Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. A version of this article previously appeared at EthicsDaily.com on May 30, 2012.
When controversial issues find their way to the table of ethical discussion, it usually isn’t long before the Bible is called to testify on behalf of whichever side is making its case. A commitment to biblical authority seems pretty central to Christian ethics, and it is not surprising that it is appealed to with a passion that is both authentic and sincere by many sides of an issue.
What I find interesting in such appeals are the different ways the Bible can be understood, not so much in the micro sense of interpretation, but in the macro sense of what it is as a whole.
Speaking of the Bible as God’s Holy Word or the record of God’s self-disclosure makes appropriate affirmation of its sacred dimension. Still, it doesn’t always make clear just how it relates to specific questions that may arise.
Part of the challenge is that the Bible does not often speak with a single voice on a given topic. Pick an issue, past or present: slavery, women’s role in society and church, economics, political responsibility, marriage—the Bible on the witness stand can be used by more than one side of the discussion and made to support varied positions.
I would invite some reflection on something I’ve noticed about the ways the Bible as a whole seems to be understood in various appeals to biblical authority.
One approach sees the Bible as a template that can measure the biblical truth of a given belief, opinion or perspective on an issue. “The Bible says” can be followed by specific statements from various parts, which are applied to an issue. If the idea fits the template, it is biblical. If it doesn’t fit, it isn’t.
Another way of using scripture in reflection on ethical issues sees the Bible as an evolving understanding of God’s intentions for humanity– less an ideological template and more a theological vector pointing in the direction of a fulfilled covenant relationship between and among God and God’s people.
An ideological template asks “What does the Bible say? What does it mean and how do we apply it?” A theological vector template asks “What is the Bible pointing to and in what direction is it calling us to move?”
Answers to template questions create a kind of certainty that confirms an understanding of an issue and enables a firm stand on whichever side the proponent happens to be.
Answers to a vector question seem to lead to more questions and an ongoing discovery of levels of truth that refine understanding toward a creative vision that transforms hostility into hospitality, estrangement into community, injustice into justice, and exclusive rejection into inclusive embrace.
This has led me to wonder if our long struggle with who is outdoing whom in the area of being “Bible-believing” disciples has left us with a misdirected focus. Maybe the crucial question is not so much “Do we believe the Bible?” but “Do we participate in the biblical faith?”
Depending on our level of literalism, the former offers us a handy template for deciding right and wrong, truth and untruth, righteousness and unrighteousness, faith and unfaith. The latter invites us to a journey shared by our ancestors in the family of covenant faith, in which we receive from them a record of their own evolving understanding of God’s work and purpose. We then pass this record on to those who will follow in their own contribution to that covenant partnership.
Does the overall testimony of the Bible ask us to believe what it says or to see what it sees? Does it call us to an application of the frameworks of our present understanding of God’s truth?
Or does it call us to the possibility of new understandings of that truth that our covenant journey with God and each other will lead to?
Author’s Note: Recent posturing of a “biblical worldview” as a basis for certain ideological positions on various issues brought to mind an earlier column from 2012 in another season of the ongoing “battle for the Bible.”
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).