More conservative than the Bible: A Protestant approach

Number Four in a series on interpreting ancient texts in the modern world 

Even ecumenical (liberal, progressive) Protestant Christians can affirm the first half of the old slogan: Where the Bible speaks we speak. But what about the second half: Where the Bible is silent we are silent?

The logic of this statement is that when the Bible has little or nothing to say on a topic, Christians are free—perhaps even obligated—to remain silent. If so, the silence half of the mantra would seem to require that we avoid taking a religiously based position on some of the topics that are highly controversial in our time.

The impassioned character of the debate today, however, makes it clear that we cannot step away from questions like this. Because we are serious about our faith and aware of new issues and conditions, we have no choice but to draw upon our biblical tradition in order to maintain a way of life based on moral principles.

In his Huffington Post essays, Bible scholar Rick Lowery gives examples of how this can be done. While he unabashedly takes positions that are aligned with culturally and religiously liberal views, he at the same time affirms that there are topics on which “modern science and medical technology give [him] a more nuanced and conservative conviction” than the position taken in the Bible.

Two methods of biblical interpretation, in addition to the three discussed in my previous column (posted September 24, 2012), show how he deals with places where the Bible seems to be silent.

The fourth step in Lowery’s method is to identify places where people of our time and the biblical writers are “getting at the same idea” even though the details of how it is fleshed out differ significantly. In his essay on abortion, he concludes his discussion of Exodus 21:22-25 with this interesting sentence: “My impression is that most Americans have a more nuanced and conservative view than the Bible does on this, though we’re getting at the same idea: an important moral and legal line is crossed when the fetus can survive outside the womb” (italics added).

Lowery’s fifth method for interpreting the Bible is to use his nuanced view of what the Bible does say as one criterion for solving moral-legal equations on issues where the Bible appears to be silent; two additional criteria are current scientific and historical knowledge and moral intuitions that are deeply embedded among most people always and everywhere.

With respect to abortion, other criteria which bear upon our decision-making include “our constantly improving medical technology,” our current fact-based knowledge about how the reproductive process actually works, and the American system of jurisprudence.

I find a significant degree of correspondence between Lowery’s analysis and the extended discussion that Jonathan Haidt offers in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The first principle in his book, Haidt writes, is that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning” (p. xiv).

On the basis of research that he reports in his book, Haidt asserts that morality is “partially innate (as a set of evolved intuitions) and learned (as children learn to apply these intuitions within a particular culture). We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about” (p. 26).

The similarities that Lowery perceives in ancient Hebrew case law and the “nuanced views” of liberals and conservatives in current right-to-life debates reveal the intuitive substance that is deeply embedded in human sensibilities. The social policies that we argue about are the attempts of people today to apply this intuition in social orders that are significantly different.

Would any contemporary Americans, no matter how vigorously they insist on taking the Bible literally, be willing to describe the unborn fetus in the way that Exodus does—as property early in its term and as life late in its term—or to insist that cash payment or retaliatory manslaughter are the proper remedies in case of accident-caused miscarriage?

In what I find to be a remarkable turn in his argument, Lowery concludes his discussion of the current American debate over abortion with this arresting sentence: “The moral view that underlies Roe v. Wade—that a line is crossed when a fetus becomes ‘viable’—seems most plausible, morally defensible, and consistent with the spirit of the biblical view.” His final sentence is one with which I agree.

“I hope that view continues to prevail.”

Back to the mantra. In ecumenical Protestant churches, we dare not remain silent when the Bible is silent. Instead, our moral obligation to our contemporaries is to identify the intuitive substance that endures over time and then find healthful, legally reasoned, consistent ways to apply it in our own time.

When the Bible is silent, we give it words with which to speak.

(For a more extended example of Lowery’s exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, see his book Sabbath and Jubilee.)


One Response to More conservative than the Bible: A Protestant approach

  1. eirenetheou says:

    As an ecumenical sectarian, i have found that the Bible, considered in its historical context, can speak for itself right well, without my assistance. The Bible has many useful words, but one word that it does not have is the word “conservative.” If someone knows where, in an English Bible, the word “conservative” might be found, i should like to know that place, and what Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word it translates. Otherwise, we do well to remain “silent where the Bible is silent,” especially with pejorative labels borrowed from the human political order. “Conservative” is what the sisters and brothers, when they cared about such things, used to call “the language of Ashdod.” We do well to avoid such language, especially in speaking of the Bible. We should, rather, “call Bible things by Bible names.” That would greatly clarify our conversations about difficult matters.

    God’s Peace to you.


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