Interview by
Connie McDougall

"Reconciliation precedes the resolution of ethical dilemmas; it doesn't follow."
- Richard Hays

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SPU Church Leaders Forums Continue Their Focus on Reconciliation

An Interview on Reconciliation With Richard Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School

Richard Hays visits the Seattle Pacific University campus next month as the Palmer Lecturer and keynote speaker for SPU's Church Leaders Day. A professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, Hays is known for his scholarship in Pauline theology and New Testament ethics. The acclaim for his latest book -- The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation -- has made him a sought-after speaker all over the nation.

Seattle Pacific President Philip Eaton says he considers The Moral Vision of the New Testament "an extremely important work for our time." Explains Eaton, "Dr. Hays is a master at applying biblical wisdom to today's most difficult moral questions. We need that kind of guidance from our scholars."

One of Hays' topics for the February 8 event is "Reconciliation, Resurrection and Ethical Dilemmas." In the second installment of a three-part interview series on the topic of reconciliation, Response recently spoke with the New Testament scholar. (For details about Hays' visit, click the link below left for the upcoming forums or click here for the University Calendar.)

Response: SPU President Philip Eaton has high praise for your book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. What was the purpose of the book?
Hays: Well, the book attempts to ask how it is that Scripture functions to shape Christian community. We do have deep difficulties and disagreements about how we address moral issues, and so the book first tries to give a careful account of the moral visions of the individual New Testament writings, and then asks how we apply those visions to specific moral issues we face in our time.

Response: In the recent election, the nation was so clearly divided that it seems as if there is no consensus on moral questions today, even among Christians. Do you agree?
Hays: I myself had a great deal of difficulty knowing how to vote, because on many issues I would agree with one candidate, and on other issues I would agree with the other candidate -- on grounds that are quite specifically related to my understanding of New Testament ethics. I think the polarization between liberal and conservative political factions, the way it's become neatly packaged in the United States, has almost nothing to do with the application of biblical standards, and nothing to do with how Christians ought to think with moral discernment about the issues.

Response: Are you describing an apolitical church?
Hays: No. We represent the politics of the Kingdom of God. The church is a sign of the justice of God's coming order. But that means that we don't simply conform ourselves to whatever the pollsters want us to say, identifying ourselves categorically as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. It means that we represent a distinct alternative culture that bears witness both within and against the culture that surrounds us.

Response: So how does this alternative culture come to consensus on moral issues?
Hays: That's what I was attempting to wrestle with in the book. I make a case that there's a continuum of moral issues.

There are some issues where Scripture directly, forcefully and consistently articulates non-negotiable norms for Christian ethics. I argue, for instance, that the rejection of violence is in that category because it's so integrally related to both the teaching and the example of Jesus and his going to death on a cross rather than exercising violence to bring in the kingdom.

Then, on the other hand, there's an issue like abortion, which isn't addressed at all in the New Testament. So we are faced with having to make extremely indirect kinds of arguments about how Scripture might inform that debate. Abortion, therefore, is an issue, it seems to me, where we ought to be more patient with one another and more accepting of the legitimacy of serious moral arguments on either side of the debate.

Response: How can Christians evaluate a particular moral issue based on Scripture?
Hays: The subtitle of my book is Community, Cross, New Creation. I argue that Christian ethical deliberation ought to proceed by recognizing that the Bible is the dramatic story of God's redemption of the world. In order to put the reading of that story in focus, I propose three focal images derived from Scripture itself that help us to apply the Scriptural text in moral judgment. Those three images are community, cross and new creation. I try to show how the application of these images to the readings of individual biblical texts helps us, in every case, to understand more clearly the meaning of the New Testament's moral teaching.

For example, community means that the central purpose of God in redeeming us is to raise up a community, a church, a people. In other words, the central moral question is not "What shall I do?" but "What shall we do?" We can never make these decisions in isolation from one another or in isolation from concern for one another. The second image, the cross, focuses on the example of Jesus' death as an act of self-sacrificial love that provides a model, an example that we're called to conform to. Principles like autonomy weigh very lightly in the moral scale against this pattern of self-sacrificing love.

And finally, new creation is a way of speaking about how we stand in an interval where God's new order has broken into the world but we still await the final coming of God's justice. We're caught in an in-between state of "already but not yet." This means that we're always oriented toward the future of the coming kingdom; we're people who live, as it were, with our roots in the future of God's justice. Our calling in the present is to live in a way that prefigures that future. I realize that all this sounds terribly abstract, but as I work through the reading of the individual texts, I try to show how those images serve as lenses that bring moral debates into focus.

Response: Applying these 'lenses' to the ethical dilemmas of our day, how do Christians who have become polarized over moral issues come together? That seems extraordinarily difficult.
Hays: Reconciliation is always difficult.

Response: You said earlier that people need to be patient with each other. Is that the answer?
Hays: I think it's more than that. I think a Christian view of reconciliation is something more than just being patient and tolerant of differences. It surely has to do with a willingness to reach out in love and service, even to those who are our enemies. To love our enemies -- that's what we're called to do. And there's nothing harder than where there are deep antagonisms to be able to say, "Look. I'm related to you as brother or sister in Christ. That binds us together more fundamentally than any differences we may have over these particular political problems. And so I'm committed to come to the common table with you and to be reconciled as people who are reconciled to God only by the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Response: You'll be speaking about reconciliation and ethical dilemmas when you come to campus. What will you say on this subject?
Hays: We tend to think the only way to achieve reconciliation is to first resolve the ethical dilemmas so that we can get everybody to agree, and then we can have reconciliation. That's naive, impossible, and out of whack with the biblical vision of reconciliation. The biblical vision of reconciliation (the central text would be 2 Corinthians 5) is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself -- and therefore we've been given the ambassadorship, the commission, of proclaiming the message of being reconciled to God and to one another. So reconciliation precedes the resolution of ethical dilemmas; it doesn't follow.

Response: How do you define the word "reconciliation?" What does it mean to you?
Hays: As a political term, it means abstractly the cessation of hostilities and the establishment of affiliation between previously estranged people. That's the formal definition. But concretely, when I speak of reconciliation, it involves restoration to a covenant relationship with God. Reconciliation means being reconciled to God, which, by definition, means being brought into the community of the covenant people. You can never have reconciliation to God apart from reconciliation to your brothers and sisters.

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