I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: November 2016

The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Having finished The Moral Vision of the New Testament last week, I am in the familiar position of wanting to get some thoughts about the book down before the details slip from my memory, while also wanting to take more time to let the ideas percolate, while also being aware that the longer I delay, the less likely I will be to write anything at all.

This was my first Richard Hayes book, and I am certain that it won’t be my last. From everything I could gather, Hayes is a committed disciple of Christ, who engages credibly with the academic literature. I don’t know whether he identifies with evangelism, but something like evangelicalism certainly comes out in his writing, though with a few gestures toward liberal protestantism. (He is a minister in the United Methodist Church.) To call Hayes “and American N.T. Wright” would probably offend many people, however descriptively accurate the phrase might be.

First, I have to offer an appreciation of Hayes’s writing. It’s certainly not a given that intelligent academics write well. Hayes’s prose is a pleasure to read. It reads quickly, and he always uses the right word. (Or almost always: in 500-odd pages, there was one word I would question, though the quality his writing generally makes me question my own judgment.) Moreover, we get appropriate personal revelation, and amusing asides to boot. Example:

New Testament scholars are sometimes oddly resistant to the idea that Paul could have developed or even declined as a theological thinker. When the topic of pseudonymous composition arises, I like to ask my students whether all those albums issued under the name of Bob Dylan for the last fifteen years can possibly be the work of the same person who performed “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Hayes’s project is to think about how the Church can obtain ethical guidance for contemporary issues from the New Testament. To organize the task, he presents an admittedly simplified four-step procedure: careful exegesis of the New Testament texts, developing a synthesis of the texts (without papering over the diversity of the New Testament witnesses), the hermeneutical stage of interpreting the meaning of the synthesis in our time, and then finally the practical application of the New Testament’s teachings. The structure of the book follows the procedure proposed; the “practical” portion consists of Hayes’s reflection on several hot-button issues of the day (meaning, the mid-90s): violence, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict, and abortion.

In addressing contemporary issues, Hayes recognizes that various Christian ethicists make use not only of Scripture, but also of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I appreciate his comments on what these three sources contribute to the task of biblical interpretation.

I would propose the following minimal guideline: extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. In other words, the Bible’s perspective is privileged, not ours.

Immediately following this, Hayes admits that this may be a tricky thing to implement in practice. But I think he’s got things the right way round. Reason, Tradition, and Experience certainly influence the way we interpret Scripture—we are not disembodied intellects floating around in the ether—but they are not normative in the same way that Scripture is. I can acknowledge the role of Tradition in how I read the Scripture—as in “This is the traditional reading” or “I’ve always thought about it this way” or “I never thought about it that way”—without Tradition (for example) being a competing source of authority. I think this strikes the right balance between a naïve logical-positivistic hermeneutic (for want of a better term) and a post-modern the-interpretation-is-the-community-is-the-tradition hermeneutic.

The curious thing about this book is that Hayes uses liberal exegesis to come to conservative conclusions. (The imprecision of that sentence in no way detracts from its truth.) Exegetically, Hayes seems to adopt the intellectual fashionable tools of redaction criticism, and the irritating practice of attributing the New Testament texts to otherwise-unattested Christian communities, who chose (for their own reasons) to write in the names of the apostles. At the same time, however, he holds tightly to the authority of the texts, and comes to conclusions that could establish him (more or less) comfortably in the ranks of conservative social commentators. For the most part, this works, though I some objections below.

In his survey of New Testament texts, for instance, Hayes assumes that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actively revising the Markan material. He also assumes that the pastoral epistles were written by somebody other than Paul, under Paul’s name. To speak plainly, I bristled at these two claims.

