Commentary: Scripture and the Christian Moral Life

*by David Watson

There’s a lively conversation taking place online about the best ways for Christians to interpret the Bible. In particular, I’ll point out recent posts by Adam Hamilton and Ben Witherington, both of whom are very fine thinkers and committed servants of the church. I’d like to weigh in on this discussion, specifically regarding the ways in which we use the Bible in our processes of ethical decision making. Witherington’s post is a critique of Hamilton’s, which contains more of a positive proposal. Therefore in what follows I will be in dialogue mainly with Hamilton.

In his recent post, Hamilton seems most concerned with the use of Scripture in the establishment of community norms. No one, he says, takes the whole Bible at face value. We don’t, for example, condone slavery, even though Scripture condones slavery in some places. In the UMC, we ordain women, even though Paul forbids women to speak in church. Nevertheless, he argues, we don’t just pick and choose:

I think we’re appropriately interpreting; we’re asking the question, “What was the historical and cultural setting of these words, and do they appropriately express the heart of God for us today?” And how do Christians make that determination? We consider the words and actions of Jesus, we think of what he described as the great commandments, and we consider the major themes of Scripture. Then we bring our intellect and experience of the Spirit to bear on our reading of Scripture. This is precisely how the apostles came to set aside the clear teaching of Scripture (their only Scripture was the Old Testament) regarding circumcision and portions of the Law. This is how, centuries later, Christians came to oppose slavery despite Scripture’s allowance and regulation of it. This is how 20th century Christians came to set aside Paul’s teaching regarding women.

There’s a lot here that we need to unpack. Let’s take first the issue of the words and actions of Jesus. This is an exceedingly complex matter, since Jesus is depicted in different ways in different Gospels. Did Jesus preach primarily about the kingdom of God (the Synoptic tradition), or about himself and his relationship to the Father (the Johannine tradition)? What did Jesus think about the proper use of money? What was his attitude toward Gentiles? The mountain of work over the last two centuries on the life and teachings of Jesus makes the difficulty of this topic more than apparent. Yes, we can develop a good idea of what Jesus said and did, but this matter is extremely complex, hardly less so than the interpretation of Scripture.

More straightforward is the idea of the great commandments: to love God and love neighbor. We find the specific text in Matthew 22:37-40. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus isn’t being particularly original here. He is drawing on a larger Jewish tradition of the two “tablets” of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. The first tablet contains laws that govern the relationship between God and humankind, such as, “You will have no other gods before me.” The second tablet contains laws that govern human relationships, such as, “You will not steal.” The Decalogue, moreover, cannot be isolated from the rest of Jewish law. It is thought to be the seedbed in which the larger corpus of the law grew up. When Jesus states that the two most important commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, he is not setting aside the law in a broader sense. Rather, he is emphasizing its importance.

Next is the idea that we should bring our intellect and experience of the Spirit to bear on the interpretation of Scripture. I couldn’t agree more heartily. I would emphasize, however, that it is not only one’s individual intellect and experience of the Spirit that matters, but the intellect and experience of the body of Christ today and in ages past. The Bible is not my book or your book. It is the Church’s book. It was birthed in the Church for the purpose of teaching the Church’s faith within the community of faith. The earliest uses of Scripture among Christians were in worship. As we read Scripture, then, we should bear in mind the ways in which other United Methodists interpret it, as well as Christians from other traditions around the world. We should, moreover, take very seriously the ways in which Christians through the ages have interpreted Scripture. Our historical moment is not the only one that matters, nor is it necessarily the most conducive to faithful interpretation of Scripture.

