As I’ve looked at and read the various articulations about this issue put forward by my atheist friends, I’ve noticed a few philosophical assumptions about ethics that are driving many people’s perspective on how the Bible does/should talk about these things. In this post, I’d like to highlight those things and show how they are neither philosophically or theologically correct. By the time I finished writing, it was really long, so, using one of the few benefits of blogging as a medium of discourse, I will put up the second part (concerning the more theological side of this) tomorrow or the next day.
The Philosophy of Ethics
Principles vs. Applications
Even the most cursory look shows that the study of ethics is the study of transcendent principles that govern our morality and behavior. There is an important distinction though made between those transcendent principles and their applications. One can hold to the exact same set of principles, but apply them differently at different times/cultures. It is simplistic and reductionistic to think that anyone’s “ethics” will be applied in the exact same way every time. No ethicist secular or otherwise treats ethics in this fashion. I believe that Scripture is consistent throughout in its transcendent principles, though not in their comprehensive applications (below). To navigate applications takes another pair of things the Bible talks at length about: faith and wisdom (more in the next post). Further, I don’t think this principle/application distinction provides any serious ethical challenge to biblical authority. The Bible itself never claims to treat ethics in this reductionistic manner, so to force it upon Scripture is dishonest.
One of my atheist friends mentioned the converts in isolated African tribes where nudity is prevalent, saying that if Christians were consistent, they must insist that they all cover up in order to be Church members in good standing. Except there’s a problem with that: there is no Christian ethic of “non-nudity”. There is a Christian ethic of “modesty” that says that we have the responsibility to adorn God’s beautiful creation of the human body in such a way that it maintains the respect and dignity it deserves. Now, how respect and dignity is shown changes culture to culture, so it takes wisdom to see where the human form is being abused in that culture — and that is not a compromise of Christian ethics. The consistent biblical principle has still been preached, upheld, and lived. If ethics (secular or Christian) were as naively structured as is necessary for some of these atheist criticisms to make sense, then the entire field of ethics would be unnecessary and non existent, because we could have a computer program that could make all the black-and-white moral decisions for us.
But not only is there a principle/application distinction complicating things, but there is also a hierarchy of these principles. That is the other function of the field of ethics: to organize our transcendent ethical principles. Those principles will at times be at odds with one another and then the “higher principles” must win out. In the example of African polygamist converts allowed to stay polygamists, Christian ethics are not being abandoned, but rather the Christian ethic of “love for human welfare” is being held above the ethic of “monogamous marriage as an earthly symbol of Christ’s singular devotion and faithfulness to His Bride”. This idea is actually out of a desire to be more committed to the Bible over culture, not vice versa. Paul often does this. There is a Christian ethic of freedom to do as you please because of salvation not being founded on works, and yet there is another Christian ethic where we are to put others’ interest before our own. So, we must at times give up what we are free to do for the sake of those around us (“love” over “freedom”) (1 Cor 10:23-20). But this isn’t morality dictated by the culture, nor is it culture standing above the Bible. It is the normal application of ethics — using the authoritative ethical principles of the Bible, which stand above culture, in order to show us how to live best within our cultures, to further verify the truth of the Bible and Christianity which stand above culture. In his amazing essay Normativity, Relativism, and Relevance (which I wish I could legally reproduce here), Harvie Conn offers a good synthesis of these ideas for the Christian: “[In many letters, Paul] is arguing for the inappropriateness of a Christian’s practice in the light of cultural mores. His goal in this instruction is not the obliteration of cultural perceptions as a hindrance to [biblical interpretation]. Nor is he promoting the rule of cultural perceptions over [biblical interpretation]. It is an understanding of cultural particularities as an aid to the application of the law in our day.”
Applications & Implications
One possible way all this could be applied to slavery: from the beginning of Genesis, there is an ethic of “love for human welfare” (mentioned earlier) expressed first by God, and then commanded by Him. As I tried to point out in my first post, though Israel engaged in things that go against our modern sentiments and ethics; for their time, they upheld this human welfare ethic. To my knowledge, there is not a shred of evidence that any culture outside of Israel saw them as a harsh, ruthless, or particularly violent people. Compared to the 21st century, yeah, we don’t like some of what they did, but for their day and time, they were the relative merciful ones. The ancient world knew who the bullies were, and frankly, the Israelites weren’t one of them. A tough fact for us modernists to accept: it was a given in the ancient world that you killed those you conquered. Slavery was the more merciful route for that time. It was how a culture expressed a “love for human welfare” in a world with no set national boundaries, treatises, or territories. These are just facts from the perspective of ancient peoples. You will not accept these, I’m sure, but neither am I asking you to. I’m merely asking you to accept the Bible and ancient writings on their own terms and not modern western terms.
Fast-forward. Jesus and Paul are on the scene. Neither tell slaves to revolt. About a hundred years stood between Jesus and Spartacus (and the Third Servile War), and only about 20 years stood between Jesus’ birth and an Israelite Messianic figure who appeared briefly and started a small revolt which was quickly put down (I forget his name, forgive me). The Third Servile War ended up in over 120,000 slaves being killed, and another 6,000 who were captured, then crucified, and their bodies then lined up along Appian Way into Rome. How were Jesus and Paul meant to uphold the millennia-long ethic of “love for human welfare”? Lead another 100,000+ slaves to their death? No. If they really wanted to end slavery in the most peaceful way, they should do what they did: establish a worldview, culture, church structure, and core message that was inevitably incompatible with slavery being around for too long afterward, and then propagate it by any means necessary. And sure enough, every nation in the world that has ever had the Christian Gospel take root in its culture for a time has eventually abolished slavery, given women the right to vote, and has given equal rights to ethnic minorities. Though you may not see it, there is a seed in the Christian Gospel that eventually, with time, changes people to move away from slavery. It takes time in both history and individuals, but it happens. That’s just the brute data. Whether or not you can see the connections doesn’t change the reality (sources: Mark Knoll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity; For the Glory of God; and The Victory of Reason. Quotes in the posts to follow)
The most important implication of all this (to be developed more fully in the next post and the Modernism post to come) is the fact that a “science” of ethics (and interpretation) can not be arrived at for the Bible anymore than it can be for any other written work. David Clowney, in The Use of the Bible in Ethics, writes “The commands of God contained in Scripture are often very general (e.g. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’). Even when they are quite specific, though, we are expected to show a spiritually creative maturity in carrying them out.”
Many will simply read this and say “well, then — here we have clear evidence of God’s incompetence in his revelation and a clear lack omniscience. Apparently his ‘Word’ isn’t enough by itself. It needs humans and cultures to interpret it.” And I would say you are right if Scripture itself expected itself to be used in the way you think it should be used. (I don’t think I’m articulating this well, but I’ll just go with it) The Bible itself does not in any way act as if should have comprehensive ethical principles and applications within its pages. The biblical authors did not think Scripture was meant to be used in the way you are trying to use it and yet they still believed it was a divinely inspired and authoritative Word. They saw no contradiction in the content of its pages, the commands of its Lord, and normal everyday life. There is only a problem when you impose an imperative upon the text that the text itself is not trying to address. What is Scripture trying to do? I’ll conclude once again with Clowney:
The Bible, I maintain, guides us in the following ways: By giving us God’s will, it serves as a law for life in Christ. By telling the true story of Christ as our Redeemer, it gives us meaning and direction and shows our own lives and times as part of the the continuing history of salvation. Finally, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Scripture brings us face-to-face with our God, ourselves, and our neighbors in such a way as to call forth from us the response of Christ’s love.
Next post: a theology of ethics.