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I believe that throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Bible espouses moral absolutism.

Yet, I recently read on this site a response to a question about slavery:

As stated, slavery was a fact of the Ancient World, and so when the Bible addresses the topic, it should not be compared against the sensibilities of the modern world, but rather against the sensibilities of the ones to whom the Bible was addressed.

...

It is an anachronism to apply questions of, for example, feminism or communism, to the Scriptures, because the original audience would have had no means of apprehending it as such.

If this statement is correct, then the Bible cannot appropriately speak to issues like slavery or women's rights because it was written in a different era. Therefore are we all left to interpret and filter the Bible through the lens of our current times and adopt moral relativism for ourselves?


P.S. Here's a quick refresher about the differences between moral relativism and moral absolutism.

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There's an article here that argues that the story of Jesus essentially "laid the foundation for Western moral relativism"; might be interesting, and another; this then suggests much more than "we should use moral relativism because of application to a different environment", but rather more simply because "it is morally relativistic" –  Marc Gravell Feb 29 '12 at 6:41
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Could we modify this question to only subtly reference affable geeks answer so as not to appear to be a discussion board. I think this is a good question that can stand on its own. –  Peter Turner Feb 29 '12 at 12:00
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@Affable Geek: The Bible is not being descriptive. It is simply wrong. The morality is absolute, the Bible is just wrong about it. It's as simple as that. –  Ron Maimon Feb 29 '12 at 17:05
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@Ron I'm not sure that's overly constructive... Even by my warped standards. –  Marc Gravell Feb 29 '12 at 18:36
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But the position that the morality of an action is contingent upon societal norms is subjectivism, not relativism. –  Steely Dan Mar 7 '12 at 0:14
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10 Answers 10

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John Frame (A Reformed professor and theologian) presents a framework for Christian Ethics that is both objective and relative. He has written extensively on Ethics and other topics.

  1. Ethics

The same perspectives govern the quest for ethical knowledge, the knowledge of right and wrong. As secular epistemology has been divided along three lines corresponding with these perspectives, so secular ethics has been either existential (basing ethical judgments on feelings), teleological (focusing on happiness), or deontological (focusing on duties). I see these as existential, situational, and normative, respectively. These fail in various ways to account for the nature of ethical decisions. One major problem is that most ethicists try to separate these three perspectives from one another.

A biblical ethic will include all three perspectives. Normatively, we seek to obey God’s authoritative word, his law. Situationally, we seek to apply that law to situations (which are themselves revelation of a sort—general revelation) so as to maximize divine blessing, the highest happiness. Existentially, we seek the inner satisfaction of living as God designed us to live, in his presence. These are perspectives. Each involves the others. But each serves as a check and balance against our misunderstandings of the others.

http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/PrimerOnPerspectivalism.html

His ethical framework applies to every decision that we make in life, though not always directly. The Bible itself provides objective norms for communicating about morals. On the other hand, interpreting the Bible and its application to arbitrary situations is subjective / relative. Even the most obvious commands like "thou shall not murder / kill" require thought and consideration of exceptions. Finally, the conscience and work of the Holy Spirit are very personal but also a necessary part of moral decisions.

While God has a position to know the absolute right and wrong of any action, he gives us a measure of freedom to make decisions on our own. Many decisions have trade-offs, and neither choice is the obvious correct one.

Meanwhile, some people like to take relativism in the opposite extreme and suppose situations where one is left with no choice but to clearly break one of God's moral laws. The problem is not the focus on relative ethics, but of ignoring the objective component. All three perspectives need to be considered.

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First, I don't think slavery can be used to measure the moral relativism or absolutism of the Bible, as it has no clear moral statement on the topic. Simply because I never said I don't like liver doesn't mean that I do like it, but it also doesn't mean I don't. It's kind of like having a moral Schrodinger's box. We just don't know until God tells us clearly. The Bible mentions slavery, but does not address it in a moral context, so we can't really use that. (On a side note, I do believe there are other passages in Scripture that would hint at the attitude we should take: Romans 12:10, Philippians 2:3, but this is still not a clear, direct application to the topic of slavery).

But on other issues, I think it's crystal clear:

  • Do not murder.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not lie.
  • Do not covet.

On these things, the Bible isn't relativistic at all. I don't think a lack of a moral judgment on an issue should be construed as moral relativism, but simply as silence. There's a difference.

Next, this question is making an assumption about the purpose of the Bible. It's assuming that the Bible is primarily meant as a tool to tell us how we ought to live. This isn't the purpose of the Bible at all. It's purpose is to show us who God is, and how we can know Him.

Paul, in Romans 3:19-20, makes it clear that the law isn't an exhaustive list of rights and wrongs, but a measuring stick by which we can all conclude that we all come up short:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

So what's the purpose of the law? It's so we'll see our own sin in our lives and turn to Christ to be saved. In order for the law to do it's job, it must be taken as absolute. If it bends to societal whims, it will never be able to do it's job, which is to show us our need for a Savior. Instead, we will likely use it to excuse ourselves, denying our need for a Savior, and thus rejecting Christ altogether.

