Thursday, 21 November 2013

Dr. Richard Hays on 'The Synthetic Task'

Dr. Richard B. Hays
I tend to be the kind of person that likes to ask a lot of questions as a means to learning. I love to learn in dialogue with my peers and teachers. My suspicion is that theology is best done in community, as a community, for the community. I can recall countless occasions where I was on a particular train of thought and was stopped dead in my tracks by the cross-examination of a teacher or peer. 

"Have you thought about this?..."

Given this information, it should be no surprise to you that I love to be the kind of student that would show up at their Professor's door with a few burning questions. Thankfully, I had really amazing Professors that generously gave of their time to meet with me. They would leave their tasks of marking, reading, and reflection and patiently listen to my queries. 

I remember on one such occasion that my Professor, in an effort to answer the 'question of the day', pulled from his shelf a well worn book. I read the bright red wording of the title of the book, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament". The binding of the book looked creased and cracked, almost as if it had been opened a thousand times before in search of invaluable information. I could see bits of paper protruding at random from various sections of the book. As my Professor flipped through the pages, I could see the vast array of blue pen that  underlined key sentences and cryptic notes throughout this book. I don't particularly  remember what my Professor told me that day, but I do remember thinking.... "I need to get this book". 

My intuition about The Moral Vision of the New Testament was confirmed by the praise of a few of my favourite authors:

"This book isn't just a breath of fresh air. It's a hurricane, blowing away the fog of half-understood pseudo-morality and fashionable compromise, and revealing instead the early Christian vision of true humanness and genuine holiness. If this book isn't a for our time, I don't know what is." - N.T. Wright

"There are few people I would rather read for the actual exposition of the New Testament than Richard Hays. This book is filled with wonderful readings that not only inform us about how to think better about the so-called 'problem of the relation between the New Testament and ethics' but, even more, speak of how lives should be lived in the light of Christ's cross." - Stanley Hauerwas

Here is my copy of the book today: 

Hays, in the introduction to Part Two of the book, has a tiny five page section titled,  "The Synthetic Task: Finding Coherence in the Moral Vision of the New Testament." I re-read this section today, almost by mistake, while I was doing a bit of study in a different section of the book. I was so blown away at the depth of content in these few pages that I was inspired to share with you my reader(s). 

Richards Hays on the "Synthetic Task"

Hays opens this section of the book with a crucial statement for any good interpretation of Scripture:

The New Testament is not a simple, homogenous body of doctrine. It is, rather, a chorus of diverse voices. These voices differ not only is pacing and intonation but also in the material content of their messages. No matter how devoutly we might wish it otherwise, we cannot hear these texts as a chorus speaking in unison. Indeed, a rigid determination to make the texts speak univocally will at best limit our perception of the range of these witnesses and at worst produce distortion of their messages. [pg. 187]
Hays is warning his readers of the temptation to read Scripture as 'flat univocal document'. I believe the best example of this in our contemporary reading(s) is when everything in Scripture is made subservient to Pauline theology, or rather misinterpretations of Pauline theology.  Our first responsibility as interpreters of Scripture is to listen to the individual witness. We must allow Luke to speak for Luke, or Matthew to speak for Matthew, or James to speak for James. It is only when we have allowed the individual voice to be heard do we make any attempts at harmonization and synthesis. 
We must let the individual voices speak if we are to allow the New Testament to articulate a word that may contravene our own values and desires. Otherwise we are likely to succumb to the temptation of flipping to some comforting cross-reference to neutralize the force of any particularly challenging passage we may encounter." [pg. 188]
Hays provides the following example of reading Luke through a Pauline lens to illustrate:
Does Jesus say in Luke's Gospel, "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions' (Luke 14.33)? This is a disturbing word; how are we to understand it? Flipping to 2 Corinthians 8-9, we find a less exacting norm: Paul exhorts the Corinthians merely to contribute generously to his collection for the Jerusalem church, "in order that there may be a fair balance" (isotes, 2 Cor 8.14) Paul advocates sharing, renunciation of possessions. Thus, a homogenizing of interpretations might filter Luke's stringent teaching through Paul's account of economic responsibility and conclude Luke 14.33 cannot mean literally what it appears to say; its hyperbolic language is "really" to be understood as a way of urging sharing or inner detachment from wealth. When the text is interpreted in this way, however, the Gospel of Luke's radical call to discipleship is muffled.
Imagine traveling back in time to see one of your favourite bands live in concert. For the sake of this example I am going to choose The Beatles. Paul, John, George and Ringo Starr skillfully play each of your favourite tunes. You hear some of the classics like Day Tripper, I wanna hold your hand, Twist and Shout, and She loves You. Doing good hermeneutics & synthesis in the New Testament is a lot like hearing each member of the band in a well balanced mix. It rocks! It flows together. It makes you want to dance. You hear each voice and instrument working together in union. Bad hermeneutics & synthesis is like turning up one member of the band so loud that it stifles the other members. It would be like Sir Paul McCartney coming out during the encore to play Blackbird for the audience only to discover that Ringo Starr is bashing away at his Ludwig drum set like a madman. Ringo has gone mad and is completely oblivious to everything and everyone else. So Sir Paul plugs in a tries to do his best to play overtop of the drums, hoping that Ringo realizes its time to start another song. You might think you are hearing Blackbird, an acoustic number, but you are actually filtering the aforementioned ballad through the tangental playing of one Ringo Star. In short... it would suck and Blackbird would be ruined for everyone.  (Also, Paul, John and George would most likely have to axe Ringo and hire back Pete Best to complete the tour) In summary: reading Pauline theology into Luke is a bit like only hearing Ringo Starr at The Beatles concert. (And no one wants that!) 

