Taking the Bible Seriously by Leander E. Keck
Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus. Published by Association Press, 291 Broadway, New York 7, N.Y. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 8: Two Examples of Dialogue
Our discussion will become more concrete when we turn to two issues, science and ethics. They readily illustrate what we have been saying and they are areas of real concern.
What About the Bible and Science?
Standing on the threshhold of astronavigation makes us all aware of a conception of the universe long held by astronomers. No one expects the kind of battle once fought between the Church and Galileo to be waged again, but serious readers find themselves in a dilemma as they put down the newspaper to pick up the Bible. In fact, there are many readers of the newspaper who find it increasingly difficult to pick up the Bible at all. One reason is that there is an undeniable tension between what the Bible sometimes says about the universe and what we know about it today. But there is agreement as well as tension. After noting this, we shall turn to the problem of creation and then to the question of "miracles."
First, we note four important areas in which the Bible and science agree. To begin, the Bible has a positive attitude toward the material world. The dictum of Genesis is never repudiated: "God saw that it [the world] was good." In the light of repeated efforts in Western culture to deny this, the biblical assertion is really an ally of scientific work. Second, the Bible agrees with science that the universe is intelligible to man. It does not say this in scientific terms; it prefers to say it in its own way: "The heavens declare the glory of God." This assumes that the heavens are not capricious or arbitrary but coherent and dependable, and hence intelligible. Third, the Bible sees man as part of the material world. Like science, the Bible knows that man is more than matter, but it is unmistakable in emphasizing continuity between man and the world of things and animals. He is made from the dust, and he can be described by the same word as is used for animals (Genesis 2:4-9, 18f.). Besides, "nature" will participate in the great fulfillment to come (Isaiah 85, Romans 8:18-39, Revelation 21:1-4). Fourth, the Bible sees man as sovereign over the world. The world is at his disposal, and he is fully human when he masters it. The best impact of biblical thought insists that scientific work is nothing less than a fulfillment of Godís will that man should "fill the earth and subdue it . . . and have dominion over every living thing." Exploration of space is merely an extension of this.
These tersely stated points have not exhausted the positive relation between the Bible and science. Nonetheless, these underlying points of agreement may be more important than tensions over particulars. Yet, real tensions do exist, and we must face them.
We begin by asking how the Bible views the world. To generalize what this diverse literature says about the world is to commit the crime of distortion. Nevertheless, a caricature may highlight important features better than a sharp photograph. This is the risk we take.
(a) Basically, the Bible does not want to provide information about the universe, though it contains ancient knowledge. In fact, documents which were interested in such information, such as Enoch, were rejected from the Bible. Rather, the Bible is concerned with the universe primarily as it bears on the central concern -- the meaning of human life. The Bible is not interested in disclosing the structure or the size of the cosmos. In the light of the battles which have been fought over the Bible and science, perhaps this omission should be seen as an act of Providence.
(b) The biblical conceptions of the universe reflect the historicity of the Bible. Consequently, the Bible has a double relation to the ideas of the universe: it accepted the ideas of the time and it modified them. Both elements must be seen.
The Bible shares the world view with its neighbors. Since the Bible was written over a span of thirty generations living in three cultures, there is no single world view but several. The earliest is apparently the Babylonian and the latest the Hellenistic, built on earlier foundations. None of these are our world views. The fundamental difference is that we have discarded the idea of how the cosmos is structured (three floors, Hell or Hades, earth, heaven) and insist that the only means of knowing about this universe is by scientific study. Our cosmos has no angels, demons, or other supraterrestrial beings with whom we must contend. Though science-fiction deals with Martians, we do not regard these as having such a control of the world that we must reckon with them religiously. Even if life on Mars should prove to be superior to ours, this would not be scientific confirmation of the Bibleís angels and archangels.
As a matter of fact, there have been many such attempts to harmonize the Bible and science by making the Bible anticipate what science discovers. A famous attempt was trying to squeeze the geological periods of the earthís history into the six days of creation; another is the attempt to identify the Christmas star with a planet or comet. Such efforts are a waste of time and should be given up, for they mock both science and the Bible.
