In spite of claims and calls to order our life in accord with the Bible, no one on earth actually does so — at least not completely. Scripture contains contradictions, or at the very least tensions, between various commandments; there are corrections, revisions, expansions, and terminations; there are commandments no one can follow because of changes in circumstance and history; there are commandments few would defend in our day, or fallen to disuse, which were norms in former times. In short, all people pick and choose which commandments they accord authoritative status, either for themselves or others.
Many criteria are offered for the choices made, but the criteria can be as arbitrary or perplexing as the laws and customs to which they are supposed to give order. My purpose in this essay is to explore some of these criteria and put them into some order, in particular an order drawn from the sacred text itself rather than imposed upon it.
Scripture says a great many things about a great many topics. But what it meant to those who first recorded it and what it means for us is of great importance, if we are to be serious in our claim to see in Scripture not only the revelation of historical faith, but a present guide to holy living. There are subjects about which Scripture says little or nothing explicit, which we feel to be very important (abortion, for example); there are topics about which it says a good deal but about which we are scarcely concerned today (the consumption of meat that has not been completely purged of blood.) Acts which Scripture forbids or demands with lapidary clarity are commonly committed or neglected today with scant hint of impropriety. There is at work some less than clearly defined process by which Scripture is put to use in framing a way to live what the believer holds to be a “biblical” life, in spite of these inconsistencies in practice.
This exposes one of the weaknesses of a so-called Divine Command ethic (one species of deontological ethics). This is particularly problematical for those who wish to see Scripture and its commands to be the Word of God in a literal and particular sense, for it immediately becomes a question of which divine commands will be obeyed. For no one “lives by the Scripture” in all its detailed instructions, even if one might attempt to live according to the general principles embodied in those details. This was revealed recently by A.J. Jacobs, in his clearly titled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He found, for example, that there are any number of biblical commandments with which compliance was virtually if not actually impossible. As he noted in a recent radio interview, the closest he could come to carrying out the mandate to hold slaves was to have an intern! Thus something the text said in ancient times and circumstances to others had to be adapted in order to be fulfilled by Jacobs now.
The effective impossibility of attaining perfection in or by following the Law was a primary issue for Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans. (Those who use the first chapter of Romans as a proof text have underestimated the significance of this aspect of Paul’s argument.) Still, Scripture as a whole serves as a resource to the church, which, in making use of that resource, accords certain portions a higher and more authoritative status on the basis of their coherence with the needs of those to whom the text has been delivered, as it were, second hand — since none of us is the recipient of direct revelation, but only the inherited revelation committed to the church.
And that revelation, fixed as it is in a written text, itself a rich collection of various documents composed at different times, to different ends, by different people and for different hearers, will have to be engaged by the faithful of the church in each generation, who will find themselves facing the task of receiving the revelation, and resolving the contradictions and tensions manifest in the Scripture itself.
Wait... Contradictions? ... in Scripture?
Many, particularly the more conservative among us, would like to believe there are no contradictions or tensions in Scripture. After all, if it is the Word of God, how could God contradict himself?
The truth of the matter is that even such as are most ready to deplore making “one sentence of Scripture repugnant to another” will do exactly that when faced with a dilemma. For example, Cranmer and his company found it convenient, under significant monarchial pressure, to hold that the mandate of Deuteronomy 25:5 (that when a man’s brother dies childless he is to take the widow as his wife — something the monarch had done with the express permission of the pope) was to be overturned in favor of the prohibition in Leviticus 18:16 (in accord with the monarch’s troubled conscience and the failure of his brother’s widow to produce a male heir.)
One can indulge in Anglican Fudge as much as one likes — and Cranmer and Company may be credited with the first recipe for this rich, chewy ambiguity. But there is no use pretending that these texts are not in tension with one another, that they were at pains to resolve the tension, and that other solutions would have been possible (i.e., taking the Levirate law as a specific exception to the general rule on incest, eminently applicable in this monarch’s case, as the pope had agreed, since inheritance was at issue — but, of course, that isn’t the finding the monarch wanted; and as Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”)
Our task is to make decisions on how we are to address these tensions, in order to make proper choices about how to live; one hopes, free from pressure from political considerations — lest, like the deer in the proverbial headlights we never reach the cooling springs of grace but end up on the grill and windshield of judgment. It is up to us — as the church — to use the tools at our disposal to find our way to discern the applicability of the many commandments with which Scripture presents us.