Update - The different kinds of law

I want to add a couple of clarifications about the different kinds of laws in the Bible.

It's important to remember that, in the Old Testament, there were multiple kinds of laws given: moral, ceremonial, governmental, and sanitation-related laws are some of them. Moral law would include such things as the Ten Commandments. Ceremonial laws would include such laws as how to, and when to, kill a lamb. Governmental laws would include such things as how to handle slaves, etc. Sanitation laws might include laws about mildew and various rashes.

Yes, it's true that some of these laws don't apply to us anymore. We don't call a priest and then abandon our homes when we have a little bit of mildew. Instead, we grab the household cleaner and start spraying. This isn't a moral judgement on mildew, it's the best way they had at the time to diagnose the problem and ensure public health.

Likewise, there are some laws that applied to the Israelites as a governmental entity. Slavery is included in these. Typically, the governmental laws are the application of the moral law within a society. We have no obligation today to follow the governmental laws of the theocratic government of the Israelites, as we are no longer under a theocracy, and open slavery is not as widespread of a practice today, so it need not be addressed or have limits placed on it. However, the moral laws do still apply, and these are the ones we're concerned with when we speak of moral relativism and absolutism.

The false dichotomy that is often made regarding the OT law is that we either have to accept the entirety of it as a moral law, or we have to reject the entirety of it as "simply an opinion". Neither option is very palatable, and both options needlessly over-simplify the Bible. I also don't believe we can extrapolate the moral law from the ceremonial or governmental law.

Of course, the crux of most moral and ethical conversations revolving around the Bible comes down to this question: What kind of law was it? If it was homosexuality, was it governmental, ceremonial, sanitation-related or moral? If it was slavery, was it governmental, ceremonial, sanitation-related or moral? Deciding these questions decides what morals we live by today.

But in the end, it still comes down to the purpose of the law. If we're talking about the law as an agent to point out our shortcomings and point to our need for a savior, then the safest route to go is to assume that the entire law applies, regardless of type. If our goal is tell us how to best live our lives, so we can avoid owing God, then our route is to pick and choose which ones apply and which ones don't. I choose to believe it's the former, and that's what makes me a Christian, and not a scared rule-follower.

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The Bible doesn't just mention slavery--- it tells you how to beat your slaves, when to set them free, and when to pawn them for money. This is not a neutral statement. –  Ron Maimon Feb 29 '12 at 17:06
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The Bible doesn't just mention slavery--- it tells you a slave owner will be killed if he kills one and sets a "term-limit" on slaves. The practice was so widespread, that the law here isn't condoning the slavery all, but rather placing more reasonable limits on those who practice it than the limits placed on slave owners in other nations. Also, slaves were allowed to take part in community activities, such as Passover and festivals. In other words, it was a nicer thing to be a slave in Israel than a slave in another country. At least you had some rights. See Matt 19:8 for a similar logic. –  David Morton Feb 29 '12 at 20:13
    
@RonMaimon I added an update that might help to clarify my position a bit. –  David Morton Feb 29 '12 at 20:56
    
The 10 commandments are not illuminating here. They don't say "don't lie", they say "don't bear false witness", which is an admonition not to lie in court. Further, don't murder/steal/commit-adultery are common to all ancient ethical systems--- they are not controversial. The only reason they are there are to make the nontrivial things seem natural. It's the same construction as "life,liberty,property": nobody disputes life and liberty. The nontrivial content of the 10 commandments is "do not make figurative art", "do not work on saturday", "do not put other gods first". –  Ron Maimon Mar 17 '12 at 0:23
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I'm not sure the Bible does espouse moral absolutism throughout. The apostle Paul, for example is in general very big on the idea that the law of the Jews does not apply to Gentiles who become Christian. There was an enormous debate in the early church as recorded in the New Testament about whether circumcision (a moral necessity for the Jews) was a moral necessity for Gentile Christians. The Council of Jerusalem (as described in Acts 15) met to decide this question, and actually decided on what would be the morals preached to Gentile Christians (vv. 19-20):

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.

Paul wrote the entire letter of Galatians to a Gentile church that wanted to adopt Jewish morals such as circumcision - even though he believed the Jewish law was "holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:12) and that "circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law" (Romans 2:25).

The reason Paul can give different morals to different cultures is because he believes it is not the law or morals that save us - the purpose of the Law is to show us that we are sinful.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)

This is why he can say "there is neither Jew nor Greek" for those who are in Christ.

But even if you disagree with me on that point, there is, I think, still the possibility of "moral anachronisms" even if the law is absolute: Paul tells us, for example, that:

Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. (Romans 5:13)

"Before the law was given," I think, is the important point here. Before the law was given, Jacob married a woman and her sister. Afterwards knowledge of the law forbidding this came (Leviticus 18:18). Was it just as sinful before the law was known as afterwards? Most likely. Was it counted against him? No.