The practice of applying both intellect and the leading of the Spirit, says Hamilton, is “precisely how the apostles came to set aside the clear teaching of Scripture (their only Scripture was the Old Testament) regarding circumcision and portions of the Law.” Here’s where I must disagree. In Acts 15:19-20, James sets out certain rules for Gentile Christians, but he does not require circumcision. In setting out these rules, however, he is drawing on Leviticus 17-18. (See the article by Bill Arnold on this topic.) These chapters stipulate rules for the people of Israel as well as “aliens” living within Israel. The people of Israel are holy–set apart–by their covenant, the sign of which is circumcision. Gentiles living among them, however, may live among this set-apart people, thus sharing in their holiness, by obeying these rules. James requires of Gentiles no more than God requires of them in this section of Leviticus. James is not setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture, though he is privileging one text over another. This was not an uncommon practice among rabbis.

I do not believe Paul understood himself to be setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture, either. He is keenly aware of Scripture passages requiring circumcision for God’s covenant people, and he considers these to have been important for a period of time. Yet he believes that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has acted definitively for our justification. The law was in place for a time as a kind of tutor (Gal 3:24), but now God has once and for all made salvation available to everyone apart from works of the law. To be clear, the law is not bad; it simply cannot bring salvation. If it could, Christ would not have had to die. Only in light of a new revelation of the magnitude of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection could we forego the law’s requirement of circumcision, but such a revelation has indeed taken place.

Paul does not believe, however, that in embracing this new revelation we are setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture. Like the other New Testament writers, Paul believes that the Jewish Scriptures point forward to God’s saving work in Jesus. At the beginning of Romans, for example, he writes of “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David…” (1:1-3). He understands justification by faith, the unbelief of Israel, and the resurrection of Jesus to be foretold in the Scriptures. He does not understand himself to be setting the Scriptures aside, but rather proclaiming their proper fulfillment in Jesus. One may call into question the way in which Paul uses the Jewish Scriptures, but not his belief that justification by faith in Jesus, rather than through the law, was God’s plan all along, foretold in the sacred writings of Israel.

Rather than setting aside the clear teaching of Scripture, the New Testament writers and the people they write about tend to bring various passages of Scripture into dialogue with one another. They use intellect, the insights of the faith community, and the leading of the Holy Spirit to adjudicate between Scriptural perspectives in ways they believe God has intended. The modern version of this process is known as “canonical criticism.” It is a very helpful corrective to some of the excesses of historical criticism, which whittles away aspects of Scripture that are out of step with a modernist worldview.

The presenting issue in Hamilton’s post is, of course, the position of The United Methodist Church on same-sex intimacy. There are indeed conservative United Methodists who take a kind of flat-footed literalist approach to this matter: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!” Hamilton’s arguments are most compelling against this type of position. But in my experience, conservative United Methodists generally have more nuanced views than this. When they talk about a “biblical view” of marriage, I think what most mean is that there is within Scripture an accumulation of ideas that contribute in important ways to our thinking about what a Christian marriage should be. It is not simply prohibitive texts about same-sex intimacy that play into this more conservative view, but other texts as well, such as the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and Christ’s’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19. These Christians also draw upon the historic teachings on marriage both within and outside of the Wesleyan tradition, and they take into account the positions held by Christians, both United Methodist and otherwise, around the world. Most Christians I encounter– conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between–know that simply quoting a passage from Scripture is neither sufficient nor convincing.

The use of the Bible in Christian ethical decision-making is a very complex matter, and The United Methodist Church, which has no clear doctrine of Scripture, is not well-suited to address it. As Witherington notes, “there is no universal way that Methodists think about the Bible.” That is a bit of an understatement. Until such time as we gain greater clarity on the nature and function of Scripture within our tradition, we will not likely make very much progress in our denominational debates regarding ethical matters. I am grateful for those who are entering into reasoned and respectful discussion around these issues, and I pray that God will grant us clarity as we move forward.

 

david-watson-640x320*Rev. Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and an Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. David is an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church. He has worked in the local church and in a United Methodist campus ministry. He currently serves on the Miami Valley District Committee on Ordained Ministry and the West Ohio Inclusive Body of Christ Ministry Team for Persons with Disabilities.

