The Bible: can we avoid the pick’n’mix trap?

What Are Biblical Values?
By John F Collins
Yale University Press, 285pp, £22/$28

A venerable idea lies at the heart of John Collins’s guide to biblical ethics: that we are responsible for the moral choices we make. We can’t just bleat that we were pushed towards a decision or posture because social convention demanded it, or because our spouse was yelling in our ear, or because we were compelled by the dictates of a text.

This, Collins argues, would be cowardly.

What, though, of the most potent text of them all? No, says, Collins: the “because the Bible tells me so” line is of limited use. After all, we wouldn’t want to let Scripture-citing 19th-century slave-owners off the hook.

The same goes for constructive ethical encounters. Can we seek general guidance from the Bible? You bet, says Collins. Could we locate broad spiritual perspectives that freshen up debate? Absolutely. But Collins looks askance at people who cite specific chapters or verses with little sense of their historical context. Besides, Collins adds, the quest for the rhetorical slam dunk is often a fool’s errand.

Collins is a fan of the Bible and he truly wants us to use it as a spiritual and intellectual resource. He only becomes cross when its message is lazily applied to modern debates. Take the right to life.

The Bible speaks in a language that has little connection with modern rights theory and, on key questions, it says hardly anything at all. The Church Fathers are much more specific than the Bible on the subject of abortion, for instance.

What about gender? The Bible is, undeniably, tough terrain for feminist theology. Do you adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion and throw out texts that are too awkward? Or try to rescue those texts through ingenious interpretative strategies? Either approach is perilous: an attempt to make things more convenient.

For Collins, such caution should also shape discussions of violence. How far will you get, in 2019, by pondering the massacre of the Canaanites? Likewise, how much value is there in dwelling on the Maccabean revolt when debating modern, overly zealous freedom struggles?

The list continues. Bringing up Leviticus may not help much when debating homosexuality in the pub. Citing Genesis and our relationship with “every creeping thing” won’t resolve the political issues raised by today’s climate problems – though it’s worth noting that the Bible can be pretty good when it comes to the duties as well as the opportunities of being at the top of the food chain.

With this last point, though, we encounter a potential snag – why is it OK for Collins to parade these gentler texts? Doesn’t this come perilously close to breaking Collins’s own that-was-then but this-is-now rubric?

This concern comes into sharper focus when the author tackles social justice.

He begins with an important point. All those centuries ago, nobody talked about social contracts. Virtuous rule (as adjudicated by all those hard-to-please prophets) stemmed from a desire to measure up to what God expected – not from obeisance to the theory du jour.

Mentioning this is astute: it fits Collins’s template. But then we hear a lot about how the tradition of caring for the ill-used and downtrodden was articulated in the Old and New Testaments and, almost before we realise it, a continuum with modern understandings of social justice is being hinted at.

Collins grumbles about those who, because they have a problem with modern liberal sensibilities, look askance at this kind of anachronism. Surely, Collins insists, when something as important as social justice is at stake, this “seems like a quibble”. But does it not resemble the kind of quibble that Collins has been voicing all along?

The defence, I suppose, is that, in the case of social justice there is adequate, directly relevant ammo in the biblical texts, so leaping between centuries and worldviews becomes less troublesome.

I think that Collins just about pulls off this manoeuvre. Others may decide that the charge of inconsistency isn’t entirely avoided by defining the Good Book as “more of a proverbial curate’s egg: good in spots”.