Friday, October 16, 2009

After something of a frenetic week, I am grabbing a few moments to continue my random series on Using the Bible in Ethics. So below is a post picking up on some points in the last post in the series about themes and texts. I realize that there is some repetition in these posts, but I did say they were going to be somewhat random! In the next post, I want to look at an issue that the Bible does discuss and where themes and texts seem to come together: divorce.

4. Using the Bible in Ethics: Two Types of Approach

I have been trying to identify some of the problems facing those of us who take the Bible seriously when it comes to using it to make ethical decisions. I realize, of course, that for many Christians the Bible just isn't that important, and you solve the problem by not letting it be a problem. Instead, you just get on with making decisions without worrying too much about where the Bible fits into the picture. Many of us, however, whether evangelical or not, feel we cannot just dismiss the Bible this way, and so for us there is a problem.

To generalize, there are two types of approach amongst those trying to use the Bible to make decisions today:

1. Firstly, there are those who feel it is a question of identifying texts and then applying them to whatever the issue may be. The trouble is those who adopt this approach are not always consistent in the way they do this. For example, there are those who reject the validity of homosexual relationships on the basis of specific Biblical texts, condemning homosexuality while at the same time accepting women's ordination, even though specific Biblical texts seem to tell against it.

2. Secondly, instead of focusing primarily on texts, there are those who prefer to identify themes within the Bible and then to work out their logic, even if that means contradicting specific Biblical texts. So, for example, the theme of 'equality in Christ' is taken to justify women's ordination, even though Paul, who champions the theme, did not himself apply it in that way and even though Christians for nearly two thousand years didn't apply it that way either.

Now I accept that there are some Christians who are entirely consistent in their attempts to apply texts to today's ethical challenges even if it puts them in a minority amongst other Christians. I think Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle is probably an example of someone who takes this approach. Where, of course, people like Mark run into problems is when they are confronted with an issue that the Bible simply does not address, issues such as genetic engineering, medical research, nuclear power, and so on. Of course, for many in this camp, ethics is primarily about sex and so this is not so critical - or this a cheap shot on my part?

I also accept that some of those who take a thematic approach simply do not care whether Paul or anyone else has seen the implications of what to them is glaringly obvious. What matters is not whether anyone has seen or applied a theme in the past, but whether we do so in the present. Most liberal Christians, for example, would feel such freedom.

I, however, start from the position that while we do indeed need to understand the themes of the Gospel message, the way we work them out also needs to be consistent with the text of the Bible and with the way the Bible itself works them out.

As an orthodox Christian, I would also argue that in applying the themes and texts of the Bible, we need to listen more to the saints and teachers of the Church in the past and less to the prophets of the secular society in the present. It remains a nagging suspicion in my mind that had non-Christian society around us not adopted certain positions on certain issues, it would never have even occurred to the Church to do so.

What I am suggesting is that in many areas, it is not that we are trying in the Church to apply either themes or texts, but rather to find them so that we can bring our attitudes and behaviour more in line with the accepted wisdom of society around us. I know that many Christians would not have a problem with this. I am afraid, however, that I do!

Yes, Christians have to accept that the world has changed and we shouldn't do this hesitatingly or reluctantly: change is neither necessarily good or bad, it is just inevitable. This means we have to ask how we behave and what our attitudes should be in such a changed world. This is the hermeneutical challenge that faces Christians in whatever age they live and especially in ours. But asking how we should think and live today in a world much changed from that of the Bible is very different from manipulating the Bible and its teaching so that we can live lives in our world that are fundamentally no different to anyone else's.

Using the Bible in Ethics demands that we take seriously the difference between our own age and the age in which the Biblical texts were produced, but it also means taking seriously the Biblical texts and the themes which emerge from them, rather than trying artificially to force them to justify ideas and beliefs that we have arrived at, not from Biblical study and Christian theology, but from society around us.

One thing the Bible should teach us is that God doesn't like it when his people follow the customs and manners of the nations surrounding them. If we want to be pagans, then that is an option open to us. What we certainly should not do is to try and dress paganism up so it looks like Biblical Christianity.

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