The basic tool: Reason
In this interaction with the church, through the Holy Spirit, the Scripture comes alive in every generation. Every society and culture (and church) that embraces the Scripture thus also exercises a form of selective critique of that Scripture, even while seeking to a greater or lesser degree to conform to the view of Scripture thus organized and understood.
Richard Hooker attested that the Scripture is neither self-authenticating nor self-interpreting: it must be approached through and by means of Reason — which is more than deductive reason (though it includes it) and involves notions we would understand as “common sense” or “rationality.”
Unto the word of God... we do not add reason as a supplement of any maim or defect therein, but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth... If knowledge were possible without discourse of natural reason, why should none be found capable thereof but only men; nor men till such time as they come unto ripe and full ability to work by reasonable understanding? Laws III.8.10f
Hooker also recognized both the misapplication of proof texts (which are often mis-translated or removed from the textual and contextual position that might help a more accurate understanding)and the sweeping generalizations which make Scripture appear to say more than it does. Such claims do no credit either to the claimants or to Scripture. As Hooker noted,
...As incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed. II.8
So a sifting process is at work, by which any given culture or society or person, even while embracing the Bible as a whole, also separates out portions of it based on various modes of division and distinction. This process can be conscious and reasonable, but it can also happen under the influence of culture or external events.
The “Classical” Anglican Distinction
The traditional Anglican distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws, while having the virtue of a logical reading (as some of the commandments are clearly related to ceremony, and others clearly to morals, and still others to civil matters) does not bear close examination if one is to take the next Anglican step and say that Christians are not bound to follow the civil and ceremonial laws, but only the moral ones. For, while Jesus and the Apostolic Church, as recorded in Scripture, did specifically set aside certain ceremonial and civil laws, and the course of history made certain of the Hebrew laws incapable of enforcement or compliance (the destruction of the Temple rendering all of the laws pertaining to Temple worship beyond compliance), the Hebrew Law itself does not distinguish between these various sorts of commandments on this basis; all commandments alike are to be obeyed; there is no suggestion that some are “moral” and others “merely” ceremonial.
So the “classical Anglican” distinction, in this case, does not well serve — in particular because some of the very matters under discussion in our present debates arguably involve ritual, civil and ceremonial dimensions as much as they do moral ones.
For example, even though Hooker explicitly refers to the Decalogue as “the moral law” I very much doubt a contemporary moralist would see idolatry as a moral issue; I would imagine that even in the height of the missionary efforts of the nineteenth century, few would have held that Hindus were immoral on the basis of their iconography, even if held to be mistaken in their beliefs. Idolatry, to our minds, is not a moral issue but a doctrinal one. This distinction obviously cannot be made within the context of the Decalogue, the Prophets, or Romans 1: idolatry is, in fact, the root of all immorality! Similarly, if we take a few steps more into the Decalogue: few would consider sabbath-breaking a major moral issue today, though they may well have done so in the nineteenth century, in spite of the fact that, in one sense, Christians have been deliberate sabbath-breakers from the day it was decided to observe the Lord’s Day rather than the Sabbath. For Hooker it was, of course, still a moral issue:
The moral law requiring therefore a seventh part throughout the age of the whole world to be that way employed, although with us the day be changed in regard of a new revolution begun by our Saviour Christ, yet the same proportion of time continueth which was before, because in reference to the benefit of creation and now much more of renovation thereunto added by him which was Prince of the world to come, we are bound to account the sanctification of one day in seven a duty which God’s immutable law doth exact for ever. (V.70.9)
Need I add that in the Jewish law, treating the sabbath as any other day was a capital offense, and merely doing work on it entailed excision from the holy people (Exodus 31:14); the text is abundantly clear, yet few would consider violation of either Saturday or Sunday to be serious moral failings in our time. In short, this distinction between moral and non-moral appears not to be a very profitable avenue, if we are to attempt to deal with the text itself, rather than the suppositions about, “What is really moral?” — which, depending on the answer, tends to beg the question — it is a moral question because I think it so to be.
A better way
There are — in the text itself — various distinctions between and among the various laws, and I would like to begin by highlighting some of these divisions, and suggest that these categories are actually useful in determining the character and applicability of the texts commonly raised in the present discussion.
