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Morality changes over time

Morality is not a constant; what a group of people finds to be morally acceptable or morally unacceptable evolves over time, generally because of an increased understanding or awareness, and generally this occurs (we like to think) in a more progressive, positive direction. Note: it is irrelevant whether our moral views have or have not progressed in positive direction; all that matters is that it has changed.

For example, 100 years ago (and still to some extent today), many white people (Christians included) believed that blacks were an "inferior race". Before that, slavery was considered acceptable in many parts of the world. Before that, the mistreatment and subjugation of women was acceptable. Today, there are still people who think it's wrong to be homosexual, and I'm sure as with the others those views will fall more a more out of favor.

The Bible doesn't change

But as you know, the Bible is static; it's words don't change and it is never updated. The lessons it gives are supposed to be independent of the time or age you are born in. But it is quite clear from reading the Bible that some of passages espouse a morality that is no longer accepted today. How is this reconciled with today's views?

For example, imagine a father reading portions of the Bible to his son back in 1610. He comes to Leviticus 27:3-7:

Set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel; 4 for a female, set her value at thirty shekels; 5 for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels; 6 for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver; 7 for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels and of a female at ten shekels.

This father would have just told his son that women are worth less than men. Back in 1610, that might have been an acceptable moral view, so he thinks nothing of it. But zoom forward to 2012: a father reads the same passage to his son. Surely he must say something about that passage, lest he wants his so to think women inferior.

Should you choose to personally re-interpret this passage as being morally acceptable, that's fine, but there are numerous other passages in the Bible which suitably demonstrate my point just as well. For example, it's generally understood in the modern world that beating our children with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, 23:13-14) is a little... "Old Testament", to say the least. Even if you still think beating your children is okay, I doubt you think it's okay to kill them if they talk back (Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, Matthew 15:4-7, Exodus 21:17). I doubt most of you still support slavery, which is supported in both the Old and the New Testaments (Matthew 10:24/24:45-46, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-4), or find it okay to give your daughter as a slave ("maidservant" in some of the prettier editions). Let's be real here, there are passages in the Bible which contain morally questionable messages; this isn't a bold claim.

Since most Christians seem to be normal, decent people, what's going on here?

I honestly just don't know because my own parents—while religious—never even tried to explain the Bible to me. In fact, my parents for the most part completely dismissed the Bible, and engaged in Christianity in a more organic, "everyday positive lessons" manner. But for those who actually take the time to sit down and read the Bible, whether in Church or at home, what do you do when you come across passages such as these? Do you simply pass them off as historical relics of a long-expired moral past, or do you try to justify it as some sort of metaphor that accords with our beliefs today?

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It should be noted that your example passage is dealing with 'consecrated' (vowed) subjects, not slaves. Most probably, the valuation was based on some measure of work that the person could provide (not sure of duration). While a woman may not be inferior spiritually or morally, in an agrarian society she would be limited in the type of work she could perform (compared to men). –  Clockwork-Muse Jul 3 '12 at 19:45
    
@X-Zero Understood, although it is irrelevant to my point. These human beings — whether daughters, slaves, priests, or farmers — are not held as equal, and that's different from today. To even use the phraseology "set the value of X person" is immoral by today's standards. But more importantly, there are dozens of passages which I could have used which would work just as well. Your comment does reveal, however, your own personal solution: you appear to try to justify the passage in modern terms by simply re-interpreting it in a less hostile manner. A touching (but unrepresentative) method... –  stoicfury Jul 3 '12 at 20:29
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Possible duplicate: How did God's morality not change between OT and NT times? –  Jas 3.1 Jul 4 '12 at 18:34
    
Similar, but not a duplicate. That question is asking how Christianity deals with the change of morality between the OT and the NT. I am asking how Christians deal with the change of morality between the whole Bible (OT+NT) and modern day (now). –  stoicfury Jul 4 '12 at 19:16
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Aren't you assuming that "Christian morality" changes with time? "Christian morality" is "Biblical morality", by definition. Or, if you are referring to the trends in thinking within the sub-culture of those called "Christians", the changes would either be a result of recalibration with Biblical principles, or influence from worldly thinking. Or, if you are suggesting that because secular morality changes over time, Christians need to try to justify the Bible in light of the new secular morality, that is incorrect. Please clarify. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 4 '12 at 23:33
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6 Answers

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OK, after our brief dialog (in the question comments, above), I think I understand your question.

