Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Countercultural Biblical Scholar

Always on the lookout for thought-provoking, challenging works in Christian theology and ethics, I find myself returning again and again to Richard B. Hays. Hays is the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

I first came across his work in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperCollins, 1996). In this book, Hays makes a compelling case that if you take the New Testament seriously as the shaping norm for the Christian moral life, then you'll end up taking moral positions that do not fit neatly and easily into the ideological agendas of either the Left or the Right.

For example, Hays takes a conservative position on abortion and homosexual practice. But he also argues passionately for pacifism and rejects Just War theory as incompatible with New Testament ethics. Hays' argument provides a warrant for the notion that biblically-grounded Christian faith and practice is deeply countercultural to those whose conservatism or liberalism (or centrism) is shaped more by post-Enlightenment, Western cultural norms and principles than by scripture and tradition.

In August 2004, Hays again caught my attention when he published this open letter to United Methodists in The Christian Century about the war in Iraq. Clearly, he believes that some moral issues carry a heavier weight and should take priority over others. And that the failure to rightly prioritize can make the churches complicit in evil.

Hays is also a fierce critic of liberal scholars who seek to jettison traditional understandings of Jesus and the New Testament. Here's a teaser from his review of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, edited by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar (Macmillan, 1993), in the May 1994 edition of the journal First Things:

If indeed there were significant new findings, broadly accepted by leading New Testament scholars, concerning the historical facts about what Jesus taught, such findings would indeed be newsworthy. The basic questions to be asked about this project, therefore, concern not the Seminar’s voting procedures or means of communicating its findings but rather the substance of its claims. ... To what extent are these methods and results genuinely representative of informed scholarly consensus? For reasons that I shall summarize briefly here, I must conclude that the operative methodology of the Seminar is seriously flawed, that it therefore inevitably produces a skewed portrait of Jesus’ teachings, and that - contrary to the impression fostered by the book - the findings reported here represent the idiosyncratic opinions of one particular faction of critical scholars. ...

The critical study of the historical Jesus is an important task - perhaps important for reasons theological as well as historical - but The Five Gospels does not advance that task significantly, nor does it represent a fair picture of the current state of research on this problem. Some of its purported revelations are old news, and many of its novel claims are at best dubious.

13 years later, Hays' review stands the test of time.

Read it all.

(See also Bishop N. T. Wright's review of The Five Gospels.)

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