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Scripture and Ethics:

Canon and Community


IN 1965, when Jim Gustafson surveyed the field of Christian ethics, he lamented the fact that so little work had been done to relate Christian ethics to biblical studies "in a scholarly way." 1 Among the earliest and best of the responses to Gustafson's lament was the work of Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life. 1 In many ways, the book helped to open and to shape a conversation that still continues. In honor of Larry Rasmussen's many contributions to Christian ethics, I want to revisit that conversation.

Revisiting Bible and Ethics

The opening chapter of the first edition of Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life echoed the lament Jim Gustafson had made a decade earlier. It was called "The Divergence of Biblical Studies and Christian Ethics," and both the title and the complaint were still appropriate in 1976. A few essays had appeared and one remarkable book, John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, which Birch and Rasmussen cite as "the exception

1. "Christian Ethics," in Religion, ed. Paul Ramsey (Prentice-Hall, 1965), 285-354,337; reprinted as "Christian Ethics in America," in James M. Gustafson, Christian Ethics and the Community (Pilgrim Press, 1971), 23-82; and (in an abridged form) as "The Changing Use of

the Bible in Christian Ethics," in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 4: The Use of Scripture in Moral Theology, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (Paulist Press, 1984), 133-


2. Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Augs- burg, 1976); they cite Gustafson's lament on pp. 15-16. In the following paragraphs citations in parentheses are references to this book.





that makes the very point of this chapter/ 73 A large part of the first edi- tion's second chapter surveyed the literature on the methodological issue

of the relation of the Bible and ethics. 4 It was, in 1976, a manageable task.

A decade later when the revised edition was published, 5 things had

changed. There may have been many reasons for lament, but a lack of attention to the relation of biblical studies and Christian ethics could no longer be numbered among them. The first chapter of the first edition, therefore, was omitted, and the effort to survey the literature, no longer manageable, was given up.

What remained of the second chapter in the revised edition was the

identification of "an important two-part consensus" that "Christian ethics is not synonymous with biblical ethics" 6 and that "the Bible is somehow normative" 7 for Christian ethics. Somehow—but how? That was the question to which Birch and Rasmussen so successfully invited attention. That "important two-part consensus" was made the first word

of the revised edition; by it they continued to call their readers to join an

enlarging conversation about how scripture should form and inform Christian ethics. Let me return to the first edition and to the methodological proposal provided in it. In the first edition, they had used their account of the work of others to raise and clarify the questions that had to be addressed

3. John H. Yoder, The Politics ofJesus (Eerdmans, 1972; rev. ed. 1994),19. Birch and Ras-

mussen distinguished their work from Yoder's as self-consciously "programmatic" and "methodological" (19). That may have been a little too facile a distinction even in 1976. The revised edition of Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Augsburg, 1989) does have Yoder as a conversation partner about methodology, especially Yoder's The Priestly Kingdom (Univer- sity of Notre Dame Press, 1984). See, for example the revised edition, 113-114. But even in their first edition, Birch and Rasmussen quoted Yoder's "radical Protestant axiom [that] it is safer for the life of the church to have the whole people of God reading the whole body of canonical Scripture than to trust for her enlightenment only to certain of the filtering processes through which the learned men of a given age would insist all the truth must pass" (The Politics of Jesus, 14; cited in Bible and Ethics, 19). It is possible to regard such a statement as expressing suspicion of the self-consciously methodological scholar, but it is also possible to see in it something like a methodological proposal, a methodological pro- posal that bears some resemblance to their own recommendations concerning the signifi- cance of the canon and the community.

4. They fairly and skillfully summarized the work of a handful of scholars: James

Gustafson, Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., Charles Curran, H. Edward Everding and Dana Wilbanks, Brevard Childs, and C. Freeman Sleeper.

5. Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, rev. ed.

(Augsburg, 1989). References in parentheses following rev. ed. are references to this edi- tion.

6. Birch and Rasmussen, 45.




in any self-conscious methodology for relating the Bible and the moral life. The questions they identified were the tasks of Christian ethics, the methodological importance of the church, the relation of the Bible to non- biblical sources of moral insight, and the tasks of exegesis. Those ques- tions set the agenda for the remainder of the book, and in consecutive chapters they took up these questions. They argued first that the tasks of Christian ethics include character- formation as well as decision-making. Then they argued that the church—as "shaper of moral identity," "bearer of moral tradition," and "community of moral deliberation"—is the appropriate context for both ethics and exegesis. Church and scripture are correlative concepts:

"Apart from the scriptures, the church has no enduring identity as Apart from the church, the scriptures as Christian scriptures have no context or voice." 8 Next they acknowledged that, although scrip- ture is the primary authority for the moral life; it is not sufficient. The church cannot do ethics or live its life on the basis of scripture alone. But if scripture is not sufficient, it is surely necessary. Christian ethics cannot be done and the Christian life cannot be lived without attention to scrip- ture. They call for "dialogic" decision-making 9 , scripture in dialogue with other sources of moral insight. Finally, they suggest how the Bible could be made available as an ethical resource, attending to the "charac- ter of the biblical witness," 10 the "importance of exegesis," 11 and "the canon as a framework of control." 12 Along the way Birch and Rasmussen constantly develop and clarify their proposal for the use of scripture in ethics. The Bible can and ought to have a major role in both character-formation and decision-making, but the role will be different in each case. In the formation of character the Bible should have a primary role. It functions in the life of the gath- ered church to provide the basic content for the shaping of Christian identity and transformationally in relation to other sources of moral development. In this context, they insist on two methodological points that will become something of a refrain. The first point, appealing to the church's commitment to the canon, warns against "genre reductionism," the effective selection of only certain kinds of biblical materials as rele-

8. Birch and Rasmussen, 128-129. Here Birch and Rasmussen acknowledge the impor-

tant work of David H. Kelsey, The Use of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 9. Birch and Rasmussen, 158.