Even if the law of what is right and wrong is absolute, might our knowledge of it still be imperfect - might we not continue to learn more about it?

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The fact that Jewish law does not apply to Christians does not mean that morals aren't absolute. It just means that the absolute morals are contingent on circumstances. If you happen to be tall, then you might be compelled to help a short guy to get a box off the shelf, while if you are short (or if the guy is tall) then you might not be ethically compelled. Contingency on circumstance is not the same as relative ethics. There is still a right answer. Paul's absolute position is that if you were a Jew in this and such a time, it is imperative for you to follow Mosaic law, but no longer. –  Ron Maimon Feb 29 '12 at 17:08
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@Ron If Paul's absolute position is that if you are under certain social circumstances (i.e. being Jewish) at such and such a time then you have a moral imperative others don't, and you don't consider that relativism, then you are understanding terms differently enough that it will be difficult to communicate. The idea that in our social circumstances and in our time that moral imperatives may be different appeared enough like moral relativism to have prompted the OP's question, at any rate. –  Muke Tever Feb 29 '12 at 18:32
    
@Ron Anyway, the fact that moral systems may be different does not mean there can be no absolute morals, any more than normal humans being different in hair and skin color, size and shape means they can't share core organs like heart, stomach, and liver. Personally I've always thought it might be a bit like Optimality Theory in linguistics, where there may be absolute rules but valid ethical systems will differ in how they prioritize which to follow when there are conflicts. –  Muke Tever Feb 29 '12 at 18:41
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You can find places in the Bible where different rules are applied in different situations. But this is not the same as situation ethics or moral relativism.

I don't know anyone who doesn't believe that the morality of an action depends on the context in at least some sense. To take a silly example, if I swing a sledge hammer at a cement block as part of a construction project, that is morally neutral, maybe even praiseworthy if the construction project serves some noble purpose. But if I swing a sledge hammer against the head of someone that I plan to murder and rob, that is morally wrong. I could make the exact same motions using the exact same tool in both cases, but the surrounding circumstances change the morality of the act.

To take a more serious example: The Bible required the Jews to follow a number of special dietary rules, but then in the New Testament we are told that these rules do not apply to Christians. We could debate the exact reasons, but it is certainly not necessary to suppose that God couldn't make up his mind. The circumstances were different, so different rules applied.

But it is a huge leap from "morality must be judged in context" to "right and wrong are just matters of opinion". The Bible says that sex within marriage is a positive good while sex outside marriage is a sin. The moral relativist says that neither is a "sin" in any absolute sense. It may be a sin for you if you believe it's a sin, but if I don't believe it's a sin than it isn't a sin for me.

That is, the Bible routinely says that X is right in this situation but wrong in that situation. Nowhere does it say that "right" and "wrong" are meaningless words or that you can choose what is right or wrong for you based on your personal whims.

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I'd like to stand by by statement that it is an anachronism to judge the Scripture from modern biases.

One of the first rules of hermeneutics is that a text cannot mean today what it could not mean to the people who received it. This is a simple enough postulate, buttressed by the fact that not every word of God was for every time, and that the canon we retain consists of that which has proven to speak to all throughout the ages. But, if it is to speak to us today, it had to have spoken to them then, too.

So, how then can we retain the fact that God is unchanging, and that the moral rules he laid down are transcendent? We need to remember that God and Man are different.

1. God doesn't change, but people do

First and foremost, God doesn't change, but we do. Imagine, if you will, one of those cheap holograms that they used to put in kid's cereal boxes. You could hold the hologram completely still, but depending on your position, it could display two different images. Even if God is unchanging, very few people would argue that we do. The problems that we face in the 21st Century are different from the problems that we faced in the 1st. Oddly enough, the Bible has nothing to say about the morality of nuclear power! Why? becuase any explanation would have been nonsensical to the original recipients.

The way in which we face our problems also dictates the way in which we will face God. If God were distant, the parallax would make the movement irrelevant. But God is close, and God is involved. As such, he will necessarily appear different, if he has stayed put and we have moved.

In the 1st Century, slavery was a fact of life. As such, it made sense to say, "if you're going to have slaves, treat them well." That implied "if" is a very different beast then "you should have slaves." In the milennia before Christ, it was permissible to have multiple wives, and so the injunction was given, if you have multiple wives, treat them all well. That was not a command to marry multiple times by any stretch either. But in an age where silence is now equated with acquiensence, it will appear to us like a tacit endorsement. But to say that is not to make a statement about God, but rather about where we are.