Short Answer: It depends on your definition of "Christian morality". Some (such as myself) would say this term is synonymous with "Biblical morality". In that case, the apparent discrepancy would be cause for recalibration of society to the standard of Scripture. Others would say "Christian morality" does change over time, and we merely need to learn what we can from "Biblical morality" and apply it intelligently.

Allow me to separate society into three groups for the sake of illustration:

Group 1: Christians who adhere to the teachings of Scripture

This group strives to understand those teachings God has provided in Scripture and adhere to them -- regardless of when the reader was born, regardless of what nation they live in, regardless of the implications to their personal life, regardless of how society reacts, etc.

The morality of this group does not change.

This group would respond to changes in the morality of a society by saying, "anything contrary to the teachings of Scripture amounts to 'winds and waves' of false teachings"

This group would respond to Biblical morality by saying "it's the only right way to live"

Group 2: Heathens who could not care less about the Bible

This group believes all sorts of different things, depending on when they were born, what nation they live in, what the implications are to their personal life, how society reacts, etc.

The morality of this group changes.

This group would respond to changes in the morality of a society by saying, "we are learning, we are growing, our morality is improving"

This group would respond to Biblical morality by saying "it's archaic and barbaric"

Group 3: Christians who "think for themselves"

This group believes all sorts of things, some from Group 1, some from Group 2, some from their own minds, depending on what makes the most sense to them at the time, given the circumstances.

The morality of this group changes.

This group might respond to changes in the morality of a society by saying, "there is some good and some bad"

This group might respond to Biblical morality by saying "it was true and relevant in their day; we need to learn what we can from it and see if there is anything applicable to our lives today"

Assessment: Both Group 1 and Group 3 could be considered "Christian", and thus, the morality of either group could be considered "Christian morality", but the two groups differ widely in their idea of how to reconcile the morality of society with Biblical morality. Thus, the answer depends completely upon what definition of "Christian morality" we are using.

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To me the problem seems to be that of ambiguity in definition of terms. At one point the questioner says that it is irrelevant to question whether change is good or bad, all that matters is that it has changed. Then at another assertion is made - "Bible which contain morally questionable messages". It should rather be - "Bible that contains morally different messages". Its difficult to have it both ways. –  Monika Michael Jul 5 '12 at 7:01
    
Jas - Thank you for this answer; I have a profound respect for you because you have the wit to understand the logical structure of my argument and the honesty and integrity of character to address it directly. Now, I am only curious as to what % of Christians are in group 1 and what % are in group 2... @Monika - Actually, it's not a contradiction nor a problem; once again, my point is that my argument doesn't rest on whether the moral views got better or worse — it only matters that it changed. Anything else I added in my question is secondary (background info / context) and not required. –  stoicfury Jul 5 '12 at 9:10
    
@stoicfury Ok no problem. I wouldn't want to invoke your fury. :P –  Monika Michael Jul 5 '12 at 9:34
    
@MonikaMichael - :) I'm actually quite calm (as a stoic), so I hope I don't appear furious in my comments. I just like the irony of the juxtaposition and the idea of using fury in a state of calmness as a tool to give oneself focus and resolve, as opposed to most people letting their fury control them. :P –  stoicfury Jul 5 '12 at 9:44
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"who could care less"... theology aside... youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw&noredirect=1 –  Marc Gravell Jul 5 '12 at 11:54
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Biblical Christianity has not changed in its definition of morality and will never change, since it is based on the Bible, which, as you pointed out, does not change.

However, there is an important distinction between Gentile believers and the Old Testament Jewish Law. The Law was a specific covenant with a specific people for a specific time, but it was a shadow of things to come.

While the New Testament did not usher in a differing morality, the ceremonial law was no longer in effect, and it was never applicable to Gentiles.

According to Biblical Christianity, adultery, theft, lying, deceit, slander, gossip, malice, lust, profanity, pride and homosexuality have always been immoral and will always be immoral.

