Ethics can be confusing. Christians debate gender roles, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and much more, and despite having the same Scriptures before us, still manage to disagree. What’s more, the bible we open contains some weird and wonderful teaching. Try these on for size:
- If my brother dies without having produced a son, I am to marry his wife and we are to have a child who takes my brother’s name;
- I am not to eat prawns or wear cotton-polyester clothing;
- If my right hand causes me to sin, I should chop it off;
- If I am a woman I am to remain silent in church, except when praying or prophesying, during which time I am to wear a covering on my head.
Sometimes the teaching seems contradictory. Do I answer a fool according to his folly or not? Should younger widows marry as encouraged in 1 Timothy 5 or stay single as urged in 1 Corinthians 7?
I share these things not to mock the Bible, but to raise the question of how we interpret it. Why do we reject the ethical prescriptions in the instances I cited, but accept them in others? For years I have been frustrated with the inconsistencies that seem to mark our engagement with the text. More often than not, it seems we accept some teachings because tradition tells us to, and ignore others because our traditions tell us to.
And we change our ethics as our culture changes. When I was growing up remarriage after divorce was seen as adultery, but as more and more of our friends and relatives divorced we revised this ethic. Did we have it right when we prohibited remarriage, or did the shift in culture force us to look at the text afresh and see that we were captive to the culture of an earlier period? This is not an isolated case. There are many examples of our ethical stance changing with culture.
If this doesn’t call into question the notion of moral absolutes, it certainly questions whether we have the ability to know them.
So maybe the problem is the notion of “moral absolutes”. What if the center of ethical living lies not with observing ethical rules but developing ethical character? For those who study ethical theory, what I am asking is whether biblical ethics has more to do with virtue than duty?
Is it reasonable to argue that the majority of Scripture is story, and that rather than giving me rules to live by, it focuses my attention on the character of God and calls me to imitate that character in my own? If it is, then I think a biblical ethic could be articulated as follows.
I begin with the recognition that the Biblical text consists primarily of two things: 1) the story of God’s involvement with the world, beginning with creation, continuing with the people of Israel, then Christ, the church and the new creation; and 2) the application of the story to the lives of the people the text originally addressed.
The meaning of the story is created by the unfolding plot and the action of the characters. This story reveals who God is, what God is like, God’s purposes, and consequently who we are, our place in the universe what we are to be like, and what our purposes should be. In terms of the ethical implications we discover that we are creatures made by a good, wise, powerful, just and generous God, created in his image and called to fill the earth and rule over it and the animals. As we do so, both individually and collectively we are to reflect the character of God. Our lives, communities and engagement with the earth then are to be good, generous, wise, loving, compassionate and just.
Having turned away from God our lives, communities and engagement with the earth are instead tainted with greed, selfishness, violence, and injustice. God calls us to turn back to him and to right living. In the Old Testament era the Law of Israel served as a guide to what right living looked like. With the coming of Jesus however, the law is superseded (I think this is the argument of Galatians). In Jesus we have the fullest revelation of who God is and who we are meant to be, and he grants us the gift of the Spirit to shape us into his image. Ethical living then, focuses on developing personal character and communities that reflect the character of Christ.
While the character of God/Christ is unchanging, the circumstances in which we live are not. When we ask what it means to reflect the character and purposes of Christ we always ask from within a concrete historical setting. This means that when the Bible addresses ethical behaviour the text is rarely concerned with how everyone, everywhere, should live, but focuses instead on how particular groups of people, living in particular historical settings, should order their lives. The laws of Moses, for example, ask what it means for ancient Israel – a society of small scale farmers located in the social world of the ancient Mediterranean – to reflect the character and purposes of God. The New Testament Book of First Corinthians asks how a group of believers located in mid first century Corinth should express the character and purposes of Christ in mid first century Corinth.
This means two things for ethics. First, the proper focus of ethics is not replicating the behaviour of ancient Israelites or first century Corinthians. The focus is replicating the character of God/Christ in our own historical setting. Our calling is not to imitate Moses or Paul, nor Israel or the Corinthians, but to imitate Christ. The ethical instruction to the Israelites and the Corinthians should be seen as case studies that teach us the pattern of ethical living rather than the content. The texts show us how the character of God/Christ was to be embodied by small scale farmers in the ancient Mediterranean and urban dwellers in mid first century Corinth. Given the very different historical setting in which we find ourselves the ways we embody the character of God/Christ will also be very different.
Second, while we can make sense of the Biblical story without any substantial knowledge of the historical setting (it’s meaning comes from the development of plot and character), to make sense of the ethical commands of the Bible we are very dependent on our understanding of the historical setting. Given our historical knowledge is incomplete, changing and subject to differing interpretation, we should expect to find diverse understandings of what the text meant to the original addressees. If we believe our calling is to replicate the particular ethical commands of the text, this will prove disturbing. If the scholars don’t agree, how are we to know what God calls us to? If however, we already know the character of God from the telling of the Biblical story, then we can hear the voice of God without having any consensus on the meaning of any particular ethical text.
If the argument I have made is correct, a biblical ethic is not one in which we slavishly reproduce the behaviour encouraged in any given passage, but one where we live inside the biblical story, allowing it to inform us about God and the contours of reality, and then living our lives in imitation of God, becoming the people and communities we were created to be.
What do you think?