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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

What the Bible Says About Right & Wrong

right and wrong

Jared Byas, M.A.

As a former teaching pastor and professor of philosophy and biblical studies, he speaks regularly on the Bible, truth, creativity, wisdom, and the Christian faith. Tweets at @jbyas

On the podcast we are constantly exploring these two questions: what is the Bible and what do we do with it? Well, in the past few years, these questions have caused me to examine this question: what role should the Bible play in teaching us right and wrong? That is, what role does the Bible play in shaping our moral compass?

As I would say about my relationship to donuts . . . it’s complicated. But here are some points I’ve been thinking about when it comes to this relationship.

First, here are three reasons I find this question problematic:

1. The Bible seems inefficient if its purpose is to give us moral instruction.

2. The Bible does seem to provide an awful lot of moral instruction.

3. The Bible seems to provide some really bad moral instruction sometimes. 

The Bible is An Inefficient Moral Guide

The first clue that the Bible isn’t really meant to be a guide for right and wrong is how inefficient it is as being one.

Most of the Bible isn’t actually about right or wrong behavior at all, but about God making a people of God’s own, the Israelites.

Now, if you grew up in the Church, it’s likely you heard dozens of sermons that tried to treat every story like a moral fable: 

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we need to be brave like David.” 

“And that is why we need to have integrity like Joseph.” 

“The three points I want to share with you this morning from the story of Joshua are:

1. To Be Successful, Focus on Obedience, Not Success 

2. God’s Blessings Are So You Can Be a Blessing to Others 

3. When Life Gets Tough, the Tough Turn to God*

So, over the past few hundred years, we’ve gotten really good at squeezing the Bible into this framework. But, for me at least over the past few years, I am recognizing how ill-fitted the Bible is to that kind of interpretation. It takes a lot of work to get from Joshua to the three points listed above.

If the Bible is supposed to be a moral guide, why does it take so much work to get to the point?

And why are there so many points? The Bible could probably learn a thing or two from Aesop’s Fables or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. As one scholar says, the Bible is “too untidy, too sprawling, and too boisterous to be tamed by neat systems of thought.”

The Bible DOES seem to provide an awful lot of moral instruction

So, the Bible’s narratives aren’t really good material for telling us right from wrong since there’s just too much irrelevant stuff in there for that purpose. Which should, again, cause us to wonder if maybe the point isn’t to tell us right from wrong but to tell a story about the divine founding of a people. ON THE OTHER HAND, the Bible does have an awful lot of moral instruction in it. I mean, read Proverbs, the later Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and much of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. It really seems like certain books or narratives are trying to tell the people of God how to live their life. So maybe parts of the Bible are meant to tell people who to live their life.

The Bible seems to provide some really bad moral instruction sometimes

But then, ON THE OTHER HAND (we’re onto our third hand if you’re counting) we really have a problem. Because when is the Bible simply describing something and when is it prescribing something? And even if it’s prescribing something, what part is culturally situated (and therefore no longer relevant for us) and which part is universally applicable (and therefore very relevant for us)? That is, when is it “just part of the story” and when is it “telling us something about moral instruction for God’s people”? The instructions in the Torah are a great example.

Some might say the modern court system is biblical because the Bible says “When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.” (Deut 25:1) That could be telling us something about the right way to handle disputes. Good moral instruction. I like it. Let’s look though at Deut 25:2-3a

“If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes.”

Yikes. I don’t like that. These are back-to-back verses. The Bible seems to make no distinction between them. So, why are these verses in the Bible? Are they there to shower us with universal, for-all-time ethical pronouncements (that we have to wade through various genres to discover)? That leads to some very uncomfortable conclusions, like: stoning children for disrespect (Deut 21:18-21) and cutting off women’s hands for coming to their husband’s aid (Deut 25:11-12).

Some more conservative scholars will argue they have found a clear distinction: the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are no longer relevant for us but the moral laws are. The problem of course is that this distinction is foreign to the Bible. They don’t make that distinction. It’s not like there’s a list of ceremonial laws followed by a list of moral laws. That’s another thing we have put on the text so that we can enforce the moral rules we like and dismiss the ones we don’t.

For example, Leviticus 18 has a list of unlawful sexual practices to avoid so that Israel doesn’t defile themselves or the land. In that same list, without any marker for distinction, is both a prohibition against period sex and a man having sex with another man. For some reason, there are 3,874 articles on why the one about same-sex sex is an important one to follow for the very survival of our faith but very few on why the one about period sex is important. 

Maybe Just Stick with Jesus?

I have just probably oversimplified a whole field of study and I don’t have an answer to any of these questions I have been asking. I’m into philosophy. We don’t really ever answer questions. We just learn how to ask better and better ones so people think we are smarter than we really are. But, if my reading is correct, I don’t think other folks have a lot of great answers either. Not that I’ve found anyway (feel free to send me free books if they address this to your satisfaction. Not just titles. I literally want you to buy me the book and mail it to me. Thank you.)

Some have tried to just bypass the whole thing and said: let’s just stick with Jesus. If Jesus says to do something, let’s take it seriously. But otherwise, we’ll just let it go.

I think this is a helpful step. Lots of things are cleared up if we go this route. However, it ignores a few key things to think about. One, Jesus was Jewish and followed many of the same instructions that others did. Two, Jesus said a few problematic things too. You know, things like “let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22), if you get remarried after a divorce you are committing adultery (Matt 5:27-32), hating your parents, spouse, siblings, and kids is necessary to be a Jesus follower (Luke 14:26), sell all your belongings (Matt 19). 

So I’m not sure just sticking with Jesus is the answer to how the Bible connects to our morality. It certainly is central but perhaps there are a few missing pieces.

Seek That Jesus-Shaped Wisdom & Ditch Rules

What I think is missing in this recipe is wisdom. I would argue that thinking in categories of absolute right and wrong isn’t that helpful. There are very few absolute moral guidelines and they come pretty intuitively to us: don’t kill people, don’t be an asshole, tell the truth. Hopefully, we don’t need 66 ancient books of stories to help us get those. But if we are trying to glean some wisdom from an ancient people who are trying to follow God, from Jesus Himself, and from some of His closest followers, then the Bible can be helpful (all of it, not just the Jesus parts). Jesus Himself seems to advocate this when he says that Sabbath is for people, not the other way around. The instructions are there to wrestle with, trying to figure out what still makes sense and what doesn’t, what to keep, what to modify, and what to do away with as moral instruction.

Just as Richard Rohr says, I think we almost always lead with experience first. And wisdom is the art and science of experience. The Bible can be a wonderful moral aid on the journey. But when we use it as a rulebook, we often end up betraying our own moral compass since rules are often a way to control while wisdom is the path to freedom.

But what do I know? I’m still full of questions, fumbling along the way here. 

*I just made up this sermon in my head. Apparently, you can take the pastor out of moralistic sermon-writing but I guess you can’t take the moralistic sermon-writing out of the pastor.

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