The Problem with “Biblical Morality” (and a Better Approach)

The Problem with “Biblical Morality” (and a Better Approach) September 15, 2015

These days, an otherwise unknown country clerk, Kim Davis, gets front-page news attention for defying the law of the land on account of her Christian and biblical principles.

By Jenny Mealing (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jenny Mealing (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
These days, Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, speaks in front of some 15,000 people at (very conservative evangelical) Liberty University, and includes biblical references in his speech about finding common ground on concerns for justice and family values  (Matt 7:12, Amos 5:24).

These days, for all intents and purposes, the same sex marriage debate is over in our country and well, still goes on (see just about every conservative religious institution, Kim Davis, and Mike Huckabee).

These days, we’re entering the heat of political candidacy season. A recent CNN poll informs us that guns, immigration, and abortion are rising as issues of importance for the American public. Those, and countless other issues of public concern will create manifold opportunities for debates the pros and cons of policy decisions. And there will be plenty of chances for us religious folk to throw Bible verses at each other.

These days–as it always has been in our country–the Bible still enjoys a prominent role in public policy and ethical debates. This, despite the fact that Christianity is shrinking, while other religions, “nones,” and “dones” are growing.

But how should the Bible  be used in debate about issues of public concern–and in particular, when discussing ethical issues?

American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr put a lot of thought into that. Lesser known than his brother Reinhold, he nonetheless is one of the most important moral theologians of the twentieth century.

Noted ethics scholar, James Gustafson, wrote an illuminating introduction to a newer edition of H.R. Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self. In the intro, he explains that Niebuhr avoided two proverbial ditches.  The first ditch was exemplified by much of liberalism, which isolated the moral teachings of Jesus and essentially ignored the rest of the Bible (aside from maybe a few of the prophets, sprinkled in for good measure).

The second ditch was represented by the biblical literalism of conservative Christianity. This error is to treat the Bible as an inerrant source of divine authority, viewing it “too exclusively” as nearly the sole source of knowledge for “ethical responsibility.”

For conservative Christians, more weight is given to the Bible than it can bear; or rather, it is treated as if it can give us all the moral principles, guidelines and specific rules for how we should live in the present moment.

Gustafson suggested that Niebuhr “was never convinced that as much moral wisdom was forthcoming from the Bible alone as theologians who had some morally wise things to say thought they were getting from the Bible” (20).

In other words, people read the Bible and magically derive moral and ethical principles about “biblical” ways of doing this or doing that, when in fact the theologian is practicing something like “ethical eisegesis” (eisegesis being that fancy seminary word for putting into the text things that aren’t really there).

Niebuhr viewed the Bible as authoritative (he did not “play fast and loose with the Bible”) and he approached the whole Bible with a theological mindset, with an openness to the whole Bible offering input to ethical reflection. But he also noted the problems within the Bible itself (internal contradictions, for example, and places where the Bible manifested moral views that are or should be considered unacceptable today).

In the following quote, Gustafson summarizes Niebuhr’s view of the Bible. For Niebuhr, the Bible cannot be an “Absolute authority” (this is an honor reserved for God alone); rather, the Bible is a derivative authority for ethical reflection:

Since there is only one Absolute Power and Authority (authority, he often said, is the kind of power that is exercised over us by consent, and voluntarily negated by dissent), one cannot assign absolute authority to the Scripture. Its authority is a “mediate derived authority.” The Church’s moral life is not the only instance of such mediate authorities in human experience. In science and politics as well, there is a pluralism of authorities, none of which becomes the exclusive source of knowledge and insight. As in other communities, so in the church an authority can be unique without being exclusive. The Bible has such a status: it cannot be reduplicated elsewhere, in no other place is Jesus Christ presented to us; its authority for the Christian conscience is certainly different from that of reason. Thus for Christian ethics, its authority is inescapable without being absolute.

This means that, for Niebuhr, the Bible should be recognized by the Christian as an authority for ethical reflection, but it should be considered along with (not necessarily above) other sources for ethics, including the Church itself–as well as other disciplines of knowledge, the context of experience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, as Niebuhr noted, the Bible is really the only place we encounter Jesus in narrative form, so that’s invaluable, too. But the Bible itself is not the “teacher,” it only points us to him.

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