"Reading the Bible, Making Moral Decisions" by Shane Wilkins

(As is made perfectly clear by the first few lines of text, this is a guest post by my good friend and co-conspirator Shane Wilkins. Shane runs a blog about medieval and scholastic theology and philosophy, has recently completed his masters thesis at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and is an incoming PhD student in the department of philosophy at Fordham University (David and I are very excited to have him so close by).)

Reading the Bible, Making Moral Decisions

Shane Wilkins

29 May 2007

What relation does the text of the Bible have to the individual moral decisions Christians make? The question is disarmingly simple, but in reality it covers over a multitude of theological and philosophical problems. For the purposes of this paper, I will sketch out my own position on the matter by interacting critically with Gerald Hughes's article “A Christian Basis for Ethics” (Heythrop Journal, 1972).

There are two primary philosophical difficulties I see with relating the Bible to making a moral decision. The first is the general ethical question What is the good for human beings? The second problem is the general hermeneutical question How does a text mean something for a reader?

Both problems are similar in that they easily devolve into epistemological problems. If one takes the view that the good for human beings is determined by reference to human nature and then uses this anthropology to make a concrete moral judgment, there is nothing to stop someone who disagrees from asking why this particular account of human nature is to be preferred to some other one. The same situation obtains in hermeneutics where a person reads a text and appropriates it in a certain way. If I propose a hermeneutical strategy that authorizes one particular interpretive decision, someone who disagrees with that decision can simply propose an alternative way to appropriate the text. All moral judgments and interpretive choices appeal to some fundamentally arbitrary, unjustifiable prejudices (“prejudices” is not necessarily pejorative in this context). For instance, one can never provide a fully rational justification for why incest is wrong.

This arbitrariness vitiaties Gerald Hughes's reflection on the relationship between Scripture and ethics (“A Christian Basis for Ethics,” 1972). Hughes recognizes the arbitrarity of interpretive appropriations, but his response to the this hermeneutical predicament is to try to use ethics to guide the interpretive process (p. 30). The idea seems to be that we know on independent, purely rational, public grounds that x is good and this bit of knowledge helps us read the Bible. Hughes asks a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer: “But can we come to believe [Jesus is the Word of God made flesh] unless we have already satisfied ourselves that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was morally admirable—satisfied ourselves on independent ground?” [italics original]. However, ethics cannot solve the hermeneutical predicament just because it has the same problem as hermeneutics. Hughes is aware of this general line of objection through Keith Ward, but he does not take it seriously enough to bother with providing a response.

I on the other hand, take the arbitrarity of hermeneutics and ethics to be a central fact with which our moral theology must grapple. Now we must point to the specifically theological problem involved in relating the Bible to moral decision making, namely, the doctrine of Scripture. There is no space to dwell at length on the doctrine, so I will only draw attention to a particular deficiency I fear mars Hughes's paper. Hughes's stress on the historicity of the Scripture risks obscuring that the Bible is not just a book like any other (if the claims Christians make on behalf of their Scriptures are actually true). In other words, the hermeneutical predicament is an ineradicable part of reading human texts, but it just so happens that the Bible is more than a human text. A human text, once written is circumscribed in a certain cultural horizon which fuses with the horizon of the reader in an act of interpretation. The reader plays an active role in this fusion, actualizing some possible interpretations and ignoring other, based on his or her prejudices.

The Bible certainly does have a particular cultural horizon but because of its divine inspiration and the activity of the Holy Spirit, it can also happen that the relation between text and reader can be reversed in the case of reading the Bible or hearing it preached. In the case of hermeneutics I can read in a text only what my prejudices allow me to see in it. In the case of revelation, I hear the viva vox dei addressing me. In the act of revelation, God might impart some sort of information to me which would force me to change my prejudices or he might command me to do something. Both possibilities are enormously significant for understanding the relationship between Scripture and moral decision making.

It might be the case, for instance, that God reveals to me some moral fact which I would not have known otherwise. Earlier we noted that moral justifications can never eliminate their arbitrarity foundations. Now I take this limitation to be an epistemological rather than ontological point. The basic tenents of Christianity, imply an objective state of affairs that every action, desire, disposition, etc. is either good, evil, or neutral or good under certain circumstances, etc. These states of affairs are what I mean by moral facts. However, the arbitarity of moral experience implies a limitation of our knowledge of that objective moral order. One of the things that God might reveal to me, then, is his opinion about whether a particular action or class of actions is good, evil, or indifferent. (Since God is omniscient his opinion is identical with the fact of the matter.)