The passage regarding women, as X-Zero pointed out, has to do with the value that each gender could contribute in an agrarian society. Having grown up on a farm myself and being 6'4" 250+ lbs., I have no problem stating today that men still are much more suited to hard physical labor and are, consequently, more productive. In fact, my perspective is that I as a man should perform very laborious tasks (and very dirty task as well), so that women don't have to. Equality does not mean equivalence. Man != Woman. So, this is not an antiquated passage. The principle still holds today. If you could hire me or a typical 5'6" 1xx lb. woman to work in your fields, you would likely offer me more money, since my capacity and production in your fields would be much greater. Yet, if you could hire me or a woman for a job that is not labor-intensive, then you might offer the woman more if she is more qualified, more experienced, or just does a better job. So, this example is really a moot point.

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“Morality is not a constant ... evolves over time ... in a positive direction”.

I don’t think I’ll agree with this premise. You are basing positivity on chronology of time. Change doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. Ancient Rome switched from Republic to Monarchy.

Secondly, implicit within that argument is assumption that the morality you now have is a good development. How do you figure? I’m sure there are plenty from other countries that’ll disagree with your perspectives on criminal and civil code (Middle East). What is to say that what they’ve evolved is inferior to yours?

Thirdly, metaphysically and hypothetically speaking could morality even evolve? If yes, what could be the state of morality in a billion years from now? Would rape become acceptable? Would hatred be preferable to Love? What set of values would you like to see inverted? If you say none, then you are holding what you have now to be a constant/absolute. In other words everyone who lived before you had to evolve but not you. This I find in contradiction to your assertion that morality must evolve.

As to your references to Old Testament, if you are making those assertions to show that Old Testament God is evil, I can’t help it much. As you already have an idea and are presenting collected evidence for it. My refutation of that evidence would only evoke a search for new material.

However if you are a Christian who wishes to understand it, I’ll throw in my two cents. I think in its present form your argument is a straw man fallacy. Straw man is making someone say what he/she does not (or what she said, but out of context) and then attacking that.

Above you mention the fact that Bible condones slavery with all the syntax highlighting and repeat emphasis. However you omit other pieces of information that might help one make a judgement on the issue.

Missing pieces –

  • The people Israelites enslaved were the Canaanites, Moabites etc. These were cannibal tribes that God drove out before Israelites as a form of divine judgement, warning the Israelites that they would suffer the same fate if they adopted the practices of these nations. Later under Israelite rule they learned to live lawfully. (Much as the Indians, South Americans, Africans today don’t practice human sacrifices, thanks to the British System of Laws). This form of slavery even exists today. The criminals in prisons are often made to work on community projects such as road building or mining. They are given no freedom and are forced to work without pay, and I’m yet to see anyone complain about it.
  • The term servant/slave is overloaded with different meanings and has a lot of psychological baggage. It immediately creates a mental picture of purchasing someone with money and doing with them whatever you want. We cannot make up a mental image of whatever it means to us, and then insist it must be the exact same thing it means to God aswell. We'll be guilty of trying to make a straw man out of Him.

“It okay to give your daughter as a slave”

  • I am sorry but ancient Israel was an agrarian society and the Joint Stock Company did not exist back in those days. The term servant/slave in those days would have been similar to what we call employee nowadays. You would buy them with money much as a company would buy you with a stipend or package. And you couldn’t do with them whatever you want. The principle of eye for eye, tooth for tooth held for them just as it would’ve held for a free or rich man. Today we have fanciful words for workers. A maid is a housekeeper, door to door shoe seller is Marketing Executive,
    and pizza boy is a Delivery Agent. But a wordplay with terms does not change the concept.

And though in the modern world the word slave has gone the concept hasn’t. There are more slaves today than at any point in history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery 2nd Paragraph). Women and children are trafficked for sexual and labour exploitation.

Our so called “positive evolution of law” and “increased understanding or awareness” has not helped us.

It never would, so long as we believe in our own laws and not in the one who delivers from under the curse of the law.

