Saturday, August 19, 2006

Biblical Particularism, Biblical Liberalism

I'm hard at work on yet another post on inerrancy. I there define a novel type of inerrancy and argue that it's superior to the one I suggest it replace.

I've poked around the internet a bit for material on inerrancy. There's little that's of any use to me. (In contemporary journals and books of philosophy, almost nothing is said about it, even by evangelicals.) But I did some across this yesterday. It's from the Religious Tolerance website. Upon reflection, it says nothing that I did not already know. But what it says it says with exemplary clarity. The passage below was of particular interest to me.

Conservative and liberal Christians have very different concepts of the nature of Scripture. Thus, they tend to develop systems of Christian theology and morality which differ greatly, and are often mutually exclusive. When faced with one of the great moral questions (like abortion, the death penalty, homosexual and bisexual rights, the concept of marriage, various aspects of sexual behavior, etc.) each interprets the Bible in their own way and frequently arrive at quite different conclusions.

A common scenario is that:

  • Conservatives will tend to emphasize a few specific passages of the Bible as proofs of their position. After all, if the Bible is without error, then even a single, clear, unambiguous passage will define the correct belief.

  • Liberals will prefer to emphasize the basic message of Jesus as the basis of their stance.

For example, 150 years ago, the great moral debate of the day was whether slavery should be preserved or abolished. Those in favor of preservation quoted specific verses that condoned, organized and regulated slavery. They pointed out that Jesus, St. Paul, and others had numerous opportunities to speak on the institution of slavery but never condemned it. Abolitionists largely ignored specific passages that dealt directly with slavery, and preferred to argue on the basis of Jesus' message, and broad theological concepts. They recognized that all persons are created in the image of God, and that one should treat one's neighbor as one's self. These would seem to imply that the ownership of one person by another was a profound evil.

The slavery question dealt a severe blow to traditional beliefs about the Bible. Led by various Anabaptist denominations, Methodists, Unitarians and secularists, an increasing percentage of North Americans rejected slavery as an abhorrent practice. They began to realize that the Bible was wrong on the issue. They concluded that portions of Scripture which discussed slavery had to be ignored, and that a higher level of morality must be adopted. The authority of the Bible within Christendom was severely weakened at that time.

We do seem to have a clear and unambiguous passage. It is this:

Ephesians 6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

How could one not take away from this the conclusion that Paul thought slavery permissible? He tells slaves that they must be obedient. He does not tell them to rebel. He does not tell others to free the slave. Rather Paul tacitly gives his approval to the institution and tells us how it should be structured.

Of course many in the past have taken precisely this moral away. Ephesians 6:5-9 was the most important of the passages for pro-slavery apologetics. Now, my claim is this: if one is a Biblical inerrantist, one must take this moral away. The passage is clear and unambiguous. It endorses slavery. Thus if all the Bible says is true, slavery must be permissible.

But of course it is not, and almost all of today's Evangelicals know that it is not. On the issue of slavery, they read the Bible as does the liberal. They search for the essence of the gospel message (the essence, as Christ says, it to love God and neighbor), find that it condemns slavery (one cannot both love the neighbor and keep him as a slave), and then condemn it. But when discussion turns to homosexuality, they do precisely what was done by pro-slavery apologists. They hold up particular passages that speak of homosexuality and with them and them alone in mind issue their condemnation.

Call the one sort of interpretative strategy Biblical particularism. Call the other Biblical liberalism.

My charge is that today's Evangelicals are of two minds. One certain matters, homosexuality for example, they are inerrantists and particularists. On others, they are liberals. I suggest they get their act together and decide what they really want to be. At present, their interpretative strategy is simply incoherent.


Tom Gilson said...

The Ephesians passage on slavery recognized or acknowledged the fact of slavery. It does not approve or condone it. In the historical situation, those who were slaves needed moral guidance appropriate to their circumstance, which is what you find in the passage.

There is no parallel there to the matter of homosexuality, where the teaching is quite abundantly clear on a plain reading of the text.

Franklin Mason said...

The passage does not explicity condemn it. Rather it tells slave and master how to act and it thereby tacilty condones it. If I tell you how you should act qua father, do I not tacitly condone fatherhood? Conversely, if you were to ask me how best to carry out a murder, should I not simply reply that you ought not murder? If I were to tell you how best to do it, do I not thereby become an accomplice?

Paul, and Christ, had abundant opportunity to condemn slavery. They never did. Rather all Paul had to say about the matter was to tell how best to structure it. To carry away from this the conclusion that he did not condone slavery seems to me perverse. It is to place upon the text an interpretation strained and implausible.


Franklin Mason said...

Let me say this as well, Tom. I don't doubt that your heart is in the right place on this. You know as well as do I that slavery is evil. But this, conjoined to what I assume is a inerrantist, particularist strategy of Biblical interpretation, leads you to contort Biblical texts.

The point, again, is that if I tell you how to do a thing, I thereby implicity condone the doing of it.
Would you tell a terrorist how to build a bomb? Would you tell a rapist how to stalk a woman? Of course not. You'd do all in your power to stop them.

One need not explicity condone a thing to shows that one does approve of it. Tell others how to do a thing and you show them that you agree with them that it's permissible to do.