Richard Hays and the Authority of the NT

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.


  • JohnO

    Since when does authority mean the ability to have multiple positions on an issue? Should our vested authority in the Scriptures cause us to dive deeper when options are presented – to see precisely what the reasons are in each writer’s case for allowing their option? Wouldn’t that be a fruitful exercise?

  • Brandon


    I am happy to hear your are reading Hay’s. My guess is that he would challenge your notions of how the NT “must” look in order to be authoritative. We all agree that the NT is our “norming norm” in its present form (or more accurately original form, which opens another can of worms for this discussion).

    Perhaps in the wisdom of the God the tensions and (apparent or real) contradictions of the NT (not to mention the OT) serve a worthy purpose. I think Hay’s believes that this is the Scripture God has given us and to demand “propositional perfection” is to chide the the book and method of God. A better approach, according to to Hay’s, is to the NT within unity and diversity of the text.

  • Tom 1st

    What would be more undercutting to biblical authority – forced reconciliation of inherent and obvious tensions between given narratives OR a recognition that God’s revelation does not have to fit within our modern notions of what is ‘historically reliable’? To me, that first is incredibly detrimental to the Scriptures b/c it limits God’s revelation to our historical-critical, modernistic biases.

    This method then enables him to take each individual pericope on it’s own accord, within its own biblical and theological context.
    Then he’s not forced to come up with ridiculous harmonizations that affirm things that NO INDIVIDUAL scripture writer ever affirms.

    Our job as exegetes is not to determine what the text must say based on our modern biases – as if we or our understandings of history stand over the text. Our job is to observe God’s movement within the individual texts and then the canon, then submit to it.

    All that to say – I believe Hays is on good footing with this comment.

    And this book is excellent!

  • Cris D

    Brandon & Tom: There is no “biblical & theological context” within which to work or understand any given point in Scripture if the Word is self-contradictory. The only context left is a human construct. Human intellect is enthroned and God charged with self-contradictory revelation.

  • Andrew Cowan

    Dr. Burk, Brandon, and Tom,

    Thanks for your comments on this book. It is one of my favorites. I have read it once, and am currently in the process of re-reading it with my wife out-loud (this is what I do with the best/my favorite).

    Nevertheless, despite my affection for the book, I share Dr. Burk’s concern about the effects of Hays’s doctrine of Scripture on the shape of his proposals.

    Although forced harmonization certainly is a danger, it is also possible to exaggerate differences between books. Having read Hays’s arguments carefully, I was not really persuaded by any of his purported examples of contradictions in ethical norms. Thus, I think that this aspect of his proposal is unnecessary and problematic.

    However, the fact that I am not persuaded of his examples does not mean that his position on authority is thereby inherently undercut. I do think that Hays could claim to be treating the NT as authoritative if he claimed to reject an NT teaching only when in contradiction with another NT teaching, and then only in favor of that other NT teaching. If that were his position, I think that he could still claim to be treating the NT as the norma normans of Christian ethics, despite Dr. Burk’s portest. (I don’t think that the NT actually ever contradicts itself, but I see how his position here could be consistent within itself.)

    However, Hays also allows the possibility of the experience of the church leading it to reject an NT ethical norm. On p. 298, he says, “Such possibilities cannot be excluded a priori…It must be stated as a theological guideline, however, that claims about divinely inspired experience that contradicts the witness of Scripture should be admitted to normative status in the church only after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.” With this statement, I feel like he has made a leap that threatens his claim to treat the NT as the norma normans of Christian ethics.

    Thus, I think that Dr. Burk is right that Hays’s doctrine of Scripture causes problems in the book, and I would add that it does so even if one accepts NT ethical contradiction. Although it is not a book on ethics, I find the perspective of Kevin Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine more helpful in elucidating how to deal with the diversity of the NT witnesses, and would recommend it for those who would like to read an alternative construal to Hays with a more robust doctrine of Scripture.

    Nevertheless, as I stated in the beginning, Hays’s book is one of my favorites, and in my estimation, the benefits of reading it make it well worth the effort of a discerning reading.

  • Todd Pruitt

    I simply add my “amen” to Andrew’s comment. So long as you are aware of Dr. Hays’ doctrine of Scripture then the book is well worth reading. I am a settled inerrantist and have benefited from Hays’ work in this book.

  • Brandon

    Cris: Allow me again speak for Hays. Perhaps the issues are more complicated than your simple either/or dichotomy. Even you admit that God still speaks through our translated and variant-laden (we don’t have the autographs) Bibles. And various Evangelicals allow for different degrees of flexibility or diversity in the text:

    1. Surface diversity: everyone admits the biblical authors round off numbers, loosely quote the OT, and differ in their story-telling.

    2. Theological Diversity: Most admit, following the NT, that women are not in any way men’s property, even though the OT alludes this. And that they should have equal legal rights to men, although they certainly did not under Mosaic Law. And although slavery is legislated and polygamy is allowed even for great saints of the OT, we believe that this is not God’s ideal.

