Is There Such a Thing as New Testament Ethics?

by William C. Spohn

William C. Spohn is Presidential Professor of Ethics and the Common Good at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 21-28, 1997, pp. 525-531. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Spohn outlines Richard B. Hays’ attempt in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament to discern a coherent moral stance in the wide range of New Testament witnesses by offering a synthesis of the varying and divergent canonical voices through biblical paradigms and root metaphors.

The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics.

By Richard B. Hays. HarperSanFrancisco, 508 pp., $25.00 paperback.

Richard B. Hays identifies our central problems in trying to use scripture for moral guidance today: With such diverse voices in the text, which voices do we take as authoritative? With such diverse readers of the text, whose perspective is more instructive? Since the same text can be read in so many different ways, how should we decide which reading makes a claim on us?

Twenty years ago the problem presented itself in different terms. The issue was not so much the diversity of the Bible as its relevance. Victor Paul Furnish in The Moral Teaching of Paul (1979) contrasted those who treated scripture as a sacred cow and those who considered it a white elephant. Literalists insisted on taking every moral directive from the text into contemporary life without any interpretation. Liberals doubted that the Bible had any lasting relevance because the biblical texts came from contexts so alien to the contemporary world. Literalists wanted timeless truths the uncontaminated by scholarship, while liberals believed that scholarship had reduced biblical moral teaching to an historical curio. Whether they venerated the biblical text or dismissed it, however, both sides presumed that the text had a fairly definite meaning.

The 1990s have presented a different set of problems. Doubts about how to use scripture have deepened into doubts about the status of the texts themselves. Increasingly we wonder whether any text has a definite meaning at all. We no longer look to historical criticism to establish the meaning of the text. Once we came to acknowledge that, like every other reader, the historian writes from a particular standpoint skewed by class, gender and race bias, historical method lost its fig leaf of scientific objectivity. The rise of hermeneutics in the past two decades has convinced us that "there is no innocent eye." If every reading is shaped by the reader's interests, why not use it to endorse our commitments? Advocacy theologians rummage through the Bible for material that supports their cause and discard the rest.

So is it any longer possible to speak of a coherent moral vision of the New Testament? This question puzzles the well-read church member, vexes the seminarian and saps the confidence of those who have to preach on the Sunday readings. Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, argues that a coherent moral stance can be discerned in the range of NT witnesses. Hays seeks to pursue NT ethics as a "normative theological discipline" that can shape the life of the church in its communal identity and practical behavior. He turns the apparent cacophony of the biblical chorus into a complex but unified polyphony by carefully distinguishing four different tasks: descriptive, synthetic, hermeneutical and pragmatic.

Most scholars concentrate on either the descriptive or the hermeneutical task. Exegetical scholarship describes the different texts in increasing detail but cannot pull them into coherence. After distinguishing the Jesus of Mark from the Jesus of Luke, for example, exegetes almost always leave their readers in the dark about how to relate the two constructs. The increasing specialization of academic exegesis produces fragments but no normative vision. Hays addresses this problem by his synthetic proposal. It takes an integrative act of the imagination to grasp the central story which is retold from many perspectives in the canon.

Hermeneutical reflections often leave believers in deep confusion about how to bring these ancient writings to bear on the present life of the church. Hermeneutics remains a private, armchair exercise so long as it remains divorced from the life of a community that struggles to be faithful to that story and the One whom it reveals. Indeed, Hays doubts that one could grasp the transforming and challenging message of the NT without membership in a community of disciples struggling to be faithful. The pragmatic task asks how the life of actual communities can be transformed on the path of discipleship. To do this we have to discern what it means to be faithful to the gospel in the vexing moral issues that divide us today.

In the final section of the book, Hays ventures some "provisional discernments" on the most persistent moral questions in American churches: violence in defense of justice, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, anti-Judaism and abortion. Many readers will be tempted to evaluate the theological argument of this book by the conclusions it reaches on these issues. That temptation probably reveals that scripture is less authoritative for us than are the opinions that we have uncritically accepted from the dominant secular culture. When the Bible supports our settled opinions, we welcome it; when it doesn't, we regard it as outdated or positively pernicious.

Until this work, no one in recent decades had successfully brought the descriptive, synthetic, hermeneutical and pragmatic tasks together. Furnish, Allan Verhey, Robin Scroggs, Thomas Ogletree, Bruce Birch, Larry Rasmussen and others have pursued one or another of these enterprises, but not within a comprehensive theological argument. Like many exegetical works, Wolfgang Schrage's The Ethics of the New Testament (1988) relies on a reconstructed historical Jesus to pull his review of European scholarship together. Every historical construct remains necessarily tentative and cannot substitute for a theological synthesis. Although Hay does not claim to have produced the definitive statement of NT ethics, his insightful distinction of the four tasks should structure the discussion in NT ethics and church life for some time to come.