I bristled personally, because my introduction to redaction criticism of the gospels, and to the various doubts about Pauline authorship, was in an undergraduate course in the New Testament during my undergraduate studies at a secular university. The tenor of the course was respectful, but the tenor of the textbook was anything but. It was written from a postmodern perspective: all of the documents were produced by communities, and any piddling discrepancy or difference in viewpoint was taken as evidence of violent conflicts between the apostles—or rather, of course, between the various communities claiming to write in the apostles’ names. (The textbook was called Understanding the Bible; one class period I suggested that the book might instead be called Misunderstanding the Bible.) Suffice to say, Hayes writes from an entirely different personal perspective. Whatever his reasons for following the scholarly trends, it’s evident that he is a committed disciple, and that he takes the inspiration of the New Testament canon seriously. So it was salutary for me to see these ‘newfangled’ ideas expressed by a committed Christian person.

I bristled intellectually, because I can’t understand the appeal of these proposals. Take the composition of the synoptic gospels as an example. The mainstream scholarly consensus is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke revised Mark to suit their own perspective. Now I ask what different predictions this hypothesis generates, relative to the simpler hypothesis that in the 1st century, there was simply a way that the gospel was normally told, so that when three authors sat down to write up the story, it came out in a broadly similar way.

But instead of this, I am asked to believe that the various gospels were produced by communities of disciples, each with their own agendas, or at least their own pastoral needs. The very first question to ask is whether anyone has ever read a committee-written document, and then desired to read it a second time. Committees—communities—simply do not produce compelling documents. Remarkable documents are produced by remarkable individuals—conditioned by, but not constrained by, their communities.

But set that point aside. I ask what is gained intellectually if starting, say, from the gospel of Matthew, I posit the existence of a community of Christian disciples who needs and pastoral context that gave rise to the gospel of Matthew’s distinctive perspective on the life of Christ. Remember that no historical records of any of these communities exist. How then I can I know anything about this hypothetical community? Only by examining the distinctives of the gospel of Matthew. And how are those distinctives explained? By reference to the hypothetical community. If anyone reading this think that this amounts to an intellectual achievement, I’d like to get in touch with you to discuss an exciting business opportunity.

Nevertheless, once these hypothetical communities are spun into existence, they’re able to do quite a lot of work for us. Hayes accepts the idea that Matthew and John are basically anti-Jewish documents. Vexingly, he also acknowledges that Jesus and nearly every prominent Christian was Jewish. And he acknowledges that ‘Judaism’ was not a monolithic entity in the first century, and that Christianity cannot therefore be meaningfully be isolated from the various Judaisms of that time. But those acknowledgments don’t really amount to anything: there was such a thing as Judaism in the first century, and (the communities behind the gospels of) Matthew and John were against it. And if they were anti-Jewish, it must have been because they were being persecuted by Jews. (Why? Hayes doesn’t explain; presumably that’s the best excuse we can come up with for their behavior.) And if that’s the case, we can safely relegate their teaching to secondary status within the canon:

Because the statements of Matthew and John about the Jewish people originate in powerless communities under persecution, they bear the marks of pain and bitterness. They come out sounding like the indignant complaints of the righteous sufferer in the lament psalms. Such texts should be understood as cries of anguish that can be read with integrity only by a Christian community in a similar position of weakness and suffering. This guideline still does not justify the vituperative content of a text such as John 8, but it at least serves as a safeguard against the later appropriation of such a text by a powerful Christian community as a weapon against a weaker Jewish community. Our earlier discussion of violence becomes again pertinent here; the cross serves as a critical norm that governs Christian responses even—or especially—in the situation of persecution. In light of this norm, better patterns for the attitudes of a suffering community are offered in the Lukan narrative, where Jesus and Stephen, facing death, pray for the forgiveness of their persecutors (Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60); or again, we find a better pattern in Paul’s wish that he could be cut off from Christ for the sake of the Jewish people (Rom. 9:3). Here we see another reason why the positions of Luke and Paul on this issue are to be given greater normative weight than those of John and Matthew.