Because the Bible shares its ideas about the world with the eras in which it was written, there can be no denying a tension between some things the Bible says and what we know of the world. In fact, the more we know about both the Bible and the world, the greater becomes the gulf between science and Scripture at certain points. This is not because science is antireligious but because the gulf that separates our knowledge of the world from that of ancient times is widening. Because the Bible thinks of the world in terms of its own, the gap is growing. In other words, it is the historicity of both the Bible and the modern reader which separates them.
(c) The Bible, however, did not simply borrow ideas of the world from surrounding cultures, but modified what it used. That is, it adapted the ideas it adopted. We may illustrate this with Genesis and Colossians, the former dealing with creation, the latter with salvation.
Important features of the creation story are shared with the Babylonian creation myth. When the Mesopotamian material was first found, many thought the Bible offered simply a truncated version edited for Hebrew readers. Closer study has corrected this. There are real parallels and influences which cannot be denied. But important differences outweigh similarities. For one thing, the Babylonian account says the world resulted from a battle among the gods; the loser was halved like a fillet and made into earth and sky while from her blood man was created. In contrast, Genesis refuses to speculate about what God was doing before he created the world; moreover, it has no room for any conflict because the story shows God as the absolute master of the situation. Besides, in Genesis man is made from dust instead of being a blood relative of the gods. Thus, though doubtless the Babylonian myth lies in the background (this is clearer in the Hebrew text), the biblical writers so completely transformed it that it could never be recovered from the text of Genesis alone.
Paulís letter to the Colossians comes from the more sophisticated Greco-Roman world. For centuries men believed that stars and planets were the abodes of heavenly beings which must be respected. After Alexanderís conquests bequeathed Greek culture to the world (much like the recent Americanization of half the globe), the accumulated observations of the astrologers were correlated with mathematical knowledge. The result was revolutionary, for now it was possible to calculate the relationships between heavenly powers and beings. Here was a genuinely scientific basis for religion! The Stoics used the new knowledge to exhort men to integrate their lives to the rhythm of the cosmos, for they said man was a constituent part of this vast organism. Dualists, on the other hand, believed that manís eternal soul was imprisoned in a temporal body. The new knowledge now meant that the stars ruled the body and that this rule could be gauged. Hence, the more precisely one calculated the movements of the heavenly world, the more efficient the cosmic penal system appeared. Salvation lay not in getting into step with the universe but in getting out of it altogether.
The letter to the Colossians presupposes this view and is not intelligible without it. The Colossian Christians apparently believed that although Jesus was the Savior, these cosmic powers needed to be dealt with in traditional ways -- by observing special days and seasons and by practicing rites to show one was free from their control. Paul does not argue the basic cosmology at all. He seems to share the point of departure and says that the resurrection of Jesus broke the power of cosmic forces: "He disarmed the principalities and powers [one of Paulís phrases for them] and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him" (Colossians 2:15). Therefore, Paul argued, all efforts to come to terms with them were really repudiating the resurrection.
Genesis and Colossians show how contemporary ideas affect what the Bible says. The writers are not deliberately choosing a mode of discourse the way a printer selects a kind of type: rather, they shared these views themselves. But they also heard something distinctive. In other words, just as the biblical writers are indebted to the tradition of Israelís history, so they are indebted to their age for what they say or assume about the world. Moreover, just as they say something creative within their tradition, so they say something new about the world, and they do so without pretending to offer a divinely revealed science. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "Christian science" because there is no such thing as Christian nature.
(d) The Bibleís main concern with nature is to see it as creation. Only the most indispensable matters can be touched here. First, the idea of creation does not depend on a particular theory of the worldís origin. Therefore it is useless as a criterion for deciding whether one thinks the universe originated by condensation or by explosion. In such matters we must follow scientific evidence by scientific method. The biblical conviction of creation says nothing about the process at all; it is concerned solely with the meaning of what exists.