Some might accuse me of a “deconstructionist” approach in this — by which they mean something like “breaking it down to undermine its authority.” On the contrary, I am proposing a careful and objective analysis (in examination of the various parts) in order to come to a better and more accurate understanding of the whole Scripture and of its authoritative claim upon us, and to explore reasonable grounds upon which we might justifiably say of a portion of Scripture, “This no longer applies,” or “This applies only to certain circumstances.”
Law and Narrative
The first distinction is between matters expressed as laws, as opposed to principles derived from historical or prophetic passages. Hooker addressed this distinction in the debates of his time:
I wish they did well observe, with whom nothing is more familiar than to plead in these causes, “the law of God,” “the word of the Lord;” who notwithstanding when they come to allege what word and what law they mean, their common ordinary practice is to quote by-speeches in some historical narration or other, and to urge them as if they were written in most precise exact form of law... When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, we construe without any warrant as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further than we can prove that it was intended; do we not add to the laws of God, and make them in number seem more than they are? III.5
Thus there is a clear distinction between, for example, the explicit and narrow legal restriction on male same-sexuality in Leviticus 18/20, as opposed to the narrative in Genesis 19. The former is expressed in an “exact form of law” including an explicit penalty; but the latter is a page out of history, recounting something no doubt to be condemned (whether rape or murder). So while the former remains a matter for legal discernment, the latter is irrelevant to our concerns, as no one is suggesting that rape or murder are under discussion.
Who is this that speaks?
A second factor in determining the relevance of a commandment lies in the source of the commandment: is it reported to come from the hand of God, from Moses, from Jesus, or from Paul, for example. Hooker was also well aware of this distinction, and used it to contrast the Ten Commandments with the rest of the Law. (In this passage Hooker also catalogues some of the other distinctions which I will address below.)
The positive laws which Moses gave, they were given for the greatest part with restraint to the land of Jewry... Which laws he plainly distinguished afterward from the laws of the Two Tables which were moral... Of the Ten Commandments, it followeth immediately, “These words the Lord spake unto all your multitude in the mount...” (Deut 5.22) But concerning other laws, the people give their consent to receive them at the hands of Moses (Deut 5.27)... From this latter kind the former are distinguished in many things. They were not both at one time delivered, neither both of one sort, nor to one end. The former uttered by the voice of God..., written with the finger of God,... termed by the name of Covenant,... given to be kept without either mention of time how long, or place where. On the other side, the latter given after, and neither given by God himself, nor given unto the whole multitude immediately from God, but unto Moses...; the latter termed Ceremonies, Judgments, Ordinances, but no where Covenants; finally, the observation of the latter restrained unto the land where God would establish them to inhabit. III.11.6
Jesus also made a distinction between commandments of God and those delivered by Moses, suggesting that the latter may not have been entirely in keeping with God’s will, when he set aside the Mosaic allowance for divorce (Deut 24:1) in favor of what he regarded as the divine order towards indissoluble marriage.
The legal code of Deuteronomy is book-ended with citations that indicate its contents derive from God: These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth... Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. (Deuteronomy 12:1; 27:1) The same sort of general description applies in Leviticus, which often takes of the refrain of the need to keep all of the statutes and ordinances delivered by Moses. (Lev 20:22, 25:18)
Yet Jesus clearly distinguished between these collections of Law and the commandments of the Decalogue: when the young man asked him how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus cited only Decalogue commandments. (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20 — though in Matthew’s version at 19:19 he added the Law on love of neighbor from Leviticus 19:18).
I by no means wish to suggest that because Jesus emphasized the Decalogue over the other laws, and set aside a number of the latter laws explicitly (more on this below) that all of these laws are no longer to be observed. I am merely observing here that this places these laws in a category in which we are able to review them for their applicability, in keeping with the general principle which Jesus affirmed as his own touchstone for moral action: loving one’s neighbor as oneself. This is the explicit conclusion reached in Jesus’ discussion with the lawyers concerning what is most important in the Law. (Luke 10:27-28; Mark 12:33-34)
In this case, we would examine the law from Leviticus 18:22 (clearly given by Moses and not part of the Decalogue) in connection with the possibility that one could “love one’s neighbor as oneself” even if violating this law. It seems evident that this is a possibility.
Tobias Haller BSG
The next section of this series will continue to explore some of the various ways in which different portions of Scripture call for different readings.
UPDATE: This will be the last post in the series, as Church Publishing Incorporated has offered to publish these essays, revised and expanded, in a new book called Reasonable and Holy, due out early in 2009.
Further Update: This post and the preceding, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, including three entirely new chapters, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.