Stanley Hauerwas, “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering”

These are notes on chapter 3 of Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 53-71.

Notes are organized under the chapter’s six sections, with quotations from Hauerwas in italics.

1. A Proposal for Understanding the Moral Authority of Scripture

Hauerwas advocates Yoder’s “free church understanding of the significance of community”:

The authority of scripture derives its intelligibility from the existence of a community that knows its life depends on faithful remembering of God’s care of his creation through the calling of Israel and the life of Jesus (53)… Without that community, claims about the moral authority of scripture–or rather the very idea of scripture itself–make no sense (55).

This is in opposition to taking scriptural interpretation as “a strictly conceptual operation, which could be carried out by a single scholar in his office” (Yoder), or Kelsey’s “standard picture” that “if scripture is to be meaningful, it must be translated into a more general theological medium” (54, 55).


2. The Scripture as a Moral Problem

Childs asks ‘How does the Bible aid the Christian in the making of concrete ethical decisions,’ without considering whether ‘ethics’ is or should be about ‘decisions’? … When ethics is equivalent to advice, issues of interpretation or community need not arise. (57)

Hauerwas doubts that scripture can be abstracted into an ethical system via “biblical theology,” or that ethics can be reduced to “decisions” or “advice.” This makes a lot of sense to me.

Nothing makes “ethics” seem more like a hypothetical parlor game than the literature on the “trolley problem” or “trolleyology,” in which we try to reason about hypothetical life-or-death situations involving whether or not to throw a trolley switch and condemn one or more people to death. I do think that this problem suggests something interesting and troubling about technology, in that many of us might find it easy to press a button on a console, thus telling a hovering drone to drop a bomb on a terrorist and his entire extended family thousands of miles away in the Middle East, while we might hesitate if we were presented with the same people, taken captive and disarmed, and invited to kill them with our bare hands at close range. Similarly, if you eat meat, you ought to be willing in principle to go hunting and to dress the game that you kill.

Anyway, these kinds of rational problems (“What is the right decision?”) do seem to me remote from the most urgent ethical tasks, i.e. how do I treat my co-worker, my spouse, the person ahead of me on the freeway, the homeless guy at the stoplight, i.e. my neighbors?  I already know how I am supposed to treat them; that’s not the problem. I am supposed to love them as myself. But how do I actually do that, when it seems so much easier and more satisfying to instrumentalize them as objects for my own needs and desires? So I am very receptive to the view that the most important ethical task is for a community of character to shape and form us into virtuous people, who actually want to love others–which seems almost impossible by worldly standards. (As long as the story has a central place for divine grace and the new birth, and is not simply about the imitation of moral exemplars.)


3. The Moral Authority of Scripture

Authority is that power of a community that allows for reasoned interpretations of the community’s past and future goals. Authority, therefore, is not contrary to reason but essential to it. Authority is the means by which the wisdom of the past is critically appropriated by being tested by current realities… (60)

Truth in this sense is like a ‘knowing how’–a skill that can only be passed from master to apprentice. (62)

How do we know which interpretations are faithful and which ones are not faithful? If there is ongoing, substantial, seemingly irresolvable disagreement within the Christian community (e.g. over pacifism vs. just war, infant baptism, church government and ecclesiology), we might cautiously forbear from trying to determine which perspectives are authoritative and which are not.

On the other hand, if certain interpretations have been tenaciously defended as life-or-death matters from the beginning (e.g. the Trinity and the Resurrection), we must assume they are essential. You just can’t turn PETA into an association for connoisseurs of fine barbequed meats. But how do we deal with what appear to be the contingencies of history? What if Athanasius had died at an early age? Would the mainstream church have been Arian? Athanasius’s career must have been guided by the Holy Spirit, right? We have to assume that in all things God is working for the good.


4. Scripture as Moral Authority

Theologians, to be sure, make suggestions about how scripture can or should be understood, but such suggestions must be fueled by the common life of the church in both its liturgical and moral forms. (65)

It does seem like this would be a good way, in practice, of testing various possible interpretations of scripture. Is this church a community characterized by people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind, and love their neighbors as themselves? If so, then its interpretations of scripture are probably credible. If not, then…

This would apply not only to conversations carried on within the church, but also to how it appears to outsiders. Outsiders can see quite clearly whether a church is authentic: if we have love for one another, by that everyone will know that we are disciples of Christ.

But it can’t be that the common life causes people to adopt the correct interpretation of scripture; that seems backwards. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. So first God speaks and we hear it, and then by this hearing we are brought into the community of faith.

 [T]hese texts have been accepted as scripture because they alone satisfy what Reynolds Price has called our craving for a perfect story which we feel to be true…: ‘History is the will of a just God who knows us.’ (66)

If the story of scripture is true, then this would be the case. But also, can’t our cravings and satisfactions sometimes be mistaken? And if so, how do we know?