Second, the Bible insists that the phenomenal world is not eternal but had a starting point. The Bible nowhere says explicitly what the Church later said -- that the world was created from nothing, ex nihilo.(One of the books of the Apocrypha, however, says virtually the same thing: "God did not make them [things in heaven or earth] out of things that existed." The sentence can also be translated, "God made them out of things that did not exist" [II Maccabees 7:28]. Although this book is not part of the Protestant Bible, it does show that in a setting in which matter is held to be virtually eternal, the biblical understanding of God as Creator leads naturally to a creatio ex nihilo position since the alternative compromises the sovereignty of God over nature). But it implies this and, when the question was asked, it was made explicit. The Church made the matter clear because it was forced to choose between clear alternatives. Some (Marcion for instance) said that there were two gods, one of whom created this evil world as his domain. Others said matter was really eternal and the Creator was only an Artificer, a divine Shaper of things which already existed. Others said the world evolved downward from God through a series of links in a descending chain of being. In this view, existence degenerated as it descended; earth and man were near the bottom of the ladder. Over against all these views, the Church picked up the theme of Genesis -- that prior to the cosmos there was only God, and that the universe depends immediately on him and not on some intermediary demigod. The Church was not trying to provide scientific answers but to understand manís relation to the world and to God. Saying the universe began when God deliberately created it from nothing at all, is not a scientific assertion but a theological conviction about how God, man, and the world are related.
In the third place, we note two important consequences of the idea of creation. One is that everything is radically and totally contingent on a Source beyond the cosmos. Neither man nor nature are autonomous or self-explanatory. With this contingency goes the fact that man is responsible to God. Here again we see the Bibleís intent: not a scientific report but a basis for the moral character of man. The Bible does not claim that moral laws are built into the universe, as Stoics said, but it does insist that man is a moral being because he is created in the image of a moral God. The doctrine of creation also implies that man is responsible to God alone. Since he is not the outcome of a cosmic tug-of-war, he owes ultimate allegiance only to the Creator. The Devil has no place in the story of creation; the Bible says he does his work afterward. In the Bible, moreover, the Devil always operates on usurped authority. Consequently, neither nature nor any other power in the cosmos is to be worshipped. The real intent of creation-theology is to insist that nothing phenomenal is ultimate, that everything phenomenal is relative, that it is relative to God alone. Biblical monotheism is not speculation about the numerical character of God but the conviction that only he is God.
The concept of creation, then, does not conflict with scientific theories, but it may conflict basically with the way a scientist views the world which he studies. The idea of creation does not control experiments, but it summons the experimenter to understand himself as a creature studying other creatures.
The most common area of difficulty is the miracles. Miracles have dominated so many discussions of science and the Bible because a wrong assumption has reigned -- that the authority of the Bible stands or falls with the miracle stories. Defenders of the Bible still put it this way, "If I canít believe everything in the Bible, how can I believe anything?" Usually the inference is that one must therefore swallow it whole. This essay tries to show another way because such an argument is really a blind alley. On the other hand, debunkers have often claimed more than they knew when they ruled out all reports of the miraculous. The fate of the healing stories in Jesusí ministry illustrates this. Psychosomatic healing has made many stories credible again. Not every story is now rehabilitated, but the problem has been reshaped. Because the miracle question is most pressing in the study of Jesus, we limit the discussion to these stories.
Rather than beginning by sorting the stories into two piles, the credible and the incredible, it is better to ask what each story was intended to convey. Beginning here also helps to avoid rationalizing the stories -- that is, finding rational, respectable, ordinary reasons for stories about the unusual and irrational. The rationalist says that Jesus did not feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish (Mark 8 :1-10), but actually induced each person to share his hidden biscuit with his neighbor. Fundamentalists have always repudiated this procedure, and rightly, for it tries to make the stories true by rewriting them. When we begin by asking what the story intended to convey, we temporarily postpone the question, "What really happened?" This is a valid question, but it is not the place to begin.
Beginning with the intent of the story helps us to see that the Bible actually has no concept of "miracle" at all. Having no idea of natural law, it does not look on the stories as reports of how the laws of nature were momentarily suspended. The Bibleís own terms for these events is "mighty acts of God" or "signs and wonders." That is, the Bible is interested in such stories because they point beyond themselves ("signs") to something more important. We are the miraclemongers, not the Bible. In fact, the Gospels report that Jesus refused to give "signs" when they were requested (Mark 8:11-18).
