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What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible says on key ethical issues, by John J. Collins

05 February 2021

David Atkinson reflects on scripture and morals

THERE are some American fundamentalists who use the Bible as a moral text book, selecting texts to support their viewpoint, and urging everyone to uphold “biblical values”. Common examples are abortion, the death penalty, and “family values”. John Collins, Old Testament Professor at Yale, author of books on Wisdom and on the Dead Sea Scrolls, rightly exposes this approach as failing to recognise the wide diversity of origins, cultures, and contexts within the Bible, which yields differing, sometimes contradictory, perspectives on many issues.

Collins makes clear that he is not describing the moral values of ancient Israel or early Christianity, and helpfully points readers instead to the fine studies by John Barton (Ethics in Ancient Israel) and Richard Hays (The Moral Vision of the New Testament). He has, rather, selected a set of “issues” that he regards as relevant within the Bible and in today’s contexts, and examines what the Bible actually says about them. He sets this within three important biblical frameworks: creation, covenant, and eschatology.

His topics include the right to life, gender, sexuality, marriage and family, the environment, slavery, violence, and social justice. Collins effectively demonstrates how such issues are morally complex, and that on each the biblical texts do not speak with a single voice, and that the search for “biblical values” becomes a quest for guiding principles rather than proof texts.

So there is no Bible discourse on human rights. The Bible does not say anything directly about abortion. The prophets are more concerned with social than with environmental ethics. The implications of the Gospels for ecology are indirect. Slavery is accepted in the Bible, but that does not settle the matter for us. Inevitably, several chapters conclude with “many other considerations besides these biblical texts will have to be taken into account.” Collins is clear on some biblical values: the prosperity gospel is a caricature of Bible teaching; justice is a central theme of the Hebrew Bible; and the New Testament underlines the fundamental importance of providing for the poor.

His exegesis is careful and scholarly, clear and accessible. Nevertheless, the reader is left too often with: Genesis says this, Deuteronomy says that, and the Gospels say something different again; one scholar takes this view, another a different one. That is fair enough, and true enough. But for me, this, raises the question: for whom is Collins writing? I think that this book, with its huge bibliography, could be a very useful reference for students, and perhaps preachers, and it ought to be in theological-college libraries. But whether the fundamentalists in his sights are likely to take any notice is another matter.

I was disappointed with Collins’s choice of “key issues”. I want to know whether the Bible can help us with issues of intergenerational climate justice. What trust should we place in technology, or AI? How are we to respond to global vested interests? Is there anything to help us evaluate free-market economies with the inevitable growth in inequalities? How about the concept of truth in our political discourse? or our corporate responsibilities towards “the stranger”?

There is also frustration from a Christian reader’s perspective that Collins stays (deliberately) so much at the level of exegesis that there is very little help in discerning how the text bears witness to God’s living Word. I was left searching for a hermeneutic rooted in the gospel, or in the incarnation, or in love.

How very much more satisfying is Richard Hays’s point that, without the living embodiment of the Word in the life of the Christian community, not much else matters: “The value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.”


Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.


What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible says on key ethical issues
John J. Collins
Yale £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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