Thankfully, most of us have gone through a schooling system that allegedly teaches “critical thinking.” For the record, by critical thinking, I do not mean a kind of indiscriminate scepticism by which we approach everything with cynical distrust. Rather, I mean that most people are quite adept at reducing information down to its most basic assumptions, and (1) identify whether those assumptions are “reasonable,” and whether consequent arguments stemming from these assumptions make logical sense.
But a by-product of applying critical thought is that we begin to view everything axiomatically – everything is understood in terms of pithy statements that might explain reality on a general level, but achieves little when brought down to our individual lives. I think this same pattern is at work in the way that Christians read their Bibles, and to our detriment. We are not very good at asking and answering the question, “How then should I live?” But we must remember that exegesis is only the first step of the hermeneutic cycle. Reading the Word of God means exceedingly little if it does not change the way that we live.
Now of course, the Bible does not speak explicitly on a number of moral issues. Sometimes this is because there is a measure of interpretive ambiguity in passages, but usually it’s because modernity brings with it new sets of ethical problems. By way of example, we shall embark upon a short history lesson. The Church (and in particular, the Protestant Church) has invariably lagged for about fifty years behind the moral revolution that we find ourselves swept up in today. A little over fifty years ago, the Church was seen as a moral authority; by contrast, nowadays Christian values are seen as outdated, degenerate and immoral. How did it come to be? Well, we must acknowledge that although the sexual revolution of the 1970s was triggered by a number of things, one of the particularly salient features was the development of contraceptive technologies.
When I mention that Roman Catholics don’t use contraception, I am normally greeted by raised eyebrows, slightly ajar mouths, and generally, surprise. When I mention that in 1968, Pope John Paul VI released an encyclical Humanae Vitae that essentially forbade Catholic couples from using contraception, the usual response is that such instruction is antiquated and even oppressive. When I tell people that I’m actually in agreement with that position, they normally (and wrongly) assume that I’m dangerously revisiting my Catholic roots.
And yet, in this instance, I am convinced that it is the evangelical church, not the Roman Catholics, who have stepped outside the historical Christian mainstream. At least theologically-ethically speaking, the Catholic Church found its rationale in the classical Christian tradition and the moral argument that Christians ought to be open to the gift of children in each and every occasion of sexual intercourse. The Catholic Church understood that once the vital link between sex and children was severed, sex would become redefined as an activity that did not have any bearing on the gift of children. The net result: commodification of both God’s good gift of sex, and the worth of human life in childbirth. The ramifications of this are clear today. By contrast, evangelicals have largely been unable to produce a coherent response, or worse, have conceded to an apparently larger and better ethic of personal autonomy.
Situations such as these have prompted some to suggest that the Bible is fallible, or that it’s morally deficient, or that the Scriptures are not in fact inspired. To a small extent, these conclusions have the outward appearance of merit, not because they are truthful claims per se, but because those who are expected to take up the counter-claims have done so in a disappointing and subpar way. Perhaps more pointedly, it is no coincidence that the decline of Christianity in the West follows the Church’s claims (or lack thereof) to moral authority in the public square. We have effectively relinquished the moral high ground.
So now with the history lesson out of the way, how do we go about developing a biblical position on essentially every ethical facet of life? This is the question that we now presently embark to answer together.
Firstly, I think it’s helpful to understand that all biblical principles fall into one of three ethical categories, which I will address in turn:
- Explicit, decisive commands;
- Commands developed from broader biblical principles;
- Paradigms drawn from facts of the world.
Of course, there are those who might immediately object saying, “Who can interpret the Bible correctly? And further to this, who decides what is and what isn’t the right interpretation?” To which I say a number of things:
Firstly, even though there may legitimate areas for disagreement about the meaning of the Bible, it is nevertheless possible to understand the core interpretive values behind a text. Secondly, and further to the aforementioned point, there is almost unanimous consensus regarding the main tenets of the Christian faith, as well as the proper methods for interpretation. Thirdly, the question is a red herring. The issue is not whether we are able to infallibly interpret the Bible, but that we are able to derive ethical principles that can be substantiated from a responsible use of the Bible. If there is disagreement, then we should be looking to publish arguments in opposition to what is proffered, and in this kind of health (and properly, critical) dialogue, greater clarity is afforded on issues that desperately need conversation.