I repeat that I have no doubts of Hayes’s sincerity, and of his acceptance of the full canon of Scripture as authoritative. He also insists strongly that we must not form a canon within the canon. But I do question how all those beliefs can coexist with the idea that part of the canon was written by people who were sort of in a bad place at that moment, and whose (alleged) anti-Judaism can be safely put to one side. Some acknowledgment of even the possibility of a conflict would have been welcome.

While I’m ranting, I’ll say that I have very little sympathy for his treatment of the gospel of John. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish and proto-Marcionite, which is about as strange a reading of that gospel that I can imagine. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish without asking the basic lexical question of whether, in each case, the word Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) means ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’—a distinction that might conceivably have been relevant to a Galilean Jew in the first century! Here is one further example of his weird approach:

Consequently, it is easy for John to conclude that Jews who do not believe when they first hear the gospel presumably never will; indeed, he feels compelled, as we have seen, to ascribe their unbelief to an ontological alienation from God.

This ignores what is certainly one of the most prominent themes in John’s gospel, which is that the decision to follow Jesus or not is a moral decision, and is conditioned by the moral character of the individual. (This is in the other gospels as well—the parable of the sower—but it’s very prominent in John.) Truly, I would recommend any reader to stop reading when Hayes starts on the gospel of John.

So much for the exegesis. Hayes moves on to synthesis, and proposes that each New Testament text that deals with ethics can be examined with the lenses of Community, Cross, and New Creation. Hayes proposes that each text be read in relation to these three categories. Community indicates the focus on the Body of Christ (or the newly re-thought Israel). The Cross indicates the paradigmatic role that Christ’s suffering has for all believers. And the New Creation emphasizes the eschatological renewal of all things, which began two thousand years ago, continues through the life of the Church, and awaits its fulfillment when Christ returns.

Hayes calls attention to absence of ‘love’ as a unifying force in Christian ethics. In the first place, he notes that ‘love’ as such is not prominent in all of the New Testament witnesses; it is huge in John, for instance, but almost absent in Hebrews. In the gospel of Mark, it receives very little direct mention. I’m not entirely convinced here, and I think it is probably worth a bit of exegetical work in the meaning of ‘love’ in the New Testament (and especially in the Septuagint), before giving up. Hayes goes on, however, to note that the Cross is the perfect expression of love, so that love really ends up being defined by the Cross in the New Testament, rather than the other way around. That is far more satisfying. And of course one could also note that between Cross (self-denial) and Community (concern for others), ‘love’ is more or less covered.

Throughout the book, Hayes consistently returns to Community, Cross, and New Creation when he discusses his syntheses of the New Testament texts. I cannot, upon reflection, think of an instance where use of these images focused an otherwise unclear matter, or contributed materially to his synthesis. The images are not wrong in themselves, I just don’t see their contribution to the overall work.

The third part of the book addresses hermeneutics. Most of the part is a description of  how some prominent Christian thinkers do New Testament ethics.  His sensitive treatment is a model of careful and respectful engagement with the work of others. Following that evaluation, he proposes some normative principles for applying Scripture to ethical situations. He discusses appeals to rules, principles, paradigms (i.e., people who are presented in Scripture as paradigmatic), and the symbolic world of the New Testament. This raised some questions for me, since I have internalized one of the main messages of The Lost World of Scripture, which is that we can’t simply spin morals out of Bible stories: we only take the authority of Scripture seriously when we use the texts as the authors intended them to be used (which, yes, is an interpretive decision). On a lighter note, I was personally amused that, after hundreds of pages of exegesis and careful engagement with the literature, Hayes suggests that when we turn to the New Testament for ethical guidance, we need to draw an analogy between what the Scripture says and the situation we’re facing. Just a bit anti-climactic after all the intellectual fireworks. He adds in the provisos that we should do this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the accountability of the community. Controversial ideas, indeed!

