What that often means is that the Bible is being used to buttress whatever value the speaker wishes to promote, whether that's anti-abortion, say, or opposition to same-sex marriage or dismissal of an environmental ethic of conservation -- all political positions dressed up as Biblical truths.
The question of what biblical values really are is, of course, much more complicated, as is made clear in a valuable new book, What Are Biblical Values: What the Bible Says About Key Ethical Issues, by John J. Collins, who teaches at Yale Divinity School.
In reality, drawing various value statements out of the Bible is a complex business, and much of what you extract from scripture and turn into foundational principles depends on how you interpret what you read. In fact, Collins asserts, "we cannot expect. . .to distill from the Bible one coherent set of values."
The Bible, written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years, is not God's master's thesis with a consistent one-author message, though both Christianity and Judaism (and in many ways Islam) revere the Bible as being in some way the word of God: But "the laws as we have them," Collins writes, "are never pristine divine revelations but always entail human authorship and human motivations and arose in particular historical circumstances that must be taken into account."
You want simple? You want obvious? You won't find it in the Bible, save for the overriding message of the need for love and respect of all people.
Which is one reason, of course, that the Bible never should have been used to defend slavery, even though Collins acknowledges that "at no point does the Bible condemn the practice of slavery." Nor, of course, does the Bible condemn the practice of hijacking airplanes and smashing them into buildings or mining battle fields with explosive devices to murder opposing soldiers. By the way, as Collins notes, the great 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that if someone were to persuade him that the Bible supported slavery he would burn the book.
Whether you want to adopt a rigid, literalistic approach to the Bible or one that allows what you describe as your progressive political opinions to be seen as in harmony with biblical values, you will be challenged by Collins' book.
For instance, he concludes that "nothing in the Hebrew Bible excludes the application of the death penalty, and many passages demand it." And even the New Testament offers no ringing condemnation of capital punishment, causing Collins to conclude that "opposition to the death penalty receives scant support from the Bible. Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn here is that decisions as to how the law should be applied ultimately rest with society." But all of that must be seen in the context of a Hebrew Bible in which, as Collins notes, there is "no value more central or fundamental than the demand for social justice."
On another hot-button issue, Collins notes that "there is, then, a long history of Christian condemnation of abortion, but it is not explicit in the New Testament. Neither is there any acceptance of abortion in either Testament."
And, of course, the Bible is silent on many issues confronting us today. You won't for instance, find anything in the Bible for or against net neutrality or nuclear disarmament. To adopt positions on such issues you have to look for broader biblical statements about fairness and peace.
Beyond that, some "biblical values" are simply ignored or useless today. Should farmers not harvest their whole crop, leaving the edges of the fields to gleaners today? Should women be silent in church? Should we not combine wool and polyester into a usable cloth?
I was pleased to find that in Collins' discussion of what, if anything, you can find in the Bible about homosexuality, his thoughts are largely in harmony with mine expressed in this essay, which concludes that the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this societal debate because, as Collins notes, "the Bible does not have a concept of homosexuality as a disposition or orientation. Homosexuality in this sense is a modern construct, which arose in the late nineteenth century."
One reality today has been a reality for a long time, and that is, as Collins writes, that people tend "to project their beliefs into the Bible, whether it provided a basis for them or not."
Collins also cautions against using the Bible to advocate a certain view of eschatology, or end-times theology: "(T)here is no more reason to take biblical accounts of the end of history literally than there is to take the accounts of creation as factual." True, though it's hard to convince fundamentalists and the like that Genesis isn't a book of science and history.
One thing I think Collins, and many other scholars, get wrong is his interpretation of the 13th chapter of Romans, in which the Apostle Paul seems (but only seems) to be saying that people should be obedient to whatever government is in power. As Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos has persuasively argued, what Paul is talking about here is not the Roman government but the authorities in the Jewish synagogues. Paul was writing to Gentiles, telling them to be good guests in synagogues as they seek to find their way into a Jewish way of life -- one that asserts that the Jewish Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth. Paul, therefore, was not asking people to pledge allegiance to murderous dictators of civil (in this case Roman) governments. Collins interprets Paul as referring to "governing authorities" without being clear that Paul meant temple authorities, not the Roman emperor. It's a common error, but one that needs to end.
Another question to ask of Collins is why he uses this subtitle for his book "What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues," when he clearly writes that "the Bible does not mean anything until it is interpreted. Appeal to textual agency ('but the Bible says') is far too simple an evasion of the reader's responsibility." That "Bible Says" subtitle, thus, is a mystery, indeed.
In the end, Collins correctly insists that the Bible must be use "judiciously." The Bible can inspire and challenge us, he writes, "but the mere fact that something is found in the Bible is in itself no guarantee of right conduct or justice or anything else. Interpreters remain responsible for what they take from the Bible."
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BARR ESCAPES WITHOUT MUCH CRITICISM
Religion scholar and RNS blogger Mark Silk says Catholic leaders should be much more upset than they seem to be at Attorney General William Barr for allowing capital punishment to resume in federal cases. He's right. Barr, who is himself Catholic, is, in effect, flying in the face of Catholic teaching about this. On the other hand, when other officials who are Catholic didn't adhere to church teaching about abortion, they got lots of church criticism. Why the inconsistency?