Nonetheless, on some issues I think the overall teaching of the Bible is clear. Even those with an ounce of common sense will know for instance, that according to the Bible, murder is morally wrong (Exodus 20:13), adultery is morally wrong (v. 14), stealing is morally wrong (v. 15), and bearing “false witness against your neighbour” is morally wrong. These kinds of matters make up the first group of commands that are explicit, decisive, and unambiguous.
There is a second set of biblical ethics that can be drawn from broader principles, and it is here especially that strong hermeneutical foundations are important. It is on issues such as these that biblical ethics generally diverge into multiple streams of thought, and history reminds us that the world’s greatest evils usually come from good, but misdirected intentions. To this end, there’s this brilliant quote from the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman: “I pretty much have my yetzer hara [evil inclinations] under control; it’s my yetzer hatov [good inclinations] that always gets me into trouble.” Good hermeneutical practice serves a prophylactic purpose against Christian moral deficiency.
Let me paint with broad brushstrokes for instance, the doctrine of creation. God created the world and humankind, and declared it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31); picturesque certainly, but not quite perfect. Sure, we weren’t plagued by disease, infirmity, or death (cf. Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:29), Certainly the Garden of Eden was idyllic because mankind was with God, but nevertheless God sets His created people to develop the world and make it useful, “to work and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). But so the narrative goes, Adam and Eve sin, God places a curse on the entire natural world, and nature is no longer what it was created to be, but is “fallen” (cf. Genesis 3:18). Understood correctly, this broad principle of “fallenness” in the Christian worldview has enormous implications for how people ought to view and live in the created world.
One of the implications of this is that what we think of as “natural” today is not always good, and it can be morally right – even pleasing to God – to “tamper” with nature because sometimes (though not always) “tampering” with fallen nature can have better ethical and moral outcomes than not tampering with nature. In fact, such activity can be in keeping with our God-given task of subduing the earth and having dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). Of course, people can make mistakes in their attempts to fulfil this divine mandate, and there can be harmful – even catastrophic – results. But evaluating whether these attempts are “helpful” or “harmful” – and therefore “moral” or “immoral” – is another matter of assessing the resulting outcomes. By way of outline, breeding varieties of crops that are resistant to disease and pests, and produce better yields for people is morally good; developing technologies like mosquito nets and insect repellants to keep “natural” mosquitoes from biting us and spreading certain vector-borne diseases is morally good; and God Himself precursors the many measures of welfare, both moral and physical, that man’s sin make necessary when he provides for their immediate needs, “garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).
Another implication that tempers the previous view is that God did not completely destroy the earth, nor did He make it entirely evil and harmful. It is in this respect that Paul could say things like, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5), and later goes on to say that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Although God declared that Adam and Eve’s existence on the earth would be painful and frustrating at times (“thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you”), in the same breath He also promises that we “shall eat the plants of the field” and “bring forth children.” Ergo, the divine mandate to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion” over it is very much alive, well, and perennial (cf. Genesis 9:3; Psalm 8:4-8). But with this command, the biblical witness is to do so in a way that is not wasteful, destructive, or morally incongruous e.g. Proverbs 12:10, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,” and the implication of Matthew 22:39b, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” implies a responsibility to think of the needs of others and therefore, future generations. This is what it means to draw an ethical framework from broad biblical principles, but as I mentioned in last week’s article, such an ethic can’t be derived without a relatively broad understanding of the Word of God.
Lastly, there is the ethic of appealing to facts of what is good and what is bad, which, for the record, should inform a worldview of biblical ethics least of all the three categories. Let’s take the example of economics, which hopefully will not result in your death by boredom.
Let me begin by saying that, for the sake of transparency, I stand politically on the side of classical liberalism, which has very strong intellectual traditions in capitalist thought. And I reiterate, I come to such positions because I believe that the principles outlined can be substantiated by a responsible use of the Bible.
