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Bible — handle with care!

21 April 2008

Edward Dowler has reservations about the latter part of a useful survey

According to the Scriptures? The challenge of using the Bible in social, moral and political questions
J. W. Rogerson

J.W. ROGERSON is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His concern about conservative Evangelicals (with what he regards as regressive moral views) taking over the Church runs through this, the first in a projected series of books on Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World.

Rogerson’s book falls into two parts, which, in the opinion of this reviewer, are of sharply varying quality. The first part (Chapters 1-8) begins with a slightly standard attack on “conservative” Christians who criticise liberals for “picking and choosing”, and yet don’t follow the logic of their own arguments by insisting that those who commit adultery or curse their parents should be put to death.

In the ensuing chapters, however, Rogerson briskly and helpfully surveys some of the ways in which Old Testament laws have been interpreted from the New Testament onwards. He shows that a number of these laws have been seen as problematic throughout the tradition, at times leading to the view that the Old Testament was not binding on Christians (Justin Martyr), or that its rules should be allegorised (Origen), or that distinctions should be drawn between ceremonial, moral, and judicial commandments (Aquinas).

For some theologians, such as Aquinas, Old Testament moral rules have needed to be authenticated by natural law in order to bind those living outside the Old Testament milieu. Similarly, others such as Hooker and, somewhat surprisingly, Baxter have looked to find them independently grounded in reason and wisdom before taking them too seriously.

It is in the second part of the book (Chapters 9 and 10), when Rogerson adumbrates his own approach to the use of the Bible in ethics, that the wheels fly off. Rogerson’s “new” approach (he admits that it does have precedents) is to find a middle way between “rigourist” and “anything goes” ethics, looking to the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and evaluating moral questions on a case-by-case basis, armed with the overriding commandment to love.

The fact that this programme almost exactly coincides with that of Joseph Fletcher in the 1970s makes the claim that it is new somewhat questionable. Not new either are the hoary old ethical chestnuts that he adduces as case-studies for his approach: marriage after divorce, usury, and homosexuality.

Two aspects of Rogerson’s ap-proach seemed to this reviewer particularly problematic.

The first is that he seems constantly to be warning amateur readers of the Bible to “handle with care!” Recent years have certainly reminded us that religious texts do have inflammatory potential.

Rogerson, however, uses this insight to make what is essentially an academically élitist point; for, he says, in order to be able to use the Bible responsibly on ethical issues, you have first to be aware of its presuppositions, of the complex history of its interpretation, of its cultural specificity, of the disagreements in the tradition, etc. In other words, you probably have to be a professor of biblical studies. In anyone else’s hands, the whole venture is too dangerous, since success depends upon “a high degree of knowledge, discernment, theological acumen, understanding of human nature and society”. So, bad luck, children, and bad luck, base communities.

The second is his narrow view of how the Bible speaks to us morally, which often appears to equate ethics with moral rules and injunctions. The work of scholars such as Richard Hays has reminded us that we encounter biblical moral teaching in a variety of different modes, among which moral rules are not necessarily the most important. Prior to these rules, and more fundamentally significant in shaping the moral life of Christians, is the ongoing narrative of a creating, redeeming, and reconciling God which runs through both Old and New Testaments.

So, this is an excessively nervous and cautious take on biblical ethics, emphasising how difficult it all is, but missing almost entirely the extraordinary richness and plenitude that the scriptures bring to the people of God seeking to live the fullness of life to which they have been called.

Many readers will echo Rogerson’s hope, in the book’s closing sentence, that “against all the odds, the Bible can bring light and hope into a world still darkened by so much ignorance and inhumanity.” Sadly, though, he doesn’t tell us how this might happen.

The Revd Dr Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, in Oxford.

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