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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: Manual for the Christian Life
The Possibility of Using Scripture in Ethics
1. The use of Scripture within Scripture itself. Can we appeal to Scripture to find proper solutions to moral problems? Jesus and Paul both appeal to the OT in the NT, and the 10 commandments are cited several times. An appeal to texts of Scripture was obviously authoritative for the NT church.
2. The use of Scripture throughout church history. Similarly Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin et al regarded an appeal to Scripture's authority as decisive in reflecting upon human behaviour. Until our modern era, the appeal to Scripture in moral matters was considered self-evident and decisive.
The way in which theologians appealed to Scripture varies: Aquinas' Scriptural references were sparse and used much reason; Augustine was more broad and meaningful in his use of Scripture. Catechisms' appeals to the 10 commandments also show that Scripture was regarded as authoritative in ethical matters.
3. A significant transition. Several developments changed the traditional perspective:
b) The Bible was seen to offer little more than that found in the surrounding environment of Israel and the early church.
H.M. Kuitert agreed, seeing commands as just "examples of earlier faith-obedience".
Examples of paradigms include the Exodus paradigm and the Sermon on the Mount paradigm. The Exodus paradigm is used by liberation theology "let my people go" - but ignores the fact that the aim of liberation was that God's people serve Him. Similarly the love paradigm fails when it results in a direct conflict with the Biblical commandments.
Karl Barth also goes from text to paradigm,
yet he continually appeals to Scripture. He justifies this by saying that
although there is a vertical line of an encounter between God and man,
there is also a horizontal line of continuity and constancy of the divine
commanding and human acting. Scripture thus gives us a "lead", a "direction",
but not the answer itself. Thus Barth avoids speaking about a general commandment
applicable for everybody in all times.
6. Inherent biblicism. Not every appeal to Scripture is Biblicistic. H.M. Kuitert et al thinks that a pure appeal to Scripture in ethics is impossible, since your cultural POV decides which texts are applicable and which are not. In his view, using any Bible texts to support an ethical argument implies Biblicism.
In 1970, Kuitert thus criticized Calvin's seemingly arbitrary use of Scripture. Kuitert did not yet reject every appeal to Scripture in ethics. In 1981 he went further, and insisted that the Bible can't be used for moral instruction. He believed that it was our cultural starting point that ended up determining our ethics, and hence RC ethics (based on natural law) was essentially no different from Protestant ethics (based on Scripture).
Pim Pronk agrees with Kuitert that we don't deduce our standpoint from Scripture, but rather read it back into the Bible.
7. Our own position (1). Our starting point is to affirm the unity/reliability of Scripture. This presupposition doesn't solve all problems in the use of Scripture, but it is different from a "cultural starting point". The Word, by the Spirit, converts people, and demonstrates how God's people should live.
Can we use proof-texts in ethics? The fact that the RC (natural law) ethics is similar to ours is because much is presupposed before it is proved. In a more strongly secularized society, the differences would be much greater, simply because those who appeal to Scripture can't accept the cultural starting point of the other side!
8. Our own position (2). The danger of Biblicism is always there. But ultimately the question is: do we give the last word to our "cultural starting point" or to Scripture? In using Scripture, of course we must also consider the "cultural starting point", but Scripture is always decisive.
As an example, those who see differences between husband and wife as "outdated", reinterpret certain Scripture passages (eg 1Tim 2:9ff), overshadowing them by other texts like Gal 3:28 - this is arbitrary selectivity. Here we must resist the "cultural starting point", and maintain Scripture as valid.
The Method of Using Scripture in Ethics
1. Varieties of Scripture usage. Our use of Scripture shows some variety. We use Scripture as a guide (when appealing very directly to the Bible), as a guard (when it warns), as a compass (when it points out the general direction we must walk), and as an example (which show a more general Christian ethos).
2. Scripture as guide. Here a simple reference to Scripture suffices. In many cases, a simple appeal to Scripture tells us exactly what God's Word is for us or for others, eg do not live in anger with a brother (Mt 5:22). As a guide, Scripture thus tells us specifically what good and evil lie in our path.