Moreover, the Bible does not try to prove a theological point by appealing to the miracles. This is a clear difference between the biblical Gospels and those not in the Bible. The Gospel of James, for instance, tries to prove the Virgin Birth of Jesus by reporting that a midwife inspected Mary.(Gospel of James, Ch. 19. See M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, op. cit., p. 46. The Gospel of Thomas (not the one recently discovered in Egypt) reports the childhood of Jesus in a similar vein -- a series of miraculous events such as making twelve clay pigeons fly or taking over the first grade at school to lecture on mystical meanings of the alphabet. The apocryphal acts of various apostles report the same sort of stories, such as Johnís ordering the bedbugs out of the bed in a third-class inn and then permitting them to return in the morning after he had slept. Reading the apocryphal miracle stories will show how really reticent the biblical accounts are.) It is amazing that people continue to say the miracles prove the divinity of Jesus when the New Testament Gospels report the opposite -- that in his own lifetime they proved nothing at all, and that some observers concluded his power was not divine but demonic (Mark 3:20-33). Even if one could prove beyond a doubt that the miracle stories are literally true, this would prove nothing at all except that these things happened.
Johnís Gospel, however, contains passages which suggest that miracles do show who Jesus was (for example, 2:11, 5:36, 7:31). But when these statements are seen in the light of the whole document, it is apparent that John sees the ambiguity of the miracles just as clearly as do the others. In fact, the ambiguity is actually sharpened. John reports that "many believed in his name when they saw his signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them. . ." (John 2:23). Moreover, whenever Jesus discloses himself in this Gospel, the usual response is an argument or a misunderstanding (for instance, John 9:13-34). That is, the wondrous deeds of Jesus are reported in such a way that the believer sees them as manifestations of Jesusí mission but the nonbeliever is offended. To make this perfectly clear, John reports that once a voice spoke to Jesus from heaven; the crowd, however, argued whether this was an angel or thunder (John 12:27-30). This Gospel, then, has little confidence in the persuasive power of the miraculous.
In short, the Bible knows that to the believer the miracles may bring corroboration, but to him who does not believe, they are only reports of the bizarre and the incredible.
Following the intent of the stories further leads us to distinguish between the Gospel stories about Jesusí healings and the stories which glorify Jesus himself, like his walking on water. Many of the healing stories are quite credible in the light of our knowledge of neuroses, especially as symptoms of guilt. But many stories in the latter category are the kind of evidence Jesus himself rejected -- signs to demonstrate his power (for example, Mark 8:11-13). Consequently, the healing stories have a greater degree of reliability. However, they should not be read as case histories but as popular stories about real healings.
Our main problem is with the second group, the stories which are told to present the power of Jesus. Honesty requires us to admit that our total knowledge of the world leads us to insist that the only time ax heads float (II Kings 6:1-7) or people walk on water (Mark 6:47-52) is when it is frozen. When we read such stories we can conclude that either the stories are not reports of real events or that our physics does not apply to Jesus and the Bible. As far as Jesus is concerned, the Church has always insisted that anyone who says Jesus is exempt from the rules is a heretic because he undermines the full humanity of Jesus. It is better, then, to take the former alternative.
In fact, were such stories not in the Bible we should not hesitate at all. If we should read that Mohammed walked across the Red Sea we should conclude that this is a pious Islamic invention. But we cannot have one standard for stories in the Bible and another for stories outside it. In matters of this kind we cannot believe something simply because it is in the Bible. At first glance, believing the incredible simply because it is biblical may look like real faithfulness to the Scripture; on second glance, however, it really makes the Bible irrelevant because it makes it stand outside life as we know it. Nonetheless, such stories are part of the Bible which is our Scripture. If we cannot take them as accounts of real events, what can we do with them?