1) The descriptive task considers the individual NT writings in their distinctiveness without forcing them into an artificial harmony. Hays briefly analyzes a representative sample of major NT works (Paul, the Gospels, Acts and Revelation). More comprehensive descriptive treatments can be found in Schrage or in Frank Matera's New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (1996). Verhey in The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament (1984) traces the moral emphases in the various stages of textual development of the canonical writings. Hays prefers their final canonical form because that is what shapes the identity of the community of faith.

If we pay attention to the full range of voices in the canon, particularly where they are in tension, we will be less likely to remake Jesus in our own image. Historical critics are not immune to this danger, as Luke T. Johnson observes about John Dominic Crossan's 1991 work, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant: "Does not Crossan's picture of a peasant cynic preaching inclusiveness and equality fit perfectly the idealized ethos of the late 20th-century academic?" Hays shares Johnson's serious reservations about the much-publicized Jesus Seminar, which aims to find the real Jesus behind the texts rather than in the risen Lord witnessed in the life of faithful communities.

Before the four Gospels were formed, Paul articulated the symbol that would become the theological center of NT ethics. "For Paul, Jesus' death on the cross is an act of loving, self-sacrificial obedience that becomes paradigmatic for the obedience of all who are in Christ." The obedience of faith does not mean obedience to immediate divine commands, as in Karl Barth; it means actively shaping a life along the lines of the story of Jesus. The community seeks to respond to its world in ways that are analogous to the ways in which Jesus dealt with his own times. The fundamental norm of Paul's ethics, namely the shape of Jesus' life most clearly manifest in the cross, will be echoed in the other NT witnesses.

Each of the evangelists closely correlates his portrayal of Jesus with his portrayal of the ethical shape the community of disciples should have. Matthew, Luke and John anchor the moral message in the story of Jesus, who remains present to the community through the power of the Spirit. Hays does not endorse the efforts of Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza to picture Jesus as the spokesperson of divine Sophia or Wisdom, a connection which is supported by only a single NT verse (Luke 7:35). Even though the image of the cross has been misused to subordinate women and other Christians, the NT'S understanding of faithful obedience to God is impossible without it.

2) The synthetic task addresses the pressing problem of textual and interpretive diversity in the NT. Unless we can discern a coherent unity in the NT, it cannot provide a normative theological ethics. Many pastors are tempted to average out the tensions in the text, as when they appeal to Matthew to spiritualize Luke's radical words, "Woe to you who are rich" (6:24). Or they select biblical texts in an eclectic, ad hoc fashion to address contemporary problems. This prooftexting inevitably runs the risk of arbitrariness.

The unity of the NT lies in the basic story of God's graciousness. It can be captured not in a single principle but only in a sequence of images that are embedded in that story, focus our reading of it and provide a framework within which individual texts can make sense. Images and patterns are the stuff of the imagination, which is the capacity that unifies data into wholes; it does so by means of patterns rather than abstract concepts.

Hays relies on an inductive approach at this crucial juncture. What basic patterns or "root metaphors" emerge out of the descriptive task? They should be found in the full range of canonical witnesses, not just in some "canon within the canon." These focal images are tested by a process of trial and error to see whether they illuminate the whole NT and are pragmatically effective in the life of the community. Hays proposes three basic images:

a) Community. God calls forth a "countercultural community of discipleship" which is "called to embody an alternative order that stands as a sign of God's redemptive purposes in the world." Hays agrees with Stanley Hauerwas that the revelatory word is addressed to communities rather than individuals. The shape of their character is derived from the patterns of faithful obedience in the community. The NT witnesses aimed primarily to offer an alternative to the world rather than to transform it.

b) Cross. Jesus' death on the cross is the center of the story of salvation and the theological fulcrum of NT ethics. Since it is the paradigm for being faithful to God in this world, the cross sets the standard for Christian obedience. Hays is persuaded by John Howard Yoder that Christians are called to be faithful rather than effective. Their actions will be judged by their conformity to the faithfulness of Jesus. The cross was not a recipe for resurrection: that was in God's hands. Certainly this symbol presents a major sign of contradiction to America's pragmatic culture. Since Christ conquered as the "Lamb who was slain," paradoxically surrendering power, Christians are called to renounce coercion and violence without qualification.

c) New Creation. The community of believers "embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world." Hoping for the redemption of all creation, Christians maintain a certain eschatological reserve about the way things are. The Spirit of Jesus continues to transform the church so that it can wisely discern how to journey on the way of discipleship.

This synthetic proposal is the most creative and controversial aspect of the whole argument. Although Hays concedes that it is possible to choose alternative basic images, he finds the usual candidates wanting. Love is not central to many NT authors. In any case, it needs to be anchored in the historical image of the cross of Jesus, as in 1 John 3:16, a favorite passage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's. When love gets translated as liberal "inclusiveness," it ignores repentance, sacrifice and transformation. Liberation is a theme historically rooted but not extensively endorsed in the canon. In addition, it risks being identified with specific programs of political change.

