Monday, May 08, 2006

The Bible as a timeless moral text

I have encountered a fair number of Christians recently who are determined to see the Bible as a timeless moral text which states moral truths for all the ages. The most common example of this is the idea that "homosexuality is wrong, because the Bible says so." In this post I have one point I would like to make: It's not as simple as that.

According to the bible it is...
wrong to eat shellfish (eg Lev 11:9-12),
wrong to wear clothing made of two different materials (eg Lev 19:19),
okay to have slaves (there are rules and regulations regarding its institution in the OT and nothing in the NT attacks it as an institution),
okay to commit genocide (eg many times in the OT with Israel on the warpath),
wrong to have long hair if you are male (l Cor 11:14),
wrong to have uncovered hair when praying if you are female (1 Cor 11:5),
right for men to kiss on the lips when they meet (eg Rom 16:16)
right that if a man is caught raping a woman that they be forced to marry and never allowed to divorce (eg Deut 22:28-29)
right to offer sacrifices (instituted in the Torah)
wrong to offer sacrifices (eg Jer 7:21-22, Amos 5:22-25)

Are they all timeless moral truths?

Several of the early church fathers tried to explain why it was that God had instituted the sacrifical system in Leviticus only to get rid of it again after Jesus. The best explanation they came up with was that God didn't like sacrifices but that sacrifices had been around long before the Mosaic Law (which is true). Thus God, over time, decided to wean Israel off sacrifices - firstly by strictly regulating their existing practices with the Mosaic Law, then by condemning them often through the prophets and finally abolishing them entirely with the destruction of the temple.

What is interesting here is the understanding that what God says at one time isn't necessarily a moral truth for all generations. Some modern authors have used similar reasoning to explain the genocides in the bible - back then it was a dog-eat-dog word and if God's people hadn't fought and killed to survive they would have been wiped out. The commands to slaughter other nations were necessary for their own survival - unfortunate morally, but necessary.

Once this sort of reasoning is accepted, we can see that what is morally okay at one time might not be morally okay at another. Just because God says something is right or wrong at one point in history does not make it right or wrong for all times and places in history.

In the previous post I looked at Jesus' statement on divorce and concluded that just because Jesus said that, it did not necessarily mean that divorce is wrong in all cultures and times. It wasn't as simple as that.

So, if the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, does that necessarily mean that homosexuality is wrong for all cultures and all times and places? It's not as simple as that.


Blogger The Elepel said...

Hi Andrew. I read (part) of your comments on Alastairs blog as well, on the subject of homosexuality. I think we differ in my view of the bible and it might shed some light on why you differ with some of the Christians you meet. Of course, I can't speak for all of them in all situations.

The last question you asked in this post serves as a good example. The question is mainly about, I suppose, how much of the biblical view on homosexuality issue is just a cultural issue (or of the writers of the bible, quite a number), which might not be so relevant today, or not straight forward. In your last question you take it further though, you mention that God says that homosexuality is wrong.

My question is, is your 'god' a cultural determined idea which might change from society to society? Or is there a God, who is God, who does not change and reveals Himself in Creation and ultimately in the incarnated Son of God, Jesus Christ? There is a huge difference in interpreting how a culture dealt with moral issues from historical texts, and getting to now a living God and understanding His will for us.

For I believe the bible is the book in which the history (it is historical more than anything else) of Gods Creation is accounted for, but we as readers (hearers) are very much part of the same story and are not 'objectively' standing aside as neutral critics. Many people may write 'a history' or 'a view' on certain events. The bible is different, because God is the director of it. It is His view.

I thought it might be helpful to point this (Christian) view out to you, at least to see where Christians come from.

Now it still is not so simple, as you say, that we should just copy historical commands into today's society. But isn't it ignorant to say that God changes just as much as our society does, and hence say that we are still 'on our own' to make out what is right and wrong? It seems to me that would take us right back to Genesis 3...

Blogger Andrew said...

In your last question you take it further though, you mention that God says that homosexuality is wrong.

Careless wording on my part, now corrected.

Everyone's understanding of God is in some way culturally dependent. The very categories we use to think and the very way we understand reality is culturally dependent far far more than most people realise. But yes, of course there is a God who exists independently of our experience of him.

I find your assumption that yours is the "Christian" view quite amusing.

You seem to have got caught up in your point that God doesn't change - so what? My point was that circumstances do. The commandment to offer sacrifices was later replaced with a commandment not to. Circumstances affect how we ought to act, and it is wrong to take every single command as timeless moral commands.

In genesis 3 man learns how to distinguish right from wrong without God's help. And yet you're quoting this as support for your argument that man can't distinguish right from wrong without God's help???

Blogger Andrew said...