3. Scripture as guard (1). Often we can't directly appeal to Scripture, because of the great difference in situation between the biblical time and now. Developments to a better juridical system, better forms of government aren't commanded by Scripture, yet obviously they are correct, and the Bible does play some role. Scripture is a guard that warns against corrupt developments, eg the Bible doesn't stipulate democracy, but warns against certain abuses. As a guard, Scripture warns us against despising God and oppressing people.
We know God not only from special revelation in Scripture, but also as He reveals Himself in the creation and in the history of the world - we must also know this in forming our moral judgment. This does not mean that the majority opinion rules, for the fact that something impresses many people as being good is not the last word (eg homosexuality). But sometimes there are things that impress human consciousness as being good, and we can connect this with God's leading of history aimed at the restraint of evil and the development of the good.
4. Scripture as guard (2). In "reading" history, we can mistakes (eg German Christians saw Hitler's rise to power as God's will). Yet here Scripture functions as a guard, for although it doesn't always declare what is good in a particular situation, it can still show us what is evil in that situation.
5. Scripture as compass (1). For example, although the Bible doesn't address questions posed by DNA research, there are Biblical themes (eg creation, place of man in creation) that can be applied to these issues. There are constant principles that remain valid, and are relevant for our judgment of the most advanced scientific developments. For instance, with in-vitro-fertilization, Scripture as guard says what we must not do (thou shalt not kill), whereas Scripture as compass indicates those themes which help us discover what we must do.
Appealing to specific verses and to general themes is not contradictory - it is a false dilemma to say "we must work Scripturally rather than textually". Themes apart from verses leads to speculation, whereas isolated verses leads to Biblicism. Thus we need to consider the constant principles which remain valid amid every change (eg man is a creature). Heyns lists ten biblical coordinates, but they are so diverse that they can't be used efficiently in practice.
6. Scripture as compass (2). Scripture gives the general direction we must go, and within that general orientation we must use our own understanding of the issue and our own insight. What is the relation between using our understanding and using Scripture? Calvin distinguishes between:
2. the ratio vitiosa (destructive, results from human depravity)
3. the tertia ratio (led by the Word and Spirit)
7. Scripture provides examples (1). Scripture itself urges us to follow the lives of others. It is concerned with the history of God's redemption of man through Christ, and within the resulting fellowship in following Christ, a Christian ethos is born. The apostles, in pointing to our life "in Christ", do more than what "is written". eg Paul in Eph 6:2ff points to the 5th commandment, but begins by saying that children must obey their parents in the Lord. Thus a proper use of Scripture must always include wanting to abide in a living relationship with Christ and His church. The Bible is thus given for both story and moral, example and command.
8. Scripture provides examples (2). In the fellowship with Christ and His church, we may search for God's will. Taking into account the example of the previous generation testifies to respect for the fellowship of the church. Yet even so, there can be differences of insight and conduct. Some differences can't be allowed to continue beside each other, but we must be careful, considering that there are "weak" and "strong", and we must accept others in spite of these differences. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind, because not everyone draws the same conclusions from the same (scriptural) data. Even where there are differing opinions, each must accept the other in love.
9. Fulfillment in Christ (1). Christ is the fulfiller of the OT law and prophets. We thus no longer use the Mosaic legal/penal code. Scripture itself indicates that these prescriptions are no longer binding. Christ came to fulfil the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17), in the sense that they are not full without Christ, and that He makes them full, fills them out, which involves a significant alteration (eg ceremonial impurity abandoned, eating unclean food permitted). "Fulfil" means that Christ brings the finishing revelation, showing how far-reaching the OT commandments are, and their true intention and significance (eg Sermon on the Mount: not just adultery is forbidden, but also lust).
10. Fulfillment in Christ (2). The fulfilling has consequences also for the "civil" ordinances, as well as the "ceremonial". Israel no longer has an exclusive place as a holy nation, and thus there is freedom in making laws which correspond better to the circumstances of our time, place, and people. Even in Israel itself, God's law applied only to Israel, and differently to foreigners or sojourners. Some Mosaic regulations still needed to be followed, as the Jerusalem council reaffirmed. Aquinas' distinction between moral, ceremonial and civil laws can be maintained, but only as a guideline - for Israel, there was only one law. Aquinas' based it on the distinctions in Deut 6:1, and was followed by Melanchthon, Calvin, and the WCF. Ceremonial laws have always been understood as obsolete. Civil laws were also not considered fully binding for NT Christians. Moral laws retain their direct validity.
