Sunday, August 29, 2021

What Constitutes Biblical Evidence?

“The Bible gives clear, direct guidance on many topics of morality, but not on birth control. Thus, any inferences from the Bible are opinions and not Biblical evidence.”

Where the subject of the morality of birth control is concerned, this quote from the Christian Bible Reference Site is probably as good a place as any to start.

The question it raises in my mind may be framed different ways. One way: Are direct commands from God our only real source of unambiguous moral guidance? Another way: Do inferences drawn from established biblical principles really constitute such an ephemeral and debatable source of spiritual direction that God may as well have given us nothing at all to go on?

In short, what exactly constitutes legitimate biblical evidence?

Defining the Problem

Now, it is certainly true that clear, direct guidance from scripture about preventing conception must be inferred from other Bible principles.

Partly this is because the (roughly) 2.5 thousand years over which scripture was written was a period in the history of the human race when healthy children in large numbers were highly valued not just for themselves, but because of the source of security they represented for their parents; really, the only security to be had in rural communities and in the early days of large-scale urbanization. It should be observed that, generally speaking, God has not seen fit to forbid practices in which people were not engaging. Birth control is no exception: if people weren’t trying it in large numbers, why would God comment on the practice?

A second, more obvious reason for the absence of clear, direct guidance about birth control is that the technology for it didn’t exist during the period in which our Bible was written. Abstinence was the only sure way to prevent an unwanted birth, and while primitive, risky abortifacients surely existed, the morality of abortion is not my subject here. Even today, most Christians agree abortion is no way to manage the size of one’s family.

But does the absence of “clear, direct guidance” in scripture about the morality of birth control — or any other subject, for that matter — automatically reduce discussion about it to the level of merely personal opinion? If so, we are in big trouble, because doctrine-by-inference represents a huge part of New Testament teaching.

Doctrine-by-Inference in the Teaching of Christ

Many, if not most, of the debates Jesus engaged in with Jewish religious leadership were conclusively settled by appeals to inference, rather than to the Law or to other commands of God.

For example, the Lord’s defense of his disciples when they plucked heads of grain from the fields through which they were passing on the Sabbath was based on a pair of inferences drawn from the story of David eating the bread of the Presence and from the Sabbath day habits of the priesthood. His argument in favor of the lawfulness of doing good on the Sabbath turns on an inference drawn from a practice so common among Jews (rescuing victims of misadventure) that it made for an unassailable defense against his critics. Accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, his defense again depends on inferences from basic logical principles.

The Lord’s teaching that the sons of the kingdom are free depends on an inference from the practices of the kings of the earth. His teaching about the lawfulness of divorce depends on an inference from an editorial comment in Genesis. His teaching about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar is based on an inference from the likeness and inscription on a coin. His teaching about life after the resurrection is based on an inference from a verb tense in Exodus 3. His insistence that Messiah must be more than a mere man depends on an inference from David’s reference to his son as “my Lord” in Psalm 2.

Many, perhaps all, of these teachings might also be supported by references to direct commands of God throughout scripture, but my point is that the Lord often did not resort to quoting these even when he could have. He viewed his own inferences from reason, logic, custom, verb tenses and Bible history as not only sufficient to make his points and demolish arguments, but also as morally binding on those who heard them.

Doctrine-by-Inference in the Epistles

But is it only Jesus for whom inference was an acceptable mode of deciding truth? Not so. When we move to the epistles, we find inference used just as frequently as a conclusive argument, and some of the doctrines developed or supported through this method are very significant indeed.

For example, in Romans, the doctrine of justification by faith depends on inferences Paul draws from editorial comments made about Abraham by the writer of Genesis, and from a Davidic psalm about forgiveness. The teaching that the believer is dead to the Law turns on an inference drawn from an analogy to marriage, while the teaching concerning the breaking of bread in 1 Corinthians draws inferences from the old covenant ministry of the Israelite priesthood.

Is it just Paul? No, Peter infers broader conclusions about God’s judgments from a series of historical events, and James draws inferences about justification from the near-sacrifice of Isaac and Rahab’s protection of the two Israelite spies.

Two or three examples of anything generally sufficed as proof of one’s case under Jewish law. I have offered thirteen or more, and am content to leave it at that. The Bible is full of arguments from inference. Correctly drawn inferences constitute legitimate biblical evidence.

Inferences about Birth Control

The question which then arises is this: Is it possible there are Old Testament scriptures from which we might draw inferences concerning whether God has expressed a preference about “family planning”? Let me suggest just a few:

In summary, the Bible’s consistent teaching about children is that they are a gift from God, that pregnancy is a great blessing as well as an onerous duty, that God is intimately involved in the process of bringing children into the world, that more children are better than fewer children and that larger numbers of offspring are greater evidence of blessing from God. Further, even a suboptimal existence is better than no existence at all, and if we make it our practice to honor God, we can trust him to provide for the children we bring into the world.

All these statements have historically been understood as universalisms that have nothing to do with particular cultural worldviews or the opinions of individuals. Nothing about our modern world or our current circumstances invalidates them. Further, there is a complete absence of counterevidence to consider. Old Testament or New, I cannot find a single verse that suggests limiting the size of one’s family is either wise or necessary.

The obvious inferences to be drawn from God’s well-documented attitude toward children in scripture are all overwhelmingly positive.

Making Choices

So then, let’s put it this way: the final choice as to how many children we have and why and when we have them most certainly belongs to the individual. God has left the matter in our hands. My question is whether, in the process of considering before the Lord what a Christian husband and wife are going to do about having children, it is biblically legitimate to reduce the many solid, scriptural counterarguments of the church throughout history to the realm of mere “opinion”.

I would contend it is not. The world will be a better place if you choose before God to pursue a bigger family rather than a smaller one, in the event the Lord graciously so allows. Nevertheless, like so many things in scripture, what you choose to do about that is up to you.

Now, you can certainly respond to the evidence by saying, “I haven’t got the faith for that”, or by saying, “There are other factors in our personal situation that need to be considered.” That is your prerogative. What you can’t say, in all fairness, is that there is no biblical evidence on the subject to be weighed, or that Christians who opt to have large families are merely making decisions on the basis of personal opinions.

No comments :

Post a Comment