Remember also that laws & principles can remain constant while their interpretation varies. In 1787, the writers of the Constitution said that Congress should not make any law regarding the establishment of a religion or to prohibit the free exercise thereof. That had a very specific meaning - In Virginia, the Anglican / Episcopal Church was the established church of Virginia. The government collected taxes on its behalf, outsourced the institution of marriage, and generally proscribed that all citizens be members of that church. Nowadays, it doesn't even occur to us to set up a federal church. And yet, the United States interprets that clause to mean that schools cannot lead prayers, and the City of New York wants to interpret that to mean that churches cannot even pay rent to the school system to use vacant buildings on Sunday mornings. George Mason himself would have been bowled over at such a suggestion. The principle of antiestablishmentarianism itself is thus absolute, even if its application bears no resemeblance to its former practice.

Finally, the Gospel is not a set of laws any way. It is a message that a gracious God loves us in spite of our sin. That we are better at following certain laws at certain times and worse in others should be obvious. Did Christians in the United States sin by holding slaves in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries? Amen, yes, we did. Did we ignore the principle that before God we are equaly? Amen, God have have mercy. But I wonder what our great-great-granchildren we think of us. Did we sin by driving cars like Hummers that were built in total disregard of the command that God gave us to be good stewards of the earth? Its a valid question. I suspect in the years to come people will be asking how one can be a Christian given our long track record of being such rapacious stewards of the planet we were given to tend.

And yet, I don't think the absolute morality has changed.

2. From God's perspective, we're all sinners anyway. From our perspective, there are only degrees

From God's perspective, we're all sinners anyway. As Isaiah says,

Even our righteousness is as filthy rags.

In God's eyes, we're all sinners anyway. Much of the "law" we have been given is merely to mitigate against the fact, and minimize the harm we do to one another.

The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was ok to divorce a woman. They knew full well that God "hates divorce" (Malachi) and wanted to trap Jesus. But Jesus explained the whole purpose of divorce - divorce is totally legal, but not at all desirable. As Jesus said, divorce was given "because of the hardness of your heart!" I think we can unequivocally say that God hates slavery, for the reasons in my previous answer. But he also is willing to meet us where we are.

Our laws, however, recognize that because man is so fallen, there are degrees of punishment that are appropriate. No more than a tooth should be taken for a tooth. No more than an eye may be taken for an eye. The punishment for a double-homicide is necessarily different from the one for double-parking. Just because one is not punished for doing a bad thing doesn't make it right. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:45,

"the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike."

Mere silence on the morality of slavery is not equivelant to support.

The incarnation is such a supreme act of love, because it is a holy God, in whose presence sin can not stand, doing everything He can to reach out to sinners.

Absolutely, He does not change. But relatively speaking, He will do everything He can to be with us, to take us where we are and fit us for where He would have us be.

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In response to the title, I believe the bible doesn't espouse either moral absolutism or relativism - we espouse these things.

On Slavery:

This can be seen in the quotes given and the question (great question btw :), as ironically it is assumed from our modern perspective that slavery is absolutely wrong for everyone and all time. Even a relativist may not dispute that these days. We only think this because of our place in history, not actually because there is something inherently evil with slavery.

How can I be confident of this? God didn't say it was evil, but clearly told Israel to "do slavery well". That is, don't abuse it. God gave instructions and laws about it specifically about it because he knows that slavery is open to abuse. Neglecting to instruct Israel on how to do slavery in a morally right way would have been a disaster.

And with our place in history, we know that slavery is so open to abuse we fight against it at every point. This is the right thing to do. Not because slavery was always wrong, but because it is better - and now practical - to prohibit slavery in order to prevent it ever from being abused.

I also think highly of the answer you have quoted. Good job to Geek.

Counters to moral absolutism:

There are things required of the Old Testament Israel which are not required of the New Testament Jews or Gentiles. e.g. circumcision, eating kosher food, etc.

These are not things which can be dismissed as "not moral". Not doing them in that time and place would mean breaking God's convenant law. It had real morality attached, and now it doesn't.

You can aslo find, I'm sure, examples of things which are considered bad or wrong in New Testament times which were not wrong before hand.

Matthew 12:1-8

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” 3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’[a] you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Obviously if it were absolutely wrong for all time to break the Sabbath or eat the consecrated bread when not a priest, then how can Jesus say such a thing?

Counters to moral 'relativism' (or 'subjectivism'?):

The position that the morality of an action is contingent upon circumstances (and societal norms) is what I meant.

Thanks for clarifying (quote from the comments). The fact that God gives laws indicates that it is not societal norms or circumstances which decide whether something is good or evil, but God. In fact, many interpret the story of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as saying that the core issue with sin is that humanity takes it upon themselves to decide what good and evil are, instead of accepting what God says is moral and not moral.

Is this just clutching at straws? Can't we just define something as absolutely right or wrong based upon what God says? Or relative if God says something is right under one set of circumstances and wrong under another?

Well, it is important to say that God 'creates' the moral code, and doesn't just read to us what is already written. It is not as if morality is eternal and God just tells us what it is. God decides what is right and is not.

Has God decided to make morality totally relative to our time and place in history? Or are there some absolute components? I don't think we have been told definitively either way.

What does God espouse in terms of morals?

