In a continuation of an exchange concerning Slavery in the Bible, some atheist critiques are addressed concerning ethics, the Bible, and modern society.

by Paul Burkhart


[EDITOR'S NOTE: At my personal blog, the long way home, I have been working on a series of posts responding to some old atheist friends of mine on the topic of slavery, ethics, and the Bible.  So far: what the Bible says, why I'm doing the seriesPhilosophy & Ethics, and now, Theology & Ethics.  If you want, read the other posts and feel free to get in on the lively discussion.  I'm posting this article on this site, because I believe it addresses very real societal and cultural ideas and assumptions that affect our everyday lives and do not just belong to the areas of academia or theology. Let me know if you disagree.]

Objective Truth & Morality

The ideas mentioned in the previous post of transcendent ethical principles (and not simple behavioral norms) and a hierarchy of those principles (and not simplistic applications) within ethics are nothing new to Philosophy. Those enough could show the overly simplistic nature of the usual argument concerning general Christian ethics made when talking about slavery in the Bible. The Bible does not have simplistic do/don’t do ethics.  It has consistent transcendent principles that are then  wisely and faithfully applied in ways that look differently throughout history.  This is the way that ethics works, even on a secular level.  But, these are not uniquely Christian. There are ways that Christianity and the Bible uniquely further inform our ethics.

The first thing, and the most important thing I want everyone to get from this post is that neither the Bible nor historic Christianity believes in Objective Morality or Objective Truth. This is an idea of modernism. Modernism redefined “Truth” to mean anything that has a one-to-one correspondence with created reality. An unintended consequence of this mindset was that the only vehicles for Truth, then, became history and science. This meant that anything that called itself “true” had to be speaking in either historical or scientific terms — nothing else. Christians were influenced by these ideas and then began defending the Bible on the basis of these assumptions (best example: Creation “science”). This even seeped into many Christian articulations of Morality (“there is only one set of ‘good things’ people everywhere, at all times, should do”). But this is not the Biblical view of Truth nor Morality. The Biblical view is not that of objective Morality/Truth, but of an objective standard for Morality/Truth. This is such an important distinction. The Bible relocates Truth and Morality as anything that has a one-to-one correspondence with Ultimate Reality — the nature and character of God. This exists outside of created reality (and therefore outside the realms of history and science). In that case art, poetry, stories, myths, and even children stories can now fully be relied upon for truth and moral principles even if they have little or no basis in history, science, or universal applications of the ethical principles. There is an objective standard for Morality and Truth that is now subjectively applied by using wisdom, discernment, discourse, debate, intellectual thought, and engagement — not naive cut and paste applications of the Bible to life.

Fear & Trembling

In a recent article for Going To Seminary magazine, entitled “Seminaries and the Nature of Truth“, I talked about a biblical view of truth not being a bunch of brute facts that we can pull out of a text, but rather tensions that we live in. I wrote:

“The truth of an infinite God conceived by finite creatures seems to exist in various spectrums, and we exist somewhere in the tension of those different extremes or ideas. We live and speak in dialectics where for every point of doctrine in one denomination there seems to exist a counterpoint in another. According to Alvin Plantinga, Truth is not the Lockean notion of our relation to an objective body of facts, rather it is the point at which two seemingly opposing or paradoxical ideas exist in tension and harmony (such as Jesus= God + Man).”

I went on to use 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 to show the two errors one can fall in when pulling truth (ethical or otherwsie) from the Bible. There is a danger of over-subjectification where experience and pragmatism within a particular culture dictate what the truth is in a given context. But, there is another danger of over-objectification where one uses the text to establish “nice, neat objective systems of knowledge and dogma with all the loose ends tied” and then reductionistically applies that system to every given situation. The Gospel goes against both by accomplishing objective goals in objective history that then must be related to and received fundamentally at a subjective level.