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20 Comments on "Commentary: Scripture and the Christian Moral Life"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Scott
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Interesting article. Points to the need to respect Christian tradition as well as scripture. Christian tradition over two millennia conforms exactly with scripture on the issue of so-called same sex marriage – it’s a direct violation of both tradition and scripture. The UMC alone among mainline Protestantism has the opportunity to remain faithful to Christian tradition and scripture. Let’s pray that it does.

Stan
Guest
So we should support Christian tradition, even when they are directly oppose to what Christ said and what Wesley demonstrated. Many Churches in Europe and now in this country are grand edifices that Jesus said not to build. Christ wanted our hearts and didn’t require the grand structures that were built. If you visit Wesley’s Church if is small and not ornate. The place I disagree with the article is prior to Christ providing the two great Commandments, he said he came to free us from the law. I read the Gospels and see how Christ deals with those who… Read more »
David
Guest

I am wondering where Jesus said ‘I have come to set you free from the law (of God)’? Can you supply a scriptural reference? Was it when Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 “do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Oh I guess that would not be the reference, since it says the exact opposite.

Mike Thomas
Guest

“it’s a direct violation of both tradition and scripture” Wow. Exactly the same thing was said about slavery and segregation and women’s suffrage and interracial marriage and women in the clergy, etc, etc….

David
Guest
Mike, I’m wondering how you might respond then to Watson’s article above which approaches it through ‘canonical criticism’. Or as I have heard it said ‘scripture interprets scripture’. For I can see a number of scriptures in favor of women’s preaching (Women at the Well, Joel’s Prophecy, Pracilla ect.), interracial marriage (book of Ruth, Gentiles welcomed in … Gen 1 all apart of human race ,), and those which call for freedom and are antislavery.(Exodus, Galatians, Philemon). So my question is where is the scriptural reference which would advocate same sex marriage? I hear a lot of cultural criticism (arguments… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
Just because the Bible does not advocate something does not make it wrong. Likewise, just because the Bible does not condemn something doesn’t make it right. I knew a pastor one time who wanted to preach against gambling because she saw the harm it was causing in her congregation but she could not find any Biblical passages directly condemning gambling. I told her that if it is causing harm today then it is wrong regardless of how it was viewed in the past. Jesus did not limit his teaching based on the scriptures. He disregarded biblical rules constantly which infuriated… Read more »
DEF
Guest

The Gospel is not “that all laws and prophets are fulfilled by the new command Love God and Love Your Neighbor.” Those aren’t even new commands, but summations of commands from the Old Testament. Jesus is quoting the OT.

David
Guest

DEF
We’re you responding to me (David) in my response to Stan above? Or responding to Stan? The format of responses on this sight is not clear. I would agree that Jesus is quoting the OT.

DEF
Guest

It is a response to Mike Thomas.

David
Guest
That’s not the point. For granted if the Bible was silent about it then I could see your point. But The Bible does speak against homosexual practices. So since You equated it with women, slavery and intermarriage…I’m pointing out how the is not the same. For in order to critically consider what the Bible says …you have to examine both scriptures for and against (if you are going to take the Bible as your standard and not simply dismiss it outright. So once again where are the scriptures in favor (like the ones used for women, or antislavery or intermarriage?
Mike Thomas
Guest
I believe the references to homosexual behavior in the Bible are tied up in the biblical authors’ abhorrence of the idolatry practiced by neighboring tribes and communities. We know that homosexual practices were part of some of the fertility rituals practiced by the pagan priests. This is made very clear in Romans 1 where Paul talks about idolatry immediately before mentioning homosexual activity. But then further into the chapter when he starts to list all the sins being practiced by the gentiles, he does not mention homosexuality. Why? I believe it is because Paul saw it as a consequence or… Read more »
David
Guest

To see if you understand ‘canonical critism’ Let me ask it in a different way then. Since you brought up again these other issues and equated them to homosexuality. Do you see any support in the scriptures for women, for interracial marriage, and for anti slavery? … or did we just ‘change our stances on those based solely on cultural criticism?