Then in the final part of the book, Hayes applies his model to several important issues of the day. These are selected to test different parts of the process. With respect to violence, for instance, the New Testament is consistently and univocally opposed to violence, whereas Tradition would generally endorse a just war theory. With respect to abortion, the New Testament says nothing specific, but Tradition before 1950 is univocally opposed. And so forth. (Hayes does not treat two of the topics that he feels are most pressing in our day: our relationship to our possession, and gender relations in the church.)

I accuse myself of intellectual laziness in saying that I don’t have a lot to say about this part of the book, because I mostly agree with where Hayes ends up. There are a couple of points of inconsistency, which for me are larger than quibbles, but far from being fatal flaws.

Hayes’s chapter on anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict assumes that the Church in the present day bears responsibility for crimes committed against Jewish people by Christians in the past. “Christians cannot disown the church’s past abuses of Jews.” What does that mean? Unfortunately I can’t be certain, because in the footnote following this sentence Hayes dismissively quotes another author asking the same question, and without providing any answer to it. In the first place, I certainly repudiate any instance in which a Christian person was anything less than kind and courteous to a Jewish person. I accept that terrible things were done, certainly some in the name of Christ, or using biblical texts as justifications of those actions; and in doing so, the perpetrators multiplied the gravity of their sin immeasurably. But with that said, I think it is obvious to all thinking people that those sorts of actions are never condoned or even hinted at in the New Testament. There is no conceivable warrant for violence against Jews in the New Testament—which Hayes himself proves indirectly, in his claim that there is never any warrant for violence in the New Testament. This paragraph is already overly long, but I want to walk this idea a bit further down the road. As an American, a descendant of the “good guys” in World War II, a good-natured person, a person who abhors racism of all varieties, and abhors anti-Semitism as particularly inimical to my faith, it would be easy for me to put on a display of false humility and say, “Yes, I am responsible too. Those people claimed to act in the name of Christ. I claim to act in the name of Christ. All Christians bear the guilt. ” That would go over well just about anywhere. But you cannot start from that muddled-headed concept of corporate guilt, and then explain why we should not then hold all Muslims responsible for the September 11 attacks, or the atrocities committed by ISIS—and all Muslims are certainly not responsible for those things. Particularly in the 21st century, it is profoundly important that we keep the sin firmly associated with the sinner, rather than with his/her religious or national demographic.

An separate issue with is the relationship between ethics within the Church and ethics within the society. Hayes is fairly consistent in limiting his treatment of ethics to life within the Body of Christ. He is emphatically not offering prescriptions for society. Mostly. So for instance when he discusses abortion, he clearly states that abortion should not be an option for people within the church, while leaving aside the question of civil law. When he discusses homosexuality, he says that Christians should support civil rights for homosexual people. Now, to be honest, I don’t know what “civil rights” meant for homosexuals in 1996—seven years before Lawrence v. Texas and 19 years before Obergefell v. Hodges. But the point is, in one instance Hayes doesn’t see Christian faith as informing Christians’ civic activities (e.g., whom or what they vote for), and in another he assumes that it will.

This gets into the broader question of what exactly the Church has to say the world about ethical matters. What is the nature of the New Testament’s ethical instruction? Was Jesus describing the ideal life of an idiosyncratic group of people, or was he talking about what it means to be truly human? If the former, then we had best keep to our private set rules and not presume to tell the lost what to do. If the latter, then it seems like we might have something helpful to say. This is a question that Hayes does not even wrestle with (on paper).

I don’t have an easy answer to this question. On the one hand, none of the New Testament’s ethical teaching is binding on those who are not disciples of Christ. It would also be inappropriate to communicate Christ’s ethical teaching in isolation of proclaiming His Lordship. This at least is something that Hayes sees clearly. He offers the following corrective to those who—perhaps out of a naïve liberality of spirit—would advocate pacifism on grounds other than obedience to Christ and trust in His reign:

Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus’ way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simple obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.

