The Moral Vision of Hebrews
This study group will concern New Testament ethics, specifically ethics in the letter to the Hebrews. In other words, it will concern how we, as Christians, use the New Testament in general and the book of Hebrews in particular to guide our ethical decision-making. For this reason, the group will focus heavily on understanding how the book of Hebrews can shape the way we live our everyday lives.
In order to get to that understanding, however, we will first need to address some issues in the ways many of us read the Bible as well as in some of the ways we generally (though subconsciously) view the world. In other words, in addition to discussing New Testament ethics, we will also need to address some issues in biblical and general hermeneutics.
The fact is that, no matter how faithful we may be in our reading of the Bible, all of us have learned ways of reading scripture that, while sometimes helpful, also often prevent us from hearing what the scriptures have to say. These ways of reading come from various aspects of our broader culture, and we are often largely unaware of them. By learning to see them, however, we can also learn to disengage them and to adopt new modes of reading that better allow us to listen to a book like Hebrews and so to be transformed.
This may sound complicated, but you have really probably already had similar experiences of unlearning old ways of hearing and picking up new ones in your relationships with your spouses, your family, or your closest friends. In these relationships, we often become aware for the first time of the kinds of assumptions or beliefs that we default to in the ways that we speak and listen, and we also see for the first time that these assumptions or beliefs could be different—and (moreover) that other people’s assumptions really are different from our own. In gaining this awareness, we also begin to experience how an encounter with someone who teaches us to see ourselves from the outside can truly be transformative, can make us better people—even though (to be blunt) that experience often involves a fair amount of suffering.
Something very much like this can also prove true in our encounters with the scriptures, which, as God’s word, comprise a major means by which God speaks to us. If we learn to perceive our default assumptions and beliefs for what they are when we approach the Bible, we can begin to look beyond them, to better hear the voice of the God who has a word to speak to us this day and every day. In doing so, we open ourselves to be formed more deeply by the scriptures in ways that manifest themselves in the ordinary things that we do. Though often difficult, this process is worth undertaking, for it allows us to see the world differently, in a way that accords with the biblical witness of what the reality is really like.
Such a transformation of vision lies at the heart of the aim of the letter to the Hebrews, which presents us with a picture of reality very unlike the ones we typically perceive. In Hebrews, a reflection of the events of the past provides the basis for a superabundant vision of the future, a vision by which the voice of God urges his people daily to press on. As we learn to see this world as our world, our ways of acting begin to change—old ways of behavior no longer make sense or seem as desirable in light of the new realities we see and experience. Beginning or continuing the process of this kind of deep-seated change is also at the heart of this course, and I hope it is one that will continue long after our last meeting is done.
What this group will look like:
Each week, we will meet via Zoom to discuss a passage from Hebrews together. On the face of it, this might seem like another Bible study, but it will actually differ significantly from the Bible studies most people are used to, for as we are reading, we will be striving both to understand how our own assumptions affect the way we read and to understand the world with which Hebrews presents us on its own terms. Only after doing both of these things will we then ask what Hebrews, as the word of God, has to say specifically to us.
Between group sessions, I will offer optional assignments designed to help you better understand how to read the New Testament generally and how to allow the New Testament (and Hebrews in particular) shape how you live on a more practical level. The former kind of assignment will consist mainly in select readings by professional theologians and biblical scholars, while the latter will consist mainly in guided forms of writing, reflection, and action. While I hope that the weekly Zoom sessions will prove valuable for anyone interested in understanding and applying the Bible, I do think that taking up at least some of these assignments will result in the most long-term benefits from the group.
Readings (selections provided during the study group)
Brock, Sebastian P. “Ephrem’s Letter to Publius.” Le Muséon 89 (1979): 261-305.
Hays, Richard. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Hebrews: A Commentary. New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
.“Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines.” Modern Theology 14 (1998): 165-80.
. Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. New York: HarperOne, 2011.