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Much as the Indians, South Americans, Africans today don’t practice human sacrifices, thanks to the British System of Laws Uh, what? –  Brendan Long Jul 5 '12 at 2:55
    
@BrendanLong Uhh history.. –  Monika Michael Jul 5 '12 at 3:55
    
“Morality is not a constant ... evolves over time ... in a positive direction”. That's not what I said. I said we like to think it occurs in a positive direction, but either way it doesn't matter which direction it occurs; what matters is that it changes. The argument is that the morality revealed in some parts of the Bible is different that most Christians adhere to today. Second, no, it is not implicit, and it's irrelevant to the argument. Third, with all due respect I don't think you understand what "metaphysically" means, but either way, your argument is nonsense. (cont.) –  stoicfury Jul 5 '12 at 4:08
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@stoicfury "That's not what I said". That's what was written. "Bible is different than most Christians adhere today" That's your assumption. You demand that everyone agrees with your definition of Old testament morality and answer only out of that context which seems like you just to show off than really want anyone else's opinion. If you're really interested in the issue why not put up those assertions as separate questions and see what the community has to say about it. –  Monika Michael Jul 5 '12 at 4:11
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@stoicfury "reinterpreting the text" Again why is my interpretation re-interpretation and yours the default one? "moral views of people 2000 years ago is different than what it is today" Moral view of people have changed specially those who are relativist (like yourself) due to the absence of a standard, those of Christians haven't, indeed it couldn't; or their faith is futile, because the God they have now is the same as Old Testament one. What rather has changed is the economic system and social structures. –  Monika Michael Jul 5 '12 at 4:28
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There are two issues here: the general and the specific.

On the general: The idea that morality is changing in a positive direction is at best chauvinistic and at worst logically inconsistent. If your idea of morality is different from your grandfather's, by what standard do you say that your standard is "better" than his? Are you assuming that your standard is right and his is wrong? Who says? Presumably he would say the opposite: that your different standards show that the culture has degenerated since his time. To make any judgement between such conflicting standards, you would have to have an absolute standard to compare both your code and his against. And if you acknowledge the existence of such an absolute, timeless standard, than you are saying that morality has NOT changed.

I don't deny that there are ideas about morality that are popular in Western culture today that differ from moral teachings in the Bible. By what standard do you say that your standard is right and the Bible is wrong? I don't know what argument you could give other than your subjective opinion. You can't even claim that it's the concensus of humanity or anything like that: as you yourself point out, people in other cultures have different standards. People in your own culture in the past had different standards. Many moral issues are subjects of debate within Western culture today. (e.g. abortion, gay marriage) So I think I could fairly say: You're saying that a book that claims to be the Word of God, and that has been accepted as the Word of God by literally billions of people from all walks of life across many cultures over thousands of years, should be overruled by the subjective opinion of some guy who posts on a web forum.

On the specific: For any given Bible verse that you believe advocates a standard of morality that you consider unacceptable, there are several possible responses.

(a) In some cases I would say that you are mis-reading the Bible. For example, I don't know of any place in the Bible that describes slavery as a positive good. The Bible acknowledges the existence of slavery, and attempts to limit and regulate it. Perhaps this is in the same category as what Jesus said about OT laws on divorce: it is not God's ideal, but God recognizes that people will not accept a prohibition. (Matt 19:8)

(b) Frankly, I think many such criticisms of the Bible are strained. Like, I can't help but notice that in your discussion of the cash value of personal vows, you criticize the Bible for valuing women less than men, but you make no mention of it valuing children less than adults and the old less than the young. Didn't you consider this important? Is this because your moral standards have not evolved sufficiently to recognize equality regardless of age? Or is it because you accept that the labor of a child or an old person might be worth less than the labor of an adult? And if so, maybe at that place and time the labor of a women was worth less than a man.

In any case, you are clearly suffering from an excessively materialistic attitude, assigning value to people solely in terms of their economic contribution. I've seen studies lately claiming that women are paid less than men, and that this indicates a reprenhensible undervaluing of women. These studies are often done by universities. The same universities that proudly boast that their graduates make more money than non-graduates. Doesn't this indicate that society devalues people based on education? Isn't this just as reprehensible as devaluing based on sex? Are mentally retarded people less valuable as human beings than geniuses?

(c) As I said above, maybe the Bible is right and you are wrong.

