In my recent eleven-part review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, many of points of disagreement focused on the different ways Keen and I understand how the Bible should be interpreted and applied to the issue of same-sex relationships. The root of our disagreement on this particular issue of interpretation and application lies in part in disagreements about how Scripture may be used properly in theology and ethics in general.
With this essay, I will begin a short series addressing the issue of the proper use of Scripture in Christian ethics. I plan to deal with such questions as the following: Is the Bible the exclusive source for our knowledge of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral? Does the Bible teach morality by means of specific commands, narratives, or general principles? Are the Bible’s moral commands right because it commands them or does it command them because they are right? Does the Bible permit whatever behaviors it does not explicitly exclude? How does the moral teaching of the Old Testament relate to the moral teaching of the New Testament? In what sense is the Bible an authority for moral teaching? What part does tradition play in interpretation? How do insights from modern psychology or science or culture relate to biblical morality?
However before we can address these important questions effectively, I believe we need to set the issue in its broadest context and develop a method for dealing with it in a systematic way. Let us, then, address a more fundamental question first: What is the proper use of the Bible in constructing our understanding of God? The answer we give to this question will illuminate our path toward answering the question about the proper use of the Bible in Christian ethics.
The Bible and the Doctrine of God
To deepening our understanding of God, we need to answer three questions: (1) Is there a God? That is, is there any sort divine reality? (2) What is God? What are the qualities or attributes that belong to the concept of God? (3) Who is God? What is the divine character and identity, and what are God’s attitudes toward human beings and his expectations of them?
These three questions are interrelated. The answer you give to one will somewhat determine the answers you give to the others. Nevertheless, there is an order from general to specific, so that those who disagree in their answers to (2) and (3) may agree on (1). And there can be a large area of agreement about the divine qualities (2) without agreement about the divine identity and character (3).
It should be obvious that the Bible is not the exclusive source for belief in God. People believed in God, gods, or some divine reality before and apart from the biblical history. The Bible itself presupposes and many times acknowledges this. Let’s consider the Bible’s relevance to each of these questions.
Is There a God?
Human beings have a tendency to believe in a divine reality, based in part on the existence, qualities, and impressive powers of nature. The Bible never tries to prove that there is a divine reality. Nor does it contest the legitimacy or basis of other nations’ belief in a divine reality. The debate focused on two other issues, the nature and the identity of the divine reality. In view of this fact, it would be a mistake for us to base our belief in a divine reality exclusively on the Bible and argue that people who believe in God on other grounds are mistaken! Of course, the witness of the Bible contributes to our belief in a divine reality, but it is not the only grounds for belief. If God delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery and raised Jesus from the dead, God indeed exists! But belief in God’s deliverance of Israel and Jesus’s resurrection are themselves contested, and it is easier to believe in the Exodus and the resurrection if you already believe in God.
What is God?
What are God’s attributes? What does it mean to be divine? Again, the very fact that people before and apart from the influence of the Bible believed in a divine reality shows that they had some sort of concept of the divine. In every case, the divine is of a higher order of being than human beings and the rest of nature: the divine is the creative, knowing, immortal power behind and above nature. The areas of theological belief contested between ancient Israel and other peoples were the unity, universal lordship, and exclusive divinity of God in opposition to the many nature gods of the nations. Also, there is within Greek philosophy a line of reasoning that leads to the one most perfect and eternal reality. The thought of Plato and Aristotle and many of their successors tends in this direction.
Hence it would be a mistake to base our understanding of the divine attributes exclusively on the Bible and deny that outsiders possess any true beliefs about the divine nature. For the Bible itself does not deny but assumes that those outside the Bible’s influence have some truth in their concept of God (see Acts 17). The Bible contributes significantly to our understanding of the divine nature: there is only one God, the creator and lord of all. Especially significant is the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit within God’s life as the eternal Trinity and its redefinition of God’s power and wisdom in view of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. These differences redefine but do not cancel the pre-Christian view of divine power and wisdom.
Who is God?
What is the divine character and identity, and what are God’s attitudes toward and expectations for human beings? The biblical answer to this question diverges more from the answers given by other ancient religions than its answer to the first two questions. Nevertheless, many ancient peoples believed that their god was good and just—at least to them. The majority of Greek philosophers argued that the divine nature is purely good and above anger and jealously. For the most part the pagan gods’ identities were determined by their connections to nature and its powers and cycles.
In the Old Testament, God is identified as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He bears the Name YHWH (the LORD). He chose Israel, delivered her from Egypt and its gods, and made the covenant with her. He is faithful to his covenant promises and exhibits loving kindness and mercy. He is holy and righteous in all he does. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ becomes the place where we look to see the divine character and identity and to know God’s attitudes toward and expectations for human beings. This center then reorients all our acts of religion toward God.
The uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of God does not lie in its affirmation of a divine reality or in its assertion that God is the powerful, wise, eternal, and immortal Creator. Its uniqueness rests in its distinct appropriation of the Jewish understanding of the divine identity developed in the history of God’s dealings with the people of God as witnessed in the Old Testament. Specifically, Christianity directs our attention to the words, deeds, faithfulness, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the source of our deepest knowledge of God’s character and attitude toward human beings, his expectations of us and the destiny he has planned for us. Beliefs about God derived from other sources, though not rejected as false, are transformed by their new relationship to Jesus Christ.
In future essays I plan to apply a method to the issue of the Bible and Christian ethics similar to the one I used in this essay.