Such stories should neither be rationalized nor discarded completely. For one thing, this would make it difficult to listen to the writers for whom the stories are important. Beyond this, since the Bible is not miracle-mad, we must ask whether we have correctly understood the intent of the story. Frequently, it is rewarding to listen again. For example, the story of Jesus walking on water was told as a symbol to convey the presence of Jesus with his people in the night of despair. To read it simply as an account of how Jesus suspended or defied the law of floating bodies is to miss the point. Similarly, the story of how Jesus fed the thousands is not concerned primarily to show how Jesus could set up a soup kitchen in the wilderness: rather, it is told to show how the whole Church can be fed with the bread Jesus blessed --the bread of the Lordís Supper.
Clearly, there is a danger of arbitrarily allegorizing whatever is objectionable so that new spiritual meanings emerge everywhere. This danger cannot be avoided. It can, however, be minimized by listening closely to what the author is trying to say. Even so, it is clear that not every story will convey such a deeper meaning. In this case, we may simply shake our heads and say, "Iím sorry, but I canít follow you here." Nothing is gained by pretending to believe something we really donít.
In conclusion, the issue of science and the Bible provides a clear occasion for the reader to carry on a dialogue with the Bible. The tensions between our science and certain biblical statements cannot be handled by a pious statement that there can be no conflict between science and the Bible because God is responsible for both.(Such a statement was made by Ulric Jelinek: "Nature and the Bible must say the same thing because God wrote them both. If there is any conflict in your mind you will find that there is something wrong either with the interpretation or the observation of the facts. The Bible is written in the language of the common man in the culture of the day, and yet, when it speaks about science, it is scientifically correct." This is a typical fundamentalist position. Ulric Jelinek, "A Scientist Contemplates the Universe and Its Creator," The Collegiate Challenge, Oct., 1961, p. 6.) Instead, the reader will maintain his integrity if he learns he need not feel guilty if, after questioning the Bible for what it says and implies about the universe, he concludes that our scientific data are more reliable. At the same time, the dialogue will be maintained if the reader allows the Bible to maintain its integrity also. This means not twisting it so as to make it keep up to date with our science, but allowing it to keep its historicity. Even more, it means allowing the fundamental concern of the Bible to question the reader, to compel him to decide whether or not he will understand himself as a creature whose existence is totally dependent on One who transcends everything. When the Bible elicits a fundamental decision on this issue, its authority will be demonstrated.
How Is the Bible Relevant for Ethics?
There is also a tension between the Bible and the things we do every day. For example, if the specific prohibitions and commands in the Bible were to be enforced, men would stop shaving and women would give up permanents and jewelry (Leviticus 19:27, I Corinthians 11:2-16, I Timothy 2:9); no clothes would contain mixed fibers (Deuteronomy 22:11); no farmer could develop hybrids or cross-breed his stock (Leviticus 19:19); meals would no longer include pork, crabs, lobsters, rabbits (Leviticus 11); banks could charge interest on loans made only to foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:19f.) and any unpaid loans to fellow citizens would be canceled every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-3); juvenile delinquents would be executed (Deuteronomy 21:18-22); and illegitimate children would be ostracized (Deuteronomy 23:2).
But instead of cataloguing such points, we are more concerned to discuss basic areas of life where the Bible stands in tension with our prevailing mores and assumptions.
We begin with the relation of the Bible to democracy. The Bible knows nothing about it; it is thoroughly theocratic. The Bible believes that God is the absolute sovereign, and he is often called "king" (for instance, I Samuel 8:1-9, Psalm 99, Isaiah 6:1-4). The Old Testament gets no closer to democracy than insisting that the Israelite king be responsible to God and to his fellow Israelites. This "democratic vein" has nothing to do with the worth of every person but with the obligation to be faithful to a brother Israelite. The New Testament does not get even this far, since it ignores political theory and pushes the political character of Jesusí Messiahship into the background or into heaven ("My kingdom is not of this world," John 18:30). The genuinely biblical idea of government does not point to modern democratic society but to Brigham Young and the theocracy of the Mormons. Besides, when the Bible speaks of the future, it talks about the "kingdom of God" (better translated "kingship"). There is no thought of participating in the processes of government in Godís kingdom. If God has an agent it is the Messiah; he is not elected by men but sent by God. In short, one simply cannot say that the Bible teaches democracy as a way of life.
