Thinking about ethics

 I am a professional, Christian theologian.  Specifically, a Baptist.  Not only do I teach theology on a college level, I also I regularly teach adult Sunday School, and even occasionally preach sermons from the pulpit.  All my major published books have been theologically related (and they make lovely gifts for all occasions—check Amazon or Barnes and Noble).  But what does it mean to be a Christian theologian? 

It means I have thoughts. Usually odd ones.  Just ask my wife.  Or my students.

For instance: as I was reading in the New Testament recently (specifically the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark), something popped into my head. I'm still toying with it.  See what you think. Watch how a theologian ponders things.  Maybe start gathering stones now.

There is a tendency in the church to regard all ethical standards as unchanging absolutes. Almost goes without saying. The idea that there could be any temporary or fuzzy quality to it strikes most, on first hearing, as absurd. But in Mark 6:7-11 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and he gives them detailed instructions on how they should conduct themselves. Later, in Luke 22:35-36 he sends them out a second time, but he gives them different instructions, contradicting the first.

How so?  His purposes and their needs have shifted.

Most theologians recognize the progressive nature of God’s revelation to his people. That is, what people in the front of the Bible know about God is less than those in the later parts.  But how might this progressive understanding about God affect what we think of as right and wrong?

A consideration of Jesus’ changing instructions to his disciples perhaps points the way.  It suggests that ethics may sometimes be more circumstantial in its implementation than we might care to think. Or be comfortable with.

Ponder this: circumcision seems clearly an absolute—and everlasting—commandment of God in the Hebrew Bible: a moral imperative impossible to ignore or do without (just check out the wording of Genesis 17:10-14). And yet Paul, who was trained by the Rabbi Gamaliel, dismisses the practice entirely in his letters preserved in the New Testament. More than that, he actively argues against circumcision—despite the clear-cut biblical commands to the contrary, and despite the severe criticism he faced for his position from traditional Judaism and even from many within the Christian community (see Galatians 5:2-12, 6:12-15). Likewise, Christians (including Paul and Peter) jettisoned the kosher laws regarding what could be eaten. Peter’s vision (see Acts 10:1-19) of the animals let down in a sheet contributed to a radical shift in permissible meals, despite unambiguous biblical commands to the contrary.  The Jerusalem Council’s letter (as recorded in Acts 15:23-29) makes it clear that the early church decided the Hebrew Bible’s dietary regulations no longer needed to be enforced for Gentiles, but that they should still avoid food sacrificed to idols.  But then soon afterward, in his epistle to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8), Paul told the Christians to whom he was writing that there was no problem with even eating food that had been sacrificed to idols!

So, at least from a Christian perspective, just because some may think that certain biblical commands or injunctions are eternal truths does not necessarily mean that they actually are.  

Jesus argued that the law could be summarized with just two commands: to love God and to love people (Matthew 22:36-40); Paul picked up on this as reflected in his letters, for instance in Romans 13:8-10 where he writes “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”  See also his words in Galatians 5:14: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

These two commandments (to love God and to love people) alone remain the guiding principles in morality, rather than the detailed lists that appear elsewhere within the sacred texts. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11) and Jesus’ consistent violation of Sabbath restrictions (see for instance Mark 2:23-28): mercy, love, justice take precedence over any legalistic following of the biblical commandments. Jesus repeatedly criticized the very law-abiding religious leaders of first century Judaism.  And yet, despite that, it seems many Christians are quick to want to become those very same narrow-minded religious sorts all over again.

No one has a problem recognizing that certain injunctions in the Bible are contextually specific, rather than universal, eternal commands. For instance when Jesus tells Peter to pay the temple tax by going fishing (Matthew 17:24-27), I know of no one who imagines that Jesus has given Peter an eternal command on how to go about getting the money to pay for taxes today.

Perhaps the same is true of other legalistic formulations as well?

I suspect that the Bible is not a frozen thing. It is not the law of the Medes and the Persians, or even the State of California.  Contemplate the implications of these words of Paul: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6; consider also Romans 7:6)

The temptation, of course, for some will be to use such a realization to rationalize selfish and unloving behavior. If you imagine that now, based on the implications of this blog post, you can at last take an axe to your annoying neighbor, then you're missing the point. Perhaps revisiting the central biblical theme of love, mercy, and grace would be useful in considering your desire for such activity. But likewise, that central theme of love for our neighbor must, I believe, have the primary role in making sense of how we interpret, how we understand, and how we use the biblical materials today.