This means that the Christian pursuit of truth must be done fearfully and humbly because it exists on a spectrum. We must not make this spectrum too wide lest we fall off nor too narrow lest we not need faith at all. This is not easy, and the church will do it imperfectly until Christ’s return. That’s why we don’t put our fundamental trust into our interpretations but rather our God, trusting Him and His Word to not let us go too far astray.


“The Felt Concealment of God”

These ideas show that the Christian life and Christian ethics are all exercises in carefully holding tensions. These objective ideas are applied and explored subjectively through life and history. This is not relativism. Christian law, morality, and truth really are anchored in the consistent and objective nature and character of God. But just as a geometry compass keeps one leg firmly planted in one consistent spot and yet the designs it produces can greatly vary in angle, scope, style, and consistency, so does anchoring ourselves in the Word and character of God actually give us the freedom to step out both creatively and faithfully. The Bible is not our chain to bind us but our anchor to secure us while giving us the freedom to explore (and even at times mess up).

More importantly, it needs to be said that this characterization of Christian theology and morality does not represent something lacking in the text. It is not the case that God didn’t do a good enough job inspiring the Bible, so now we have to change ethical interpretations to fit our time. This would be the case if the Christian doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy necessitated a purely and simply divine Bible. But this is not the case. This is the caricature of over-simplification of the Bible that my atheist friends convey, but this is merely a strawman argument (or rather “strawbook”) that comes from a huge misunderstanding of a Christian view of the Bible. Just like Christ himself, while carrying the nature and authority of transcendent divinity, the Bible also is completely and wholly clothed within the “weakness” of humanity. The Bible is absolutely a set of human texts — human texts inspired by God. Fundamentalism, in a reaction to the Enlightenment and higher criticism of the Bible, had to stress the divinity of Scripture — and it was right to do so. But the time has come to bring the pendulum back to the middle, to hold the tension once more. Again, like Jesus, the divinity of the Bible is not a simplistic and clearly evident reality that makes itself known through simple exposure, but rather in engagement with it and submission to it. Philosopher Peter Rollins, in The Fidelity of Betrayal writes,

“we ought to approach the text as actually manifesting the felt concealment of God. Here the central Word of the text is never directly grasped as a source of knowledge, but rather is encountered as a life transforming event. The point is not to engage in a hermeneutical approach that would seek to somehow expose the mind of God, but rather embrace a radical hermeneutics (a reading that sets the text free from the idea of a single correct meaning) that seeks to ultimately move beyond the desire to reduce the text to descriptive statements, inviting instead an ongoing transformative dialogue with the text.”

Karl Barth also writes concerning Communion and the Bible as the Word of God in his essay The Word of God in its Threefold Form: “They are not simply and visibly there, however, as that which they want to be and should be, [namely,] as theologically relevant entities, as realities of revelation and faith.  They have ever and again to come into being as this.”  The Bible comes into being as divine and theological when it is united by faith and proclamation within the community of faith, not passively approached with skepticism by the casual observer.

This is not a deficiency in the text nor an incompetency in God. It is God’s revelation working in line with the way he designed us to be communicated to. And it’s purposeful. It requires us to not put our faith in the text on a page but in the God behind those words. And when the community of faith does this, the Bible no longer becomes a static old book written by fallible people, but it becomes an active agent in changing us. Harvie Conn, in Normativity Relevance, and Relativism:

“[The heart of the interpretive task] does not lie simply in the effort to find the biblical “principles” that emerge out of the historical meaning of each passage. The Bible does not passively lie there while we search it for theories that we later fit realistically into our setting. The Word is a divine instrument of action. And our hermeneutical [interpretive] task is to see how it applies to each of us in the cultural context and social setting we occupy in God’s redemptive history. We are involved in looking for the place where the horizons of the text and the interpreter intersect and engage.”

