The myth of Biblical morality

Thinking about the BibleIn using a provocative title for this blog reflection, I am trying to make two claims. In the first place I am challenging the commonly made assumption that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the source of all Christian morality. The second assumption that needs to be questioned is that the people of the Bible always thought like ourselves over moral questions. Thus we can look to our biblical heroes to give us guidance about how we should live today.

In 1861, a preacher called Joseph Wilson preached a memorable sermon in the state of Georgia, USA. It made such an impression on his local congregation that it has come down to us as a newspaper report. The topic of the sermon was a biblical defence of slavery and it explored the right relationship between slave and master. The Bible gave him extensive support for all that he had to say. Both Old and New Testaments assume the institution of slavery; even sexual slavery is tolerated in the stories of conquest by the people of Israel. A similar sermon to Wilson’s could also, if required, be preached on the legitimacy of polygamy. In an obscure passage in 2 Samuel (3.2-5) we read of the children of King David, listed according to which wife gave them birth. Whatever David’s God thought about his stealing of Bathsheba from her husband, it is clear that no prophet was sent to challenge his behaviour in respect of his taking more than one wife. The institution of polygamy, long outlawed by modern Western societies, was clearly never a moral issue for the Patriarchs and those who came after them.

One particular moral issue that greatly concerns many Christians today, abortion, is barely discussed in the pages of Scripture. The traditional teaching of the medieval Church was that a child received a soul at the moment of quickening. The Bible itself does not make such a distinction and also it does not teach that the foetus receives a soul at the moment of conception. Modern conservative Christians are prone to pick and choose which moral injunctions from Scripture they choose to obey. Few people are prepared to give away all their earthly possessions to the poor or to give their second coat to someone who has none. We have, by and large, chosen to ignore the injunctions about women covering their heads in church and few people agree with Paul that celibacy is superior to marriage. It is still more striking how many Christians spend a lot of time condemning behaviour like swearing, promiscuity or drinking while ignoring the virtues of generosity, compassion, meekness and mercy. According to Jesus in Matthew 25 the ones condemned to eternal punishment of those who have failed to give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, comfort for the sick and care for those in prison. It is striking that few Christians become indignant when they see others failing in these fundamental moral commands.

It is clear from these introductory comments that modern biblical Christians do not and cannot derive all their moral priorities from the clear teachings of Scripture. We do not have a set of guidelines telling human beings how to live in every situation. It is only by making choices to accept certain parts of Scripture, while ignoring other parts, that any kind of moral system can be created. Taken as a whole the Bible, to put it bluntly, is a morally ambiguous document. Listening to Christians speaking about the moral teaching of the Bible, you would think that without it, we and the rest of the world would fall into complete moral anarchy. This does not seem to be the case in most societies across the world. Every society appears to develop guidelines for behaviour. These guidelines can be seen to evolve as a way of sustaining these societies with minimal violence and conflict. Morality is not just a God-given set of rules, but it also seems to be rooted in a desire among most human beings to live together in harmony and cooperation so that the good of the whole may be preserved.

The process of choosing one set of rules from a sacred text in preference to another is potentially fraught with danger. People of zeal have a tendency to make absolute certain texts or passages which fit in with their own inner political or social agendas. We call this absolutism fundamentalist. We see it work among the Daesh fighters of Syria and Iraq. They have chosen to interpret the texts of the Koran through the perspective of Jihad or holy war. In short they have effectually manipulated the text to suit their bloodthirsty purposes of violence and revenge. Because their ideas are so extreme, it is impossible for anyone enter into dialogue with them. Justifying a course of action by appealing to sacred authority has effectively shut down the normal moral reasoning possessed by the majority of humanity. In a similar way Christians will sometimes loudly proclaim that they know beyond any discussion the will of God as set out in his ‘laws’. Within my own Anglican church we are now witnessing the consequence of this scenario of non-discussion in the face of certain binding texts that are reputedly handed down by God. The African primates and their supporters in Australia, America and Britain will not enter into discussion on the gay marriage issue because a few ambiguous texts which refer to it have become for them equal to the texts of the creed.

