a movement between the singular vision of specific texts, such as the Gospel of Mark, to a holistic vision of the entire New Testament. This isn’t an uncontested approach, mind you. But since he’s writing with Christians in mind it makes a good deal of sense. Although Hays lays out a justification for his procedure, given what is at stake, I find the range of hermeneutical arguments and philosophical literature surveyed relatively thin.

Moral Vision shifts between the “hermeneutical task”—identifying the web of rules, principles, paradigms, and symbols that make up the vision of various New Testament texts—and the “pragmatic task” of how the Christian community should embody the ethical norms embedded in scripture. In other words, Hays is laying out the way he thinks the world of the Bible and the early church should be related to the present. Overall, he finds three principal “focal images” or essential emphases in the New Testament: community, cross, and new creation. This identification involves a jump from interpretation to application, a move that isn’t as neat and tidy as Hays makes out. For interpretation cannot be separated from practice completely. By that I simply mean to say that the characterization of the New Testament’s most important themes cannot be ascertained in some clinical, scientific way, as if one’s ethical orientation, no matter how disinterested, could be entirely bracketed. Even for a scholar, the practical dimension of the New Testament’s contemporary application is wrapped up in the historical context of the present.

To put it briefly, Hays doesn’t reflect sufficiently upon the shift between a historical-critical and literary reading of the New Testament texts and their application today. It’s as if he has carefully laid out the different ways the New Testament and early church responded to illness, but then straightforwardly connects this account to the present, as if major scientific and medical advances, to say nothing of our quite different social formations, haven’t fundamentally changed our outlook on such topics. This sort of thing happens often enough in New Testament scholarship—even, I would insist, in the work of N. T. Wright. A recent biography of Karl Marx, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx (Verso, 2008), by Sven-Eric Liedman, does precisely the same thing. While providing a careful account of the literary structure and the cultural and historical context of a text or thinker—the Gospels, the apostle Paul, or Karl Marx—the authors then leap forward to today and, without offering a similarly careful analysis of the present, seek to say how their subject relates to it. Perhaps as a result of an understandable, if earnest, desire to have their given subject find new relevance, the application of the past to the present sees the present treated more or less as a given, as if living in the present makes one a sophisticated interpreter of it.

Consider marriage. Is the institution of marriage in the New Testament really the same thing as in twenty-first century North America? Even if we were to answer “yes,” this is surely not something that can be assumed from the start. For it might still be the case that the place of marriage in our world exists in a quite different formation, socially, culturally, politically. Twenty-first-century North America is a substantially different place from Second Temple Judea. That is to say, the background in which marriage is found in each of these two different scenarios is so different that, even if marriage was more or less the same thing in each case, which it is not, any halfway competent understanding would necessarily involve careful comparative historical analysis.

Hays is an astute scholar and acknowledges the fact that any reading of the New Testament today is already a work of translation from its context to ours. He is aware of the challenges involved in doing this well, in providing a robust reading of the New Testament for the purposes of ethical deliberation in communities where Christian norms prevail, communities that are separated by thousands of years in time and thousands of kilometres in space from ancient Israel. His book is detailed, thorough, and thoughtful. It deserves to be widely, if critically, read. And it is already quite lengthy at over 500 pages. But the point I’ve raised is central to any consideration of how to relate the New Testament world to the present day—whether we’re talking about Covid-19 or marriage. Ultimately, the book’s insights are undermined by the fact that the care and consideration shown to the elucidation of the New Testament’s ethical vision is not extended to the present. It omits and so fails to analyze the social, cultural, and political history in which moral questions have been negotiated.

Thus Hays makes scant reference to the history of gender, sexuality, marriage, divorce, or nationalism, to say nothing of the history of the social forms of religious expression (e.g. monasticism). And this despite engaging with critics and scholars whose perspective has been informed by such considerations (such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). Presumably Hays knows that histories of these subjects exist. But he defends his method on the grounds that he doesn’t have space in an already lengthy book. Is this caveat justifiable? Can one answer the question of how to relate ancient texts to the present without taking into account the history that lies between them? The simple and unhelpful answer to this question is yes, of course you can. The mere fact that the Bible is available in present-day vernacular translations allows a contemporary reader to interpret the text for themselves, often anachronistically. Quite obviously the intent of my question is whether or not such a translation, from past to present, represents the best way of understanding the past, and thus of explaining what a given text means to present-day readers. My answer to that question is a resounding no.

In fact, the history that lies between the New Testament world and the present is implicitly present in Hay’s work. A better comparative account of the past and its relation to the present will not simply contextualize the past, but the present as well. Yes, that would have made for a much lengthier book. But given that Hays sets up his “focal images” of the New Testament by contrasting them with some major scholars in his field (Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, Schüssler Fiorenza), he certainly could have included a historical-philosophical section as well . A better, fuller, more sensitively dialectical account of how to connect the New Testament to the present needs to offer an explicit historical narrative rather than assume that the present can be adequately understood without it.

There are some related historical confusions in this book. At one point Hays claims that Scripture unmasks an illusion that we’ve supposedly inherited from the Enlightenment: namely, that human beings are “free moral agents, choosing rationally among possible actions”(Moral Vision, p. 390). Does the New Testament in and of itself really dissolve this claim? I think not. And what does his statement achieve, exactly? There are many historians of the Enlightenment—Roy Porter, Jonathan Israel, Anthony Pagden, to name only a few—who have attended to their subject matter with as much care as the historian of the New Testament.1 Are they entitled to reply to Hays in kind? Having read John Robertson’s The Case for the Enlightenment, perhaps someone might say that the Enlightenment has unmasked the Biblical illusion that human nature is inherently evil.2 The basic question is this: how might one respond if Hays’ plea for the normative validity of the New Testament is challenged by that of another perspective, such as Jonathan Israel’s trenchant (albeit highly selective) restatement of Enlightenment philosophy? One assumes that only a robust comparative analysis, which must necessarily entail exhaustive historical inquiry and philosophical rigour, would provide a satisfactory result.

To put it somewhat simplistically, either you think contemporary ethical reflection is inseparable from the history of ethical reflection, or you don’t. Thinkers ranging from Vico to Gadamer, Herder to Merleau-Ponty, Hegel to Heidegger, Marx to Wittgenstein, have insisted that philosophical reflection is always historically mediated. Evidently, my criticism stems from a philosophical conviction about historical methodology. To put it in basic terms for the purposes of contrast once again, is human nature such that it remains more or less the same over time and across space, rendering ethical questions virtually timeless once you strip away the accidents of history, or is human nature such that the very structure of human subjectivity has changed as a result of the dynamic historical development of human society, making ethical questions complexly dialectical? Considering the fact that Hays is making a case for the present-day normativity of a certain vision of New Testament ethics, this is a question he should have addressed much more fully than he does.

  1. Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, Penguin, 2000; Jonathan Israel, The Radical Enlightenment, Oxford University Press, 2001; Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters, Penguin, 2013. ↩︎
  2. John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680-1760, Cambridge University Press, 2006. ↩︎
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