Biblical morality without the Bible

Victor Paul Furnish does not want us to use the Bible poorly. He wants to steer us clear of interpretations that have no credibility in the eyes of the world and ethical arguments that are based on flawed conceptions.

Biblical statements about the nature of the universe afford a useful analogy. Insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture, that creation is a gift of God and that we are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given, they may and must be constantly affirmed. However, we would be irresponsible in our stewardship of creation were we to rely on them for specific judgments about the morality of, for example, strip-mining, clear-cutting the earth’s rain forests, or colonizing other planets; for what was presupposed in antiquity, and therefore in Scripture, about the physical properties of the universe is demonstrably wrong.

This interesting little argument from the opening chapter of the book The Loyal Opposition will be used by Furnish in the next few sentences to makes some arguments about sex, but before we read those, I wanted to dwell for a few moments on this passage.

A few things strike me as interesting here.

First, Furnish posits the existence of something called “the fundamental witness of Scripture” and then goes on to provide a summary of that fundamental witness. What is not at all clear is how this witness was arrived at and who has declared it the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding creation.1

In Wesleyan theology, we do have something called “The Analogy of Faith,” which does summarize a grand framework for interpreting the Bible.

For John Wesley, that “sense of the the whole” was reflected in how he understood the way of salvation: humans have a problem that God overcomes in Jesus Christ, so that our sin is forgiven and we are able to live a new life of inward and outward holiness.

I suspect Furnish has some sort of similar encapsulation of the whole message of Bible, but I am not sure exactly what it looks like or if it is compatible with a Wesleyan theology.

Second, Furnish appears to believe that it is dangerous to make moral judgments about colonizing Mars based on the teachings of the Bible about the nature of the universe. He says, indeed, it is irresponsible to do so. I’m not sure, however, what the concern is. Certainly it would be a bad idea to use the Bible as a technical or astronomical manual for planning a trip to Mars. The planet Mars is not, in fact, a light in the firmament that encircles the Earth. But the engineering challenges of travel to Mars is something quite different from the moral questions about whether we should invest time, talent, and energy into making the trip. It seems to me that the Bible has a lot to contribute to that discussion.

In short, I do not understand why the Bible’s statements about the windows of heaven and the pillars of the Earth matter at all in any morality of creation stewardship. Scientific knowledge is quite useful, but does it tell us anything about the morality of strip mining that we could not say if we knew nothing about geology?

These questions repeat as I read the next few lines of Furnish’s paragraph.

Similarly, we may affirm the biblical statements about sex, insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture that sex is part of God’s good creation, for which we have continuing moral responsibility. But scriptural counsels about sex that are based on discredited presuppositions can be of no specific help as we consider what it means in actual practice to be faithful stewards of our God-given sexuality.

Here we see the same issues. Who, exactly, determined the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding sex? The Bible does speak of sex quite a bit, but I’m not aware of any place where it is discussed as a generic thing for which we have some undefined moral responsibility.

And what do the debatable historical conclusions of scholars about the nature of sex — which Furnish argues discredit the biblical texts — really tell us with any certainty? Our “knowledge” about sexuality today or 2,000 years ago bears little resemblance to empirical science. An operational definition of the term “sexuality” that permits observation and measurement of the phenomenon has proven elusive, to state just one major problem with treating the topic of sex like a science. If biblical statements about sex have been discredited, it is because biblical notions are out of fashion in gender studies and sociology departments at universities, not because there has been an empirical breakthrough with regard to the meaning of the word sexuality and its attributes. We have no Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo when it comes to sex.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way we are urged to be morally responsible and to steward faithfully the God-given gift of sex in a context in which the term “morally responsible” has no meaning. If the witness of the Bible on sex reduces to the claim that it is good and we should be morally responsible in our sexuality, then we have to look outside the Bible for guidance on what it means to be morally responsible with regard to sex.

Indeed, in the end, our “biblical” ethic of sex ends up looking exactly like the ethic of sex we would adopt if the Bible had never been written. The Bible has been reduced to a vague “fundamental witness” that provides no independent teaching on the will of God or moral behavior.

All of this is my way of saying that the proposals of the sexual progressives in the United Methodist Church about the way we should use scripture in our theological discernment strike me as incoherent from the point of view of our theological heritage and task. What Furnish and others appear to be advocating is a sexual ethics that looks exactly like the sexual ethics devised by the world that does not read the Bible or call Jesus Lord.

I suspect Furnish would argue that he is merely using the best understanding of modern science and scholarship to inform his reading of Scripture. He is using reason. But other than saying the word “God” I don’t see how his ethics of sex is in any way distinguishable from the consensus opinion that center-left upper middle-class America would come up with independent of the Bible.

Which may explain why our ethics around issues such as the use of money also bears almost no resemblance to the biblical conversation around money. Indeed, it may be that our successful efforts to exclude the Bible from our economics may have set the stage for the argument that Furnish would have us make with regard to sex.

But that is probably a conversation for another day.


1I also find Furnish’s description of creation as a “gift” of God and also something over which we must exercise good stewardship confusing. I have always understood a steward to be one who has control over something owned or possessed by another. A master does not give his estate to his steward as a gift, but as a responsibility. This may be a minor semantic point, but it does raise questions for me.

19 thoughts on “Biblical morality without the Bible

    1. You are too kind. I’m really just trying to think through my reaction to his chapter.

  1. Victor Paul Furnish has long been trotted out as warrant for those who believe the moral polarities of scripture are reversing themselves in correlation with culture. The allure of such hermeneutics is powerful, but once you are in the spell, it grows claws.

  2. John, my friend… you continue to ask the direct and difficult questions. Your analysis of issues continues to be superior and rigorous. It is a blessing to have you in the UMC. Keep up the good work!