    3. Cultured diversity: Other Evangelicals go further and say for instance the biblical writers absorbed and wrote in Scripture a ancient (and wrong) cosmology (I.e. a domed and flat earth)

    4. Textual Diversity: Is is a genuine problem that Luke writes “take nothing on your journey, no staff, no..” and Mark says “Take nothing for your journey except a staff…”? (Lk. 9:3 cf. Mark 6:8-9).

    I believe Hays would affirm each of these diversities and say that this is the text God-breathed because it was written by finite and fallible humans. And yet God still speaks through it. For is God is sovereign even over sinful humanity, then he could equally be sovereign and speak through a Bible that displays this kind of diversity. To say otherwise, some would say, would be to limit the Almighty God.

    The bottom line is we all know that God “accommodates” to humanity, and the question is “how much”? And please also remember that all human interpretation is a “human construct”. You (or I) are not infallible exegetes that have some sort of neutral a-cultural view of the Bible. So “human intellect” (and tradition) are necessarily part of the process of understanding Scripture at all times for all people.

    **P.S.: I was trying to defend Hays views not necessarily my own.

  • Tom 1st

    Even thought we disagree to a minor degree, I wanted to just say that I think your analysis is really fair and gracious. That is a rarity in the blog world and I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your contribution to this discussion and your humility in the reading of Hays’ text.

    Hays, being a good Methodist, uses the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a guide for interpreting Scripture – so that Scripture, itself, has the final say on all things, but church tradition (the creeds), personal/communion/ecclesial tradition, and reason are all highly valued. This hermeneutical lens may get at the heart of some of your disagreement with him.

    I have more thoughts, but limited time. I just wanted to say I appreciate your thoughts.

  • Tom 1st

    Brandon – Again, good word. Thanks for your response to Chris. I was just going to bypass his comment b/c I didn’t even know where to start explaining Hays’ position. You did a great job, brother.

  • John Holmberg

    JohnO, Brandon, and Tom,

    Great words! I couldn’t have said them better myself. Denny’s view is an a priori, and modern, conclusion of how he believes the text must behave given his presuppositions on the “inerrancy” of scripture. However, Hays seems to let Scripture dictate how scripture behaves. I’m with Hays, no matter how many churches won’t hire me or seminaries won’t let me teach.

  • Michael Templin

    Why do have to reject anything in the NT Dr. Burk (All or nothing attitude)? Is their no room for theology, opinion, perspective, literary style, and dare I say disagreement between the NT authors?

  • Andrew Cowan

    John Holmberg,

    Although I share with you an affection for the work of Hays, I’m not sure that your characterization of Dr. Burk’s view is really fair.

    First, to claim that belief in inerrancy is “modern” is a charge that is often repeated. It is true that the word “inerrancy” is not ancient, but it has been well document in a number of studies that the conceptual equivalent has quite an ancient pedigree and has been the majority position of the church throughout its history.

    Second, I cannot speak to the process whereby Dr. Burk evaluated the doctrine of inerrancy, but to claim that his view must automatically be an a priori conclusion is actually to have an a priori view about how one comes to believe in inerrancy. I know that for myself (I affirm inerrancy), this was an issue that I studied from multiple angles before I came to a conclusion (and I am always open to having neglected evidence pointed out to me). In my estimation, inerrancy fits best with the data of the Bible and the claims regarding Scripture within the Bible itself. Although I do not have an answer to every possible objection, I have seen enough answered in order to believe that each problem probably does have a solution, and each problem that I have studied in detail has confirmed this view. For me, inerrancy is thus not an a priori conclusion, but rather the best account for all of the data regarding Scripture that I have observed.

    You are certainly entitled to disagree, but I think that you could do a better job of representing your opponents fairly and engaging their actual arguments. The charges that inerrancy is modern or simply an a priori are discussed in much of the literature by proponents of this view. I would recommend reading the volume Scripture and Truth, edited by D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge, for a good sampling of arguments actually made by inerrantists.

  • John Holmberg


    I respect what you say. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of inerrantists like yourself who actually give well-reasoned and humble arguments about your position. While I disagree about inerrancy not being a modern construct, I can do so in a cordial manner knowing that you probably know things about it that I don’t. I have heard a particular rigid view from more fundamentalistic types (I hate to put Denny in this category because it sounds so uneducated and anti-intellectual the way I described it, but I believe he fits here), so I can’t say that I’ve studied much of the doctrine myself. Thanks for the references, and don’t change your approach. Less vitriol from folks like you is what’s needed to revive your reputation.

  • Don Johnson

    FWIIW, I take the whole Bible as my norming norm and think it can lead to mistakes to think of just the NT in this way. The reason is the NT builds on and assumes the OT as a substrate; e.g., Jesus did not discuss some things (at least as recorded) as they did not need to be discussed as they were already established by the OT and specifically by the Torah of Moses.

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