I get thoughts on occasion. Like yesterday, as I was reading Mark 6, something popped into my head. I’m still toying with it; perhaps I’ll write an article.

There is a tendency in the church to regard all ethical standards as unchanging absolutes. Almost goes without saying. The idea that there could be a progressive quality to it strikes most as absurd. But in Mark 6:7ff Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and gives them instructions on how they should conduct themselves. Later, in Luke 22:35ff when he sends them out again, he gives them different instructions for when they go out. The purposes and needs have shifted. We recognize, as theologians, the progressive nature of God’s revelation to his people, but somehow imagine that this is not the case with ethics, or that progressive development ceased with the appearance of the closed biblical canon.

But perhaps a consideration of Jesus’ changing instructions to his disciples gives us a principle for the interpretation of morals and biblical injunctions: they may sometimes be more circumstantial in their implementation than many might think. Or be comfortable with. Circumcision seems clearly an eternal command in the Old Testament, impossible to ignore or do without. And yet Paul dismisses it entirely for in the NT without qualms. More than that, he actively argues against it—-despite the clear-cut biblical commands to the contrary, and despite the severe criticism he faced for his position from traditional Judaism and even from many within the Christian sect. Likewise, Christians (including Paul and Peter) jettisoned the kosher laws regarding what could be eaten. Peter’s vision of the animals let down in a sheet contributed to a shift, despite clear cut biblical commands to the contrary; the Jerusalem Council’s letter (as recorded in Acts) makes it clear that the church very early decided that the dietary regulations no longer needed to be enforced.

So, it appears that simply because some may think that certain biblical commands or injunctions are eternal truths does not necessarily mean that they actually are. The principles of grace and love are ever important, more than the strictures of the law. Jesus points out that the law comes down to just two commands, to love God and love people; these remain the guiding principles in morality, rather than the detailed lists that appear within the sacred texts. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ consistent violation of Sabbath restrictions: mercy, love, justice take precedence over any legalistic following of the biblical laws.

No one has a problem recognizing that certain injunctions in the Bible are contextually specific, rather than universal, eternal commands. For instance when Jesus tells Peter to pay the temple tax by going fishing, I know of no one who imagines that Jesus has given Peter an eternal command that tells us we are going to be instructed in how to pay our taxes today. Perhaps the same is true of other legalistic formulations as well?

The Bible is not a frozen thing. From it, we can alter and adjust our understanding of ethics to fit new circumstances, not remain hidebound in stasis. The temptation, of course, for some will be to use such a realization to rationalize selfish and unloving behavior. If you imagine that now, based on this idea, you can justify taking an axe to your annoying neighbor, then you’re missing the point. Perhaps revisiting the central theme of love, mercy, grace would be useful in considering behavior. But that central theme must, I believe, have a role in making sense of how we interpret the bilical texts.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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