The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics

The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics July 7, 2013

The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics

The background issue here, of this post, is the problem I see of appealing to the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch and historical books, to establish Christian ethics.

One does not have to deny the divine inspiration of the entire Old Testament to argue that it cannot serve as a basis for contemporary Christian ethics. Jesus himself offered corrections to Old Testament ethics (e.g., divorce).

Early Christians, after the apostolic age (and some would argue during it—in some of Paul’s epistles), handled the tensions between Christian ethics (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) and the Old Testament by means of allegorical hermeneutics. They based their ethics primarily on Jesus and the apostles and sometimes on Greek philosophy.

Today, for the most part, that avenue (allegorical interpretation) is closed off to us. We have to find new ways of handling the tensions and most Christians do. Those of us in the Anabaptist tradition (which includes many Baptists who were known as Anabaptists during their earliest years) do it by “reading the Bible backwards”—the Old Testament in the light of the New. We freely and joyfully admit that much of the Old Testament, especially in the realm of ethics, must be relativized in light of the New.

Very few Christians take literally, as straightforwardly applicable to today, the entire body of God’s commandments to Israel in the Pentateuch and historical books.

This is true even of some of Jesus’ sayings which Christians have always interpreted non-literally (e.g., Matthew 5:29).

For most Christians, both conservative and liberal, biblical principles override biblical rules when they conflict.

The demand to provide clear, straightforward, explicit proof texts of Scripture to justify all ethical norms is simply wrong headed. There are many behaviors virtually all Christians regard as unethical, even evil, for which no clear, straightforward, explicit ethical prohibitions can be found in Scripture (e.g., abortion as a means of birth control, torturing a person’s spouse to extract information from him or her, birthing humans with the sole purpose of harvesting organs, selling organs for profit, etc.).

There can be little doubt that the Old Testament represents God as commanding Israel to practice ethnic cleansing—including the slaughter of non-combatant women and children. (And it won’t do to argue that it wasn’t true “ethnic cleansing” because it was limited to a certain time and place. The same could be said of much contemporary ethnic cleansing such as took place in the Balkans in the 1980s and into the 1990s.) And yet, the vast majority of contemporary Christians would consider ethnic cleansing absolutely wrong and Christian support for it and participation in it heresy.

Here’s the rub for those who wish to jump to the Old Testament and things God commanded there to establish or support contemporary Christian ethics. That makes it impossible to say that every particular contemporary instance of holy war or ethnic cleansing is unequivocally evil. How could a person know that God did not command it? The belief that holy war with ethnic cleansing (to be very specific with this case study) is always unequivocally evil must be based on a hermeneutic that bypasses and supercedes the Old Testament Pentateuch and historical books. The same could be said of many behaviors virtually all contemporary Christians condemn as evil: enforced racial segregation/apartheid, polygamy, slavery (one person owning another), totalitarian monarchy, etc.

(Side Bar: In at least one example I can think of we contemporary Christians almost all condemn as unequivocally evil, wrong, bad, condemnable, heretical something that at least some Christians (“King James Only”) think is commanded in Scripture and that nobody could argue is explicitly condemned in Scripture: snake handling as part of Christian worship.)

Just war theory, developed primarily by Christians (such as Augustine) borrowing elements from Greek and Roman sources, stands in direct conflict with holy war/ethnic cleansing as practiced according to divine commands by the Hebrews as recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament. It stands as an example of the evolution of Christian ethics beyond anything explicitly taught in Scripture. And “Christians” who practice holy war with ethnic cleansing can claim that their behavior is more consistent with Old Testament ethics, even divine commands recorded in the historical books, than is just war theory. Just war theory is a clear example of Christians developing ethics away from commands and rules found in Scripture on the basis of principles found in Scripture. (However, even those principles upon which just war theory is based have shaky biblical support. Just war theory was clearly developed for a totally new situation not found in Scripture—Christian involvement in creating public policy.)

I would even go so far as to suggest (these are my musings) that contemporary Christians need to take seriously philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (one version of it) that “One ought always to treat other persons as ends in themselves and never as means to an end” without embracing all of Kant’s philosophy. Early Christians found much in Greek philosophy that was consistent with and even helpful for Christian ethics. Capital punishment clearly violates that principle, that imperative (to say nothing of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). The abolition of capital punishment is, I believe, an imperative now partly because it is never necessary. There may have been a time when it was necessary (e.g., to protect other life), but it is now never necessary.


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