10. Birch and Rasmussen, 163.

11. Birch and Rasmussen, 168




vant, and insists on attention to "the whole scripture." 13 The second point insists that "the starting point for moral identity is with the Bible in the life of the church as a gathered community." 14 Scripture forms character not when it is read as a little library of ancient Near Eastern religious texts by biblical scholars, but when it is read and used by the church in worship, "as a gathered community." These two points invoke two fun- damental criteria: the canon and the church. The Bible also has a role in decision-making, but the role is different

and less significant. Here the starting point is not the Bible in the life of the gathered community, but the moral issue itself. Attention to the moral question requires analysis of the situation, appeal to moral principles, and decisions about the method of practical reasoning. Non-biblical sources are appropriately used in the analysis of the situation; we utilize skills and knowledge that are independent of scripture. But analysis of the situation is seldom independent of the perspective we bring to it, and that perspective is itself formed along with character in the gathered community that reads and uses scripture. Norms and principles, too, may have non-biblical sources. The Bible will function, however, as a source of some norms that have "canonical integrity," 15 that is, consistent backing throughout the canon. And it will function to test and transform the norms taken from extra-biblical sources (and also for that matter norms taken from biblical materials). Some norms recommended within the culture will be rejected because they do not comport with the charac- ter and community formed by scripture, and others will be qualified and transformed by being set in the context of a character and perspective formed by scripture. With respect to a method of practical reasoning, Birch and Rasmussen acknowledge that the Bible does not spell out a particular technique for discernment, but they regard several points as instructive for practical reasoning. The first is an appreciation of the moral diversity and pluralism within scripture. That point should be

enough to prohibit "methodological

observation that the method of moral reasoning in scripture is "at root relational." 17 Ethics in scripture is never simply a matter of obedience to the law or the striving for certain ideals; it is always "response ethics," 18

reductionism." 16 Another is the

13. Birch and Rasmussen, 109.

14. Birch and Rasmussen, 111.

15. Birch and Rasmussen, 116.

16. Birch and Rasmussen, 119.

17. Birch and Rasmussen, 119.




always response to God. And yet another is the claim that the Bible requires a method of practical reasoning that is not marked by a solitary individual struggling with a case but set in the context of the community and attentive to the community's moral deliberation. In decision-making, the starting point is the issue itself rather than scripture, as we have observed. Particular texts must be consulted as rele­ vant to the issue, and the critical exegetical work of biblical scholars should be consulted. Nevertheless, the canon and the church clearly con­ tinue to function as criteria. The full range of canonical materials bearing on the issue must be consulted, not just that selection of biblical materials that fits our prejudices on the issue, and only those standards that have "canonical integrity" authorized. Other sources of moral wisdom con­ cerning the issue must be consulted, but the Church's own understand­ ing of her identity and calling remains the preeminent criterion. Using terminology from informal logic, these criteria could be formulated as a "warrant" for the use of scripture and as a "condition of rebuttal." The canon criterion could be formulated as a warrant: If the Bible consistently affirms x, then χ is to be internalized and acted upon; or, if the Bible con­ sistently opposes y, then that opposition is to be internalized and acted upon; or, if the Bible shows a polarity or a range of options concerning z, then that tension must be recognized and all options taken into account. The church criterion could be formulated as a condition of rebuttal. That is, moral claims thus warranted are to be considered normative unless such a claim violates the biblically based identity of the Church, or to use Birch and Rasmussen's own words, "[a] decision which violates that basic identity is suspect even though it might be claiming biblical war­ rants." 19 This was an enormously important methodological proposal. It helped to bridge the gap between biblical studies and Christian ethics. It served to call Christian ethics back to attention to scripture as somehow authoritative, and it protected Christian ethics from arbitrarily subjective and rationalizing uses of scripture as well as from absolutizing any single text or substituting any part for the whole. The book was widely read and widely quoted, and it was enormously successful in achieving its intention, which was not to be the last word about the relation of scrip­ ture to Christian ethics but "to begin the development of a clearer

methodology." 20 It began a conversation

even today, is formed and informed by this early contribution. The

that still continues; one that,

19. Birch and Rasmussen, 194.




"twofold consensus" the book identified remains a consensus. The prior- ity it gave to the formation of community and character is now widely recognized. The book's recognition and appreciation of diversity within scripture have been widely echoed. Subsequent work on relating scrip- ture and Christian ethics acknowledged with Birch and Rasmussen the necessity and significance of non-biblical sources for decision-making. Most have welcomed their emphasis on the importance of careful exege- sis, even when they also welcomed the observation that the most appro- priate context for both exegesis and Christian ethics is the church rather than the university. And the suspicion of "proof-texting" particular moral claims simply by citing a particular text is widely shared. The canon and the church continue to be recognized as critically important components of any methodological proposal. But there were still some problems, in part, because the canon and the church are not themselves without problems. Permit me to try to identify those problems within Bible and Ethics by attending to the issue of the ordination of women. In an aside, Birch and Rasmussen made it clear that they (in 1976, when the issue was being vigorously debated— and frequently on the basis of biblical materials) thought it imperative for the church to ordain women. 21 They did not pause to make an argument on the basis of scripture or to display how the canon and the church would warrant the claim. They did hint at the possibility of "an appeal to some neglected portrait of Jesus," 22 but even if that is added to the canon- ical grid of biblical materials on women as office-bearers—and even if some neglected features of Pauline theology and practice were also added—it is difficult to see how the canon criterion would warrant the move from scripture to the claim that it was imperative for the churches to ordain women. If they were, like Brevard Childs, to plot the full range and "dynamic" of the biblical materials, they would have to face the issue of a "dynamic" that seems to lead toward the pastoral epistles. The best to be hoped for would seem to be recognition of the "tension" within the canon on this issue. And the church criterion would seem to provide little help in resolving that tension—at least in 1976. To appeal to the church criterion as a condition of rebuttal to resolve the tension would seem to appeal less to the churches' actual sense of their identity than to some generalization about how the churches should understand them- selves or—which may be very close to the same thing—some generaliza- tion about what one understands when one understands scripture.

