My recent posts have considered the question of slavery in ancient times. Skeptics often challenge the Christian worldview by saying that the failure of Bible to outlaw slavery proves that it was not inspired by a perfect being. As one challenger put it:
“I don’t think such perfect knowledge of what we call morality is possible. But I would expect it from the deity supported by the moral argument for the existence of God. A being whose very nature is perfect moral goodness. Now I can accept that the writings of the Old Testament are penned by human hand for a human context during a period of history that was quite brutal. I would agree that these rules about slaves are written by people and not inspired in any way by a perfectly good god. But I think it does violence to reason to suggest that all of these rules are divinely inspired and have anything like moral value, even in the context of a progressive revelation. (Another concept that I have a difficult time with.)”
The skeptic raises an interesting question. If God is indeed the author of the Bible, and if God is perfectly good, why don’t the “rules” show evidence of “moral value?” Using this line of thinking, the skeptic rejects the Bible as anything more than a book of stories because it doesn’t set forth the rules the way he thinks they should be.
Implicit in this challenge is an assumption that Christians accept the Bible because the Bible tells them to. We should, he thinks, realize that the Bible gets lots of things wrong, so that we can then reject it when it tell us that everything in it is true. This would be a fair comment, if in fact Christians believed the Bible because the Bible so instructs. In fact, the case for Christianity is based on the historical record for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. His life was foretold in writings that predate his birth and that were part of the written tradition of the Jews of that time. Jesus was quite knowledgeable about the contents of those writings, and his comments to his followers indicated that he largely endorsed them. But his life had much greater significance. His life and death marked the end of the old covenant with God, and the beginning of a new one. The rupture between man and God would find restoration through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and this Good News of salvation, brought first to the Jewish people, would be offered to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The earliest followers of Jesus passed on both the account of his life, as well as many of his teachings, eventually committing them to writing. They focused heavily on their belief that he overcame death, and that he walked among them in a resurrected body. This last of his miracles provided authentication for his message, authentication that extends also to the Old and New Testaments.
The books of the Bible are not text books. They were not meant to address every moral issue of the day. Indeed, Jesus made it clear that he was not really interested in government. He did not come to write a new code of conduct. He was interested in repentance and reconciliation. To that end, he brought home the “bad news” to the people he spoke with and he told them what was needed for them to make things right with God. He spoke often of the life to come and of that great risk we take in persisting in our rebellion against God. The Bible captures this “greatest story ever told,” a story of origins, of a fall from grace, and of a means for recovery.
So, the skeptic is getting it backwards. He wants to be able to tell from just reading the Bible that it is divine, and he wants to do that by testing it against what he thinks is true. But consider the difficulty in doing that. First, one would have to have perfect moral knowledge. The mores of a society change over time. How can we know with certainty that a future culture won’t look back on our choices today and view them as barbaric and wrong? Take something like abortion. It was against the law for centuries, but now it’s enshrined in our Constitution as a precious right. How confident can we be that future generations will not take a much different view than the modern thinker? Second, there is a touch of arrogance implicit in a view that as a limited human being, I would be capable of fully appreciating how a being whose nature is “perfect moral goodness” would think, that I could sit in judgment on his plan for self revelation. Indeed, I tremble at the thought that I will have to give account someday for my actions to such a being.
The skeptic raised a second challenge to my earlier post, relating to my comparison to raising children. I said, in that regard, that a parent wants their children to want to behave correctly, not merely follow rules. The skeptic disagreed:
My point is that you suggested that the way God provided rules about slaves in the Old Testament was in somehow similar to how we advise children on moral conduct. The inference is that we do not provide prohibitions on some conduct because that would deprive the child of the free will to chose the good. I think the analogy is misplaced, we do both with our children. We tell them they cannot do certain harmful behaviour such as bullying and why. If the rules in the OT are the word of god, he simply approved of a less oppressive approach to slavery but didn’t tell us that slavery was wrong or why. I think the ancient Israelites could have handled the truth.
This critique again focuses on what God should have done; according, that is, to modern sensibilities. It’s not my role as a believer to make perfect sense of every such challenge. As I look back at the sweep of history, and of God’s purpose in the Bible, it does not trouble me that he did not speak about all possible wrongs, or that he did not specify in greater detail what a model community would look like. He didn’t speak out against child abuse or wife beating, although such things also were occurring. He did not attempt to delineate a laundry list of prohibited behaviors. But he did spend a lot of time talking about the disposition of our hearts. He gave us a model, both in his words and in his actions, of how to be born again of the Spirit. When we take these admonitions to heart, it will necessarily change the way we act.
I don’t expect that this will make sense to the skeptic. For those who refuse to believe, no amount of persuasion will make a difference. The teachings of Christianity have always been a stumbling block, because the message is in so many ways radical and counterintuitive. There is, of course, a place for reason; indeed, the faith is itself based in reason. But we cannot reason our way to full knowledge of how a perfect being would act.
But we believe – we base our faith – on something more than whether each verse of the Bible makes sense to us. Our faith is grounded in the totality of what’s been handed down to us.