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Why Biblical Ethics Isn’t as Easy as Choosing Proof Texts

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In the world of Christian ethics, it is generally assumed that what proceeds by way of ethics has to be rooted in the Scriptures in some way, but what that means is as divided as the church is.

For some, “biblical ethics” means not only that one’s ethic is a repetition of the letter of Scripture, but also a repetition of the world of the Scripture as well.

For others, referring to “biblical ethics” is a matter of searching out presuppositions of Scripture, while the material outworking might differ.

For yet others, “biblical ethics” means something akin to staying within the words of Scripture and remaining silent when there are no words.

As I teach it in my Foundations for Biblical Ethics course at Logsdon Seminary, this task of reading the Scriptures for guidance of the moral life is not as straightforward as simply finding a proof text, for four reasons.

  • There are many things that are straightforwardly given, which – for good theological reasons – Christians do not practice, such as requiring a rape victim to marry their rapist or stoning someone who disobeys their parents.
  • There are a great many questions that our world raises, which do not have direct analogues, such as immigration policy or genetic testing.
  • There are many instances where the answer given in Scripture is a matter of prudence, but not absolutely binding, such as what to eat and to whom to extend hospitality.
  • And, on many issues in Scripture, there are great historical divides among Christians of good faith, such as violence and government; to say that Christians have always thought one way about these two complex issues is to forget that Christians have a history at all.

In the last version of the course, I taught it as a conversation between the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

For if we are to have a responsible biblical ethic, it can neither sidestep portions of the Scripture that are difficult for us, nor can it imagine a command of Scripture that does not beg further questions of application or universality.

So, in my course, I have three overarching considerations that are always in play.

1. The canonical dimension of biblical ethics

In teaching this class using the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as our main texts, we were learning how to read a question of ethics with the full Scriptures in view.

Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, reminds us to read the Ten Commandments is to read sideways, looking at the ways in which these are knit into and expanded upon by the whole of the law.

Likewise, to read the Ten Commandments is to read forward, asking what echoes we find in the New Testament.

For us to have a biblical ethic means to read the whole of Scripture as the words of God and listening to what we hear.

2. The critical dimension of biblical ethics

Far from undermining Scripture, reading Scripture with an eye toward its audience asks us to be honest about who we, the readers of Scripture, are: that we are not the Jews, nor are we Jesus, but rather largely Gentiles and disciples.

As such, some dimensions of the Scriptures are not ours to hear directly. They are ours to ponder over, to be grateful for, but not to repeat.

When we read, for example, the wars of Joshua in the Promised Land, we are not to suppose that our country is the new Israel and to operate in repetition.

Likewise, we are to remember that some elements of Scripture are for divine prerogative and some are for disciples; disciples are not Jesus, nor are we God, and as such, the presumption here is one of faithful obedience.

As we read the readings of these Scriptures by Augustine and Luther, James Cone and Sarah Coakley, we are listening for wisdom as to what it means for us to be disciples today.

3. The constructive dimension of biblical ethics

The God of Scripture is not a literary character, rendered solely by the pages of Scripture, but the God of yesterday and today.

As such, Christians read the Scriptures always listening for what it means for us to live faithfully today as members of the same body, which began in Scripture and continues in us now.

Our answer cannot be a simple “that was then, but this is now,” but must always contend with and be shaped by a family tree that we have been grafted into but did not begin.

Our responses to the world today cannot be identical to the ones we find in Exodus, but they cannot very well live without them either.

The task of biblical ethics is not one that is straightforward, but one that must be patient, searching and willing to be led. It is one that we seek, expecting to be found by God and listen, expecting to hear.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on Christian ethics education. The previous articles in the series are:

Why Your Congregation Needs Christian Ethics Education | Bill Tillman

Why the Church Must Recover the Gospel’s Political Claims | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

Myles Werntz

Myles Werntz is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of "Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness," and the co-editor of four other volumes.