21. Birch and Rasmussen, 133.

22. Birch and Rasmussen, 133.




A similar point may be made by observing that early on in their work, in distinguishing biblical ethics from Christian ethics, the authors assert that "Christian ethics today would not find sound justification even for accepted biblical codes regarding slavery, treatment of women, or the set of crimes exacting capital punishment, to cite a few exam- ples." 23 True enough, but if we ask why not, the answer seems not to be that such justifications were inconsistent with either the canon or the church's identity (at least when the church first rejected these rules). The continuing conversation still emphasizes canon and church, but it has been forced to develop these criteria more fully. The canon criterion identifies the whole in terms of which any part must be read. To be sure, the canon identifies a whole, but it does not identify the "wholeness" of scripture. It does not identify what it is one understands when one understands scripture. The concern about canon in Birch and Rasmussen has opened up into the question of the "wholeness" of scripture, into the question Richard Hays has identified as "the synthetic task." 24 The church criterion serves both to identify a community of readers and to invoke the church's sense of its own identity (formed by reading scrip- ture as a gathered community) as a test for any particular reading of scripture. But sometimes, the church's identity stands in need of reform. Indeed, Birch and Rasmussen seem to affirm the constant need for refor- mation in the church attentive to scripture. But if the church's sense of her own identity is to be constantly reformed by the scriptures, how then can that sense of her identity be used as a condition of rebuttal in argu- ments from the Bible to moral claims on the life of the church? The con- cern about the church in Birch and Rasmussen has opened up into the question of the ecclesial practices that surround and inform both their identity and their interpretation of scripture (like eucharist and prayer and creed). The issue is the hermeneutical significance of ecclesial prac- tices. It is my thesis that the ground-breaking work of Birch and Ras- mussen—and their identification of the canon and church criteria—has been carried forward along these two tracks: the inquiry concerning the

23. Birch and Rasmussen, 46. 24. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Cre- ation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins Pub- lishers, 1996). Hays divided the project (and the book) into four parts, "the descriptive task," "the synthetic task," "the hermeneutic task," and "the pragmatic task." He admits, of course, that these four tasks are not "simple sequential steps" (8), that they are always integrated in the work of interpretation. He admits, for example, that the very decision to begin with description, with a careful reading of the texts, is already a hermeneutical decision that texts (and the meanings of texts) can exist apart from particular reading communities.




synthetic task and the inquiry concerning the hermeneutical significance of the practices that accompany the reading of scripture in the gathered community.

Bible and Ethics, Revised

Before we turn to some more recent literature, it is only appropriate to observe that Birch and Rasmussen traveled some distance along these tracks themselves in their revision of Bible and Ethics, The new second chapter in the revised edition is entitled "Christian Ethics as Community Ethics." In it the community's task is "to socialize its members into forms of life which displayed the kind of conduct befitting the experience of God in community," and the scripture that gives identity to both the Christian and the community is understood as "the story of Israel and of Jesus." 25 The church and the canon remain, and they remain important methodologically to the revised edition, but they are developed along the two tracks identified. The church remains a criterion, 26 but its signifi- cance is developed along the track that gives more attention to the church as "a story-telling community" 27 and a little more attention to particular communities with their distinctive practices and performances of scrip- ture. The canon remains a criterion, but what you understand when you understand the canon as a whole is "a story," or a drama of all creation which finds its center in Christ. 28 Birch and Rasmussen recognize that there are different ways to plot the story, and that the different ways to plot the story will have important consequences for an account of the Christian life and for the use of scripture in Christian ethics. They do not here undertake the synthetic task, but they do disclose that their own way of plotting the story with Jesus at the center, making God known and God's future present, puts an "upside-down kingdom" 29 at the cen- ter of moral formation and deliberation. Moreover, in their revised con-

25. Birch and Rasmussen, rev. ed., 21.

26. There is, for example, the requirement that the whole scripture be read in the con-

text of the whole people of God (rev. ed., 119).

27. Birch and Rasmussen, rev. ed., 125. Not sure, however, if it is from the revised edi-

tion. His parenthetical citation did not indicate that it was. It may be an oversight, however. Is there a way to find this out?

28. Birch and Rasmussen, rev. ed., 64-65. See also 105-107, with its accounts of the cen-

tral importance of the Jesus story and the formative significance of narrative for ethics.

