“Because the Bible says so!” is a common refrain when a Christian is called to defend a moral point. Predictably, this tends to result in derision from non-believers, and often enough this derision is, I am sad to think, just. “The Bible says so!” is a useful and significant statement so long as it means “here is a relevant biblical passage – we ought to be attentive to it” – and not “here is a relevant biblical passage – no further argument is admissible”. The latter supposes morality as “flat”, in the sense that it is decided unequivocally by single lines or statements without need for any further reference, while the former admits the possibility of “layers” – for eg. delving beyond the simple wording into the context of the passage, comparing with other related texts, considering its integration into a larger system of moral thought, etc.
Making this distinction is useful so that we might be more cognizant of our own approaches to thinking about morality vis-a-vis Scripture, and so that we can compare the merits of both approaches. Many Christians, I think, tend to find themselves in “flat” territory, and it may not be clear why this might be problematic or dangerous. Especially since the alternative – the “layered” approach – may seem to lack the solidity of straightforward Scriptural backing and thus seem uncertain, and suspiciously close to secular thought.
there is simply no way to say that Scripture must be taken absolutely literally in its entirety without reducing it to absurdity
However there are several reasons why “flat” reasoning in morality is pretty much untenable on scrutiny, at least on a Christian perspective. In the first place, any reasonable student of the Bible must agree that it is an exegetical work – that is to say, it is a work that requires interpretive effort to make sense of. It is no real secret that Scripture contradicts itself variously when taken in the most literal, non-contextual sense, and so there is simply no way to say that Scripture must be taken absolutely literally in its entirety without reducing it to absurdity. This is the insurmountable wall that confronts any radically fundamentalist position.
Now if the Bible is indeed an exegetical work, then it becomes necessary by default to ask deeper questions about any particular part of text we are presently interpreting. What and for whom is it written for. When is it written. What is its relative importance compared to other parts of Scripture. Asking questions like these is the essence of exegesis. Accordingly when we settle for one particular interpretation of a bit of Scripture, there must necessarily be reasons for the interpretation – reasons that can be defended or attacked. We do this in fact as part of pretty much standard practice in much of modern Christianity. For eg, we are not normally too fazed by the existence of difficult verses in books like Leviticus because modern Christian exegesis puts Jesus Christ – the living Word – at the forefront of our faith, and thus enables us to prioritize and contextualize the rest of Scripture using the lens of Jesus’ own teaching. When a modern Christian acts, he has the teachings of Christ much closer to his heart than the laws in the Pentateuch. This does not of course mean that Leviticus should be ignored(*), but rather that we must seek an understanding of it that is compatible with Christ – and so think deeper than the mere literal senses of the texts in that book. This is in fact exegesis – and thus layered morality in action.
If a work is exegetical, then it is exegetical all through and it would be silly to suppose that there is some partition that immunizes certain passages from the necessity of interpretation
Being now aware of this, what we must be wary of is “trying to have it both ways”. It may be tempting to think that while “layered” exegesis of Leviticus is justifiable, the words of Christ in the Gospels (say) must be taken at “flat” face-value. If a work is exegetical, then it is exegetical all through and it would be silly to suppose that there is some partition that immunizes certain passages from the necessity of interpretation. At the very least, someone who wants to make a claim like “the words of Christ in the Gospels must be taken in full literalness” must be aware that his claim is in fact itself an act of interpretation, and must thus be as such open to challenges and must be defended with reason. So long as Scripture is exegetical, we can never say that an isolated piece of Scripture is authoritative purely on its own.
So long as Scripture is exegetical, we can never say that an isolated piece of Scripture is authoritative purely on its own.
A little further reflection on God and Scripture will lead us to another reason to be suspicious of “flat” moral judgements. If the revelation of God-given morality happens in bits and pieces scattered across the books of Scripture, then either these revelations are part of a greater integrated Whole, or they are just what they are – disparate pieces. Now, if individual Scriptural verses are absolutely authoritative on their own, then they are disparate pieces – because if they are part of a greater Whole, then it must be meaningful to talk about and interpret them based on their relationship with each other and how they fit together. So either we must abandon “flat” judgement, or we must accept that God’s revelation can show up in absolutely unrelated pieces. But what does it really mean to accept the latter? Can we truly reconcile our belief in one God with N different fully-autonomous rules? It seems to me, no. We say that God is Good, that God is Love – and that naturally implies a kind of unity in His divine Essence. Jesus Himself declared all the Law and the Prophets as derivative of the Great Commandment. We, too, naturally see connections between common moral ideas – I should not commit robbery because hurting my neighbours is bad and because being greedy at my neighbours’ expense is bad because I ought to love my neighbour because love is good. I cannot but think the Glory of God demands a complete Whole, a fuller Splendour that unites all Good in Him. If I am right, then “flat” morality simply cannot hold.
Can we truly reconcile our belief in one God with N different fully-autonomous rules?
Finally, we must consider that “flat” morality alienates unbelievers, while “layered” morality holds out the chance to engage them. Now while some believers may be dismissive of the idea of debating non-believers on stuff like morality, I believe that such dialogue is becoming increasingly critical in our world. I have already previously argued for why it is important for religious voices to join society’s discourses – but this can only happen if discussions can go further than simple appeals to isolated verses. Thankfully, by the arguments above, it seems undeniable that Christian morality at any rate is more nuanced and reasoned than mere “flat”ness. The sense of Scripture delves deeper than its mere words of language. We ought to consider that both you and I are today Christian because, in all likelihood, something about Christianity has appealed to our innate humanity. If Christianity is good and true, then we could expect its ideas to be naturally appealing to any unbiased and sincere human being – and I have great faith that it is.
If our deepest intuitions of Goodness is a part of the image of God imprinted in all of us, we can hope that, properly presented, the ideas of the Christian faith will also resonate with the best intuitions of people who are yet outside the faith. In a time where the foreseeable future remains peppered with likely friction between faithful and secular peoples, our ability to, through our Christian values, hold out resonant appeals to lofty, universally-recognizable goodness will be critical to our ability to anchor the course of human society and defend what is sane and good. God willing, it may also help to bring more into the fold of the Faith – and, chances are, for all the right reasons.
(*) I should add a little emphasis here to the fact that I don’t for a moment think Scripture is redundant. Just because we shouldn’t take many verses in the Scriptural books of law literally doesn’t mean they deserve no attention. Quite the contrary – the difficulty and complexity of Scripture is fertile grounds for lifelong meditation, prayer, and communal exegesis. Its tendency to stick out in all sorts of unexpected ways help immunize us from the lure of overly simple and “rounded” philosophies. No matter what stage of wisdom we think we have attained, Scripture ensures that new grounds for humility and learning always await our seeking – yet undiscovered, yet richer ways to learn about and interact with our God. This, too, is another wonderful outcome of a “layered” attitude towards Scripture.