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

God espouses himself as defining the moral standards that we should live by. God is the thing that the Bible puts forward as absolute - i.e. not morality. Yes it is true, God doesn't change. He is absolute and eternal.

It also needs to be remembered that God's revelation is progressive. What this means is that God's instruction and leading may change or vary over time, especially when our circumstances change. But this is a practicality and says little about an underlying moral structure.

Note though this highlights some finite aspect to our understanding:

  • God, who defines himself and righteous and eternal, also defines to us morals which are (sometimes) unrighteous and (always) non-eternal (didn't exist for infinity past-future). A paradox I can't explain other than to admit that my definition of righteous and unrighteous are finite, and not to be defined by me anyway.
  • As said before, we often know what is right or wrong in a given circumstance, yet it is hard for us to know or understand all there is to know about the 'morality universe'. Is there anything that is purely relative? Is there any issue which is purely absolute? Is there only degrees? Are we totally missing the point? Can we even comprehend these things?
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I agree with your view that the Bible teaches absolutism, but strongly disagree with the assertion that this makes the Bible inapplicable (within absolutism) to issues such as slavery and women's rights.

What was written then can still be applied today, even if the quote you mentioned is true!! Let's use women's rights as an example: What was written then was that women were to behave in humility, and were to respect their husbands as the heads of the household, obedient to Christ. This in no way means that wives were meant to be slaves to their husbands; on the contrary, Proverbs 31 (Solomon's description of a model wife) describes a hardworking, property-owning business woman who is the mistress of her home, not the slave that people often picture when obedience to a husband is mentioned.

Let's use the other example you mentioned, slavery. When slaves were mentioned, it must be understood that slaves and servants were, for the most part, the only types of employees at that time - free men owned their own businesses. As such, what was said then regarding slaves is applicable to employees: be humble and obedient to your masters, doing whatever is asked of you without complaint, as though you are working for God, not men. [(Butchered, I'm sure) Paraphrase of 1 Timothy 6.] BibleGateway has a decent little commentary on this as well. Haven't accessed it in a while, but I'm sure it's still there. ;)

In conclusion, I would say that the answer to your question is a resounding no. The quote you mentioned has a few good points about the economic and social situations at that time, but the statement

> It is an anachronism to apply questions of, for example, feminism or communism, to the Scriptures, because the original audience would have had no means of apprehending it as such.

is patently absurd, and in my opinion, demonstrates a total lack of information regarding the context at that time.

EDIT: Here's the link to that commentary I mentioned.

http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/1Tim/Instructions-Concerning-Slaves

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Go back and read my quote in context. I think you'll find I have a lot more information than you might think. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 14:26
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Yes, because it must espouse the real moral code, not the one the real moral code conforms to at different times. In other words, if the Bible espouses some moral code that changes over time, the question then becomes, to which moral code does it conform to over time.

Lets take an extreme example.

Is it okay to wipe out a culture, commit genocide even?

Well, it depends.

For humans the answer is probably, "only if God tells you to do it". Because God can see the future, He may know that some bad culture may pollute the world is some horrible way, in the end killing far more people etc, etc.

So even where the Bible seems to condone horrible things, we must assume God is always doing the right thing. His master plan.

I realize all this may sound like horrible stuff, look at all the evil done in "God's name". But as Christians, we have some perspective. Ultimately it is about love, forgiveness, not judging others, caring for the poor, etc.

Jesus said simply:

  • Matthew 22: 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

We must believe that God was is always doing the right thing, then and now.

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-1 for advocating genocide. Genocide is wrong, even if God comes down from heaven and commands you to do it, and tells you He will send you to hell on the spot if you don't. I wish I could give you -100. The Bible agrees with you, by the way, and that is a shameful stain on that book. –  Ron Maimon Mar 17 '12 at 0:27
    
If I happen to really believe that God wants me to do something, then it should not matter what it is. Now, lets get back to the real world, the current Christian view is that we are COMMANDED to Love our neighbor as we love ourself. Can't see how you could murder anyone, let alone thousands and still obey Christ. –  Hammer Mar 17 '12 at 0:47
    
Ok, not murder: here's a form of genocide--- suppose you knew of a tribe whose child-rearing, if it were your children, you would consider to be child abuse. Would you take all the children away, to raise in good Christian homes? This is not a hypothetical question in Australia. Genocide can be cultural, and missionary work can annihilate local customs. We need to preserve Cultures, languages, traditions, even if Christian philosophy starts to spread within them. Many people can come to believe that God tells them to wipe out a culture. But it is better for the culture to evolve organically. –  Ron Maimon Mar 17 '12 at 6:01
    
+1 for a rationally qualified answer that makes a solid attempt at answering the question. Pretty sure I don't agree with the conclusion, but it's at least a solid attempt at using the sources of theology to make a coherent argument. –  Affable Geek Mar 20 '12 at 2:51
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The whole point of the Bible, and the reason people look to it for guidance, is that it makes the case that there is a notion of a moral absolute, a right and wrong that is not derived from cultural norms, but from elsewhere. The elsewhere is the realm of the spirit, and the notion of God tells you that if you look to this realm with a calm mind and a good heart, you will receive guidance.