Take homosexuality for instance. I do not know any convincing philosophical arguments that homosexuality is immoral. But it might be the case that God reveals to me through the Bible that homosexuality is in fact immoral. If this happens then it is clear that the Bible adds something to the content of my moral knowledge.

But how could I ever have a justified belief that it was God, in point of fact, who was revealing to me this putative truth about the immorality of homosexuality? How can I be confident that this “revelation” is jnot ust a subconscious expression of homophobia? After all, people sometimes justify terrible things like terrorism on the basis of putative divine revelation. In fact, something like this worry seems to be what animates Hughes's rejection of the idea that Scripture could possibly contribute to the material content of moral knowledge, for he says, “we shall not be able to identify any particular command as being a command of our God unless we can establish independently that the command is morally good” (p. 40). Hughes quickly adds a disclaimer that the word of God is not subject to the bar of human reason, but it seems to me that the practical effect of his statement is to make revelation subject to the arbitarity of ordinary hermeneutics and therefore in vital need of the justification of ethics.

However arbitarity applies at much to ethics as to hermeneutics. (Note that this was brought forward on indepedently philosophical grounds without invoking concupiscence). If this is the case, then it is quite likely that no amount of moral reasoning will ever help me decide definitively and with certainty if I have really received a revelation from God about the immorality of homosexuality or not.

Hughes rightly points out that one cannot manufacture real certainty through proof-texts or specious appeals to theological authority. However, his response is to not to abandon the quest for certainty. Rather, he decides to locate the source of certainty in the rational autonomy of purely secular moral philosophy, with flourishes alluding to natural grace and so forth.

By contrast I think the answer is to abandon the idea that we must be certain about our interpretations or moral judgments. This is not to say that we ought not to make moral judgments or authoritative pronouncements about the interpretation of the Bible. Practical exigencies require such decisions from time to time. Lack of certainty is not the problem: faith always lacks certainty in this sense.

Nevertheless, it is the case that one can cultivate an openness to revelation and an ability to discern spurious from genuine instances of hearing the divine voice. One learns tin the context of the church, for the authority of the Church is the hard-won authority of collective experience reading the Scriptures in order to hear what God has to say.


D.W. Congdon said…

Very nice essay. I enjoyed reading it. That said, I wonder if you've made your job a little too easy by simply appealing to the church at the end. Now I agree with you that we learn how to live by inculcating the patterns exhibited by our Christian family members, but the church is a fallen human institution that often goes astray. When this happens -- God forbid, but we see it all the time today, as you well know -- I would like to appeal to Scripture. But then I run into the same ethical and hermeneutical problems that you breezed over by appealing to the church. Obviously, a wayward church cannot be the basis for interpreting Scripture's moral commands. So if I am faced with a church that no longer exhibits a template for how to hear the vox dei properly in Scripture, how am I to discern what are the moral commands of God in the Bible? How am I to interpret the Bible over against the church if the church is the basis for how I read the Bible?
Shane said…

I'm not advocating a facile appeal to authority when I'm talking about the church. I'm sorry the end of the paper is so short, but the assignment was for a 4 page treatment on the relation of scripture to ethics, so some things got glossed over a bit.

What I mean here is not something like, "let the pope decide what the bible says about morality." Rather, I envision the church as the community whose interpretive authority cultivates an individual openness to hearing the viva vox dei. The sinfulness of the church is certainly a reality. (Time permitting I could have discussed concupiscence, fallen reason and ecclesiology all in connection to this question.) But, even with the reality of the sinfulness of the church, it is the case that God can still work through the church to help form my character in such a way to open the text of scripture to me through the church.

As Dan Treier once told me, "God can hit straight with a crooked stick."

Luke said…
Shane, I like it very much!! I will use some of your argumentations in a paper I am preparing.

Although I do not share some important points you give for sure.

1- Hermeneutics is strategy so I only accept what my prejudicies let me, and I reject what my prejudicies do not let me? I accept that some variations of hermeneutics support that, but the classical one, whose origin is to be found in Origines, does not say that. The fusion of horizons is not only to confirm my prejudicies, but also to change them, and to reinterpret ones life under a new prism. Certainly, Bible provokes that, but also other texts. That is not an exclusive power of the Bible. Certainly, some people, as orthodox or fundamentalist, do not want to change their prejudicies, even with the Bible.
2- Does the Bible supplies new moral contents? I do not think so. The moral teaching of Jesus was the same one that the rabbinic school. (I will try to demonstrate it in what I am writing about the historical Jesus).
3- What is new, then, in the Bible for you? You may ask me. Not what is said, but the fact that is said now, in the last time. Obviously, what is said has also importance, but the decisive point is the other one.

In any case, a very interesting essay, Shane. I like it very much.

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