29. Birch and Rasmussen, rev. ed., 108.




sideration of Aiken's "levels of moral discourse" 30 and the church's dis- course, deliberation, and discernment, the reasons given at the "moral rule level" and the "ethical principle level" are to be tested not just for their "canonical integrity" but for their fit with the remembered story. Birch and Rasmussen themselves evidently saw that the canon and church criteria opened up into these two lines of inquiry, the inquiry con- cerning the synthetic task and the inquiry concerning the hermeneutical significance of the practices that accompany the reading of scripture in the gathered community. The first inquiry may be more explicit in their revised edition than the second, but both are present in ways they had not been in the ground-breaking first edition. They have recently become foci of the continuing conversation. And it is to that conversation—and its attention to these two lines of inquiry—that I now turn. There was, of course, as the revised edition itself recognized, a great deal of good and important work on the Bible and ethics in the decade between the first edition and the revised edition. And there was even more work done in the decade following the revised edition. 31 But let me begin by attending to one of the landmarks of recent scholarship on scripture and ethics:

Richard Hays's The Moral Vision of the New Testament. 32

30. Birch and Rasmussen, rev. ed., 111-114; cf. 136-141. 31. A sampling of the books published from 1976, the date of the first edition of Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, to 1989, the date of the revised edition, would include:

Charles E. Curran and Richard McCormick, eds., Readings in Moral Theology, No. 4: The Use of Scripture in Moral Theology (Paulist, 1984); Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (Crossroad, 1984); Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching ofPaul: Selected Issues (Abingdon, 1979; rev. ed., Abingdon, 1985); Richard Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Eerdmans, 1984); Wayne Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians (Westminster, 1986); Stephan Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (Oxford, 1982); Thomas Ogletree, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Fortress, 1983); Wolfgang Schräge, Ethik des Neuen Testaments (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982); William C. Spohn, What Are They Saying about Scripture and Ethics (Paulist,1984); Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983); and Allen Verhey, The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1984). A sampling of the books published between 1989 and 1996, the date of Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament would include: Elisabeth Schus- sler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992); Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 1991); Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture (Abingdon, 1993); J.I.H. McDonald, Biblical Interpretation and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993); Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality (Yale, 1993); C. Freeman Sleeper, The Bible and the Moral Life (Westminster John Knox, 1992); Sondra Ely Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerd- mans, 1995); John H. Yoder, The Politics ofJesus (Eerdmans, 1972; rev. ed. 1994). 32. Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996). In the following paragraphs references in parentheses are references to this book.




Hays undertook a now familiar task, "to clarify how the church can read Scripture in a faithful and disciplined manner so that Scripture might come to shape the life of the church." 33 He divided the task (and the book) into four parts, "the descriptive task," "the synthetic task," "the hermeneutic task," and "the pragmatic task." He admitted, of course, that these four tasks are not "simple sequential steps," 34 that they are always integrated in the work of interpretation. 35 The synthetic task is

virtually identical to the first line of inquiry we have identified, the con- sideration of what it is one understands when one understands scripture, and the hermeneutic task could include the second line of inquiry, the consideration of the hermeneutic significance of the practices that accom- pany the reading of scripture in the gathered community. So, permit me to focus on what Richard Hays called "the synthetic task" and "the

hermeneutical task." 36

The Synthetic Task

Having surveyed a "chorus of diverse voices" 37 in the first part of his book, Richard Hays turned in the second part of the book to "the syn- thetic task," to his effort to describe the unity or wholeness of the New Testament. Hays located the unity of these diverse texts in that they all "in various ways, tell and comment upon a single fundamental story." 38 That was, as we have seen, the direction taken by Birch and Rasmussen

33. Hays, 3.

34. Hays, 8.

35. Hays admits, for example, that the very decision to begin with description, with a

careful reading of the texts, is already a hermeneutical decision that texts (and the meanings of texts) can exist apart from particular reading communities.

36. That focus, it should be observed, forces us to leave aside much interesting recent

work and many fascinating issues. Among the interesting work that has focused on what Hays called "the descriptive task" we might mention Brian Blount, Then the Whisper Put On Flesh (Abingdon, 2001); William P. Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis ofMoral Imag- ination in the Bible (Eerdmans, 1999); Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., To Liberate and Redeem: Moral Reflections on the Biblical Narrative (Pilgrim Press, 1997), Brian Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics (Baker, 1999). Among interesting work that has focused on "the pragmatic task" we might mention Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Visionfor Cre- ation Care, especially chapter 4, "Is There a Connection between Scripture and Ecology? Bib- lical Wisdom and Ecological Vision" (Baker Academic, 2001); Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Visionfor Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Eerdmans, 2001); Son- dra Ely Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions (Eerdmans, 1995); and Parts 2-5 of Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus (Eerdmans, 2002).

37. Hays, 188.

38. Hays, 193.




in their revision of Bible and Ethics. And it is something of a consensus in recent literature. What you understand when you understand the scrip- tures is a story. This is not altogether uncontroversial, of course, but it will not be controverted by me. Nevertheless, we might pause here to note John Burgess 7 challenge to the claim that "story" is the best way to undertake the synthetic task. In Why Scripture MatfersBurgess insists that scripture is "something more" than story. 39 It is "a sacramental word" that points beyond itself to the risen Christ. 40 In the church's practice of reading scripture the risen Christ is present to the church—not just remembered by the church. John calls attention to the difference between Calvin and Zwingli on the Eucharist, and he accuses those who read scripture as "an identity story" of a Zwinglian emphasis on a "memorial" rather than acknowledging with Calvin "the real presence of Christ." 41 That's a telling point to a Calvinist like me. And it may be taken as a token of the relevance of the practices of the gathered church to understanding and using scripture. But "something more" is not necessarily "something else." Moreover, remembering is itself "something more" than recollec- tion. The presence of Christ is never something we produce sacramen- tally; it is always the gift of God. And the gift comes mysteriously while the church performs certain tasks. Perhaps the real presence of Christ is mediated by our remembering Jesus, by attending to the story. 42 Within the consensus that what you understand when you under- stand scripture is a story, there remain questions. There are questions about how the story functions morally and about how those parts of scripture that are not story, the wisdom literature and the letters of Paul, for example, can be appropriated by the contemporary churches in the light of that whole. But the critical question here, I think, as Birch and

39. John Burgess, Why Scripture Matters (Westminster John Knox, 1998). The refer-

ences in parentheses within this paragraph are references to this work.