This insight is intuitively plausible for nearly all people, since we come with a built in moral compass that tells us generally that some behaviors are right and some are wrong. But this moral compass, the intuition, is sometimes faulty, in that it leads us to condemn the action of others as immoral when it conflicts with our own instincts about what we would do in the same circumstance. It is also easily manipulated by culture or habit, doing something terrible many times can numb you.

The position that there is a correct answer to moral questions, contingent only on circumstances not on culture, is the position of moral absolutism. This means that given identical circumstances, all people should come to agree on the right and wrong. Culture counts as circumstance, of course, so that in a Christian culture it might be ethically required for a person to send a Christmas present to his aunt, while in a Buddhist culture, it wouldn't be. That's not relativism. Moral relativism is saying that if you asked the Buddhist culture to think about what is ethically required of the same Christian person living in the same Christian culture, and describe these circumstances in detail, they might decide that it is not ethically required to send that present, and that their position would be just as good. This is what moral absolutism forbids.

Given the diversity of human culture, this is a strange idea. If a 19th century Comanche warrior captured you, his culture taught him that the proper course of action is to either torture you to death, if you are a man, or to sexually assault you otherwise. This type of thing was culturally embedded, so that a warrior would pride himself on his ability to be stoic in the face of pain, and would feel humiliated if he betrayed any sign of suffering. The torture would be a test of your stoic spirit, and after you failed the test, you deserve all the further suffering you endure. It is this sort of hard-to-eradicate socially sanctioned self-perpetuating barbarism that the Bible is designed to stop.

The idea of universal ethics is that this reinforcing social setup is wrong, not by my personal standards, or by your standards, or from one point of view, but even from the point of view of the Comanche, or of anyone else. It is just not right, period. In other words, you look at the Comanche's actions, not from the point of view of their culture, but from the point of view of their victims, which is also the point of view of God.

In cases like these, it is very easy to be an armchair philosopher, to say "but if you were brought up in a culture that taught you that it is ok to torture captured victims, that you would do it too." This is possibly true, but it is irrelevant. It ignores the essential fact known to anyone brought up in a bad situation: you do it, buy you still know that it is wrong.

Personally, as an Israeli, I remember my sense of unease in the intifada year of 1987, the nagging feeling that I am on the wrong side. I knew very quickly that I could not serve in the Israeli army, which meant that I was headed to prison in a few years. I worried about this for a while, but then my family moved to the U.S., and this mooted the issue. But from experience, it's not your culture that tells you when you are doing wrong. If you don't know, it's because you've chosen not to.

The story of the Bible is designed to convey the idea that in the long struggles of history, the winning path is also the one that you know is right, in terms of these hard-to-define universal ethics. The way it does so is by identifying the source of the universal ethics as the lawgiver God, who lies above all other lesser gods. It attributes the creation of the universe to this God, and gives God unlimited powers to strike down the wicked. These stories are obviously literally false, God doesn't do squat, but they get the message across: over time, those cultures which condone unethical practices will not survive against those cultures which are ethically aware. This message is more or less true. It is about as true as any universal proposition about a complex world can be.

Since I mentioned the Comanche, and since arguments like these were used in the U.S. to justify genocidal policies, I have to say that genocidal policies are never the proper course of action, even when faced with an intolerably barbaric practice. Missionary work together with law enforcement can eradicate the barbaric practices while allowing the language and traditions to organically evolve to incorporate old-world insights. One doesn't have to hide Christian philosophy from people, but one also doesn't have to eradicate a culture in order to spread a message of compassion. Of course, in a situation where one is potentially watching a person get tortured to death, there is no choice, really. Desmond Tutu demonstrated the proper Christian response to such a circumstance , and one prays one can muster the courage to live up to his example.

If you are positivistically minded, as I tend to be, you want an in-principle algorithm to find this universal ethics, to be sure you know what you're talking about. Given that God's ways are the winning ways, the precise algorithm is to wait a sufficiently long time, and ask somebody from the future what they would do. This works backwards: any random person on the street would make a pretty good moral teacher for the cave-people of 10,000 years ago, for 19th century Comanches, and probably even for the mid-twentieth century people of Europe.

So here is the basic idea in the Bible: there is an objective ethical standard, the source of this ethical standard can be reasonably and accurately personified as a super-smart individual, and that this ethical standard is revealed approximately and ever more accurately gradually through the victories in the struggles of history.

There are more ideosyncratic things in the Bible, like the rules for washing your hands, and sacrificing pigeons after your period, but I will ignore these. The point of the Jewish rules is to establish an ever-present sense of God's presence in day-to-day activities, so that you are never caught in a situation where you are not mindful of God. Similarly, in Christianity, you are taught to constantly be aware of your sinful nature, so that you think of Jesus every time you have some sexy thoughts. In Islam, you pray 5 times a day, and submit your soul to God, asking for mercy. All these practices are somewhat effective on the social level at eradicating barbarous practices. They worked to eradicate child-sacrifice and temple prostitution in ancient times, and slavery and racism in modern times.