I just realised that you thought I was a non-Christian. LOL!

I thought you were just being arrogant with the whole "this is the Christian view" thing, but actually you thought you were explaining the Christian view to a non-Christian. That's really quite funny.

PS. I am a Christian theologian.

Blogger pduggie said...

That's a hugely tendentious accounting of bilbical moral issues. The shellfish one is particularly absurd.

Everying that may look like a timeless moral truth certainyl isn't but that doesn't mean the bible states no timless moral truths.

On why the shellfish is a red herring, I wrote this a while back

"Long ago I taught a sunday School class for adults on Leviticus. At he start of the class, i dealt with the obvious question. "Why Leviticus?" One of my offered reasons was that it is increasingly common to hear the argument offered that the bible's condemnations of homsexual acts is of a piece with those against shellfish or pork. This kind of argument was advanced in the recent sinful decision of the Epicsopal Church.

But a careful study of Leviticus shows this not to be the case. Actually, a good translation of Leviticus will show this not to be the case. Jim Jordan explains the difference between "abominable" and "detestable"

As mentioned, the word to`eba has to do with personal abhorrence, not cultic rejection. It occurs in Genesis 43:32 and 46:34 and Exodus 8:26 to indicate that the Egyptians found shepherding an abhorrent occupation. It is used in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to homosexual acts and idolatry, considered as non-cultic, whole-lifestyle activities that result in expulsion from the land (Ex. 18:22, 26, 27, 29, 30; 20:13). It is used throughout Deuteronomy for sexual sins and sins of idolatry. Waltke summarizes the things God abominates, including "images (Dt. 27:15) and the gold and silver belonging to them (7:25); the wages of prostitution (23:18); a false balance (Prov. 11:1); those with a perverse mind (11:20); lying lips (12:22); the sacrifice of the wicked (15:8); an arrogant man (16:5); the prayer of a lawbreaker (28:9); incense offered without regard to ethical conduct (Is. 1:13); etc." (Waltke, p. 13.) [emphasis added]
By way of contrast, sheqets is used of acts of idolatry considered as cultic activities that result in expulsion from the sanctuary. What God detests are violations of the Second Commandment. God detests liturgical idolatry. Such actions take place in the context of the sanctuary, and result in God's expectoration from the sanctuary. An apt illustration from Israel's later history comes from the period after the separation of Ephraim from Judah. The sin of Jeroboam I was to worship the Lord using pagan rituals, a violation of the Second Commandment: liturgical idolatry (1 Ki. 12:28-32). God cursed Jeroboam at his false sanctuary (1 Ki. 12:33--13:6). Later, Ahab introduced the worship of the false god Baal, a violation of the First Commandment: covenantal idolatry (1 Ki. 17:31-33). God cursed Ahab in the land (1 Ki. 17:1; 21:23-24; 22:37-38).
We notice that in Leviticus "detestable" [shequets] is not used of idols. It is used only with reference to the animal and dietary laws.

(If the last sentence appears to contradicts the second paragraph above, its because Leviticus does not contemplate acts of idolatry that take place as acts of worship that are directed to Yahweh, but only a "life of idolatry" to false gods that is done apart from the sanctuary). Unfortunately no translation consitently translates the words one way or the other, so the distinction is obscured.

So homosexual acts are abominations like lying and arrogance and prostituition. Not like the destable act of eating shellfish and then offering a sacrifice."

Blogger pduggie said...

Also, I question your use of 'times and places' as a way of distinguishing the validity of a moral truth.

"Situations" would be a better one, because there may very well be analogous or recapitulated situations that will emerge that will allow some analogous application of the moral standards of the bible in more or less direct fashions.

I.e. regualtions on slavery might be very moral and useful in a incremental strategy for emancipation in a land where slavery is still practiced. Laws about rape and marriage might be very just in situtations where the power dynamic of male/female realtions and the social weight of marriage match that of the ANE, etc.

Blogger Dan said...

You're right, it's not as simple as that. But it's still pretty simple.

Unlike shellfish eating and other food related laws, where God has since made it clear through His appearing to Peter that now no food is considered unclean, Homosexuality clearly goes against the intention of God's created order, starting from the beginning of creation, and is further re-iterated in Romans 1, where the first indications of a people being turned over to their sinfull desires are first, lesbianism, and secondly male homosexuality, etc.

But Andrew,I'm surprised that being the theologian you are, you even have to ask/pose this question?

Blogger Scott said...

Any ethical issue must be tackled by looking at the whole of scripture, and recognising that there is a progression in God's plan of salvation. It is this overarching framework which will determine how we approach different issues such as the covanent laws given to Israel, or homosexuality.
(Even so, this doesn't rule out the possibility of something being morally wrong or right at all times. To affirm this would be similarily simplistic.)

