Monday, August 19, 2019

Anonymous Asks (54)

“How do biblical texts apply to modern society?”

Does scripture address hot-button topics like immigration reform, gay marriage, abortion, eugenics, internet porn and gun control? More importantly, in the event the Bible does not give us answers to the major questions of our day, does that mean we are free to do whatever we please in these areas?

These are relevant questions.

The Problem of Change

Rules are never enough. No matter how many commandments God might have given, it is impossible that they could provide certain answers to every possible moral question that might eventually crop up. Cultures change, technology advances and governments assume authority over new spheres of life, many of which present a moral component. Thus we increasingly find ourselves facing choices concerning which human history and biblical imperatives do not supply clear direction.

For example, when nobody had sequenced the human genome, no biblical instruction was needed to address what might happen when the resulting knowledge is used to advance doubtful causes. Today, because the science exists and is currently being exploited, we do need to think about such things, and to look for guidance wherever we can find it.

Unfortunately for people looking for direct orders from God, scripture says nothing useful about eugenics. Not specifically at least. Neither Moses nor the apostles spoke of any such thing. You cannot look up “gene splicing” in your concordance.

Working at the Precept Level Means More Precepts

There are different ways one might choose to deal with the insufficiency of existing divine instruction to cover every possible eventuality. The Jews chose to deal with the problem at what we might call the “precept level”. They created a lawyerly appendix to the Law called the Talmud, which is what our legal system would call “case law”. It is the Law of Moses expanded by human wisdom to attempt to cover every conceivable eventuality. As one might expect, there are multiple versions of the Talmud, and all are much lengthier than the original scriptures they interpret, apply and sometimes explain away. In modern, printed versions, the Torah (or law) is several hundred pages; the Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, runs well over five thousand, and takes seven years to learn well enough to even begin to turn knowledge into practice.

While the Talmud cannot possibly address every possible current or future moral dilemma that may arise, it does specifically address gay marriage, in case you’re interested:
“These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah took upon themselves but they observe three of them, namely, (i) they do not draw up a kethubah [marriage contract] document for males, (ii) they do not weigh flesh of the [human] dead in the market, and (iii) they respect the Torah.”
Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 92a-b
That’s something, right? But I’m guessing even orthodox Jewish homosexuals do not regard that as the definitive answer. Human nature doesn’t work like that.

Finding Another Approach

So that’s the first possible approach to a perceived shortage of relevant biblical texts: create even more texts. The problem is that the Talmud is not the words of God, but the words of men. Learned Jewish lawyers may get things right here and there, but there is certainly no guarantee they had the mind of God when they arrived at their numerous and varied conclusions.

Looking for answers at the precept level always leads us to demand more precepts. It’s an impossible quest. No number of books we might generate would ever suffice.

This is not the approach used by Christ and his apostles. They did not address the shortcomings of rule-making by writing more rules. Rather, they applied principles deduced from the Law to the questions of their day. Instead of asking “What is the bare minimum with which I must comply to avoid getting clobbered?” they posed the question “What does the existing text tell me about God that I can use to help me answer this new question?”

The Sermon on the Mount is a prime example of this sort of teaching. The “You have heard it said that” phrases describe the existing legal technicalities by which first century Jews were attempting to organize their lives. The “But I tell you that” phrases draw on the principle that gave birth to the technicality, and apply it more broadly.

Non-Technical Answers to Technical Questions

Jesus was not in the habit of addressing technical questions with more technicalities. Instead, we get statements from him like this:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
The original command is specific and limited in scope; basically, don’t take it upon yourself to end somebody else’s life. But Jesus is saying God’s murder-related command is rooted in a broader principle that speaks not just to our actions but to the very thoughts from which evil actions arise. God detests anger and insults and harsh words and the underlying spirit of petulant self-will and barely-contained violence that produces them. That principle can be applied in a variety of ways and addresses far more than the question of whether murderers deserve to be punished for their crimes. It goes right to the level of the fantasies we indulge in our heads and the grudges we nurse in our hearts.

The question Jesus invites us to ask, then, is not “What can I get away with?” but “What more can I do to please God than I am already doing?”

From the Beginning it was Not So

Again, Jesus responds to a technical first century question about divorce by discerning a more fundamental principle:
“Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his 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 man separate.’ ”
The Pharisees are asking “Under what circumstances can we get away with divorcing our wives?” That’s not the question Jesus answers. He doesn’t care about their technicalities. He goes to the root of the problem and provokes them to consider the question “What does God think about marriage in the first place?” The answer is that marriage was intended to be permanent, and therefore God never advocates divorce under any circumstances. “From the beginning it was not so.” The principle is bigger and broader than the technicality, and it answers a hundred other moral questions once you come to understand it.

Making It Practical

So does the Bible have anything to say about abortion, eugenics, immigration and so on? Sure it does, absolutely. But it does not say these things at the precept level. It says them at the level of principle. It does not address them at the level of law, it addresses them at the level of love. It does not address them as technicalities, it looks for guidance to the heart of God.

Do the principles of scripture contain sufficient authority to direct a largely secular society? In one sense, certainly. These principles represent what actually works best in the universe God designed. Of course they would make for a much better society than the one we currently live in, just as living out the Sermon on the Mount would have been a source of endless blessing to any who understood and applied it.

But that’s not the real question. The real question is “Would modern society accept direction from the inferred principles of scripture when it has already rejected most of its plain precepts?” I think we all know the answer to that one.

An Obedient Heart

What scriptural principles DO provide in spades is answers for the questions of an obedient Christian heart.

If the question is merely theoretical — “Should society allow abortion?” — an assortment of well-established Bible principles lead us inexorably to the conclusion “No, God hates it.” Christ’s love and protectiveness toward children. God’s deep involvement in forming the individual and knowledge of the human soul and its destiny prior to birth. The assurance by the Psalmist that children are a gift from God in the present and a blessing later in life, not an imposition and an inconvenience to be avoided at any cost. The institution of the death penalty in Israel for any parents who dared to sacrifice their children to Molech.

All these easily-deduced principles point to the wrongness of abortion. There is no real question what God would think of it. But unlike the Israelites of the Old Testament, we do not live in a theocracy. Christians have no means of spreading the principles of scripture throughout the broader culture beyond making our appeal to the human conscience. A quick stock-taking of the moral decline of the last century tells us exactly how well that has recently been working out.

On the other hand, if the question is personal — “What will God think if **I** have an abortion?” — that’s a different story. Supposing the woman asking it genuinely wants to please God, Bible principles alone are more than sufficient authority to absolutely rule abortion out as a possible response to an unexpected pregnancy, even though our society endorses and applauds it. The obedient Christian heart only wants to know what God would prefer, and it is prepared to act on that. It does not require direct orders.

Sinners want their precepts, even when they are not going to follow them. But even if they would, no one can write enough rules to change human behavior for the better.

Saints, on the other hand, know that morality follows naturally from insight into the character of God. It doesn’t require a script.

Original photo courtesy Magister Scienta [CC BY 3.0]

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