The Bible, Slavery, & Atheists{2a}: Philosophy & Ethics

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.

11 thoughts on “The Bible, Slavery, & Atheists{2a}: Philosophy & Ethics

  1. If one is to claim there are moral absolutes and those moral absolutes are dictated by a moral law giver (G0d), then anything that is absolutely immoral should be easily and unambiguously determinable using the words of the law giver alone. Human reason, conditions, culture or circumstance should not and could not have any barring on these moral laws or their interpretation UNLESS the laws themselves are relative and thus subjective, but by definition they are not if there is an absolute standard.

    So, this leaves us with a simple test to determine if moral laws have been dictated and absolute or not:

    Do humans generally consider murder wrong? Yes
    Does the Bible say murder is wrong? Yes.

    Do humans generally consider slavery wrong? Yes
    Does the Bible say slavery is wrong ? No.

    Slavery is wrong – you know it, I know it and if your god is real and the giver and definer of moral law, he should have proclaimed it as such and ended it.

    There are only two possibilities – God exists but doesn’t hold slavery as immoral, or there is no god and the bible is simply some writings by morally primatve men expressing their cultural/relativistic view of the subject.

    End of story. The rest is obfuscation, creative interpretation and/or denial.


  2. Darren,

    I need to point out two things:

    1) I was wondering what the heck you meant in your first paragraph. As a Christian the image of God indicates humans will have a propensity towards moral living, and our sinful natures will corrupt that propensity. Thus a human will not necessarily be in tune with what is considered a moral absolute by God.

    2) In your “proof” you assume that an argument from silence is an argument for something and in this case – slavery. You’ll need to do much better than that to make such a logical leap. If Scripture doesn’t issue slavery as wrong, does that mean it believes it to be moral and good? Scripture also doesn’t issue theocracy as wrong, nor a dictatorship, nor taxes or servants or democracy or cooperative farming or police forces. Does this mean Scripture believes those are wrong..? or right..?

    I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but perhaps the question you want to talk more about is not why Scripture argues for slavery, but why doesn’t Scripture argue AGAINST slavery? Then also, there might be some answers where some of the moral guidelines for slaves might very well cause the system to eventually be pointless. Consider Onesimus and Paul – if the slave was considered a brother what kind of slave is that?


  3. Paul,

    As an addendum to your ethics, I wanted to point out something I read not too long ago about how Christians historically have dealt with issues.

    For much of the middle ages apparently the choice was “what is the lesser of two evils?” In the scenario you gave is it better to allow slavery, or fight against it with hundreds of thousands dying in the process? Either answer necessitates forgiveness for sins.

    Later on the question became, “what is the greater good?” In the scenario you gave is it better to save lives, or is it better to free lives? By choosing to save lives there is nothing to forgive about your choice. This is the view you seem to be arguing.

    A third way called non-conflict morals would suggest there is a way to turn away from slavery, while also saving lives.

    There is clearly a weighted system of right and wrong in Scripture (not all punishments under the law are the same!), so I believe we should always seek the greater good and some goods weigh more than others. Perhaps in the case of slavery there is an argument for a greater good. It is also possible that slavery in itself is nothing more than a political system and if abuses theoretically ceased there is little to actually differentiate a system of slavery from a system of capitalism.


  4. Hello Andrew,

    There are 5 things we humans generally consider as the greatest evils:


    The Bible only condemns the first, murder. What’s odd is that killing homosexuals, stoning adulterers, raping the daughters of your enemies, killing children of your enemies and killing those who work on the sabbath are things we condemn as evil under any circumstances, but the Bible specifically mentions these things as either expected or acceptable under certain circumstances. So am I out of “tune” and these things are acceptable, or is the Bible out of “tune” and these things are not?

    I approach the Bible wrt. slavery with a very objective eye. I see it like this; Imagine you were a visitor to our planet, you find out we have laws regarding how fast we can drive cars, what side of the road we must be on, where we can drive them, etc. You see that humans had taken the effort to define laws and rules regarding them, and they obviously didn’t outlaw them. If asked if humans seem to think driving cars is okay, would you answer yes or no? God was not silent on the question of slavery, actions speak louder then words. By defining the parameters of slavery (in numerous passages), he was very clearly defining slavery itself as acceptable within those parameters.

    If we read the Bible objectively, there is only one conclusion that is reachable – the god of the bible did not have issues with slavery. If he had of, he would not have elucidated on how one should treat a slave, he would have said one should never have one.

    “I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but perhaps the question you want to talk more about is not why Scripture argues for slavery, but why doesn’t Scripture argue AGAINST slavery? Then also, there might be some answers where some of the moral guidelines for slaves might very well cause the system to eventually be pointless. Consider Onesimus and Paul – if the slave was considered a brother what kind of slave is that?”

    Do we create laws for driving cars as a means of stopping people for driving them in the future? No, we create laws to support the future. It’s much easier to stop something then to support it. Regardless, history shows us that not only is this false, but the Bible became the moral tool of the slavers. The Bible became the last, best source of justification for slavery – god is okay with it (using the same lines of logic I showed above), so it’s okay. Without the Bible, it’s quite possible it would have been abolished hundreds of years earlier then it was. The Renaissance and moral philosophy ended slavery, not the Bible.


  5. My apologies for not responding sooner. Don’t want you guys to think the infidels are not going to give defend our noble cause against the attempts of Jehovah’s children. Hopefully, we make an infidel out of Paul, because, we care about the condition of his soul, mind & state of being too.

    Larry & I, both believe Christianity to be delusional, deceptive, & diabolical. Deconverting Christians is a duty for freethinkers desiring to make the world a better place.

    Making Paul Burkhart’s world a better place by freeing him from the mental shackles of Jesus Christ & bringing him into the glorious light of Skepticism will be a cause for rejoicing!

    Skeptically yours!


  6. Pingback: A Theology of Ethics, Truth, & Contemporary Applications | Reform & Revive

  7. Pingback: The Bible, Slavery, & Atheists{2b}: Theology & Ethics | Reform & Revive « the long way home

  8. One of the perhaps most overlooked arguments about what God commanded from Israel against the other nations/other ethnicities is this:
    Genesis 3:15 – God promised the Messiah through the seed of the woman. Much of the wars, death, killing, and subduing of wicked peoples in the Old Testament was a direct outworking of the battle between the satan and seed of Abraham’s offspring. Wicked nations were being used by satan to keep the Messiah from being born, and Israel was being used to keep satan’s seed at bay. Once Jesus was born, as the fulfilment of the God’s seed, the seed battle shifted from a battle between evil and sin worked in flesh and blood war to a battle against the mortification of sin and evil from our own hearts. By fulfilling the great commission, we are producing spiritual offspring and defeating enemies that are not flesh and blood, but rulers in high places, etc..
    Hope that makes some sense.


  9. Pingback: Debates with Atheists (And Good News for Them) | the long way home

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