Hello, dear Reader.
Today I come to you with a response to this month’s article on time, morality, and the Bible. The article asks us to look at the Bible as a source of moral knowledge. Frankly, I’ll be the last one to disagree with that on principle. On the other hand, I worry that the article gets its own premises out of order, and although the general conclusion is in the right place, it can lead readers to extrapolate erroneous conclusions of their own. With our best interests in mind, I’d like to examine more closely the propositions in that text, and hopefully gain a better appreciation of what we know about the sources of moral knowledge.
First, I would like to point out that there is little to nothing about “time” in that article, despite the title. To explain that, let me present a brief comment on the nature of God. (1) God is the most perfect being; therefore, he cannot become better or worse; therefore he can neither gain nor lose attributes (that is, change emotions or perform actions); therefore he cannot change. (2) Likewise, if truth is grounded in God, it cannot change. (3) Truth is always atemporal. Any other arguments on time are unnecessary to this discussion. Our discussion is truly about whether the Bible is morally correct.
We can assume we, as humans, have the tools to at least vaguely identify good moral behavior. That is, if we did not have a basic understanding of moral behavior, we would never be able to identify someone as good or bad. As that does not seem to be the case, we can say that we have some notion of morality. However, we do disagree on specific moral questions, showing that we still lack a sufficiently unambiguous understanding of what is good. Can the Bible teach us some moral truth? It makes a compelling case for people being nice to each other, so I’ll say yes. Is everything in the Bible morality? Clearly not. Some passages are obviously historical, but even some that would seem prescriptive have little to do with moral law. That is, unless you really believe that there is something immoral in making clothing of two different fabrics.1 On the other hand, if we exclude those passages, can the Bible teach us all moral truth? Not directly – it’s suspiciously lacking a line about clean energy and fossil fuel – but we can make the argument that it gives us the tools to discover those answers. What are those tools? If we can prove that the Bible can be unambiguously understood and taught, and that its contents are enough to solve all other moral conflicts, we can certainly employ it as a primary and universal guide to moral behavior.
Spoiler: we can’t. The World Christian Database kept by the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary claims that there are over 9000 Christian denominations worldwide, all with differing takes on dogma. So, standard interpretation of the Bible has not been stable in a while, if ever. For the time the Bible has been around, it has led to anything but a complete agreement between Christians. In reading the Bible, some general arguments will be automatically grasped by most of us (we can judge them to be true and good based on what we know of what is generally true and good), while others will invite disagreement. Those we disagree on include moral dilemmas such as the sinfulness or not of homosexuality. So what tools does the Bible give us to face those points of disagreement? If anything, it seems to already require tools for basic interpretation upon with which to justify our interpretations, so even if it is a good moral guide, it cannot be our primary moral guide.
If every reader had access to the Bible’s truth through faith alone, there would be no such disagreement unless truth were subjective – which we have asserted it is not. Even if we unconditionally adopt a denomination’s interpretation, that is merely displacing responsibility to another’s arbitrary interpretation. But, if the only alternative tool to blindly falling into error is to either already know the truth or decode it through rigorous inspection, it seems that even in reading the Bible our most trustworthy guide to morality is reason. We all know reason can be misemployed and lead us into error just as faith can, but reason can be examined rigorously by a collective understanding of it, which serves as a placeholder for objectivity, while faith’s best claim is to supreme subjectivity. If we agree that blindly taking scripture to be the only authority of truth is simply pretending that we do not use reason to engage with said scripture, we can conclude that we should be working on improving our reasoning and freely applying it to get to said truth.
So, what is my relevant conclusion? Our ancestors were very much like us: silly, more than a little lost, and by and large well-meaning. Especially with moral truth, each individual will be forever damned to endlessly rediscover it. Our own individual journeys should always start from a study of the ancients, and we would be rather silly to not turn back to them from time to time – which mind could claim to be able to devise the whole of human wisdom on its own accord? But imbuing tradition with some form of higher authority is simply taking a leave to use bad reasoning arbitrarily and defend ideas we do not believe in. Of course God can reveal Biblical truth to someone without them having to read it. He is God. But if you are such a person that the Bible can be your only guide to morality, do yourself a favor and don’t read it – you clearly already know everything in it – if not, and if you must read it, please be reasonable, use your freedom, question, stop saying you love Jesus, think about what it means. Otherwise, you may come out of it worse than you started.
1. Leviticus 19:19
Henrique Laurino is a major in Coffee Studies, but to the public he's doing Statistics. His favorite authors are Goethe, Borges and Wittgenstein, and hopefully they haven't come up in his texts too much recently.