11. Is Moses still binding after all? The Christian Reconstruction movement (Rushdoony, Bahnsen, North) believes that the entire Mosaic legal code is still valid. These opinions function in the context of postmillennialism, and the reinstatement of the Mosiac legal code (except the ceremonial laws) is seen as the dawn of a new age. In this view, "plero-o" (Matt 5:17) means "confirm, restore, re-establish", but this theonomic view is not tenable:
b. If "plero-o" means that the Law and the Prophets are still binding, how can the ceremonial laws be excluded?
c. What follows in Matt 5 shows that Christ isn't establishing the Mosaic legal code for civil life, but is focusing on the internal spiritual and moral meaning of the law. For example, Christ shows the true intention of the permitting of divorce in Deut 24, saying it was because of "hardness of heart", and He Himself goes back to Genesis 2 where divorce is excluded.
d. Christian Reconstruction pays much attention to the reformation of the world, but little to the reformation of the church. In fact, Paul speaks of excommunication as conformity to the Mosaic legal code "Put away the wicked man from among you!"
e. It is impossible to apply
the Mosaic legal code consistently in modern society. How would we determine
what is a detail and what is a principle?
13. Using the entire canon. Scripture has its unity in Christ, and thus doesn't function as a mere collection of laws and rules. Both the OT and NT have canonical authority, shedding light on one another. On controversial subjects, we must ensure that we let the whole of Scripture speak, not just the parts that supposedly support our view. Not only must we read the OT in light of the NT, but also the NT in light of the OT, eg the Pauline discussion of the role of sex and marriage must be seen in light of what Proverbs and Song of Solomon speak about it.
14. The testimony of the Holy Spirit (1). Sometimes answers to ethical questions can't be drawn simply and directly from Scripture, and we must search for God's will. The OT itself speaks of the implicit search for the as-yet unknown commandment (Ps 25:4 "Show me your ways..."). The NT indicates that the Spirit leads us in the truth. Through experience and exercise, our senses become sharpened to distinguish good from evil, and to discern what pleases the Lord.
Does the Spirit give knowledge beside the knowledge of Scripture? If we say yes, we fall into spiritualism. Every appeal to the Spirit must be evaluated according to Scripture. If we say no, we forget that we need to make concrete decisions without Scripture telling us precisely what those decisions ought to be. In this sense, we can say that the Spirit works not only per verbum (through the Word), but also cum verbo (alongside the Word).
H. Bavinck says that Lutherans say that the Spirit works through the Word (per verbum), whereas Reformed theologians prefer to say that the Spirit ties Himself to the Word (cum verbo). This supposed difference between the two schools, however, is not so clear as Bavinck suggests. K. Bockmuhl also makes a distinction between the power of the testimony of the Spirit, and the content of the testimony of the Spirit. Calvin limited the Spirit's role to just a power, but Bockmuhl says that the testimony of the Spirit also can have its own content.
15. The testimony of the Holy Spirit (2). We can speak of the testimony of the Spirit as more than just a power, for the Spirit also does open our eyes to the path of life along which we must walk. This applies, for example, to the question of determining God's will for our personal lives (occupation, marriage partner etc). It is possible to be mistaken about the Spirit's leading, and so we must be cautious in appealing to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. What we need is the harmony of two voices, Spirit and Scripture, thus testing everything with Scripture. The Spirit's leading will always be in harmony with, and never contradict, the revealed Word of God.
For example, at weddings we often speak about God bringing bride and groom together. We also believe that prayers are answered, although not with words.
16. Exercising care in our use of Scripture. Appealing to Scripture is not always simple, and we can also ask too much from Scripture - by expecting detailed blueprints for all areas of life. Examples of this:
2. John Frame's Medical
Ethics often tries to prove too much with the Bible.
Others, such as James Gustafson, have also pointed out variety in the use of Scripture. But we need not limit ourselves by choosing one method, but combine the different uses.
In using Scripture, however, we must reject two extremes:
2. Scripture is sufficient for making judgments........... No: there are more sources for ethics than Scripture alone.