Justin Collett Christian Ethics What does it mean for the Bible to have authority in Christian ethics? Sitting comfortably and dying on a cross are not concepts often joined together. Yet our culture conditions individuals to pursue fulfillment and comfort. Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked that our preachers like to preach “nice little soothing sermons on how to relax and how to be happy” or “go ye into all the world and keep your blood pressure down and I will make you a well-adjusted personality. However, “My Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter,”1 and the cross is not a piece of jewelry you wear but something you die on. But when I am honest, the idea of lowering my blood pressure often captures the depth of my Christian longing. These words capture my casual faith against Christ’s explicit call to the Christian???a sacrificial call that shatters my fragile delusion, namely that I am a wonderful Christian who actually grants real authority to the Bible in shaping my life. In light of this indictment, how should the Bible shape my life and ethics?
What authoritative Biblical teachings should guide my Christian formation? Should I grow a beard like Jesus? Or give away all my possessions? Or should I stone my future daughters if they offend me? I will explore the areas of authority-as-such, the Bible and its rightful authority, Biblical interpretation and a normative hermeneutic, Christian ethics, and the conclusion of my analysis in an endeavor to answer the following question: What does it mean for the Bible to have authority in Christian ethics? Points of Trajectory
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I would like to clarify this argument by providing several points of trajectory, more detail pertaining to the areas of interest, and a clearer picture of the overall shape this paper will take. A question such as, What does it mean for the Bible to have authority in Christian ethics? can take hundreds of different directions, each of which build a cogent argument and emphasize particular traditions or hermeneutics or understanding of ethics. Obviously, I write from a Christian perspective and in no way do I believe the following should be regarded as even fractionally exhaustive.
I have chosen several essential points, as I see them, which are vital in relation to the question. As stated above, I will give explicit attention to several broad areas of interest: the essence of authority-as-such, perspectives on the Bible that give rise to its inherent and rightful authority, the broad scope of the art in Biblical interpretation, my own take on a normative hermeneutic for reading the Bible, specifically in regards to Christian ethics. The reader will notice that these areas of focus are difficult to separate.
For example, deciding what the Bible is shapes the interpretation and possibly its conceived authority based on the on the outcome of the reading on the side of the reader, whereas the amount of authority given to the Bible “up-front” will shape what the Bible is and its subsequent readings. As another example, I may claim that I grant the Bible authority in Christian ethics???loosely my way of living in the world as a Christian???but if my actions do not attest to its authority in my actions or ethics then in reality do I render my claim void?
Bonhoeffer even states, “Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God. “2 Therefore, the matters are mutually dependent and definitely subjective and such is characteristic of this study. That said I turn now to authority-as-such to begin the exploration. I. Authority-as-Such What do we consider authority-as-such? That is, how do we conceive of the essence of authority as an objective characteristic or attribute not in relation to a particular context?
Most definitions describe the attribute in relation to a person, which makes deriving an objective, working definition difficult achieve. A general working definition might be, “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. “3 For example, a police officer has authority over my actions because he or she can demand my obedience to particular laws. She also has the authority to arrest me if I do not comply with such demands of obedience. Common agreement in civil society enters into such a relationship of authority with the governing odies that wield such authority. An interesting question follows: What if I do not consent to or recognize and obey a police officers authority? Is her essence of her authority dependent upon my acknowledging it? Many would respond, “No, she still has authority regardless,” but I wonder if that instance is more like citizens living in a dictatorship. If the police officer does still have authority, then does it follow that the institutions of a democracy and of a dictatorship wield the exact same kind of authority?
The answer becomes more muddy, and the important different is that the citizens under a dictator did not necessarily agree to the conditions in which they find themselves, whereas a democracy assumes that we reside under the authority of the governing bodies by our own consent. The resulting authority is ideally one that seeks obedience to lifestyles that are healthy and safe for both the individual and the rest of society. Authority-as-such may best be thought of as the condition of a relationship between two entities where one is obedient to the other.
