The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament

The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament

The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament

The Great Reversal: Ethics and the New Testament


There is no denying, writes Allen Verhey, that churches today are called to discern the shape and style of life "worth of the gospel of Christ" in the twentieth century. Even in the face of changing situations and new moral problems to address, the contemporary church stands self-consciously in a tradition of which the New testament is a normative part.

In this major new study of New Testament ethics, Verhey examines first of all the ethic of Jesus, for it is there that the tradition begins. He then analyzes the different forms in which the early church handed down the memory of Jesus' words and deeds in the development of a moral tradition. Next he deals with that tradition as it came to canonical expression in the New Testament writings.

In the last part of the book Verhey focuses on the use of the New Testament in the continuing moral tradition of the church, surveying proposals for the use of Scripture, identifying the critical methodological questions, and defending a "modest proposal" for the use of Scripture.


By tradition and vocation Christian churches are communities of moral discourse and discernment. the tradition runs down the centuries and across the divisions of the church. Whenever and wherever Christians have joined together in a gathered community, their intentions have been to discuss and discern their personal and social responsibilities in the light of their shared convictions and common loyalty. This book undertakes to describe one part of that tradition, the moral teachings of the New Testament, and to propose a use of that material in the continuing discourse and discernment of the continuing church.

The tradition reaches back to the earliest Christian communities. the churches addressed in the New Testament evidently talked about and asked their leaders about their individual and social responsibilities. They asked “What should I do?” about sexual intercourse now that the ages have turned, about eating meat that someone with a sensitive conscience found objectionable, about the place women were assuming in worship. They asked “What should we do?” about ordering our community and our worship, about our responsibilities to and for other communities (like the poor in Jerusalem), about disciplining errant members. Such concrete questions, and others like them, were apparently commonplace in the early churches.

They asked, of course, not only about what they ought to do but why — why they ought to do one thing rather than another and why they ought to do something rather than nothing. Concrete moral questions led inevitably to reason-giving and reason-hearing. Sometimes, admittedly, the reasons were simply appeals to the moral commonplaces of Jewish or Hellenistic culture. Sometimes the reasons involved appeals to the law or the prophets or the writings. Sometimes the reasons appealed to the church’s memory of Jesus’ life or his teachings or his death on the cross. Sometimes the reasons appealed to ethical principles like love or equity or “one’s station and its duties.” But always the reasons stood in the service of the church’s communal attempt to . . .

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