40. Burgess, 42.

41. Burgess, 51.

42. John Burgess does suggest "poetry" as an alternative to "story" because scripture,

like poetry, "engages our imagination" and invites us to construe the world "in light of God's plans and purposes" (Why Scripture Matters, 46). But "story," too, engages our imagi- nation and shapes our vision. Perhaps John uses "poetry," not as an alternative to story, but

in the sense of Paul Ricoeur, who regards religious texts as "poetic" because they "project"

a "world," provide a new "horizon." (See Ricoeur, "Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of

Revelation," Essays in Biblical Interpretation [Fortress, 1980], 99-104). But then, I suggest, poetry is not an alternative to story but an account of the way story functions. Incidentally, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Eerdmans, 1995), worries that in Ricoeur divine speech is finally elided into manifestation





Rasmussen observed in the revised edition, is how to plot the narrative. If scripture is story, how shall we plot it? Consider, for example, the way Hays plotted the story. When Hays summarized the story, he provided the three "focal images" of community, cross, and new creation. This way of plotting the story has surely been influential, 43 but is it the best way to plot the story? And what are the alternatives? Should creation itself be included in the plot, as the beginning of the story and as that part of the story which keeps the rest from "other-worldliness"? Should the curse that falls heavy on God's good creation be included in the plot? To be fair, Hays offers a synthesis of the New Testament, but the question could then be put whether the New Testament itself needs to be read as a part of a larger whole, as part of a bigger story. But even if we focus for a moment on the New Testament, we may ask if "cross, community, new creation" is the best way of plotting the story. It seems to me that Hays has privileged Paul; the "whole" story is found in Paul. It is revealing, I think, that in the brief accounts of the three "focal images," citations from Paul far outnumber citations of other voices. Moreover, as if to confirm that these tasks are not simply sequen- tial, within the "descriptive task" Paul was also privileged. Hays quite deliberately began with Paul rather than with Jesus. He gives good rea- sons: Paul's epistles are the oldest texts, he quite properly says. They offer extensive and explicit treatments of moral questions, he observes. Moreover, historical reconstructions of Jesus and the earlier tradition are notoriously difficult. And finally, the project is not "a developmental his- tory" but critical reflection about "the ethical import of the canonical New Testament." 44 But I am not persuaded. The canonical New Testa- ment does not begin with Paul. Granted that it does not begin with an effort to describe "the historical Jesus," it does begin with the story of Jesus. And it sets that story in the context of a story that begins in Genesis (at least if I understand the significance of "this is the book of the genera-

" [Mt. 1:1; cf. Gen. 2:4, etc.]). 45 Hays' proposal seems to me to

tions of

43. Note, for example, that R. Geoffrey Brown, "Biblical Context for the Church's

Bioethics," Bioengagement: Making a Christian Difference through Bioethics Today," ed. Nigel

M. de S. Cameron, Scott E. Daniels, and Barbara J. White (Eerdmans, 2000), 220-234, acknowledges his indebtedness to Hays' "focal images" (and recognizes them as privileg- ing Paul). 44. Hays, 14. 45.1 may add here a note relevant to the hermeneutical task: the Gospels (and Paul, too, for that matter) are clearly handing down a tradition that they have also received. The descriptive task itself seems to require attention to these writings as standing in the context




push Jesus to the margins—at least the Jesus who comes announcing an "upside-down kingdom" and making its power felt in words of blessing to the poor and in works of healing for the sick. But Jesus belongs to the center of the story, and not just as he hangs on the cross, but as the one who makes the good future of God real and present in the world by his words and way. 46

of traditions that are older than the texts, and the larger project—reflection about "the ethi- cal import of the canonical New Testament"—should not neglect the fact that these texts were part of the Christian moral tradition, even if they became the normative part. Hays acknowledges as much when he treats Mark first among the synoptic gospels. The point is not that we could substitute the traditions or some reconstruction of the historical Jesus for the text, but that the text itself invites attention to the traditions utilized and to what the authors have done with the words available to them. 46. Some recent literature has insisted that the story of Jesus is at the center of the whole story. Consider, for example, William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (Continuum, 1990), Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (InterVarsity Press, 2003), and Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus (Eerdmans, 2002). Some years ago I argued that the resurrection of Jesus by the God of creation and covenant is the key to the story (see Allen Verhey, The Great Reversal, 181-183). The resurrection of Jesus is intimately tied not only to Church's memory of the cross (as in Paul) but also to the vindication of Jesus and his words and deeds (as in the Gospels) and to the general resurrection and the promise of God's good future, the end of the story (as throughout the New Testament but especially in Revelation). With respect to the synthetic task permit me to note the intriguing proposal of Paul Jersild's Spirit Ethics: Scripture and the Moral Life (Augsburg Fortress, 2000). On one reading I thought Paul had given insufficient attention to the synthetic task and to the story that makes scripture a whole. And I was suspicious of the effort to "translate the meaning of New Testament ethics with another cluster of terms: freedom, agapeic love, and responsibility" (72). He does insist that these terms not be regarded as free-standing but "need to be clearly defined in light of the biblical message" (72), but then, of course, they can hardly be used to synthesize the biblical message. On a second reading, however, I was struck by the effort to read scripture not only from the center of the story, from Jesus, but also from the end of the story, from the Spirit, the "first fruits" of God's good future. The task, then, is "to articulate [a] vision concerning the purposes of God and what those purposes mean for human life and destiny, and then to draw implications from that vision for the task of the church in society" (101). This privileges the eschatological vision of Jesus and of those who pro- claimed that Jesus was the one in whom God's future made its power felt already. Jersild's proposal, if I understand it right, would give moral priority to the eschatological vision rather than to any (partial) historical realization, including those of the early church. At any rate, Jersild invites us to consider the hermeneutic significance of the Spirit. I think that is an exciting suggestion. It is true, of course, that the tradition has made frequent reference to the role of the Spirit in the struggle to interpret and embody Scripture (and, of course, in the production of scripture). But it is also true that the tradition has had reasons to be suspi- cious of claims of some to be able to represent the Spirit because they are "spiritually gifted" and reasons to admonish one another to "test the spirits to see whether they be of God"—also when those claims to the direction of the Spirit are made by those interpreting scripture. It is worth observing, I think, that the vision of God's good future is formed in remembrance. The interpretation of the Spirit's work must rely on scripture before we can rely on the Spirit for the interpretation of scripture. The Word and Spirit, Calvin said, are




