Morality Conclusions: What Next?

New ethical issues are arising that didn’t occur in Bible times. This summary of techniques, validated by these worked-through examples, will help you navigate uncharted areas, using the Bible as a foundation.

This book started by outlining methods for extracting moral guidance from an ancient text, then examining real-life examples to see whether the theory actually works. The results in every chapter suggest that this method works remarkably well.

Often we have found that rules change with cultures, but this does not imply that the purposes behind these rules have also changed. In every case we have identified a consistent purpose, so that the Bible displays the same moral purpose throughout, from Old Testament to New.

Some examples that we examined were questions that are no longer issues in modern Western society, such as whether to allow polygamy or slavery and whether girls should be educated – although, as we know, there are problems with these issues in some parts of the world. Other examples concerned issues that haven’t changed much since Bible times, such as sexual immorality, racism, lying, and crude language. Other issues are often thought to have changed, but we found that the difference is not so great after all, such as rules about homosexuality, divorce, fashion, abortion, or hospitality.

This method even solved some issues that have long caused problems in some parts of the church, such as people being barred from leadership positions because they are divorcees, or women, or have rebellious children; wives who are taught to submit to their husbands in all things and risk being trapped in abusive relationships; and tolerance of homophobia and sexism. Summarizing the method What these examples showed us is that the background context is the key. Without it, we are reading the equivalent of ancient replies to letters that are lost, so we don’t know what they are responding to. We can’t know whether the law of Moses is telling Israel to be more strict or less strict about something if we don’t know what was normal in the surrounding nations. And we can’t know whether Paul is telling people to fit in with Roman society or to take a stand against it if we don’t know how Romans actually lived.

Here’s a summary of the method outlined in the first section, as refined by the examples that we worked through:
1. We need to determine whether a particular rule in the Bible is timeless or not. That is, we need to discover whether it should apply at all times in all cultures (including our own) or whether different cultures require different rules. We determine whether a rule is timeless by asking two questions:
• Is the rule the same throughout the Bible – for example, is it the same in both Old and New Testaments?
• Is the rule countercultural – that is, does it stand in contrast to the surrounding culture in the Old or New Testament?

If the answer to both is Yes, then it is very likely that this rule is timeless. The only exception is when culture has changed a great deal between Bible times and now, so that applying the same rule now would have a result different from its original purpose. This brings us to the next stage:
2. We need to determine the purpose behind any rule that might not be timeless. That is, we need to find the original aim of the rule – the benefit that it produced or harm that it prevented. This is done by looking at the effect of that rule in the various cultures in Bible times. When we have done that, we can decide whether that same rule still applies by asking two questions:
• If the same rule was used in another society, such as our present one, will it produce the same effect? If the answer is no, then we have to ask:
• What rule applied in this different society would produce the same effect?
3. The challenging issues which did not exist in ancient times but concern us greatly today still remain – everything from drug abuse to vegetarianism. The chapters concerning these two topics (20 and 29) uncovered some principles that can be applied to any issue that isn’t addressed in the Bible. These principles can be summarized as:
• avoid anything that may harm us or master us
• avoid anything that leads us or others into sinful behavior
• avoid anything that brings the gospel into disrepute Now for your contribution Throughout this summary I have referred to examples that “we” have examined. This is because I’m hoping that you now feel able to deal with such issues by yourself and perhaps to question my conclusions in some cases. I laid out my methods and reasoning plainly so that you can check things, and so you might spot factors that I haven’t considered properly. You may also interpret the ancient culture in a different way and end up disagreeing with me.

Not everyone can spend years learning ancient languages and decades reading texts from the time of the Bible, but everyone can use a skill that ancient historians need and often neglect: imagination. The key to interpreting the ancient world is partly knowing the material and literary remains, but it is also a matter of imagining the lifestyle and mindset that produced them. We humans have not changed much in the last few thousand years, and your imagination about how people lived and thought in that different society can help you interpret that data as well as anyone else. This means that you may have a different insight into the motivations, inclinations, and hopes of the people who left these artifacts and literature.

This means you may hold a key to understanding an ethical issue that is still causing confusion and perhaps heartache. You now have the tools, and you now know more about the ancient world – and of course there are many other books with details of ancient culture. With these, you should be able to use the Bible to find solutions to moral issues that we are still struggling with.

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