Richard Hays explores the ethical values and dynamics with which Jesus himself lived to show how the New Testament provides challenging moral guidance on some of the most important contemporary ethical issues.
(1) Hays argues that any focal image needs to find a textual basis in all the canonical witness. "Love," according to Hays is not a central theme or ethical warrant in several important NT texts (Mark, Hebrews and Revelation, and Acts). According to Hays, the 3 metaphors he elevates well encapsulate essential claims in a much larger plurality of NT texts.
(2) Love is itself not as much an image as it is the "interpretation of an image." "Love," in other words, is embodied concretely in the NT by the cross. Apart from the specific narrative context of the cross, "Love" loses any meaning. Thus, love in the NT is itself subsumed under the image of cross.
(3) "Love" in contemporary ethics has become a fluid, debased concept that covers "all manners of vapid self-indulgence." From the perspective of contemporary culture, elevating love as a functional metaphor may do as much harm as it does good.
My personal observation is that "kingdom" may be a more appropriate metaphor than "community," for Hays since "community" in many ways has becomed as distorted a concept as love. The notion of "kingdom" carries with it the idea of community united under the reign of God, embodied through the cruciform life of Christ. I find this a more helpful metaphor than "community," which today may carry the idea of a collection of self-interested individuals using the church to meet their own needs.
Perhaps the greatest strenght of this book is the degree to which Hays struggles to allow scripture itself to take priority over other sources of authority (tradition, reason, and experience). The reason Hays comes out such an ardent pacificist is precisely because his exegesis of NT texts leads him to believe that the NT is nearly univocal in the ethical stance it takes regarding Christian non-violence. Jesus' teaching of his disciples (contra Niebuhr) in the Sermon on the Mount is intended as a real way of life to be embodied in faithful obedience, not an impossible ideal that must be dismissed by informed realists. According to Hays Jesus' own life of costly obedience to God functions as a paradigm for his own disciples, and the NT itself suggests that this is to be the case (this is a theme well-embodied in Paul's letters and in Mark's gospel). Even tradition would lead us to believe that the early church was consistently committed to non-violence at least until the time of Constantine; thus other sources of authority outside scripture seem to confirm Hays' argument that the church is to be a people committed to non-violent love of the enemy. The strength of Hays' pacifism is that he is attempting to root it firmly in his exegesis of the NT. Thus, one must do more than dismiss him as an unrealistic pacifist superimposing his views on the church. Rather, one must begin at the exegetical level to explain where Hays is mistaken, why his conclusion that the NT voice is univocal in advocating non-violence as the way of the church is incorrect. Or another way to deal with Hays' pacifism would be to say that other sources (tradition, reason, or experience) need to take precedence over scripture even if Hays is correct that the NT voice is consistently non-violent. This shifts the debate back to the hermeneutical level (and it is at this level where most theologians will conflict with Hays).
There are two weaknesses of the book in my opinion. First, Hays does not spend enough time exploring the issue of how the OT is to function as a basis for Christian ethics. Admittedly, attention to this question would greatly expand an already large book. Still, the plurality of scripture is greatly expanded when one draws the OT into a discussion of Christian ethics. This makes an integrative study of OT and NT for Christian ethics all the more necessary. This becomes especially important for any non-violence reading of NT ethics.
Second, I would have like Hays to give more attention to the general epistles and Hebrews. I'm afraid Hays brushes them off by saying that they essentially echo ethical themes he covers in his close reading of the gospels and Pauline literature. I think this case remains to be demonstrated.
Hays sees distinct (though overlapping) tasks in the process of "doing ethics" and is able to explain and apply them clearly. His emphasis on seeing ethical questions through the "focal lenses" of Cross, Community and New Creation is a wonderful guidepost for anyone concerned with faithful, Spirit-driven scholarship. He stresses that an "integrative act of the imagination" is required to be able to apply the Scripture to our world and suggests methods for achieving it.
Hays analyzes 5 theologian/ethicists in light of his approach (including Barth, Hauerwas, and Schussler-Fiorenza) and, in doing so, further clarifies how his approach can be used by others.
The final section of the book applies Hays' approach to contemporary issues. Partly because of his obvious authority in Greek and New Testament scholarship, and partly because of his honest, passionate approach, his conclusions are bold and very persuasive.
This book will likely be very influential in both the fields of Ethics and New Testament Studies. Students, professors and church communities alike will be dealing with (and indebted to) this book for years to come.