What is the solution to this dilemma? The first thing to be recognised by Christians in the moderate centre is the fact that morality is not just based on the supposed words of Scripture. It is rooted in a variety of places. Of course the teaching of the Bible and the insights of Jesus into the nature of God are key components in the construction of a Christian morality. But Scripture is only one source of a moral code for Christians today. Traditional Anglicans, such as myself, regard all truth as having three sources. These are Scripture, tradition and reason. Sometimes a fourth, experience, is added. In the case of morality, reason forms a large component. It is reason that can untangle the cultural and contradictory aspects of the biblical witness to morality. It can also suggest which parts of the Old Testament story have absolutely no relevance on the way we should think today about moral issues. Tradition, as I suggested in my previous blog, will demonstrate how morality as well as theological thinking generally, evolves and changes over time. In short the Anglican tradition, when presented at its best, will be able to indicate, not a blueprint which is applicable in all places and in all times, but a way of approaching moral issues which is compassionate, realistic and able to embrace the sheer complexity of moral reasoning. Morality is not solved by shouting slogans and quoting texts but through a slow methodical study of both texts and seeking to apply them in the light of the knowledge and understanding that is available to us today. That is hard work and will not produce the quick answers that many people crave. Applying the method of studying problems through the lens of Scripture, tradition and reason will always be hard to do. But it will be worth it just the same.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “The myth of Biblical morality

  1. Thanks for a good post. Just a minor point – I don’t think there are any biblical texts which refer to gay marriage as such, are there? As you note, there are some ambiguous ones relevant to gay sexual activity.

  2. Haiku – you are right. The classic texts were quoted to stand against all gay activity but the same texts are now used against the marriage question because that is where the argument has gone in society. Legal restrictions and anti-discrimination rules seem to have quietened the total Christian ‘witness’ against gay activity so they focus on marriage as being the major problem. As I have said previously, gay marriage seems to inject morality and steadfastness into what otherwise might be self-indulgent relationships.

  3. I make it my aim to be a follower of Jesus, so I don’t think about morality from one year to the next. The value of Scripture is that Jesus had a high regard for it and so internalising it will help us possess the mind of Christ, as Paul put it. Tradition and reason as a basis for morality are more likely to be a menace than a help in my view – the words All we like sheep have gone astray from Isaiah 53 come to mind.
    Thanks again Stephen for a thoughtful post.
    Jesus’ teaching on marriage come in Matthew 19 haikusinenomine.

  4. Spot on Stephen. You’re absolutely singing my song. And there is a fifth thing. Love. If what we “interpret” as being God’s will is not loving, then it may very well be wrong.

  5. Stephen, I feel uncomfortable about my comment above, using the word menace, which I now regard as harsh. I apologise. I would prefer to say that the idea of tradition and reason in deciding Christian matters worries me deeply, as to my mind they serve to undermine the simplicity of what Jesus actually said. I hope that feels better!

  6. Regarding 2 Samuel (3.2-5), it so happens I read through Samuel and Kings recently while I was ill. I had not realised before that the downwards sweep of the monarchy during that wretched time, leading to the exile, all seems to flow from the Bathsheba adultery, which in itself happened because of David’s attitude that he could have a number of women as wives and concubines at the same time. Going back earlier to Genesis, the 2 wives and 2 concubines of Jacob lead to murderous attitudes among the twelve resulting children: Joseph only just made it into the pit alive. So my reading of the OT is to wonder why the patriarchs and their descendants were so slow to get hold of the instruction about marriage given at creation (Genesis 2:24).
    Personally I see many of the problems of today in the west arising from the sexual anarchy that has been unloosed upon the world. I’m with Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:2.

  7. I think this post very helpfully points out the danger of cherry picking when deciding morality or doctrine. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we need to take on everything he said, and not ignore the tough parts like Luke 14:33. Thank you for keeping us all up to the mark.

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