Andrew: To say that Jeremiah 7:21ff condemns sacrifices themselves is an overly literalist reading of the passage. Rather it seems to be pointing out the priority of heart-obedience (one could almost say faith), and without this, mere external obedience to God's commands are offensive.

This is seen also in Psalm 51 where David says... "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

but goes on to say...

"Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar."

It's a type of hyperbole.

"Several of the early church fathers tried to explain why it was that God had instituted the sacrifical system in Leviticus only to get rid of it again after Jesus. ..."

Whether your description of their view is accurate or not, I'm surprised it has nothing to do with Christ. When I read the NT it speaks not simply of 'getting rid' of the Old Covanent, but of fulfilling it. Fulfillment is the basis of it becoming obsolete (e.g. Hebrews 8-10). In this case, the essence of the reason that God set up the system was promise. It looked forward to when sin would be dealt with fully and finally.

The view that God actually never wanted sacrifice, and when people started doing it he had to concieve some gigantic plan to get rid of it, just seems like absolute nonsense. It makes no sense of the Bible, or God's character.

Blogger Andrew said...

It’s nice you think that, and nothing I didn’t already know. You don’t seem to have realised that your exegesis merely proves my point that it is not as simple as saying “the bible bans it therefore it is wrong for us”. I find your claim that it’s really essential and important which word God uses to object a practice with rather amusing.

I’m afraid I don’t agree it’s that simple. Little ever is. I see issues with every one of your “clear” points about God’s created order. To give you an example, consider the first one you point out – the beginning of creation. I assume you have in mind God’s creation of a man and a woman. It says that God recognised that the man needed someone like him to be with, so God created a partner for the man out of the man’s own flesh making the partner like the man. What gets emphasised is the importance of the high level of Eve’s similarity to Adam and that the similarity of the beasts to Adam was insufficient. Now clearly it was necessary for rather obvious reason that God created Eve as a woman rather than a man if he wanted them to have offspring. But what the account doesn’t say that God deliberately made two perfectly complimentary but different partners and that it would have been immoral to make two identical partners. Rather it emphasises that the importance lies in the high similarity between the two and Adam’s need for a companion. It seems quite clear that a homosexual relationship satisfies those criteria adequately.

And btw, a lot of scholars think Peter’s vision of the food was about God permitting Gentiles into the church, not God changing the food laws.

But Andrew,I'm surprised that being the theologian you are, you even have to ask/pose this question?

I don’t have to – the issue was settled long ago in my own mind that homosexuality is perfectly fine. I just find it amusing that a lot of Christians have issues with it. So my posts here on it are for education purposes.

Any ethical issue must be tackled by looking at the whole of scripture, and recognising that there is a progression in God's plan of salvation.

Yes, sure, and I would go even further and say you’re got to look at logic, our society, their society, the big picture, how commands of primary importance relate to commands of secondary importance, reasons why commands were given and whether their reasoning applies in the same way in different situations.

To say that Jeremiah 7:21ff condemns sacrifices themselves is an overly literalist reading of the passage.

Not exactly, it probably means what it says and is not like Psa 51. Jeremiah is probably from a group that followed the law as described in Deuteronomy (which doesn’t have serious sacrifical stuff) and which opposed groups who followed the law as described in Genesis to Leviticus (and did sacrifices), so he probably means what he says when he claims that God didn’t give any commandments to the Israelites regarding sacrifices when he brought them out of Egypt (as Deuteronomy doesn’t record God giving any).

But regardless, even if you interpret it as meaning that people’s heart is essential when the sacrifice is performed, then my point still stands because nowhere in the Torah does it say “one’s heart is important when performing sacrifices”. Whatever Jeremiah means, this is an example of something new being added to the previous command, clarifying it, putting a qualification on it. As we all know, sacrifices were eventually abolished. So what we see is a progression that goes something like:
“Give sacrifices”
“Only with the right heart”
“Your heart is more important than the sacrifices”
“Don’t bother giving sacrifices, just have the right heart”

It is a good example of what God commands changing over time due to his greater plan/circumstances/whatever. The point is that, for whatever reason, what God commanded changed over time so just because God said something once upon a time does not by virtue of those words mean that that thing is necessarily wrong for all time. Discerning which commands can be reapplied today and why is not a trivial matter.

I think the Evangelical explanation of Christ "fulfilling" the law as legitimising its removal is quite full of holes. I obvserve that Evangelicals don't have to discuss that justification with Jews on a regular basis, so it's unsurprising that they've come up with an explanation that sounds nice to them but doesn't hold water. A lot of the early Church Fathers got into arguments on the subject with Jews regularly, so they had to use arguments that was logically sound even if it was less than ideal.


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