  3. The Theological Guidelines in the Book of Discipline remind us of these things in our attempts to understand Holy Scripture:

    “While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.

    The Wesleyan heritage, reflecting its origins in the catholic and reformed ethos of English Christianity, directs us to a self-conscious use of these three sources in interpreting Scripture and in formulating faith statements based on the biblical witness. These sources are, along with Scripture, indispensable to our theological task.

    The close relationship of tradition, experience, and reason appears in the Bible itself. Scripture witnesses to a variety of diverse traditions, some of which reflect tensions in interpretation within the early Judeo-Christian heritage. However, these traditions are woven together in the Bible in a manner that expresses the fundamental unity of God’s revelation as received and experienced by people in the diversity of their own lives.”

    I am not here to defend Dr. Furnish, but I do suggest he may very well have been adhering to those guidelines as he wrestled with the interpretation of Holy Scriptures in a way that is faithful to the core of the text and offered to those who know nothing of grace in a way that they can hear it. I know that this is what I am doing. It seems to me that Jesus systematically broke down barriers that separated so many from access to the Holy Place and nearly everyone from the Holy of Holies. The church has just as systematically re-built those barriers.

    I am not saying the questions of sexuality that face us are not complex, for they are. The implications of removing barriers is fraught with as many potholes as is the tight adherence to a doctrine that most people on the street and many in the pews regard as settled–settled in favor of full inclusion. Are they right? I don’t know. But I also don’t think the traditionalist can automatically assume the rightness of their positions without themselves being in violation of the Book of Discipline. This is not a black and white settled issue.

    1. I did not mean to say Furnish was not being sincere in his efforts, only that I can’t see why I need the Bible to end up where he does on either of these two issues: stewardship of creation and sexual ethics. I’ve not read his constructive work, but in this chapter his entire project seems to be deconstructive — the Bible is not a credible source to use in our moral thinking.

      Before I was a Christian and before I ever read the Bible, I thought sex was something that required moral responsibility. If that is the “fundamental witness” of Scripture, then no wonder so many of those pew-sitting folks you reference don’t read their bibles on a regular basis. Why read it when its fundamental witness is so bland?

      1. John, most of the “pew sitting folks I reference” are extraordinarily biblically literate and engaged in active service to the world as they live out the commands of discipleship. Much of my conversation is with the highly literate and educated in the community in which I live, leaders for good reasons in their various churches who stand upon positions that are well thought-out and well-defended.

        1. Sorry, Christy, I mistook your previous reference to be about United Methodists in general. I did not know you were making reference to your own circle of contact. My mistake. Most surveys and other data I’ve seen about the Bible reading habits of United Methodists — and mainline Protestants in general — is that a great numbers are not devoted and regular Bible readers. It sounds like you are in a place that bucks the general trends.

          It is good they — and you feel — such conviction about your views. That does not make Furnish’s argument any more helpful to me, but it sounds like it is quite helpful to you and others.

    2. Christy, I think I hear you arguing that Furnish might have been trying to articulate a reading of Scripture that would appeal or speak to those who “know nothing of grace.” (I’ll confess I’m not sure what that means.)

      I wonder if you could help me better understand what you mean by that.

    3. How do you define tradition?
      Is the tradition you are talking about the tradition the Fathers of the Reformation rejected or another?

      Traditions experience, and reason could also become a snare.
      It all depends on what those traditions, experiences, and reasons are.

  4. Two thoughts, John. First, thank you for pointing out the disconnect in the argument you cite. Indeed, the argument as posed is not coherent unless one were to presume an overarching or underlying commitment to some brand of inerrancy that must link the veracity of scientific claims to moral ones. Our “core” doctrinal claim about the Bible iis that it contains all things necessary for salvation. So for us its sub-scientific framing doesn’t and wouldn’t impinge on its core work of leading us to full salvation anyway.

    Second, that this argument is flawed as you note does not mean all possible arguments on any similar matters are likewise flawed. Nor would it seem inconceivable on the face of it that persons not consulting the Bible might indeed come to a similar conclusion on some of these matters as those who read it faithfully in a committed Wesleyan Christian community. So the issue is not whether our conclusions resemble those of others, but perhaps more whether and how we are keen to attend to scripture as primary (first word, but not only word) in our discernment that leads us there.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Taylor.

      Good point. What I hear in the two or three things I’ve read by Furnish, though, is the insistence that claims and interpretations that are not credible to the culture must be set aside. I agree we should not adopt a stance — and my language certainly leans that way in this post — of saying a biblical ethics cannot overlap non-biblical ethics. But I do think there is something in both Jesus and the Bible that is counter-cultural. To use cultural credibility as a standard of interpretation seems to me to be a path toward a Bible that mirrors culture rather than challenges it. His language contrasting antiquity versus the contemporary also strikes me as misguided. Some truths are true even if they are ancient.

      Just a couple quick thoughts on Sunday morning. Peace.

  5. John, keep shining the light of critique on the sore points in a way that makes us squirm because our (post)modern suppositions and commitments have been exposed.

  6. My guess here is that Furnish would feel that the idea of marriage — with its concepts of commitment and monogamy and exclusivity — would be the essence of the biblical ethic. While it’s true that center-left upper middle-class America would also advocate gay marriage (or often does, anyway), this is mainly true because our culture has been influenced by the Christian concept of marriage. So, maybe Furnish feels that the concept of marriage is still the important Christian teaching, it is just that the gender of the partners is not as significant as previous generations may have thought. The secular argument for gay marriage is rooted in the notion of equal protection under the law — but that doesn’t mean that all gay people will want to be married any more than all hetero people desire the commitment and exclusivity of marriage either. I’m not defending Furnish, I’m just taking a stab at what he might be thinking.

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