Let me begin by saying that the Bible regularly assumes and reinforces a system in which property belongs to individuals, neither to government nor to society as a whole. This is implied for instance in the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” (Exodus 20:15) which assumes that human beings will own property that belongs to them individually and not to other people. Such a principle is buttressed by the final commandment of Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house … your neighbour’s wife … his male servant … his female servant … his ox … his donkey … or anything that is your neighbour’s.” The Bible also contains many laws concerning the punishments for stealing, as well as commensurate restitution for damages incurred against another person’s property (e.g. Exodus 21:28-36; 22:1-15; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; 23:24-25), and also makes specific mention that property boundaries ought to be respected and protected: “You shall not move your neighbour’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess” (Deuteronomy 19:14; cf. Proverbs 22:28; 23:10).
In fact, private property jurisprudence in the West cannot be understood without acknowledging the Christian worldviews of great philosophers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, or Adam Smith who, in particular, had incredibly lucid theological influences in his works on classical liberalism. Now, why do I mention private property? Namely because from this principle flow two enormous implications that are not really mentioned explicitly in the Bible: human liberty, and economic prosperity.
On the topic of human liberty, when people lose control over their private property, liberty to be free to choose how to obey God or disobey Him in our roles as stewards of what He has entrusted to us is forfeited. In our stewardship of our own possessions, we have opportunities to imitate God’s wisdom, His creativity, His love for other people, His justice and fairness, His mercy, His knowledge, and many other attributes. Private ownership provides us the opportunity to really test what is in our hearts and gives us opportunities to give thanks to God for what He has provided to us (Colossians 3:15; 1 Timothy 6:17). I am not convinced that there is as great an opportunity to do the aforementioned with food stamps and welfare cheques.
In terms of economic prosperity, we can acknowledge that economic growth is, in itself, a moral good and part of what God intended in putting humankind on His world. Developing and producing more and better goods from the earth cannot be simply dismissed as a result of sin, or greed, or wrongful “materialism” (though it can become these things), but it is an essential part of how he created us to function. Moreover, material abundance has characteristically been viewed as a blessing from God to those who trust and obey Him (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:7-10; cf. 11:10-17; 28:1-14; Matthew 5:5; 6:25-33), and in some places the prophets foretell a time of even greater productivity (cf. Isaiah 35:1-2; Joel 3:18). Material wealth is good because it grants us greater opportunity to help those who are comparatively disadvantaged to us (cf. Galatians 2:10; 1 John 3:17), and we should be encouraging productivity because it enables people to support themselves and so obey New Testament commandments (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).
I reiterate that all views I offer here are simply my labours of trying to understand what is best for the world as I see directed to the best of my ability to apply biblical principles. But like I have shared with you, I am certain that such positions can be substantiated from a responsible use of the Bible. I do not presumptuously make claims that I have all the answers, and perhaps not even the right ones, but I am trying to shed some clarity on issues that desperately need to be made sense of from a biblical perspective.
Well, to conclude, let me repeat the basic skeleton of content covered:
Exegesis is the first step of hermeneutics, and simply means to develop good interpretations about the Bible.
Reading is an intellectual activity, and therefore, so is exegesis. It requires patience, mental endurance, and strong intentions.
For good exegesis to take place, there are a couple of things that are important:
- Ask questions;
- Find a reliable text;
- Understand propositions;
- Relate propositions to one another;
- Appreciate the beauty of the Bible;
- Ask: “How then should I live?”
Interpretation of the Bible will have significant implications on the world in which we live, for better or for worse. The worst thing that we can do however, is to be silent, and forego application of biblical principles to issues altogether.
There are broadly three categories for biblical ethics:
- Explicit, decisive ethics;
- Ethics developed from broader principles;
- Ethics developed from appeals to facts of the world.
Who can interpret the Bible correctly?
- It is not impossible to understand the Bible correctly.
- There is strong consensus regarding the main teachings of the Christian faith, and methods for proper interpretation;
- This question is why we need dialogue to begin with. It would be irresponsible for us to discount the argument altogether.
Explicit, decisive commands are unambiguous, and failing to practice these ethical standards would stand contrary to the Christian faith.
Biblical ethics drawn from broader principles are the most important category for good hermeneutic practice. Usually however, there is consensus on ethical problems such as these, but deviant ethics can have serious consequences.
Lastly, we can develop ethics based upon facts of the world, but these should not be binding paradigms upon Christians, and we should always be open to debate. Nevertheless, it would be morally irresponsible for us to not have a position altogether.