It must be observed that Hays did, in fact, provide a short (but excel- lent) "excursus" on Jesus after he has treated the Gospels—an "excur- sus" which ends by identifying certain "Implications for Christian Ethics." One of those implications is a "reversal of 'normal conceptions' of status and power." If Hays had plotted the story differently, that impli- cation may have played a larger part in the work.

The Hermeneutic Task

The third part of Hays book undertook "the hermeneutic task." Hays provided a useful description of the hermeneutic strategies of Rein- hold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, 47 also in that context he worked out his own proposal. He summarized that proposal in the form of ten require- ments for the use of the New Testament in ethical reflection. These ten requirements start with the requirement of careful exegesis, 48 and they conclude with the claim the "right reading of the New Testament occurs only where the Word is embodied." 49 There is considerable wisdom here,

joined together "by a kind of mutual bond" (I.ix.3). Moreover, it will make some difference what scripture we rely on to interpret the Spirit. Shall we rely on the narrative of Acts 10-15 to discern the pattern of the Spirit's work in leading the community gathered around scrip- ture to discernment? Or is that passage shaped too much by Luke's interest in reporting the inclusion of the Gentiles as God's decision rather than as Paul's whim and as a decision made known through Peter's testimony and the reading of the Hebrew scriptures. The hermeneutic significance of the Spirit would look a little different if Paul's account of the Spirit as the first fruits of God's good future were the focus of attention, or if John's point that the Spirit functions to bring Jesus to our "remembrance" were regarded as key to the Spirit's work. The point is not to deny the importance of the "testimony" of those who have experienced the Spirit, only to insist that we need in memory and hope (formed in scrip- ture) to test "testimony" lest, for example, we be deceived by "spiritual enthusiasts" like those in Corinth or "false prophets" like those in Matthew's community.

47. Mention could be made here also of the work of Jeffrey Siker, Scripture and Ethics:

Twentieth Century Portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), who gives "thick descriptions" of the use of scripture by Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Bernard Haring, Paul Ramsey, Stanley Hauerwas, Gustavo Guttierrez, James Cone, and Rosemary Radford Ruether.

48. A requirement identified also by Birch and Rasmussen (168-174; rev. ed, 166-171).

49. The second and third rules echo the canon criterion of Birch and Rasmussen: "We

must seek to listen to the full range of canonical witnesses" and acknowledge "substantive tensions within the canon" (310). These two rules are followed by attention to the synthetic judgment that scripture is fundamentally story and that the story can be plotted as "com- munity, cross, and new creation" (rules 6 and 4, 310). The last rule, as we shall see, echoes the church criterion in Birch and Rasmussen. Our focus on the church and canon criteria and their development along the tracks of the synthetic task and the hermeneutic relevance




and an effort by Christian communities to follow Hays' ten hermeneutic commandments would improve both Bible study and moral discourse in the churches. There are, however, once again some reasons to quarrel a little. One quarrel revisits the hermeneutic significance of a synthetic judgment and focuses on the relation of story and prescription. That the New Testament is to be read as story is Hays' rule six, and that it is to be read in conjunc- tion with "community, cross, and new creation" is rule four. These pro- vide a little envelope for this rule: "New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak (i.e., rule, principle, paradigm, [or] symbolic world)." All four modes are said to be "valid and necessary," and Hays claims that "we should not override the wit- ness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode." 50 However, one need not propose ripping specific moral injunctions out of scripture and discarding them to wonder whether this is quite right. Moral rules are a part of the whole scripture that has authority for the moral life. The Christian community should not, I think, presume to rip some moral rule out of scripture, but neither should it defend a par- ticular concrete moral claim by simply finding an "identical" concrete moral claim in scripture. For one thing, given the passage of time, an "identical" rule may not be identical at all. 51 "Identical" prescriptions and prohibitions are sometimes appropriate, of course, but their appro-

of practices of the gathered church leaves at least one important issue untreated. It would be instructive to compare and contrast Hays' rule seven, "Extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority" (310) with Birch and Rasmussen on "biblical authority and non-bibli- cal sources" (143-159; rev. ed. 154-155). Hays' desire to allow scripture the last word in the conversation with other sources of moral wisdom is commendable, but "reason," "tradi- tion," and "experience" seem abstractions in this discussion, abstractions compared at least with the quite concrete contributions they sometimes make to moral discourse in the churches. Moreover, a more concrete account of the relation of scripture to other sources might consider the relation between them at different levels of moral discourse (Allen Ver- hey, The Great Reversal, 187-196). Scripture might have the last word, for example, in dis- cernment but not necessarily in deliberation. 50. Hays, 51. This is an objection to a proposal of mine in The Great Reversal (Eerd- mans, 1984) that we should refuse to appeal to the New Testament at the "moral rule" level of moral discourse. Hays claims that my proposal fails to grant the specific moral injunc- tions of the New Testament any real authority, and he requires instead that "New Testa- ment texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak" (294). 51. Hays' rule eight, indeed, is that "it is impossible to distinguish 'timeless truth' from culturally conditioned elements' in the New Testament" (310). Given the changed eco- nomic world, for example, simply repeating the concrete injunction that prohibited "usury" (Lk.6:35) is faithful neither to Jesus nor to the text.