5. The Morality of Remembering: The Scripture as Narrative

The canon is not an accomplishment but a task, since it challenges us to be the kind of people capable of recalling the stories of our fathers and mothers, on which our existence continues to depend. (68)

It seems like the narrative is inseparable from the proposition. If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who became man, was crucified and raised from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then we are living in that story and we should live accordingly. Or, alternatively, if Jesus was simply one more “traveling sage and wonderworker,” around whom a series of baffling and implausible, pious fables and legends inexplicably and implausibly grew up after his death, among a credulous community of illiterate peasants who simply didn’t know any better, then it is hard to see why that particular far-off primitive community should have any relevance at all for us today.

Some stories are more self-involving than others. You can’t say, “Jesus, uniquely in all of history, was raised bodily from the dead, with a new resurrection body never before seen, and had a unique relation of sonship to the creator of the universe, and also I am going to ignore that fact because it is irrelevant to my life.”  If that story is true, it can’t be irrelevant. The relevance of the story depends on the truth of the proposition. But I think Hauerwas’s point might be that the ongoing, living story (the ‘recalling of the stories of our fathers and mothers on which our existence continues to depend’), a.k.a. the continuing work of the Holy Spirit through the church of Christ, which lives in faithfulness to his scripture, is how we come to know that the proposition is true.


6. The Moral Use of “Biblical Morality”

To take the prohibition of adultery… it draws its force from the meaning and significance of marriage in Jewish and Christian communities. Marriage in those communities derives from profound hope in and commitment to the future, witnessed by the willingness and duty to bring new life into the world. (70)

If you believe that you are part of a community that transcends your own material existence in the present moment, then you are more likely to engage in acts of self-sacrifice, e.g. marriage and childbearing, that don’t automatically offer immediate individual rewards in the present moment. This surely must have implications for explaining the collapse of fertility rates across the modern developed world, and why some religious communities seem somewhat immune to this effect. Israel is the only developed country with a high fertility rate (over 3 children per mother); perhaps there are lessons to be learned. 1 2 3


Context: Hauerwas and his critics

At this point, the views of Hauerwas, officially “America’s best theologian,” seem so well respected and commonsensical among Christians, that it is interesting to discover how they once were quite controversial (i.e. when he began working in the 1970s). Thus his critical dialogues with James Gustafson and Jeffrey Stout are quite educational.

From a 2018 point of view, the so-called “Moral Majority” seems a dim memory and the “Rise of the Nones” and decline of institutional Christianity’s worldly status and influence in the Western world seems like an absolute fait accompli. (“2067: The End of British Christianity” “America’s last Episcopalian walks among us today“) From this perspective, Gustafson and Stout seem to belong to another era, one in which “the world,” whether social elites or the people on the street, could automatically be expected to take some interest in, and deference towards, what Christians and theologians had to say. That seems like a long time ago.

Gustafson and Stout are keenly interested in keeping the conversation going between the church and the world, which is nice. Gustafson wants to avoid “the sectarian temptation.” But one might also suspect that on some level, they want to be liked and respected by their colleagues (Gustafson, professor at Yale, Chicago and Emory; Stout, professor at Princeton). Being liked and respected is nice, but it’s not something we can count on. We will be hated by all because of the name of Jesus. If the world hates us, it hated Jesus before it hated us. If they persecuted Jesus, they will persecute us. cite So, it’s hard not to conclude that Hauerwas is more faithful to what being a Christian is all about, and indeed to Jesus’s person and work, than are his critics.


References: reviews of A Community of Character (by author)

  1. John D. Barbour, The Journal of Religion (April 1983) JSTOR
  2. Harlan Beckley, Union Seminary Review (July 1982) DOI
  3. Walter J. Bildstein, Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December 1982) JSTOR
  4. Stephen F. Brett, Theological Studies (June 1982) DOI
  5. “F.” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie (1982) JSTOR
  6. Robin W. Lovin, The Review of Politics (October 1982) JSTOR

References: Hauerwas, Gustafson, Stout et al.

  1. Mark Oppenheimer, “For God, Not Country: The un-American theology of Stanley Hauerwas,” Lingua Franca, September 2001
  2. Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010)


  1. James M. Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church and the University,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 40 (1985): 83-94.
  2. Hauerwas, “Introduction” [response to Gustafson] in Christian Existence Today (Durham: Labyrinth, 1988): 1-21. Republished 2001
  3. Terrence P. Reynolds, “A Conversation Worth Having: Hauerwas and Gustafson on Substance in Theological Ethics,” JRE 28:3 (fall 2000): 395-421. JSTOR


  1. Jeffrey Stout, “Virtue and the Way of the World,” chapter 6 of Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, 2003): 153-174.
  2. Hauerwas, “Postscript: A Response to Jeff Stout’s Democracy and Tradition,” in Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Brazos, 2004): 216-241.
  3. Charles R. Pinches, “Stout, Hauerwas, and the Body of America,” Political Theology 8:1 (2007): 9-31. DOI

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