But on the other hand, doesn’t Christ’s rejection of violence tell us something about what it means to be human—for instance, that coercing people to act in a certain way is to reject their humanity? Do we actually have nothing to say about violence, consumerism, sexism, racism, etc., except to those within the Church? Should the abolition movement have stopped when the last Christian sold his slaves? Do we really wish to rebuke Wilberforce and Douglass for imposing their beliefs on society?

Somewhere between outlawing slavery—which was good and necessary—and enshrining my understanding of sexual ethics in civil law—which seems excessive and inappropriate for government—I want to draw a line. I’m not in a position to say right now where that line should be, which is intellectually frustrating. But it’s one of those splinters of the mind that keeps this blog going.

So, Hayes wrote a good book. The things I appreciate and have learned from greatly exceed the number of things I object to, though (in the nature of things) my objections have filled most of this post. I’d be happy to write half as well as he does. I certainly look forward to the next book of his that I read. (I suspect it will be Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.)

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle

I did not vote in 2016. Neither Clinton nor Trump reached the standard of personal acceptability that would allow me to cast my vote in good conscience, let alone aligning with my views on policy. I woke up Wednesday morning prepared for disappointed no matter the outcome. I am still proud not to have had a hand in the outcome of this election. Being forced to choose between Trump and Clinton is the electoral equivalent to having to provide a yes/no answer to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

I wrote previously about my difficulty in understanding and loving Trump supporters. I stand by what I wrote, though I would make a moral distinction between people who supported Trump during the primary and those who gritted their teeth and voted for him once he became the Republican nominee. I don’t agree with that decision, but I do see a moral distinction; see below.

Trump is a vile person, aptly described “as everything we teach our children not to be”. I certainly hope that his executive actions do no match the rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail, but he has certainly done enough damage to our society already by fanning ugly sentiments in the first place. It seems juvenile to me to claim that he is not my president, but I can say with all conviction and resolve that he could never be a guest in my home.

With that background, I would like to point out that the sky is not falling.

Trump’s victory, as such, tells us nothing about what is acceptable in America

Trump won the electoral college by having a total margin of perhaps 100,000 votes in several key states. Nate Silver points out that if 1 in 100 people had voted differently, we would have a different president. If those 100,000 people had simply lived in different states, we would have a different president.

If Clinton had won the presidency, we would still be living in a country where 47.3% of voters were willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. That is a bracing fact, and it would still be a fact if Clinton had won the electoral college. That is the kind of country we live in.

My cynical prediction is that, had Clinton won, people would not be tearing their hair out over the 47.3% of the population that was willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. For the most part, therefore, I judge the emotion (and now the riots) to be disappointment over losing, rather than to actual sorrow over the moral state of our country. If you are wracked by the sins of your countrymen in the years that you win as well, then of course I owe you an apology.

Put differently: Is it a cheering thought that Clinton won the popular vote? That there really are more people who wanted Clinton to be president than Trump? If not—if that’s salt in the wound—then I suggest that the emotion is disappoint over losing, rather than disappointment in the electorate.

In spite of this, I do find a silver lining in my next point.

I credit most voters with voting for policy over personality

I don’t know anyone (personally) who was excited about these candidates. Everyone I know who voted was gritting their teeth throughout the electoral process. The most compelling argument I encountered for choosing the lesser of two evils is that the next president will likely make three appointments to the Supreme Court. That is not trivial. Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, that amounts to controlling a ninth of the federal government for a generation. Everybody wants their party to have that sort of power; nobody wants the opposition to have it.

With these things in mind, I credit the vast majority of voters with voting for a candidate who could provide an approximate match on policy positions, rather than for a candidate who was personally acceptable to them. I don’t believe that Trump voters were ambivalent about his manifold sexual indiscretions and his incendiary language about, e.g., Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t believe that Clinton voters were indifferent to her history of victim shaming, or her solicitation of funds, as a member of government, from heads of government for her family’s organization. I really do think most people were just willing to bite the bullet and cast their vote.