Jon Sobrino's Jesus the Liberator (1993) endorses the same images but interprets them quite differently from Hays. (Liberation theologians are scarcely mentioned in his otherwise comprehensive bibliography.) In the synoptic Gospels Sobrino finds that the theme of "the kingdom of God" is central to the proclamation of Jesus. Jesus' ministry to the poor and his opposition to oppression give content to the image of the reign of God. Jesus empties himself by choosing to identify with the lot of the poor, whose fate is to be crucified by the powerful. The image of the cross remains central, but gets defined more as an act of mercy done for the sake of the oppressed than as an act of obedience to God's will.

When interpreted in this way, the paradigm of the cross becomes more result-oriented. It yields a different moral imperative: take the crucified people down from the cross. Faithful obedience takes its cues more from the plight of the oppressed and seeks to serve the God of life by rescuing them from the deadly grip of systemic injustice. The cry of the poor in history continues to reveal God's call, even though the strategies of merciful response must correspond to the way of Jesus witnessed in the NT.

3) The hermeneutical task asks how we are to bridge the gap of time and culture between ourselves and the world of the NT. The issue for Christian communities is not whether scripture should be authoritative but how. Hays explains the move from text to life by appealing to metaphor, which is the creative coupling of unrelated terms that provokes new insight. Literary imagination spots a link between unfamiliar items that shocks and delights us and so generates new ways of seeing the world. The structure of metaphor depicts the operation of NT ethics. It must be "metaphor-making" by "placing our community's life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts." Note that metaphor juxtaposes one particular image with another, pattern to pattern. It does not try to relate one concept to another by logical argument.

Most good preaching involves just such an act of creative imagination. It spots the analogy between, for example, ourselves and the Good Samaritan, then asks for an analogous response to our contemporaries "in the ditch." The familiar line at the end of that parable mandates similar action: "Go and do likewise." The parable is not a quarry from which moral principles can be mined and the remainder left for the slag heap. In fact, the attempt to locate separable timeless truths in the culturally conditioned aspects of the NT is "wrongheaded and impossible."

The most successful interpreters of the moral teaching of the NT have focused on the text's paradigms and "symbolic world" rather than on its rules and principles. Reinhold Niebuhr failed to root his definitions of justice and equality in the story and symbols of scripture, Hays thinks. But if Niebuhr relied too much on reason and experience, Karl Barth's theology of the command of God denigrated them excessively. Reason, experience and tradition are not "independent, counterbalancing sources of authority" which can ground the church's identity. Only scripture does that.

4) The pragmatic task makes normative judgments by locating today's issues in the symbolic world of the NT. The churches' discussions are confused on these issues because they are framed in secular terms. Hays provides the churches with the tools to discuss moral questions in a more flexible way by moving analogously and imaginatively from text to life and back again.

The weight of evidence on the five sample issues ranges on a sliding scale from the "univocal and pervasive" rejection of violence by the canonical authors to an absence of any explicit mention of abortion. Where textual evidence is scant, there is more room to appeal to tradition, reason and experience. Nevertheless, for Hays, scripture "portrays a world in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible." Instead of lobbying for abortion funding for poor women, therefore, churches should make it financially and socially possible for them to raise their children.

Nonviolence and peacemaking are so "integrally related to the central moral vision" of the NT that no compromise on these issues should be possible. Christians are called to treat their enemies in the same way that God did in Christ, not to distort that example by appealing to reason or prudence. The just war theory and the American churches' endorsement of the military represent a faithless capitulation. The communities that produced the NT were marginal to the power of the Roman empire and harbored no illusions about transforming it.

One wonders whether contemporary Christian communities must be confined to a similar marginal role. Do they have greater social responsibilities beyond witnessing to an alternative way of life? Communities that have moved to the center of society may need to take social consequences more seriously than did the original NT communities. Perhaps obedience to God now calls for greater concern about being effective.

Hays questions the pervasive tolerance of divorce in mainstream churches, which erodes any requirement to stay in a difficult marriage. Although the canon shows various ways of adapting Jesus' prohibition of divorce to different situations, it gives unified testimony that divorce should be avoided "in every way possible, for it is incongruous with the gospel of God's reconciling love."

Likely to be the most controversial is Hays's treatment of homosexuality. The canon makes only a few references to this topic, but they are "unremittingly negative in their judgment." The NT does not make sexuality a primary focus of personal identity or a means of finding personal meaning. Even though there are no explicit NT prohibitions on homosexual behavior, Hays judges it to be inconsistent with the symbolic world revealed in the text. If scripture and tradition weigh in on the negative, what about positive arguments from reasonable science and contemporary experience? Hays defines reason more narrowly than most moral philosophers do. He would allow experience to contravene NT teaching "only after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful."

Some critics will undoubtedly reject Hays's approach to NT ethics because they disagree with some of these pragmatic analyses. Others will regret that space did not permit Hays to fully address other pressing issues, such as the biblical mandates to share possessions and to treat men and women equally.

What stands out most, however, is the sophistication of Hays's method in moving from text to world. We are a long way from the Social Gospel thinkers who believed they could intuitively apply the ethics of Jesus to the conduct of national affairs. If readers heed Hays's invitation to further dialogue and deeper immersion in the texts themselves, the churches will be well served.