The New Testament intensifies the problem. It admonishes believers to pay taxes, obey the law, honor the emperor, and be solid citizens (see Mark 12:13-17, Romans 13:1-5, I Peter 2:13-17), but it never reports an apostle engaged in public affairs other than preaching. Joseph Klausner, the Jewish scholar who wrote an important study of Jesus, pointed out that such "irresponsibility" is traceable to Jesus himself, for he showed no concern for the structure of society; (Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, Herbert Danby tr. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), pp.373ff.) in fact, Jesus said he came to disrupt a fundamental institution -- the family (Matthew 10:8439). The main stream of the Mennonite tradition has insisted that the Christian should not participate in government at all, either in war or in voting. In a sense, this view has the weight of the New Testament pattern behind it. What, then, is the authority of the Bible for a society based on wide participation in public affairs?
A second area in which we have problems with the Bible is that of family life, the role of women, attitudes toward sex and divorce. The Bible has exercised real authority in such matters. Until recently, the Church did not tolerate divorce because the New Testament forbids it.(Actually, the statements are not altogether uniform. According to Mark 10:1-12, Jesus went beyond the Old Testament status of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) by prohibiting it altogether as a violation of Godís primary intent in creation. Mark reports that the disciples questioned Jesus about such a radical ruling, and Matthew reports the same pronouncement with a significant change -- no divorce except for unchastity (Matthew 19:1-12). Paulís rejection of divorce (I Corinthians 7) is motivated largely by his concern to prevent Christianity from becoming a wedge between a Christian husband and his non-Christian wife. All his statements on the subject must also be gauged in the light of his keen expectation that the end of the entire fabric of society was as we know it just around the corner; in such a situation, he did not want people to become embroiled in problems which had only momentary significance. As it became clear that society would continue far beyond anything Paul (or anyone else in the New Testament) really expected it also became evident that Paulís statements must be rethought. In certain particulars Paul himself recognized that he was improvising without explicit authority from Jesusí words (I Corinthians 7:10, 12, 25, 40). Similarly, Paulís command that women remain silent in church (I Corinthians 14:33b-36) has made ordaining women impossible until recently.
A third sensitive area is race relations. The end of Caucasian domination is as irreversible as it is incontestable. No government today can withstand the pressure for equality for all. This is long overdue. Nonetheless, there are real tensions between this pressure and parts of the Bible.
Doubtless some passages in the Bible call for a kind of segregation of the Jews. Though its advocate, Ezra, did not insist on "Compounds for Canaanites" he certainly did require Jewish apartheid (Ezra 2:59-63, 9:1-15). Even more famous is the passage in Genesis which appears to support the subjugation of the Africans (Genesis 9:25-27). Several years ago, this was quoted to buttress segregation. This pernicious misinterpretation overlooked the fact that the alleged curse on the Negro was spoken by Noah when he emerged from a drunken stupor in which he had lain naked in his tent. Those who used this to support segregation were claiming that what Noah muttered in a hangover was the eternal Word of God on the subject!
Perhaps more fundamental to the tension is the fact that basically the Bible does not advocate social reconstruction as such. The prophets indeed denounce injustice, but they do not advocate a program of social change in general. The New Testament accepts slavery and does not seek to change this institution or any other. In fact, Paul rejects using Christianity as a springboard for changing oneís status in society (I Corinthians 7:17-24). What, then, is the authority of the Bible in our day when the whole world is in the throes of some kind of revolution?
Instead of discussing each point raised in detail, we shall deal with the authority of the Bible in social ethics by emphasizing two points. The first is that we must constantly keep in mind the historicity of the Bible. This means that the Bible shares the social attitudes and assumptions of its era just as it does the science of the age. Thus the Bible takes slavery for granted but seeks to regulate the treatment of slaves (Exodus 21, Ephesians 6:5-9). Likewise, it assumes women are subordinate (I Corinthians 11:2-16, I Peter 3:1-7) and that the monarch is supreme.