To see that this actually does work in real life, you should consider how socially sanctioned crimes were carried out in atheist states. In Nazi Germany, Hitler began a euthanasia program for the mentally disabled, which was the pilot precurser to the holocaust. So many Catholics and Protestants were outraged by this program, despite government propaganda about its value, that the Nazi government was forced to shut it down. The SS learned the lesson--- genocidal policies would be carried out in complete secrecy from this point on, and the religious folks were kept unaware. Still, some Catholics made it their business to be aware, and formed the White Rose. Their awareness of God was their only defense against a criminal social order.

Likewise, the Catholic church in South America, along with Marxist organizations, were and are giving voice to dispossessed indigenous peoples. Protestant churches in the U.S. were central in the abolitionist movement. In every case where crimes are perpetrated, the church serves as a collective conscience, informing the state of universal ethics. Where it is suppressed, or inactive, barbarous practices flourish.

Mathematical models: God and Games

My scientific upbringing makes me feel uneasy about advocate such a vague-seeming notion as universal ethics, coming from a universal lawgiver which is not directly observable. I don't like to propose an idea without a mathematically precise argument. The idea of an ethics-giving personal God is a pretty implausible pill, even with a mathematical argument. I will try to argue that there are good reasons to believe this, without relying the pseudo-historical made-up narratives in the Bible, and without relying on personal revelation, compassion or empathy, or any other moral instinct, only on game theoretic considerations.

At the risk of alienating every single one of the readers, and inviting a thousand downvotes, I will describe a mathematical model which will show how this type of uber-person decision making can be seen to emerge from a bunch of people playing games. Further, it is plausible (although it cannot be strictly proved) that this decision making process is convergent, that there actually is a sense in which a universal ethical standard will emerge over time. This means that the religious sense will not be exclusively human--- it should be shared by intelligent alien life, or by artificial intelligences, if sufficiently developed. It is a meta-property of collective and individual decision making, which must be recognized in order for collectives to function correctly, to maximize their collective potential.

First, I will explain Nashian game-theoretic decision-making, and why it fails, for the simple case of symmetric games. This discussion parallels Douglas Hofstadter's discussion of superrationality in 1980s Scientific American, reprinted in "Metamagical Themas". The extension to non-symmetric games is standard religion (to distinguish from non-superrational systems that call themselves religions too, like Levay's Satanism).

Toy Model: Symmetric Super-rationality

Consider a prisoner's dilemma with symmetric payoffs and very little temptation. This means, you and your opponent are both placed in a room, both of you have a button on the wall, and if you push the button, your opponent will be killed and you will get a dollar. If you don't care whether your opponent lives or dies, and neither of you is suicidal, what is the correct course of action to maximize your probability of survival (and perhaps get a dollar)?

The game theoretic answer is to push the button. Push that button quickly. Just in case the other person decides to do the same thing. This solution defines game-theoretic rationality, the rationality of economic behavior. I will call this "Nash rationality" after John Nash.

In order to not be so morbid, and so as not to trigger killing aversion instincts, and so on, this game is usually not described as fatal--- you can suppose that if neither of you presses the button, you both get $100, but if your opponent presses you get $0, your opponent gets $101, and vice-versa, and in the case that both of you press the button, you both get $5.

Two ostensibly rational economists in this situation will walk out with $5. The point of religion is to make sure that most of us will behave less stupidly than those economists, so that we can enjoy the $100 prize. There is nothing blocking the two opponents from that prize except for their own button-pressing constructed rationalization.

To avoid this rationalization, Douglas Hofstadter pointed out that one should take into account the following fact: whatever course of action I take, the other person will take the same action. Hofstadter suggested that one should try to maximize the payoff assuming that my action will be perfectly correlated with the other person. If you do this, there are only two options, really, both of us cooperate, or both defect.

This idea defines a different type of rationality, also self-consistent, called superrationality. These two self-consistent modes of behavior are both observed in people playing the prisoners dilemma, and it is not possible to logically rule out one or the other.

But it is possible to advocate that one makes sense and the other doesn't. I believe that the superrational course of action is the obviously correct one, when one is playing against a superrational player.

But in the real world, how would you know if the other player is superrational? You need some sort of signal that the person is superrational. To do this, it helps if you have a secret handshake, a dress code, or a manner of speaking. It also helps if you identify each other publically in meeting places. This is the major purpose of places of worship, and the major purpose of religious identification. If you are playing against a religious player, you are guaranteed some form of superrationality.

I will defer to the Wikipedia article for more detail (I'm not copping out--- it was mostly written by me).

