Morality seems to be a big discussion topic of late; whether it’s subjective or objective, relative or definite, right or wrong – people have had a lot to say on the subject.
The first point I made was that The Bible, even if it were magically preserved and without fault or error of any kind, is filtered through subjective teachers – pastors who interpret the word and instruct us in it’s application. Sometimes their ideas aren’t so much to be found inside of Scripture but because of it – the teaching on indulgences and purgatory is one such example.
But that’s compounded by the human fingerprint involved in the creation, transmission, and interpretation of the Bible. It is not a bound book that fell out of the sky as complete and sacred. It existed for a few hundred years as scrolls, and a few hundred more as letters passed from one church to another. It took a few hundred more years for us to figure out which books were sacred teaching and to choose that other works which were highly beloved by early Christians were not. It was copied over and over again; with all the traditional clerical errors we’d see today: doubled letters, misspelled words, transposed words, etc. Then the written word was preserved by leaders and few people could read what was said, so they looked at stained glass windows to understand the stories within that book. When the Gutenberg Press finally made the Bible accessible, it created a point from which Bibles began to diverge and multiply. Don’t like one version? That’s okay, there’s another one which translates things differently and they’re both the selfsame word of God.
It’s not as if the Bible is a list of exact rules and exceptions anyway; people on both sides have used it to support their own stance while tearing down their opponents mistranslation of the Word. If you want to own slaves, the Bible is totally okay with that. If you think that slaves ought to try to go free, it’s in there, too.
And people are just the sort to let certain morals fly out the window if it suits the situation. Those of us who grew up reading Robin Hood might find it hard to be all that upset that Robin would rob from the rich to give to the poor what the rich stole from the poor in order to make themselves rich in the first place. Or is it okay for the rich to steal from the poor even though it’s wrong for Robin to steal from the rich?
Of course, in order to create a though list of all moral rules and their exceptions, first we must determine which Scripture is the closest version to that which God set forth; after all, we have some that are paraphrases, so those can’t be a baseline. We have some that are literal – trying to get our words to math their words, and we have thought-for-thought translations that aren’t shy of using other words so long as the original meaning is attained. Once you have this standard, you have to eliminate other factors where subjectivity can muddy the waters; so you’ll have to require one valid interpretation and teach only that. Anyone who deviates would be creating the potential to draw out the wrong morals upon which to live out their lives so that can’t be tolerated. There must be one Bible, one version, one interpretation, one teaching, and one application from which morality ought to be drawn out.
But how do you manage that? Do you start with the Ten Commandments? Which ones – the original ones that God gave us in the Old Testament or the more challenging version that Jesus taught us in the New Testament? Has no one read Galatians?
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Those who obey part of the law are obligated to obey the whole law; sacrifice and all; why would it be more true with circumcision and less true with the Ten Commandments? I had been taught that Jesus fulfilled the terms and conditions of the Old Covenant; giving us a New Covenant in it’s place. Must we continually crucify Jesus over and over again by our dependence on the clear list of rules and obligations the Old Testament demands because we mix it in with new Testament teachings?
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. – Hebrews 8:13
Except it can’t disappear because we let it haunt us like the ghost that it is; telling us what to do and how to live.
And what do I get for this understanding of Scripture. I keep on being shouted down as if I were an upstart kid who just doesn’t get that adults live by different rules. Because it’s also true that:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But Jesus said that before he was crucified and before he rose again; before he said: “It is done.” Yet here we are in this limbo, of what has and hasn’t, what is and what isn’t. Obeying rules that don’t apply, except that they do. So discussions on morality tend to end up where they begin; and they end up going nowhere.
5 thoughts on “Morality”
Jamie, this was well reasoned and well written. I think, though I could be wrong, that I the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was making some huge statements about religious laws, and in fact, maybe making them so difficult that no one would feel like they could satisfy them (like just looking with lust was equal to committing adultery). I think maybe this was intended to cause people to think, “I will never be able to live up to that!” And thereby to cause them to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” a righteousness that only God could provide. Would you agree? That seems to be similar to what you’re saying here, though I may have misunderstood. Anyway, thanks for sharing this great post with us.
You’re right; and yet, here we’ve arrived at a modern Christianity that has replaced the legalism of the Old Testament with the legalism of the New Testament.
I saw it in my church youth group where I had that attitude myself: “I haven’t stolen; I haven’t lied – I don’t need Jesus’ grace as much as those sinners over there do.” When I realized that I was acting out the parable that Jesus told of the Pharisee “Thanks you God that I’m not like that sinner over there.” I realized that the emphasis on morality in my church was badly skewed. I had kept our New Testament Law, but neglected the spirit of the law, I never learned compassion. I’ve been in a debate with a bunch of Christians who still see things the old way for the last two days and now I have a deeper appreciation for my own understanding of these teachings and how freeing they can be when you walk away from literalism.
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I can relate to what you’re saying there. I often consider myself a “recovering fundamentalist.” Now I wonder how I held some beliefs so strongly that were disabling to me and people that I came in contact with. Thanks!
I think that I wasn’t supposed to think about it – just do it. All of the time we’d sing: “Trust and Obey” and that’s pretty much what the plan was.
Then I learned about the Faith/Doubt Paradox and realized that not questioning hadn’t helped me in the slightest. Jesus wasn’t afraid of questions, so why was I? Then I started questioning and I haven’t stopped. Thomas, for all his doubt, proved to be faithful even unto death and he was one of Jesus’ disciples! We’re generations removed and we should be okay with doubt because it can lead to greater faith; if only we’ll let it.
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