Mike Thomas
Guest
If I understand your argument here, you are saying that we must find some evidence in the text to justify any change in doctrine that is based on another part of scripture. I believe that view is flawed as it does not allow for the continued accumulation of knowledge as we have advanced in our understanding and exploration of God’s wonderfully vast and diverse universe. Based on that argument, we would have to hold fast to the view that the earth is stationary and the center of the universe as the sun and stars rotate around us. There is nowhere… Read more »
David
Guest
In order to change “doctrine’ (fundamental Christian beliefs) do we need a scriptural basis? Yes… For if I understand you correctly, because of advances in science and technology… our culture has also advanced ethically beyond the scriptures. In other words, you are saying, culture trumps scripture. In that reasoning,if science indicates a genetic disposition towards alcoholism (which it has) … then getting drunk is permitable on cultural grounds. Or if there is a genetic disposition towards sociopathic killers (which science says yes)… even though the scriptures state “thou shall not Kill”…that’s just the culture of the bible and not God’s… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
First, I reject the suggestion that opposition to homosexuals is a “fundamental Christian belief” when it is something that Jesus never mentioned. Second, no, you did not understand me correctly. I did not say anything about our culture advancing ethically – although you could make that argument when you consider that we have done away with slavery, patriarchy and the subjugation of women. But my point was about our advancements in scientific understanding and how that effects our views on homosexuality in particular. The other examples you give are all harmful in one way or another. Homosexuality, when practiced monogamously,… Read more »
David
Guest
‘Name another sin that does not harm to anyone?’ …depends upon whether God is considered a person in this equation and whether God is harmed by our disobedience/sin. But it seems your thinking of humans harming poeple as sin… so let me take a shot at it. 1)Adam and Eve Gen 3 disregard for and rebellion against God 2) Moses lack of trust in God …hitting rock twice …resulted in him not seeing promise land 3) Idolatry …and worship of false gods (ten comandments) 4) Saul not waiting for the Lord’s command and going ahead to sacrifice himself (kingdom torn… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest

It is not so much a difference in how we view sin as a difference in how we read the Bible. Was God hurt or offended by all of these things? I don’t think so, but the ancient Hebrews believed he was and so they recorded it as sin. But Jesus gave us a better way to see, feel, understand and experience God, based not on laws but on unconditional love and grace. And that is a gospel message that does not change with time or culture.

David
Guest
Mike, I understand that we have a different view in how we read and understand the Bible. And probably will just have to just move on to another discussion. But before I do, I just want to go back to the very first point you made and my first repsonse, because when I hear people equate views on homosexuality directly with “slavery and segregation and women’s suffrage and interracial marriage and women in the clergy”, I do see a difference and wonder if you might acknowedg that a person can be against those things you listed and still hold the… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
I believe the people who fought against slavery and for women’s suffrage, etc., did so because they knew in their hearts that it was the right thing to do, not because they woke up one day and read something in the Bible that they hadn’t noticed before and said “Hey, this stuff is wrong because it says so right here….” I don’t think the Bible should be used as a limit on God’s ability to influence, guide and direct us in our lives. What would be the purpose of the Holy Spirit if everything was spelled out perfectly and clearly… Read more »
Daniel Wagle
Guest
I think conservatives are definitely wrong to place heterosexual marriage as the most important value in the Christian life. If they truly honestly read scripture in light of scripture, they would find that “marriage to the Lord” is consistently held as a higher value than heterosexual marriage as a norm consistently throughout both Testaments. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:17, Paul states that cleaving to the LORD is the answer to sexual immorality, that is being joined to an idolatrous cult Prostitute. He DOESN’T say heterosexual marriage is THE norm and THE cure for sin. If Jesus stated that “family”… Read more »
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