Bearing in mind the historicity of the Bible also helps us to see the impact particular circumstances have on what is said on ethical matters. Thus, the reason Ezra insists on semi-isolation for the Jews is that this is the only way he sees for a minority group to maintain its identity. Similarly, attention to circumstances helps us to understand the New Testamentís silence on responsible action in public life. Thus, we remember that at the time there was no Jewish state in which the apostles could help to shape policy as the prophets once did (for instance, I Kings 22). The only way they could have participated was by joining the underground movement against the Romans; from this, however, they dissociated themselves (Acts 21:37-39). Moreover, the Church expected the end of history momentarily; there simply was no point in getting involved in a society which was about to be replaced. Besides, before long Christians were persecuted by the state. In such a situation, they could share in governmental activity more as lion fodder or as living torches for Neroís garden parties.
Consequently, simply quoting "what the Bible says" on social matters (or does not say) is of interest but need not be decisive. The problems which emerge in our kind of society are not solved by quoting what the Bible said to problems of another kind of society. In fact, the more specifically the biblical statements address the ethical problems of its time, the less relevant they may be today. The regulations with which we began this discussion illustrate this amply. Nowhere is the historicity of the Bible more evident than in its ethics.
The second thing which must be emphasized is that the historicity of the ethical commands of the Bible does not make the Bible irrelevant, because more important than explicit regulations are the underlying assumptions. As in matters touching science, so in ethical problems the significant impact of the Bible comes from under the surface. We note briefly four important assumptions.
(a) Righteousness is axiomatic. This term does not mean goodness or justice (an alternate translation) in the common sense but means a right relation to a norm. For the Bible, the norm is not a built-in moral law of the universe but the character of God. Hence the Bible insists that God requires righteousness and that religion and morality (love of God and neighbor) are inseparable. In this way, the Bible opposes the idea that God is an impersonal Power, an a-moral It. The Bible also rejects all contemporary pressure to confine religion to worship, so that the preacher will concern himself with getting us to heaven but will leave life on Main Street alone.
The Bibleís concern for righteousness gives its own kind of support to democracy. The Bible is conducive to democracy because it sees man as a responsible sinner (both words are important) whose power must be restrained if justice is to be achieved. Implicit biblical support for democracy does not come from happy idealism about every manís worth or his capacity for sound judgment, rather, it flows from sober realism about every manís tendency to sin against his neighbor if he can get away with it. Likewise, the Bible tacitly supports democracy by holding that although government is divinely ordained neither kings nor their policies have automatic divine sanction. (James I could not have afforded to listen closely to the Bible!) Perhaps the current dissolution of democratic patterns in our industrial and urban society can be checked by shifting our ideology away from rationalism to biblical realism. At least, the Bible provides a better clue to understanding the corruption of legislators and voting habits than do John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.
(b) Godís concern for righteousness becomes specific. The Bible, therefore, is more interested in particular legislation than with theories of law; it is not content to exhort the reader to be kind and honest in general but is concerned to say specifically what kindness and honesty mean. This is why the Bible contains so many commandments, dealing with the whole range of human life, from commands against murder to prohibitions against cooking a kid in its motherís milk. When the writers included such details they were not being picayune; rather, they expressed the conviction that Godís will is specific.
The critical historian has shown that much of this legislation is shared with the ancient Near East in general; that is, the specific commands reflect the historicity of the Bible. But the underlying assumption is not nullified by this. Where the underlying assumption that Godís will is specific is really seen, the reader risks similar judgments about Godís specific will. Pastors who do this from the pulpit have the authority of the Bible behind them when they speak to specific problems of our time even though they may not have this authority for the actual judgments they make. In other words, the real authority of the Bible lies in rescuing Christian ethics from platitudes about goodness and love, and in summoning people to specific acts of obedience and justice.