priateness can (and must) be tested by the community gathered around the whole of scripture in an effort to discern the words and deeds that fit the story and serve God's cause today. And that's the second thing—and the critical thing—with respect to this issue: discernment always tests the rules (even Biblical rules) by whether they "fit" the story today. It is sometimes appropriate, contra Hays, to override "the witness of the New Testament in one mode [moral rules] by appealing to another mode [story]." 52

Hays' last rule, that "right reading

occurs only where the word is

embodied" evidently means both that the end must be praxis and that the beginning must be within the believing community. 53 This rule echoes the church criterion of Birch and Rasmussen and invites consideration of the hermeneutic significance of the church. Hays is clear that the "text shapes the community, and the community embodies the meaning of the text." 54 He is clear that "hermeneutics is necessarily a communal activ- ity" and that we never start reading "from nowhere." 55 The church and its performances of scripture provide the context for reading scripture. 56 This tenth rule points toward consideration of the churches as communi- ties of readers and to the practices that surround and inform their inter- pretation of Scripture (like Eucharist and prayer and creedal statements). Hays, however, does not go as far along this track in developing the church criterion as some other recent contributions to the conversation about Bible and ethics. Here, consider the work of Bill Spohn and John Burgess.

52. See further Allen Verhey, "Scripture and Ethics: Practices, Performances, and Pre-

scriptions," in Lisa Sowie Canili and James F. Childress, eds., Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects (a festschrift for James M. Gustafson; Pilgrim, 1996), 18-45, and Remembering Jesus, 71-7A. Within the practice of moral discourse in the churches I distinguish discourse, delib- eration, and discernment. It is appropriate that biblical moral rules be cited at the delibera- tive level of the church's moral conversation, but it is also appropriate to test the rules (including those taken from scripture) at the level of discernment, testing the rules by whether they are worthy of the remembered story.

53. Hays, 305.

54. Hays, 304.

55. Hays, 305.

56. One might revisit Hays' first rule, the requirement of "serious exegesis," that is,

attention to the historical and literary context, in the light of this tenth rule. And one might ask whether the first rule invokes the academy rather than the church as the reading com- munity. I think Hays is right here and that the Church is and should be hospitable to bibli- cal scholarship without surrendering the task of interpretation to the scholars. Different members of the community bring diverse gifts to the communal task of interpretative per- formance of scripture, and the church should neither despise the gifts of scholars nor sur- render the communal task to them. The relation of the church to the academy as a context for biblical interpretation is an issue worth continuing to discuss.




Bill Spohn's book, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics, 57 might have been invoked earlier with respect to the synthetic task to confirm what you understand when you understand scripture in Christian community is a "story"—and a story with Jesus at the center of it. And Jesus is not only at the center of scripture but at the center of the Christian life. Spohn affirms that "to be a Christian means to follow Jesus," 58 that "the funda­ mental norm for Christian identity" is the life of Jesus as told in scrip­ ture. 59 Again, we might have considered it earlier when we were examin­ ing the relation of story and prescription; we might have attended then to his account of "the analogical imagination." He calls it "the main bridge between the biblical text and contemporary ethical practice." 60 Following Jesus is not a matter of replicating his life, nor are we free to do anything we wish; rather, the analogical imagination permits us to read (and per­ form) the scriptures "creatively and faithfully." 61 By entering imagina­ tively into the story we discover images and paradigms that correct our vision and provide a pattern for our lives. There is no recipe for the ana­ logical imagination. 62 When reading the New Testament, "no formula

can be specified in the abstract." 63 The analogical imagination

something more like an aesthetic judgment, "spotting the rhyme," as Spohn says. Such judgment "takes more than intelligence;" it takes virtue. It takes virtue, and it yields virtue. 64 Spohn takes virtue ethics to be the best way to appropriate the New Testament text for the moral life. The point is not that the moral content of the New Testament can be reduced to a list of virtues. Rather, virtue ethics "fits the narrative form of


57. William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum,

1999). References within parentheses in the next paragraphs are references to this work.

58. Spohn, 9.

59. Spohn 10.

60. Spohn, 49. His account of it is indebted to the Catholic tradition of casuistry—and

to Catholic thinkers like David Tracy. Characteristically, however, he not only explains analogy but also displays it by considering (and assessing) analogies drawn from the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

61. Spohn, 50. Indeed, "the creative dynamic of the analogical imagination is blocked

by a literalism that is actually unfaithful to the biblical text" (71).

62. He does represent it schematically: The New Testament text is to its world as the

contemporary Christian community is to its world. The analogical proportion can be repre­

sented a:b::c:d, and it can be illustrated with numerical proportions, 2:4::8:X (55). Even in that illustration, however, Χ might be 10 or 16 or 64, depending on how one sees the rela­ tion of the first two terms.

