Recently I picked up again Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament in preparation for a paper I am giving at ETS this November. Hays rightly argues at the beginning of the book that the New Testament is the norm that trumps all other authorities. He writes:
“This study proceeds on the assumption that the canonical Scriptures constitute the norma normans for the church’s life, whereas every other source of moral guidance . . . must be understood as norma normata. Thus, normative Christian ethics . . . must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith. Such a pronouncement . . . represents the classic confessional position of catholic Christianity, particularly as sharpened in its Reformation traditions” (p. 10).
Yet later on in the book he warns against forced harmonizations of the scripture that suppress the “tensions” that exist among the various writers of the New Testament. He writes:
“For example, Romans 13 and Revelation 13 are not two complementary expressions of a single principle 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. . . 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” (p. 190).
My question for Hays is this. How can the New Testament be the norma normans of the church’s life when the church inevitably has to “reject” one or more of its teachings? This stance is totally incomprehensible to me. If the New Testament contradicts itself in some places (as Hays suggests is the case with Romans 13 and Revelation 13), then any claim to its authority is undermined.
This is an important book, but it has a significant weakness. Hays’s view of scripture subverts the very authority he wishes to establish as the basis for normative ethics.