(c) Religion and nationalism are separable in a way religion and ethics are not. At first this does not seem valid because the covenant theology interweaves the destiny of Israel with the promise of God. But the decisive point here is that gradually the Bible becomes convinced that it must distinguish between a religious understanding of Israelís fortunes and religious chauvinism. Gradually, the insight was clarified that the real destiny of Israel does not depend on the glorious existence of the Jewish state. It took the total destruction of the country in 586 B.C. to drive the point home. It was the so-called Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40ff.) who insisted that Godís real purpose would be achieved through a people whose national life had been destroyed.
This emerging conviction opposes all recent efforts to see Christianity as an arm of the State Department, or vice versa. The Bible does not oppose patriotism, but it knows that Godís purposes are not tied to the fortunes of any state, nor is the existence of the Church. The Bible repudiates the notion that if Western democracy should succumb to communism, Christianity is doomed with it.
(d) For the Christian, Jesus is decisive. This may take the form of making his life and axioms the pattern for Christian ethics. When this occurs, the follower of Jesus does not woodenly imitate everything Jesus did (remain unmarried, wear sandals, live "on the road" with friends). Rather, he finds ways of allowing the pulse of Jesusí life to throb in his own situation today; that is, problems of contemporary life suggest ways the example of Jesus is to be followed. This is not so much asking, "What kind of engineer would Jesus be?" as asking, "What does the demeanor of his life compel me, an engineer, to be?"
Working out the implication of Godís work in Jesus may take another, more subtle, form. Here one does not necessarily look for precedents in Jesusí life but for consequences of the Christ-event as a whole. For example, Jesus said nothing about segregation and seems to have accepted the primary place of the Jews in the purpose of God. This does not put the problems of segregation outside the scope of Jesusí meaning, however. We see this through Paul who faced an analogous situation in Antioch: Jewish Christians segregated themselves from their Gentile brethren. They had no serious objections to their becoming Christians but they saw no reason why they should worship together or, especially, eat the Lordís Supper together. Paul argued that what God achieved in Jesus was a relation which is not affected by cultural distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Therefore, when the congregation segregated the observance of the Lordís Supper, it was denying the heart of the gospel (Galatians 2). This instance shows the need to go beyond "imitating Jesus" to thinking about social problems in the light of what Jesus means, and to making our own decisions under his impact. This is why Christian ethics and Christian theology are so closely related.
In conclusion, the tensions between the ethos of our society and the ethical mandates in the Bible provide an important occasion for the reader to carry on his dialogue with the Bible. Whether it be the growing alliance between frustrated generals and frustrated preachers, the problems of family ethics or race relations, the reader finds himself pulled one way by our society and summoned in another direction by the Bible. Here the reader maintains his integrity by asking fundamental questions about the Bible and its meaning; he also allows the Bible to interrogate him. At some point however, he must decide which authority will be paramount for him.
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We may conclude this essay by observing that the authority of the Bible is characterized by dialogue in concentric circles. (a) The main dialogue is between the Bible and the reader. After pursuing historical understanding until one is reasonably sure he deals with the author and not with a misconception of him, the reader and the writer probe one anotherís convictions. The author risks being set aside by the reader; the reader risks being won over by the writer and being accosted by the divine Thou. (b) This dialogue occurs in a community of faith, whether the reader is an actual member of a church or not. A stream of interpretation guides the readerís understanding, and he is drawn into the community of interpreters. At the same time, reading the Bible dialogically and hearing the Word personally brings a dialogue with the community because the reader asks whether it has understood the Word or not. Consequently reader and community test one another, and each risks being reformed. (c) The reader hears the Word within a culture with a history. Consequently, hearing the Word elicits a critique of the culture and a review of its history in the light of the divine Word. At the same time, society and culture press the reader for the basis of his prophetic protests, and this drives him back to the Bible and the Word.
In each of these three circles, the reader is involved in a dialogue brought about and sustained by the Bible. Any concrete decision or act is, to borrow a term from physics, the resolution of these three forces. None of the partners in dialogue can claim absolute authority because historicity affects them all. Only the Word of God is absolute, and the Spirit of God enables it to work through all three. The place to learn how to recognize the Word and how to listen for it is the Bible. This is why it is still Scripture.
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