Nonsymmetric super-rationality is Monotheistic Religion

Superrationality, as Hofstadter discusses it, is restricted to symmetric games. You can only know that the strategy of the other superrational players is the same as yours in the case that they are solving the same problem as you. In the real world, games are never symmetric, and they can rarely be approximated as symmetric, so this is an artificial restriction.

But one can extend the notion of super-rationality by assuming there exists a monotheistic strategy--- a unique strategy for all games, which is to be followed by all players who consider themselves superrational. In order to be a real monotheistic strategy, it should reduce to the superrational strategy in the case of symmetric games.

For non-symmetric games, it will tell you how to play so as to maximize.... what exactly? The issue is that when you have a universal strategy, it might not maximize your personal utility, or the "sum" (whatever that means) of utility between all the players, or any such thing.

The only quantity which is sensible to talk about is the utility of a decision making entity, since utility is well defined only when you have an entity which can make choices between probabilistic options (this is the Von-Neumann Morgenstern utility theorem). The choices which are made by the superrational strategy are therefore those that maximize the utility of an uber-entity, a collective entity, partially formed by all the players.

I will call this entity a "god" (lower-case g). The superrational strategy is to maximize the utility of the god formed by the players in the circumstance. Since the strategy is universal, contingent only on the circumstances of the game, the gods themselves, in playing games against each other, all make choices which are consistent with the utility function of a super-duper agent, which lies on top of all the gods. This entity I will identify with the monotheistic conception of God.

A religion will be considered correct when the decisions it dictates for partisan games is consistent with the utility function of God. The convergence of ethics is then the statement that all societies reveal the decisions of God for all partisan games.

I have tried my best to be precise about what I mean, and I hope that the notion of absolute ethics can then be seen to be reasonable. In the next section, I will argue that the old-testament of the Bible is a rough approximation to this universal ethics, and the teachings of Christ somewhat more so, although these teachings are by now mostly incorporated into all the major existing religions.

The Bible as a source of Superrational Ethics

The Bible explicitly asks you to construct a notion of an external and unmodifiable entity, namely that of God, and to consider God's will in your day-to-day decisions. The Bible further makes claims about how God reveals His will, through the actions of history, through personal meditation and prayer, and through congregative religious practice.

I will argue that this biblical position is a statement that the God that one prays to is the entity whose utility coincides with the utility function of the perfect superrational strategy for non-symmetric games. That these are more or less the same notions.

The obvious problem with this identification is that the strategy God didn't create the universe, doesn't perform miracles, cannot respond when you pray, and is in general oblivious to the mechanical workings of the universe. The God of Christianity is a living God, which is everpresent and meddlesome. These seem like different concepts.

But the point is that each of the individual players in the game have an image of God, an approximation to the universal ethics, as a template for their mental strategy. This is a collectively useful thing, because a society which contains this template can function to expand its influence collectively, while a society which has a suboptimal template will fare worse. So the winners in the struggles of history will be those societies that have the most optimal approximation to the superrational strategy implanted in all their players.

In order to do this, the guide to the superrational strategy must be ubiquitous, simple, illustrated with homey parables and examples, persuasive, and generally spiritually moving, so that all people will encounter it, and pay attention when they do. This is the Bible. The Bible makes us aware that we have responsibilities to God, and makes us aware of God's presence. It isn't the only book which does this, and God knows it's not perfect or complete, but it's a start.

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The Bible claims that God commanded (either directly or through an intermediary such a Moses) the killing of innocent women and children. This is not God "meeting us where we are", but God actively directing acts of gross immorality. Of course such genocides may have seemed reasonable to the people of the time, but God is said to transcend such cultural limitations. If God is not a moral relativist then certainly his commands should not have reflected so precisely the moral intuitions of the society that recorded those commands. If God was in fact leading us to a greater morality then why is there no command to abandon slavery, or prohibit stoning people to death, or denunciation of forcing women to marry their rapist? Claiming divine authority for our current understanding of morality is a human occupation, and one that makes such pronouncements a trailing indicator of our moral progress. Trying to square Biblical atrocities with our current understanding of morality makes Christians moral relativists. Even if humanity didn't see it at the time, killing innocent women and children has always been immoral. If a God exists, it seems obvious that she would have recognized that too.

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This seems to be a classical assertion that because there is an absolute moral law, then the Moral Lawgiver has violated that, and therefore does not exist, but then no absolute moral law exists either, which then becomes a self-refuting argument. –  Narnian Mar 13 at 22:06
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This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and which Christian group teaches/believes it. Remember that "I believe it means..." isn't an acceptable answer, since this site isn't about personal interpretation. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Mar 14 at 1:45
    
As far as I can see this is not representative of any Christian view on the matter. The first issue is raised by your use of the word "innocent". Christianity does not believe anyone is innocent before God. After that it's all down hill and I don't know of any Christian group that interprets the Bible this way. Can you clarify what doctrinal position you are speaking for and hence why this would be on topic for this site? –  Caleb Mar 14 at 8:46
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