63. Spohn, 63.

64. See also the work of Dan Harrington and James Keenan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics

(Sheed and Ward, 2002).




the New Testament." 65 The story of Jesus forms character. 66 It provides paradigms to shape and direct perception, dispositions, and identity. 67 As we noted above, however, one significant contribution of Spohn's work is his attention to the hermeneutic significance of ecclesial prac- tices, to "practices of Christian spirituality." These practices foster the habits of heart and mind necessary not only for the living of the Christian life but also for "spotting the rhyme" when reading scripture with an analogical imagination. "The practices of spirituality sharpen the Christ- ian's capacities to discern what is appropriate." 68 Along the way, Spohn considers intercessory prayer, meditation, discernment, forgiveness, Eucharist, and "solidarity" with the poor. Such practices are (or should be) themselves formed and informed by scripture. They sharpen our per- ceptions, train the affections, and can transform our lives. But they also evoke an "engaged" reading of scripture and instruct the analogical imagination. Spohn recognizes that the practices may not be treated as technologies to achieve either moral improvement or hermeneutic excel- lence. To reduce them to spiritual technologies would be to corrupt them. Even so, they have consequences and implications both for the moral life and for the reading of scripture that ought not be neglected. Indeed, Spohn takes "the practice of meditation," at least in the form of lectio divina, to be instructive for a proper reading of scripture. 69 That prompts another question for the continuing conversation about the Bible and Christian ethics: whether there is a "practice" of reading scrip- ture, and if there is, whether we can identify the "good" that belongs to it and the standards of excellence that are definitive of it. My own recent contributions to the conversation have argued that there is such a prac- tice, that the good internal to it is remembrance, and that the standards of excellence at least partially definitive to it are holiness and sanctification, fidelity and creativity, and discipline and discernment. 70 We have already mentioned John Burgess' Why Scripture Matters for its claim that scripture is "something more" than story. But his work is

65. Spohn, 28.

66. And he argues that virtue ethics "is suited to the New Testament's emphasis on

the 'heart'" (30).

67. The story trains our perception to see the world as Jesus saw it, as a place where

God's reign is breaking in (chapter 4 ).

68. Spohn, 62.

69. Spohn, 136-141. John Burgess, Why Scripture Matters (Westminster John Knox,

1998) also attends briefly to lectio divina as an instance of scripture as a "sacramental word"


70. See, for example, my Remembering Jesus, 66-71.




more noteworthy for the attention it gives to the hermeneutic signifi- cance of ecclesial practices. John proposes a "piety of the word" captured and nurtured by four disciplines or practices: reading scripture aloud, reading scripture in community, reading scripture in context, and memo- rizing scripture. This "piety" would reshape community, Burgess claims, protecting us from simply using scripture as a weapon in conflict, and sustaining our commitments to live with each other and with scripture, to find a common life together under scripture. It would nurture certain virtues for the reading of scripture in community: joy, care, confidence, humility, openness, and a readiness for moral discourse. Moreover, Burgess claims that these practices form a method of relating scripture to moral decision. Reading scripture aloud requires that we focus on scripture as "poetic" and on the vision of an alternative world scripture makes and invites us to inhabit. 71 Reading scripture in community requires that we attend also to wider communities—including both saints and strangers—and to their readings of scripture for the moral life. Reading scripture in context requires attention to historical- critical studies. And memorizing scripture helps and calls us to immerse ourselves in the language of scripture rather than simply to translate it into some secular or Enlightenment moral language. I think there is work to be done here on the particulars, but John surely calls us to further work on the hermeneutical significance of practices, and I join him in the call.

The agenda for the continuing conversation should include the rele- vance of the practices of the gathered church for reading and performing scripture. Among the practices that surround scripture, and that are themselves performances of scripture, we could count Baptism and the Eucharist, confession and absolution, profession of faith, and prayer. 72 In honor of Larry Rasmussen's many contributions to Christian ethics, I wanted to revisit the book that helped to open and to shape a

71. Burgess, 132. See note 15 make sure we get the corresponding note correct here above. John also infers from this practice a rule for reading any part in the light of the whole and a rule that gives priority to questions of character (both God's character and our own) to questions of conduct, but the inferences are not worked out clearly (on my reading, at least). 72. My own work in this arena has focused on "reading scripture prayerfully." See Remembering Jesus, 62-66. Paul Jersild, Spirit Ethics (see above note 18) does not make this move, but I wonder whether the hermeneutical significance of the Spirit might also be developed in terms of the concrete practices of the church where the Spirit is at work. The Spirit teaches us to pray, for example, and to bring our diverse gifts to the communal task of living in or according to the Spirit. The Spirit leads us to and by remembrance—in part at least by the practice of reading scripture.




conversation that still continues about Bible and ethics in the Christian life. The canon criterion and the church criterion identified in that book remain important; furthermore, they have opened up into the question of the wholeness of the canon (the synthetic task) and the question of the hermeneutic relevance of the practices and performances of the churches. We will honor Larry best, I think, for his contribution to the discernment of the use of scripture in Christian ethics by keeping this conversation alive, by keeping reflection about the wholeness of scripture and about the relevance of ecclesial practices on our agenda. 73

73. The account of recent literature on the Bible and ethics offered above is hardly exhaustive, and a final footnote will hardly render it so. Nevertheless, I want to take note of two other recent works. The first is a book by my colleague, Miguel DeLaTorre, Reading the Biblefromthe Margins (Orbis, 2002). I mention it because it is a powerful illustration of the hermeneutic significance of the judgment that what you understand when you understand scripture is an "upside-down kingdom." If that suggestion of Birch and Rasmussen is hon- ored, then there should also in our reading of scripture be a presumption in favor of accord- ing greater weight to countercultural tendencies in scripture that express the voice of the powerless and the marginalized. Miguel attends to the readings of scripture from the mar- gins and uses them to correct sexist, classisi, and racist readings and performances of scrip- ture.

The second is Nicholas Wolterstorff's book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections

on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge, 1995). It is nearly a decade old now, but I mention it because it claims—against the stream—that our hermeneutic must attend to "authorial intention," both the intention of the human authors and the intention of God in "authoriz- ing" these writings as God's own discourse. It is an important claim that has not received sufficient attention in the continuing conversation about the Bible and ethics.



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