“cutting edge” interview highlight #3: richard hays

Time for another interview highlight from the Vineyard Church‘s Cutting Edge mag for church planters. Hope you’re enjoying these interviews as much as I am. I heard Dr. Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School while a student at Asbury Seminary. He was there for a set of lectures on New Testament and Ethics. I had read his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament for class and enjoyed the chance to have him on campus for lectures and for talk back sessions as well. Here’s a couple of highlights of his Cutting Edge interview. The original, longer version is in the Winter 2003 issue. The newest issue from which I’m working with these interview excerpts has been recently added online–Winter 2008.

On extracting from Scripture “timeless principles”:

“[H]ere is a case where the evangelical church has swallowed the bait of the Enlightenment. The notion that what ought to be authoritative about the Bible is ‘timeless principles’ is an idea that comes straight out of an eighteenth-century rationalism… The way the Bible guides the church is that it tells us the story of God’s action to redeem the world through particular actions–preeminantly the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the formation of a community that confesses Jesus Christ in word and action. What Scripture gives us is not ‘timeless principles,’ but rather patterns of action that are embedded in time and history and particularity.”

One of the most beneficial shifts for my reading of Scripture has been to a thorough-going narrative framework. I remember when preaching centered on principles for this and that seemed to lose their resonance with the text in ears. Hays, NT Wright, Joel Green and others are instrumental in helping me with this. A fellow seminary student offered an exceptional talk in chapel once that nailed it for me with this illustration: The Bible is not like individual pearls on a string, but rather cells of a living organism. Wow. Instead of being individual verses and books arbitrarily strung together, they are organically connected to one another in the larger story of God. As such, they must be read “from left to right” (as Joel Green would say–that is, read like you read a story) and that it’s not so much a matter seeing which verses back up this verse as if we’re reading a legal document. Quite to the contrary, the collection of books called the Bible are read in light of their place in the larger plot of God’s story. So, when a verse echoes another, we don’t analize it legally, we listen to it narratively.

On the NT’s role in Christian Ethics:

“What we need to do is to try to understand–in all its historical particularity–the New Testament’s teaching, and the response of the New Testament church to its own cultural situation. From that, then, we ought to formulate imaginative analogies, so that the way we respond to our cultural situation is commensurate with the way the New Testament church responded to theirs. The thing that becomes most important in using the Bible in ethics now becomes…stories–narratively-enacted patterns of faithfulness that show us wha ta life lived faithfully looks like in practice, so we can then try to conform our lives to those patterns of faithfulness.”

Reading Scripture more as a robust interconnected story and less as a source for verses to take individually is much harder to do, but more helpful and more faithful. The NT (and OT for that matter) are culturally embedded texts. That is, they arise from and speak to a particular culture at a particular time. As Hays points out in the original interview, no one writing the books of the NT ever conceived of the quandries in biomedical ethics or nuclear weapons that we have today. But, and I love this phrase, we can bring ourselves to an encounter with the texts of the NT so consistently and deeply–living in that world, that we are equipped to “formulate imaginative analogies” that spring from the intersection of our living in the world of the Bible and our living in our world today. This is the way to faithfulness. Like a wonderful theologian, singer-songwriter Rich Mullins once mused (speaking to Jesus): “Did they tell you stories about the saints of old // Stories about their faith // Stories like that make a boy grow bold // Stories like that make a man walk straight.” When we watch and live with the witness of others, we instinctively imagine how the story of their life would apply to our situation by analogy. We must live with Scripture in this formative way as well.

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