Ideally, this takes place willingly, though maybe not always joyfully, between the two entities. For our purposes, authority should not be considered synonymous with the dynamics in non-mutual relationships. These distinctions are not simply semantics or the splicing of conceptual hairs. They are important to the foundational claims of Biblical authority. II. The Bible and Biblical Authority What is the Bible and why is it authoritative? The what and the why each give rise to the other. Historical criticism revealed that the formation of the Bible took place over many years and even centuries.
The following is a gross oversimplification: Oral traditions and pieces of parchment were passed from generation to generation, and the gradual collection and arrangement, editing, and revising of these different parts eventually formed individual books. Books that held essential truths and stories and histories became more central and popular to the communities that espoused them. These books were thought of as authoritative because the communities through the years affirmed their value, truth, and centrality for their faith, and as a result the books shaped the lifestyles of the communities.
It could be said that the communities strived to be obedient to the expectations, the calling, the personal sacrifice, and identity formation held within the books. Such books were compiled into canon, but the important note is that communities affirmed the authority of the books through the processes of their formation. The Bible is held by the Christian community to be the Living Word of God. God inspired the actual writings of Scripture, though the scope of inspiration differs depending upon the tradition.
The main character in the Bible, of course, is God. The inspired status does not simply come from the communal affirmation of scriptural material but because it is believed to contain direct dealings with God himself, not just writings about God. For example, the gospels accounts are attributed utmost authority because Jesus was more than a “nice moral teacher. ” He was “anointed by the Spirit and distinguished from other teachers. He received anointing so that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the gospel. 4 Jesus is Lord! The bottom line for authority in regards to this point is simple: God wrote it/inspired the writing of it. Therefore, it has authority. Before moving on, other types of authority, which are ultimately subordinate to Scripture, should be named: tradition, reason, and experience. Hays offers perspective on navigating one’s tradition when it comes into conflict with Scripture. As a general rule of thumb, Scripture should trump one’s tradition when conflicts arise. When this is the case, maybe one’s tradition is to be altered, as opposed to one’s reading of Scripture,”5 Longenecker contends. For example, look no further than Luther’s 95 Theses. More currently, Hays asserts that “Christendom’s long-held and clearly formulated just war tradition is finally incompatible with the New Testament vision of the church as people called to take up the cross and follow Jesus. “6 Additionally, reason and experience should aid one in interpreting Scripture, just as tradition does, keeping in mind the primacy of Scripture.
Exception circumstances do occur though. Experience “can claim theological authority only when it is an experience shared broadly by the community of faith,” writes Hays. Reason, including information and views in extra-Biblical sources, for example, function “instrumentally to help us interpret and apply Scripture. They must not, however, be allowed to stand as competing sources for theological norms. ” A reasonable conclusion in affirming the secondary authority of tradition, reason, and experience, Hays goes on to write, “The Bible’s perspective is privileged not ours. 7 All the considerations and many more provide a framework for understanding the inextricable connections in the Bible’s origin and authority, as well a brief overview of other authoritative vantage points that shape one’s reading and subsequent adherence to Scripture. With these in mind, how does one actually read the Bible in a way that accounts for its authority in shaping Christian ethics? III. Biblical Interpretation The prior “lenses” through which we understand and read Scripture make-up the art of interpretation or hermeneutics and thus the way in which and level to which the Bible’s authority shapes the life of the believer.
One can never pretend the Bible is a completely objective document, unshaped by its cultural context, nor can one pretend to approach Scripture with a clean slate and an objective lens with which to read the Bible. A reader must acknowledge her own presuppositions and cultural influences and forever keep stay vigilant about imposing meaning upon Scripture. A person can hear another Christian “offer” salvation to others. All they have to do is “Just accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. ” After all there are passages of Scripture that allude to the idea.
But what of “Sell all your possessions and follow me? “8 Is that action required for salvation? Jesus tells the rich man it is required. Bonhoeffer attacks the idea of “salvation” without discipleship writing, “Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship,” which seems to fly in the face of the “just accept Jesus avenue” to salvation. A strict Biblical literalist may proclaim that the world was created in six literal days based on the Book of Genesis. I read the same thing and understand that the creation account is mythical, which is not synonymous with false.
