“Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: love God and do what you will… let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” – St. Augustine, Tractatus, VII,8.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” - G.K. Chesterton, What’s wrong with the World.
“I love everyone, but sometimes it’s really hard.” - My son at age 3.
The extraordinary pace of technological development in the last century has left us in a serious conundrum. We are able to do many things we are not sure we should do. Technology has outpaced ethics and morality. This conundrum is most emotional around reproductive technology. If a couple utilizing in vitro fertilization have a number of eggs fertilized to be later implanted in the womb, and the first one “takes” while the others are frozen, are the frozen eggs human beings? What should become of them? If the wife has had a hysterectomy but another woman is willing to carry the baby until birth in exchange for payment, is that morally acceptable?
These questions are not limited to reproduction, of course. Military technology has provided weapons of mass destruction to tin pot dictators who do not value the lives of their own people, let alone the lives of their enemies. The current crisis in Syria points to our inability to morally manage warfare technology.
The Pharisees believed the Bible has a specific answer for every specific moral question if we read closely enough. Many Christians share this conviction. The outcome is proof texts twisted way out of context to try to determine whether or not it is acceptable to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath.
The Bible does have an answer for every moral question. The problem is in the specifics. One problem is the many issues the Bible simply does not address. The Bible does not directly address the question of when human life truly begins. One can interpret and infer – but it would take a lot of interpretation and inference to find a passage that describes a fertilized egg in a test tube. Scientists working on the Manhattan Project had no Bible verses to determine whether or not they should build the first nuclear bomb. The only way to make a specific case about these questions is to twist proof texts way out of context.
But equally problematic are some of the issues we do find in the Bible. What do we do with the reproductive technology Abram and Sarah employed? Is it more moral to arrange for your husband to have sex with another woman and claim the baby as your own than to create a baby in a test tube and pay another woman to carry it? Should the present Israeli government borrow several chapters from the Old Testament and resolve the Palestinian presence through genocide? Is Paul correct when he suggests that slavery is an acceptable economic structure and thus modern slaves should endure harsh treatment and submit to their masters?
The reality is that those who use the Bible as specific moral legislation universally applicable in every situation only do so selectively. While such a theology sounds holy and faithful, most of us would be horrified at the consequences of adopting the Bible’s example and commands consistently on every issue.
How can I then affirm that the Bible does have an answer for every moral question? The answer is a principle, not a set of specific rules, laws, prohibitions or requirements. The principle is simply love. Were we to forget every command of the Bible except the command to love we would nevertheless have all the moral guidance we need.
This is not radical new theology. When asked to identify the greatest command Jesus said there are two: love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbour as you love yourself. “All the law and prophets depend upon these two commandments” (Mt 22:40). Paul wrote, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8).
Consider a fire engine or ambulance going through a red light. The law to stop at a red light is in place to protect everyone’s safety. If an ambulance driver barrels through a red light without slowing and carefully looking to see who or what is in the intersection, someone could be seriously injured or killed. But if the ambulance stops simply because it is the law and waits for the light to turn green it could also cost a life. The principle behind the law – protecting safety – is best observed by allowing the driver to carefully assess the situation and proceed through the red light according to the principle of the law but in violation of its letter. The law is thus kept in its breaking.
This is the understanding of law Jesus applied when his hungry disciples were “harvesting grain” on the Sabbath by plucking strands of grain from a field to chew on. “The Sabbath was made for people,” he said, “and not people for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). To focus on the letter of the law sometimes leads to violation of the principle of the law. The law is thus broken in its keeping.
This is not a denial of absolutes nor a descent into relativism. The principle of love is absolute. It is always right. As St. Augustine wrote, “Of this root nothing can spring but what is good.” Or as Paul wrote, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law” (Ro 13:10).
The application of love to our decisions requires an understanding what love (in this case, the Greek word agape) is. Love is a willful decision to act for the best benefit of the greatest number of people. It must be remembered within this definition that depriving any individual of justice (which is simply love distributed) never benefits the greatest number of people, for when one person is deprived of justice true justice is lost for everyone. Further, this love is not sentiment or emotion. Love is not the same thing as liking.
Agape love is not the same thing as philia love: the Greek word that describes family love or love of “our own.” Agape love looks beyond all categories of “us and them” including family, nationality, religion, race, economic status or political affiliation. In this kind of love the best benefit of my enemy counts equally to the best benefit of my child. Agape is not a soft moral standard.
Why did Jesus drive the money changers out of the temple? They were gouging vulnerable pilgrims and occupying the place in the temple set aside for Gentiles. In love, Jesus made a decision to act for the best benefit of the greatest number of people. I doubt the money changers felt loved. It may even be that some of the pilgrims being gouged were concerned for their pocketbooks but unmoved by the loss of space for the Gentiles – the “other”.
When love reads the Bible and comes across a command love asks, “Who does the obedience of this command benefit? How and why are they benefited? Who might be harmed by the obedience of this command? Are there ways that harm might be mitigated?” We read the command that a rapist must marry the victim of his rape (De 22:28,29). The reader who assumes the Bible speaks specifically and universally to each moral question should conclude that obedience to God requires rapists and victims to marry (but more likely will ignore the passage allowing reason to overcome their theology.)
The reader governed by the agape principle asks, “What was the loving purpose of this command?” Realizing in that society unmarried women had no economic resources and a woman who had been raped would have difficulty finding a husband, the command loved the woman by forcing her rapist to provide for her economic needs.
The person who reads with love continues to ask, “Who does the obedience of this command harm and are there ways that harm can be mitigated?” In the unfolding story of God love answers, “This must be a very hard relationship for the woman who was raped! If we dealt justly with the status of women, provided economic equality for women and if other men were not to reject a woman because she had been victimized, we could accomplish the purpose of this command in a way that would offer a greater benefit to a larger number of people while mitigating the harm done by this command.”
“Further, if we were to take the rapist and throw him in jail instead of forcing him to marry his victim we would benefit not only his victim but the community as a whole would become a safer place. If we ensure that the rapist has a fair trial we further benefit the community by offering reasonable protection against false or malicious arrest.”
The specifics of the command are abandoned to better meet the true principle and objectives of the command. Is not the original command the Word of God? Yes. It has been a wonderful teacher. God’s inspiration is a process as people are “moved along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Pe 1:21). His word is not static but “living and active” (Hb 4:12).
In my lifetime the church has wrestled with a host of difficult moral questions. What forms of birth control are moral? When does a human become human? In what medical condition does life cease? Is the rental of a woman’s womb for nine months moral? Of the quite numerous models of marriage found in the Bible and subsequent culture, which is most moral? When, if ever, is war justified, particularly given the ability we now have to destroy the earth many times over? Is capital punishment a moral response to crime? If so, to which crimes? And so it goes.
Moral issues we will need to address are not likely to get any easier. Legalists will continue to try to twist ancient texts to speak to issues the original writers never dreamed while performing heroic mental gymnastics to explain away texts that are inconvenient and horrific when taken in any contemporary application. Those guided by the moral absolute of the New Testament will, instead, ask the hard headed questions demanded by love. As we bear witness to righteousness in a post-Christendom culture we will be much more persuasive articulating the true Christian ethic of love to a world that has seen the inconsistencies of biblical legalism.