The solution? Hays suggests:

We are less likely to delude ourselves if we establish a firm methodological ground rule that we must listen to the whole witness of each individual text with care. Luke 14.33 must be understood, in the first instance, in light of Luke's larger narrative depiction of the early church's economic practices (especially in light of the pertinent passages in Acts that describe the Jerusalem church's sharing of possessions), not in light of Paul's pastoral instruction. Luke and Paul stand in some tension with one another on this issue, and we cannot interpret one in terms of the other. Only when we set their differing perspectives side by side will we rightly perceive the synthetic problem. [pg. 188]
Why don't we hear more about the tensions between the texts in discussions about the New Testament? Could it be that perceiving the tension and hearing the unique voices of the text is problematic to our conceived theories of inspiration? For instance, a mechanical//dictation approach to inspiration would inherently need to provide explanation for and against any differences. It can be troubling to many to discover that the God-breathed inspiration of the text appears to be resistant to a forced application of a 'univocal voice'. I myself have held more of the 'dynamic theory of inspiration', and yet in my synthesis of Scripture I have been just as a guilty of downplaying any tension in favour of a forced harmonization. How do we achieve a proper synthesis while at the same time maintaining the uniqueness of each author? 

Dr. Richard Hays provides some reflections and insight here:

Is the New Testament a complex polyphonic choral composition scored by God and performed by human voices under the direction of the Holy Spirit? Or is the New Testament a chaotic cacophony of many voices uncoordinated? The church has traditionally regarded the New Testament as a guide to faith and practice, but how can it serve as a guide if it is not internally consistent? ... Is there some way of discerning a wholeness or unity among the canonical writings? Only if we can give an affirmative answer to this last question can we speak of New Testament ethics as a normative theological discipline. Every proposed construal of the unity of the New Testament canon is "performance", one analogous to a director's reading of a Shakespeare play- a reading that seeks to discern and articulate the shape and meaning of the whole. How, then, shall we proceed in seeking to discover moral coherence within the cannon? There is no methodologically airtight way to derive proposals about the unity of the canonical witness; we can only read the texts carefully, asking what common ground they share, what themes and images appear repeatedly, what convictions their various stories and exhortations. The approach, in other words, must be inductive, beginning with a close reading of the individual texts. Then, having first displayed our readings of the text, we proceed by trial and error, testing various synthetic intuitions against the evidence. The task is dauntingly difficult, but it is inescapable if the church is to take its ethical bearings from the New Testament. Thus, we plunge ahead to the task, while acknowledging that our synthetic reading of the texts will always be subject to critique or supplementation by other members of the community of faith who may teach us to see things more clearly.[pg.189] 
Dr. Hays then provides us three procedural guidelines for proper synthesis. (I am going to quote them in full)

1. Confront the full range of Canonical witness.  

"When we begin to seek the unity of New Testament witnesses- whether in general or on a particular issue- all of the relevant texts must be gathered and considered. Selective appeals to favourite proof texts are illegitimate without full consideration of texts that stand on the opposite side of a particular issue. The more comprehensive the attention to the full range of New Testament witness, the more adequate a normative ethical proposal is likely to be. Beware of the interpreter who always quotes only the Haustafeln (e.g. Col 3.22: "Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything') and never wrestles with Galatians 5.1 ("For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery")- Or vice versa.  

2. Let the tensions stand
However acute the tension between two different witnesses appear, it must not be resolved through exegetical distortion of the texts. The individual witness must be allowed their own voices. A classic example of such distortion is the reading of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount through Pauline lenses ( or, rather, Pauline lenses as interpreted by the Reformation): in such a reading, the rigorous demands of the Sermon on the Mount are treated as impossible commandments designed to drive sinners to recognize their absolute need of grace. In such a reading, Matthew's voice is suppressed, and the Sermon on the Mount becomes as an instrument of a particular Reformation construal of Pauline theology. Such flattening of the individual witness is to be rejected. 