Such differing readings are a result of one’s interpretation of the Biblical text. The harm in poor interpretation is devastating for Christian ethics. For example, to read and implement Leviticus literally might result in a stoned daughter and one’s spouse sleeping in a tent in the backyard for a week during her menstrual cycle. Questions arise like, Does Jesus really want me to gouge out my eye if I look at a woman lustfully? The implications of reading the Bible “poorly” or “helpfully” in shaping one’s ethics have ramifications for community, family, individuals, creation, and God. What is there to be done then?
IV. Towards a Prescriptive Hermeneutic for Christian Ethics It is assumed that the Bible does have authority in Christian ethics, but in what way? To further the idea above, one must adopt a “good” hermeneutic in reading to be efficacious for ethics. Hays declares, “Texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak. We must respect the particularity of the forms through which the whole witness of the whole canon lays claim upon us. “9 For example, this means treat poetry as poetry, not an historical account such is the unfortunate case for the Genesis creation accounts.
An interpreter of dialectic and priestly material from Leviticus should be mindful of the context of the literature, being ancient Israel, before the interpreter makes a one-to-one parallel in ancient ethics and contemporary Christian ethics. These examples fall under the heading of Form Criticism and play an important role of reminding the reading that the Bible was written by real people, in real place, with real and often particular situations, and for real purposes. Calvin supports his faithful reasoning and writings with appropriate cripture passages throughout his works, an excellent example of one’s affirming the authority of Scripture in shaping ethics. In The Sum of the Christian Life, Calvin emphasizes not so much a system of situational ethics but an attitude of humility that shapes the subsequent actions of the Christian life. But what is “humility” for Calvin? Without providing a strict definition of “humility,” he describes the characteristics of humility, writing, “We are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him…you will never attain true gentleness except by one path: a heart imbued with lowliness and with reverence for others. 10 The virtue of humility focuses the life of the Christian into an appropriate relationship with God and others. She worships and glorifies God and serves her neighbors. Humility thus precedes any situational ethical questions and supplies the habitual framework for Christian living. Therefore one meets the challenges of life armed not with a theoretical knowledge of how a Christian should act but armed with a faith that anchors one in actually being and living as a Christian.
I have alluded to difficulties in aligning the two testaments in a way that shows coherence in their ethics, like the strict guidelines in Leviticus juxtaposed to Christ’s declaration that his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light. ” How do we navigate differing views in the two testaments that have implications for Christian ethics? Hays insists that the “story that the New Testament tells makes sense only as the continuation and climax of the story of Israel. “11 He advises to pay close attention to Old Testament “subtexts” when seeking continuity between the New Testament and Old Testament.
Speaking of Old Testament prophets, Calvin writes, “The minds of the pious had always been imbued with the conviction that they were to hope for the full light of understanding only at the coming of the Messiah. ” I caution, however, that the Old Testament not be thought of a backdrop or background for the real story of Christ. The ultimate authority for New Testament authors was not the new message penned by their own hand through the Spirit’s inspiration but the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, they did not endeavor to make the Old Testament align with Christ, as is a common contemporary concern.
They struggled to align Christ with the Hebrew Scripture because they remained the authority. As a further point, Hays argues for a “unity-in-diversity” approach to reading the New Testament as a unified whole. Using the focal images of community, cross, and new creation he claims that a reader may “encapsulate the theological implication of these images for the church in single complete narrative summary: the New Testament calls the covenant community of God’s people into participation in the cross of Christ in such a way that the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes a paradigm for their common life as harbingers of God’s new creation. That is no simple encapsulating paradigm, but examples such as Hays’s unified approach have been proposed for the entire Bible, also. All of them fall short in some respect, for example: How does Hays include the birth and life of Jesus in his summary? That seems to be an important missing element. No, there is not one all-encompassing hermeneutic in the Bible.