There are good exit poll figures to back this up. Trump was pushed over the threshold by people who liked neither candidate but felt forced to choose one.

Again, that is not the choice that I made; I disagree with those people. I think that there is a basic threshold of decency required of a president. (I believe that our last two presidents are both decent people; obviously it’s no reflection of my beliefs about their policies.)

It’s not as if most people chose Trump

This is a minor point, but voter turnout seems to have been about 55% this year. That’s a pretty good sample of the population, but it still exonerates about 75% of the population from actually voting for Trump.

Non-voters who didn’t like Trump are equally to blame

Here is a brief interlude for personal self-examination. Are you angry at the situation—which is morally creditable—or are you angry at (what you conceive of as) the other side? As noted above, the election could have been tipped by a trivial change in the voting preferences of the electorate. (As noted above, voter turnout was around 55%.) Those who would have supported Clinton but did not vote are just as much to blame (mathematically) as those who actually voted for Trump. Are you equally angry at non-voters who are otherwise just like you, and at voters who are different from you?

Presidents don’t have that much influence on the moral character of the nation

The candidate who receives 51% of electoral votes receives 100% of the presidency. There’s a bit of a symbolic boost there, I admit.

But consider that eight years of Bush were followed by eight years of Obama, which will be followed by Trump. There’s no cultural narrative there. There are no permanent changes. The presidency flits between the parties on the basis of 51-49 splits. The resident of the White House is an indicator of the national sentiment that fluctuates trivially over the years, not a generator of change.

Now, that last paragraph is not going to sell a lot of newspapers, so don’t expect to see it in print: but it’s true. Obama was the most inspiring presidential candidate in living memory, and he still didn’t move the needle in our national conversations. The president simply doesn’t have that much cultural power.

Overreacting now will blunt the impact of your reaction in the future

What’s striking to me is that Trump is the least qualified and most personally repulsive person ever elected to the presidency, but the rhetoric I’m seeing is the same rhetoric I heard from Democrats in 2000 and 2004, and from Republicans in 2008 and 2012. It’s the same volume. It’s the same fury.

This is a clear reflection of a news media that requires commentators to be furious and outraged, permanently. Would that it were only Two Minutes’ Hate! Now we have to keep it up 24/7. This is profoundly degrading to the moral fiber of our country. But there is a practical concern as well.

If everybody is a crazed extremist, then nobody is. Every recent presidential candidate has been vilified as extreme and out of touch—Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, everyone.  When Trump came along, there was really nothing left to say. Trump’s a demagogue inciting violence and playing on people’s worst fears? Yep, that’s what they said about the last guy.

Consider: if Hitler were to appear on the ticket in 2020, what would be left for us to say about that? We’ve already cranked it up to 11.

Calm down.

It follows from the previous point that the only productive way out of this situation is to have civil conversations and to moderate our own political views by considering the views of others in a genuine way. As a practical matter, promoting your party by demonizing the opposition is a dangerous game. That motivates the opposition as much as it motivates the base. Exhibits A, B, and C, in this respect are Bush 2000, Obama 2008, and Trump 2012.

Receiving. As a conservative person, I try to get most of my news from center-left outlets. I try to read editorials from perspectives that I disagree with. Guess what? Most of it is exactly the kind of tendentious reasoning that is used to defend conservative positions in conservative news outlets. But sometimes I learn something new.

Sending. Lightning would strike me from Heaven if I suggested being sensitive, so I will instead suggest that we try to be issue-driven rather than party-driven or personality-driven. There will always a lunatic fringe that believes that Bush started the Iraq War for oil, and that Obama was born in Kenya. Those are not the people I want to be associated with. I want to be engaging with people who can talk about the philosophical motivations and practical consequences of various policies. I have found—sometimes to my surprise—that people are often quite willing to discuss policy, rather than to simply use it as a political cudgel.

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