Likewise, we must not force harmony through abstraction away from the specific messages of the New Testament texts. Confronted with the diversity of New Testament witnesses, we are often tempted to dissolve the plurality of perspectives by appealing to universal principals (love, justice, and so on) or dialectical compromises. Such conceptual movements away from a text's specific imperatives are often escape routes from its uncomfortable demands. For example, Romans 13 and Revelation 13 are not two complementary expressions of a single principal or a single New Testament understanding of the state; rather, they represent radically different assessments of the relation of the Christian community to the Roman Empire. Nor can we average them out and arrive at a position somewhere in the middle that will allow us to live comfortably as citizens of a modern democratic state. If these texts are allowed to have their say, they will force us either to choose between them or to reject the normative claims of both. Whatever synthetic account we give of the unity of the New Testament witnesses, it must be sufficiently capacious to recognize and encompass tensions of this kind. This synthesis that we seek will not require a forced harmonization of the New Testament's diverse perspectives.

3. Attend to the literary genre of the texts 

In the effort to "use" the New Testament for doing ethics we may find ourselves seeking to extract universal maxims or principals from texts whose literary form is not readily amendable to such reductionistic analytic procedures. Parables, for example, resist paraphrase, as does visionary apocalyptic imagery. What moral principal shall we extract from the parable of the growing seed, which mysteriously sprouts and grows without our understanding how (Mark 4.26-29), or from the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16.1-8)? What moral maxim shall we deduce from the vision of the New Jerusalem, which "has no need of sun or moon to shine on it" (Rev. 21.9-21.5)? In our eagerness to discern ethical relevance, we must not force tone-deaf, literarily insensitive interpretations upon the texts. The New Testament is, after all, not a collection of general treatises on ethics. Its major texts are narratives (the Gospels and Acts), pastoral letters to specific congregations (the Pauline letters), and a richly symbolic apocalyptic vision (Revelation); only the catholic Epistles take the form of general moral wisdom for the church at large. In our effort to discern the unity of New Testament ethics, we must take care to respect the character of these witnesses. The sort of unity that we discover here will have to be a unity appropriate to texts that are neither theoretical nor propositional in their mode of expression. 

Conclusion from Dr. Richard Hays

"These three guidelines serve to keep us honest by ensuring that our synthetic proposals respect rather than erode the texts with which we work. They serve to ensure that we have all the pieces of the puzzle on the table and that we have not snipped off any of the corners of the funny-looking individual pieces. Taken by themselves, however, these guidelines might lead to disintegration rather than synthesis: we might find more tension than unity. We might find the New Testament texts to prefer a disparate collection of incommensurable moral perspectives. Ernst Kasemann posed the dilemma sharply in his famous dictum: "The New Testament canon does not, as such, constitute the foundation of the unity of the Church. On the contrary, it provides the basis for the multiplicity of the confessions." The problem, then, is whether we may legitimately speak of a unity that somehow underlines the multiplicity. Specifically with regard to ethical issues, is it possible, while respecting the above guidelines, to discern within the New Testament firm common ground on which a New Testament ethic can be constructed? The Christian church has historically affirmed that such a discernment of unity is possible. Our task is now is to articulate wherein that unity lies."[pg. 191] 

Thanks for reading...

Questions For Reflection

1. Do you agree with Dr. Hays statement that, "The New Testament is not a simple, homogenous body of doctrine"? Why or Why not? 

2. Can you provide any more examples of reading Scripture as a 'flat univocal document'?

3. Why, in your judgement, do you we tend to think of 'unity' more as 'uniformity' in our various approaches to synthesis? 

4. Is there a procedural guideline you would add to Dr. Hays list? 


  1. In my tradition (which is Pentecostal), there is a recognition that the Protestant tradition has elevated the words of Paul concerning "tongues" as if it is the last word on the subject. Pentecostals have, instead, heavily emphasized the charismatic theology of St. Luke (see the volume of that name by Roger Stronstad:

    My own contention is that in many regards Pentecostals have tended to overplay the charismatic theology of Luke as if to conform all other voices to his. I say this as someone who is writing a theology of the Spirit in the Former Prophets as my PhD thesis. Thanks for the words. Your summary and interactions here are helpful for a number of hermeneutical and interpretive concerns I wrestle with.

    1. I can relate to your personal journey, as I was born and raised in the pentecostal tradition! I think you are "dead on" about our tradition overplaying Luke's voice on the issue of tongues. It's ironic that pentecostals are quick to denounce an over extension of Paul, but then succumb to a primarily Lukan lens. It's a sobering reminder that we all have our blind spots in our varying traditions.

      Thanks for the link to Stronstad! Much appreciated!