Longenecker proposes the possibility that any single approach to Christian ethics “is more wrong in what it denies than in what it proposes, and that each in its own way is setting forth a necessary aspect of truth for a Christian ethic???some, admittedly, more than other, but each to some degree highlighting an aspect of truth that is minimized or neglected by others. “12 So where does this leave Christian ethics and the role of authority and the Bible? V. Xian Ethics: The Communal Narrative
Contemporary ethics as a whole is often approached as a disembodied set of universal rules that can be applied in any given situation one faces. For example, the question Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed you starving family, given that you could find no other alternatives? These theoretical ethics questions create a context and ask for the universally true system of ethics to determine the answer. And unfortunately, Christianity has been unfortunately drawn into this realm, and its validity has been measured in identifying ethical responses that can be used by anyone regardless of faith and cultural backgrounds.
Rightfully so, theologians in particular schools of thought have been reclaiming the centrality of the church and subsequent community, Scriptures, and traditions for the formation and intelligibility of Christian ethics. Hauerwas declares that “we only learn who Jesus is as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers. ” Moreover, “the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom [Christians] now [think is] possible through his life, death, and resurrection. “13 What does this mean?
It means that the Christian’s life is to be grounded upon entirely different foundations that the secular world, and this genesis of the Christian’s life means that everything about the believer is particularly Christian and made intelligible by the Christian community and its sacraments. This is described as the communal narrative in Biblical interpretation. The church embodies the narrative of Christ. Therefore, his or her life is lived from the reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. “The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train our lives in relation to that life. 14 Calvin writes, “Scripture warns that whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church. ” He exhorts that a Christian must have his or her “mind intent upon the common upbuilding of the church. “15 This becomes the starting point for Christian ethics in regards to the authority of the Bible. The Christians life is an embodiment and obedient response to the communal narrative of the Judeo-Christian faith. Such an embodiment does not supersede or neglect the prior hermeneutics either.
As Longenecker remarked, each should be accounted for as the church community strives to live faithfully to the call of Jesus Christ in Scripture. Conclusion King rightfully calls out my Christian strivings for lower blood pressure. This spiritual posture contains evidence of the authority I actually grant the Bible in shaping my ethics, as opposed to the authority I should grant the Bible in shaping my ethics. It would be worthwhile to examine the authorities that motivate my life today. Where do I seek to recline in comfort, under my own authority, as opposed to faithfully pursue the authoritative narrative of Christ found in Scripture.
Real Biblical authority, as I see it, demands obedience from the Christian. Biblical authority demands the shaping of our ethics in a particular direction. “Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual???Jesus of Nazareth. “16 As I attend to the life of a particular individual, being Jesus, I may discover the transformation of myself into particular individual???one entrenched in the communal narrative being carried out in the church. And we, too, become a particular people with a particular mission. No longer is the Sabbath one day, but the form of life of a people on the move…” and living in “constant worship of God. “17 Thus the entire world may see an embodied witness to the authority of the Bible in Christian ethics. Works Cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cost of Discipleship. Blackboard article: Costly Grace. John Calvin. The Institutes. Blackboard article: The Sum of the Christian Life. John Calvin. The Institutes. Blackboard article: The Purpose for Which Christ Was Sent by the Father. Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. Edinburgh: T Clark, 1996.
Stanley Hauerwas. The Peaceable Kingdom. Blackboard article: Jesus: The Presence of the Peaceable Kingdom. Martin Luther King Jr. “Non-violence: The Only Road to Freedom. ” Sermon: May 4, 1966. Longenecker. Blackboard article. 1 King Jr. , Martin Luther. Pg 42. 2 Bonhoeffer, Page 1. 3 Webster’s Dictionary. 4 Calvin. The Purpose for Which Christ was Sent by the Father. Pg 2 5 Longenecker, 186. 6 Hays. Pg 294 7 Hays. Pg 296 8 Mt 5:39 9 Hays. 294 10 Calvin. Pgs 1, 2 11 Hays. Pg 309 12 Longenecker. Pg 191 13 Hauerwas, Stanley. Jesus. Page 1 14 Ibid. Page 1 15 Calvin, John. Pgs 1,2 16 Hauerwas. Page 2 17 Hauerwas. Page 3