The book of Ephesians emphasizes the need for wisdom to understand what is pleasing to the Lord, and Jesus teaches his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come to guide them in all truth. If the Scriptures were supposed to be mechanical, systematic, and an overly-simplistic outline for life, we wouldn’t need wisdom nor the Holy Spirit. But God is good enough to create a system where we must interact with Him, draw near to Him, and submit to Him to see how life must be lived. It’s all too easy to live “by the book” rather than “by the Spirit”, and I fear that far too many Christians out there have lived life naively by the words and have missed the Word. Rollins again:

“It is all too common for Christians to attempt to do justice to the scriptural narrative by listening to it, learning from it, and attempting to extract a way of viewing the world from it. But the narrative itself is asking us to approach it in a much more radical way. It is inviting us to wrestle with it, disagree with it, contend with it, and contest it — not as an end in itself, but as a means of approaching its life-transforming truth, a truth that dwells within and yet beyond the words.”

Final things: Slavery & Divorce

What does this all have to do with slavery and the Bible? Well, the fullness of its application will be seen in the upcoming part on the progressive nature of revelation. But the most immediate application to slavery in the Bible is to point out that a Christian idea of ethics tells us that the Bible is a means and not an end; it is not passive, it is active in changing us and the world and so its fullest implications and applications are yet to come. The Bible did not finish its job when the final letter was written in the canon. Biblical Ethics can be progressive. Not relativized or changed per se, but progressive. I’ll conclude with the case of divorce in Mark 10:2-12. Here are the relevant verses:

“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not humanity separate.”

Key things: first, there are provisions for divorce in the Old Testament. In fact, on a few occasions, He commands it. It is, in one sense, “lawful”. Secondly, the “command” of God through Moses, even to that Pharisee is articulated as merely an “allowance”. Third, Jesus himself points out that divorce was allowed because of where the Israelite people were in their own moral progression in history. Fourth, Jesus clearly goes on to say that divorce now has no place in the people of God. Lastly, and most importantly I want everyone to see this: this passage seems to be a “change” in the ethics of the people of God, but Jesus’ defense of divorce now having no place is not rooted in the current moral state of humanity or culture or history, but rather, he roots his justification of this “change” in the initial creative order. He goes all the way back to the Garden, an even older idea than divorce, to show how divorce should not be sought after now. This shows that Jesus, in progressing the rules was not moving away from the law, but was rooting himself firmly in its beginnings in order to move beyond the law. Culture did not dictate his words. It was the trajectory of the entire intention of God to restore all things to that original design of human relationships.

I believe the exact same process goes for the Christian and biblical view of slavery. We did not change the Word of God or our morality to end slavery. Rather we pressed deeper into that Word and it changed us in such a way that the only way we knew to be faithful to the original design of all things was equality and value for all humanity. This is what the text demanded of us and we responded. And it has been Christians that have advocated for emancipation in every country I know of that has rid itself of slavery. You may not think it makes sense, but it’s reality. And this is Jesus modeling this process, and no subsequent biblical author or early commentator thought this did any damage to the truth and authority of the Old Testament (except maybe Origen). The offense of my atheist friends and their inability to see this process of progressive ethics does not come from a problem with the Bible but a problem with those that cannot think outside of a simplistic, reductionistic, mechanistic, and modernistic Western mindset.

And so we see that the Christian idea of an objective standard for truth and morality not only gives us the freedom, but also the mandate and necessity, to not move away from the Bible, but to root ourselves in it so we can move beyond it and subjectively apply it. To hold our anchor as firmly as we ever have, while stepping out to take the fresh implications of this dynamic Word that has made itself known to us through our humble and active engagement with it, out into an equally evolving world needing this redemption. And this engagement of the text is something predicated upon true Christian faith. It is not supposed to make sense to those on the outside. They are to see the Christian ethical trajectory, though seemingly without “logical” or “systematic” basis, as something they and the world have benefitted from. This hopefully invites them into this community of faith to see this Word and this God with new faith-informed eyes thereby establishing a new humanity — a people forced to cling to that Fountain from which all good things flow if they are to understand what this God has for them to do to usher in the coming redemption not yet fully seen. May we drink deeply and often.

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