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"The idea that morality is changing in a positive direction…" While I think most of the rational world agrees with me in a general sense (I've studied the philosophy of ethics, I understand moral relativism), once again it doesn't matter for this argument. I could cede you this entire point. My argument solely hinges upon the fact that it changed (for better or for worse). But at least you acknowledge that there are some differences in your second paragraph so you do agree with my premise. The answers you follow with are helpful in that (particularly the 1st) they reveal your own method. –  stoicfury Jul 5 '12 at 7:14
    
(a) Yes, that may be true. But am I misreading it in every case? I'm not the only person who thinks this… (b) ... what? It's not necessary to list every morally ambiguous passage in the Bible (that's a long list and I only need one). "Are mentally retarded people less valuable as human beings than geniuses?" According to the Bible, yes. Apparently, the Bible values people by how much work they can do... (c) That's not really a good argument. –  stoicfury Jul 5 '12 at 7:15
    
(a) We'd have to go through them point by point. (b) Where does the Bible say that mentally retarded people are less valuable as human beings? Where does the Bible value people by how much work they can do? Please cite these verses. (c) How so? You disagree with the Bible on questions not subject to empirical verification, like moral issues. By what standard do you say that you are right and the Bible is wrong? –  Jay Jul 6 '12 at 22:08
    
Your first comment appears to contradict point (c) in your second comment. You concede that your moral theories are not provably "right" while those who disagree with you are therefore wrong. But then you assert that when you disagree with the Bible, you must be right and the Bible wrong. –  Jay Jul 6 '12 at 22:10
    
(a) Not necessary. I only need one to be correct. (b) Read your own answer "b" (c) Oh, I thought you meant something else from that statement (i.e. "No you're wrong and the Bible is right cos I said so"). What you actually meant is, however, irrelevant. I've discussed this with Monika — I could cede you that the Bible is right or wrong, it wouldn't matter to my argument. My argument relies on inconsistency, i.e. change. Yes, I'm sure most people on this planet would generally agree with me that our morality is changing for the better (as opposed to worse), but it doesn't matter. –  stoicfury Jul 7 '12 at 2:57
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1) We understand the bible better

Take the Reformation. It's easy to believe that the average Christian had a better understanding of the Bible, on the biblical record on grace, 100 years after the Reformation than 100 years before. Few would argue that the bible changed or that the breakthrough came when we decided to throw out outdated passages. The one thing that really changed was our understanding of how it all fits together.

2) Look more closely at human nature described in scripture.

In Romans 3, Paul decribes human nature. It applies to everyone, heathen or saved, 40 A.D., 1400 A.D., or today.

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

3) Look more closely at current events.

The Wikipedia article on "contemporary slavery" says "[S]lavery is prevalent in many forms today, all over the world." It's been said there are more slaves in the US now than in the 1860's.

4) Look more closely at which verses demand primacy over others.

There are events in the Old Testament that are kind of hard to explain in today's mores (Joshua 6:41). But is there any command in Scripture that DEMANDS we take Joshua 6:41 as the PRIMARY passage we turn to in forming our ethics? No. I have collected these verses which themselves claim to have priority.

  • 2nd Greatest Commandment "Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40
  • Golden Rule "Do to others as you would have them do to yourself” Luke 6:31
  • Weightier Matters of Law. “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Matthew 23:23

Just to drive the point home, with a hypothetical example. Suppose a slavemaster opens up his bible and reads both Joshua 6:41 and Matthew 23:23. Can he by any stretch of the imagination say that the biblical record on treatment of his neighbor is unclear?

Here's another example. Suppose a driver sees on one hand some statutes on the law books saying he must not engage in vehicular homicide, and on the other hand a sign telling him he may drive as fast as 40 MPH. He then sees a bunch of children in the street. It would be absurd to claim the law is unclear. Or if the driver eventually decided to stop running over children, the problem was ultimately with the lawbooks.

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Okay, I guess "Golden Rule" is a name that believers put upon that command of Christ, and isn't necessarily a description in the text itself. –  pterandon May 20 '13 at 17:14
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Re. Morality:

Morality does not change with times. It remains constant - God's laws cannot be messed with and He is very clear on how we are to live.

The Old Testament details practices, issues which appear questionable (such as having more than one wife, or fathering your daughter's child) - these are not conveyng that God is ok with them. Rather, we need to read them as lessons and mistakes not to be committed by us (if you read the Old Testament carefully you will notice all these situations are without happy endings and there is a price to pay when you go out of God's will).

Therefore - there is no issue here at all. We as Christians are required to live morally - always.

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You're right that a lot of the problem things in the Bible are descriptions rather than instructions, but God does also command things that we are usually uncomfortable with, such as the conquest of the promised land and the genocide it seems to have involved. So you've got a good point here, but I don't think it's sufficient. –  curiousdannii May 18 at 22:16
    
Welcome to the site! This next is just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites?, and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton May 19 at 4:53
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