The Good, the Right, and the Bible

In the previous essays we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through reason and experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

The contemporary moral crisis was in part precipitated by modern culture’s abandonment of the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. In place of the notion of universal human nature and the goods necessary for its health, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Not only do many people today reject the ideas of human nature, moral law, and the good and right as discovered and defined in tradition, to their ears these ideas sound completely foreign and incomprehensible.

Morality and the Bible

Not surprisingly, then, when Christians appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by the Jewish and Christian communities over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries do not acknowledge that communal experience and tradition are the only ways individual human beings can learn about the good, they reject appeals to the Bible as a moral authority. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition for the same reason.

Second, Christians do not just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as human discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The natural consequence of not adhering to the good is enduring something bad. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian message is the primary reason for the hostility of the ascendant culture. It is one thing to warn people of the negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first warning may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger.

But it is not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought that God punishes bad behavior with pain in addition to the act’s natural consequences. Perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when negative consequences from the act itself are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

God and Morality

Why might a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good? I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. I admit that those totally sold out to the romantic view that the good is whatever gives us a pleasant feeling will not grant this assumption. I will address their rejection in due time. For now, I want to address those who are at least open to the idea that it is wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long-continuous community and tradition above private experience or abstract theories. But why divine commands?

In view of the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, and religious and moral reformers formulate rules that guide a community toward what is truly good. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view, the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119).

Admittedly, most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned from communal experience and they are similar to the highest moral aspirations of nations other than ancient Israel. However human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason and experienced-based wisdom. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious act.

A Christian Morality?

What does viewing biblical morality as divinely commanded add to the moral authority of the Bible considered as a deposit of wisdom from a long-continuous community? The previous section began to address these questions. As I suggested there human beings tend toward sensuality and violence as individuals and as civilizations. And, although it is possible to learn much about what is good for human beings from experience, most people are more interested in immediate pleasure than the truly good. Hence the moral traditions of whole cultures can become polluted and self-destructive or so marginalized that they have little impact on the mass of individuals. The Bible assumes that human civilization has become so corrupt that divine intervention is necessary. The story of the Old Testament includes divinely commissioned lawgivers and prophets sent to a degenerate culture to reveal what is good.

There is also another reason Christian teachers invoke divine commands. Human experience is limited to life in this world. Experience can teach much about what promotes human happiness and flourishing in this life. But belief that God is creator of this world sets human life into a larger context, beyond the range of what can be learned by ordinary experience. If our sole end is living long and well in this life, then good is whatever helps us achieve this goal. But if God created human beings for a greater end, then good is whatever helps us achieve that end.

If we have a God-intended end beyond living long and well in this body, only God can tell us what it is and how to achieve it. We cannot learn this good from individual or collective experience. It should not be surprising, then, that Christians view the moral rules Christians live by as divine commands. This view makes perfect sense, because in Christianity the humanly chosen goal of living long and well is subordinated to the divinely chosen end of eternal life with God. This shift changes everything. Life in the body as a whole is now directed beyond itself. Living long and well in this life alone is no longer the end that determines what is good. We need God’s help both to know and to do the truly good. Those who believe that Jesus is the risen Lord will gladly receive his and his apostles’ instructions about how to live in view of the true end of human life revealed in him.

There are two big reasons the moral life to which the New Testament calls us seems strange and oppressive to our age: (1) even experienced-based moral rules, which focus only on living well and long in this body, sound strange and oppressive to many people. Never in any society has the majority been virtuous, even by Aristotle’s standards! (2) Unless one wholeheartedly embraces the Christian vision of the God-intended end of human life, living here and now in faith for that unseen end appears extremely foolish.

1 thought on “The Good, the Right, and the Bible

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron, blessings,
    Luke 18:19.
    So what ‘has’ gone really wrong?
    When i was six years old, our neighbours had a little 2 year old son. I played with this toddler, but was very jealous. One day, out of the blue, i decided to hit him across the back with a stick (no physical damage was done let me assure you)- his father came out, took the stick and beat my behind.
    Now later on that evening, a very fearful boy’s father came around to our house to explain his actions; for my father was a huge powerful man. I listened around the door.
    The neighbour said that he had to act, was sorry, and that it wouldn’t happen again- my dad retorted loudly, so all could hear ” No! By Jove. It WILL not happen again”… At that time, i realized that a person could be more frightened of such a reprimand than almost anything on earth.
    I listened, and immediately knew that i should not do anything like that again. But i became fearful of my father, and it didn’t help me to like him. Throughout my formative years i didn’t properly love my dad.
    Why this story?
    Well, if we are going to persist with Old Testament theology, let’s get it right! The God of the OT is angry, jealous, vengeful, irritated, powerful, destructive, child-like, and many many more things, and names to boot. None of these things are moral or virtuous, why the blazes should they be?
    And yet nearly 400 years before Plato (of which, undoubtedly like St Paul, Plato would have been pre-eminently aware) my favourite prophet, Isaiah, was telling us what ‘attributes/virtues/moral character/ethos/pathos/logos’ we would find in God some 700 years later. Amen amen.
    And one of those things was ” knowledge, or piety laid down with the fear, that is the Holy Fear of God the Father” and of course, he adds effectively ‘wrapped in the power of the Holy Spirit’ looking at the aramaic.
    And so in conclusion, i firmly believe that it is with God alone, that we can possess both Holy Fear and Divine Love, as a father to a son, without the shadow of a doubt that it’s a truly loving two-way relationship involving balanced real love, and reverential fear that drives all things towards the good.
    Please allow me a post-script.
    We could look at this vital piece of moralization and find examples where, after the fall, some human tyrants have used so-called love and fear to enter the collective psyche of entire nations; these false prophets try to emulate fear and love not for good, but for evil selfish reasons. I refer you to the dictatorship of Hitler, for example, whose charisma and character drove millions to both love, and fear him.
    Perhaps, we can hope and pray that by spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, that others will truly understand and be blessed with a reverential, respectful, fearful and above all, genuinely loving relationship with God {and each other} that rewards us with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and His promise if eternal life in His son Jesus Christ.

    Liked by 1 person


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