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Study Four: The Bible and Morality

All Christians agree that the Bible has a great deal to say about ethical behaviour. The prophets were deeply concerned with the welfare of the poor and the oppressed. They almost despaired of the heartlessness of those who wielded economic and political power.

Similar concerns are evident in the words and deeds of Jesus. He said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). Jesus' ministry was devoted primarily to the marginalized in society.

In Making Moral Decisions: A Christian Approach to Personal and Social Ethics, Paul Jersild identifies at least five different sets of presuppositions with which Christians have approached the Bible in their endeavour to pick up the tune of the Biblical mandate.

  1. The Bible provides a moral code. Those who subscribe to this view generally hold that the moral imperatives in the Bible are clear, consistent, and comprehensive. One can appeal to the Bible for guidance on every conceivable situation in life. On any given issue, the Bible says the same thing everywhere. It is now the obligation of Christians to implement what the Bible says.

  2. The Bible provides moral direction through the example of people of faith. According to this view, one must look for moral principles rather than for specific moral commands. One gleans these moral principles from reading the biblical stories about people of faith.

  3. The Bible's moral impact flows from God's involvement in history as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. According to this view, it is the nature of God which provides moral direction. For guidance in moral dilemmas one does not search for individual biblical passages which may be relevant to the question at hand. Rather one asks what is the responsible thing to do for people who know themselves to have been created, redeemed, reconciled, and sanctified by God.

  4. The Bible reveals God's plan of salvation, while our moral response depends on our particular church heritage. This view emphasizes that what one regards as morally responsible at any one point depends to a large extent on the deliberation of the church, based on the best exegetical insight of the day.

    Arland J. Hultgren illustrates this claim by citing the 1925 ruling of the Augustana Lutheran Church on divorce and remarriage ("Being Faithful to the Scriptures: Romans 1:26–27 as a Case in Point" in Word & World XIV, Number 3, Summer 1994). He reproduces the relevant sentences from the 1925 document: "The Synod steadfastly adheres to the doctrine in the Bible … that marriage cannot be unnulled or dissolved except by death, adultery, or … desertion … ." and "The Synod … solemnly cautions its pastors against officiating at the marriage of divorced persons, except in the case of the innocent party, when legal divorce has been granted on the ground of adultery or … desertion … ."

    Since this ruling was initially formulated, the church has shifted a great deal in how one applies and implements this teaching of scripture. Today we are convinced that there is no such thing as an innocent party in marriage breakdown. We are all guilty and in need of forgiveness. Today's church is convinced that God not only grants forgiveness, but graciously offers the opportunity to make another attempt to create a committed and lifelong relationship with a new partner.

  5. The Bible does not in fact give us a unified, coherent basis for moral life. This view observes that readers often use the Bible to confirm their own pre-conceived notions of what the Scriptures say about the moral life. One should recognize that at different times and under differing situations, not only does the Bible give differing moral directives on a given subject, but that morality is not even at the heart and centre of the biblical witness. The acknowledgment of one's sinfulness and the assurance that Christ has died to reconcile sinners to God is more important than moral behaviour.

Jersild argues that none of these five views are either completely right or completely wrong. He maintains that the Bible is not primarily concerned with morality, although it does contain great moral substance.

People of faith must struggle to find answers which are both faithful to scripture and appropriate to the needs of the present day. When the Bible does offer moral imperatives, these commands should not be regarded as the final word for today, says Jersild. For example, rules relating to male–female relationships need to remember that we are not living in the Roman Empire. The structure of the family, particularly the status of women, has changed greatly since then. Thus the Bible does not provide ready-made answers to all of today's problems.

We must recognize that there is no one perfect way for implementing the will of God. We deceive ourselves when we think that we can live in such a way that we "have no sin." One should not just pick and choose any one of these five approaches. Rather, one must be aware of the merit, but also of the inadequacy of all of these approaches.

What Do You Think?

Which view of bibilical authority is closest to your own?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this position?

What things in other positions do you think have some value and might be helpful?

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