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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with David P. Gushee about the role of the Bible in modern Christian ethics as they explore the following questions:

  • How do we ground our ethical ideas?
  • How do we know what’s right and wrong?
  • How do we behave in the world if the Bible is not a rulebook that gives us infallible rules to follow?
  • Once you start questioning the Bible, how do you even know how to live? 
  • In this particular moment, in this day and age, what does it mean to love God and to love other people and even to love ourselves?
  • What is Christian ethics? And what role does the Bible play in it?
  • What are some of the complexities of appealing to the Bible ethically?
  • How should we look at relationship between the ethic of the gospel and the ethic that we see as the gospel spread in the Greco Roman world and eventually got to Rome itself?
  • How do we integrate all the wonderful science-y things that we’re learning while maintaining a Christian ethic?
  • Can we advocate for our ethical vision as Christians without legislating a particular Christian ethic and maintaining a separation of church and state?
  •  Does a Christian ethic prepare us to be good world citizens? Should it?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from David P. Gushee you can share.

  • “The Bible offers goals or visions of the good life, or of how Christians should live or what we should be striving for. I think the most significant, from a Jesus perspective, is the kingdom of God.” — @dpgushee
  • “Christian ethics is when Christians try to figure out how we’re supposed to live. More technically, it’s ‘the effort of the church to know and do God’s will, as we have met God in Jesus Christ.’” — @dpgushee
  • “There is no Christian ethics without a pivotal role for the scriptures—but there are other sources. And it’s complex to read the scriptures rightly for Christian ethics.” — @dpgushee
  • “One problem with reading the Bible just as a rulebook is that those rules are socially located in ancient Israel, in ancient first-century Palestine, and in the Greco-Roman world.” — David
  • “I think one of the most fruitful ways to think about Christian ethics is how do we live within the story that the Bible tells? What does it look like? All of that goes beyond proof texts.” — @dpgushee
  • “Rules provide at least the illusion of certainty…When everybody around you seems confused about the most basic things of right and wrong, rules seem especially important, I think, as an anchor or bulwark against confusion and chaos.” — @dpgushee
  • “It is not easy for authentically biblical or Jesus-centered readings of the Bible to survive the impact with our culture, and ideology, and bias.” — @dpgushee
  • “Moral tradition matters. We don’t just read the Bible as if nobody else has ever interpreted it before. There are traditions of interpretation of all significant biblical texts, and we stand on the shoulders of those who have done those interpretations.” — @dpgushee
  • “Everyday people can, if we can do just some basic research, we can learn some things that can inform our moral vision today.” — @dpgushee
  • “The Bible is a very complicated source when you deal with modern politics and policy because there’s not a democratic bone in the Bible’s body. It’s this ancient world, it’s theocracy and tribal confederation and Roman Empire and so on.” — @dpgushee
  • “The Bible can be misleading, even actively problematic, if you are just reading your politics off of the Bible. There’s not much democracy there, and I think Christian authoritarianism, even as we have it today, is partly fed by proof-texting from the Bible.” — @dpgushee
  • “In America, we live in a pluralistic, democratic-rule-of-law, religiously disestablished context in which Jesus is not in our Constitution and Christians are not the official religion of the state, and that’s a good thing.” — @dpgushee
  • “A Christian ethic should prepare us to be good world citizens—constructive participants in not just the church and not just the nation, but the global community. The world that God loves. The creation that God loves. And all the human beings and creatures that God loves.” — @dpgushee
  • “We are a part of this world, and we need to have a loving presence within this world. Not a hostile, angry presence…a presence for the kingdom of God, for love, for justice, for the dignity of all.” — @dpgushee 
  • “Christian humanism, for me, means we take our place as Christian humans who care about all humans, as well as all creation, and we seek to love our neighbors. It’s not about gaining power for ourselves. It’s about giving ourselves away the way that Jesus did.” — @dpgushee

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

0:00 

Pete 

You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared   

And I’m Jared Byas. 

Pete   

Hey, folks, before we get started, I am so excited—because I have an announcement. Here’s the announcement: I’m gonna be offering a one-evening-only class coming up soon, details to follow, called “The Error of Inerrancy.” And you know what, folks? Just for the title alone, I think you should sign up. That’s so clever, wouldn’t you say? That’s clever. I think it’s really clever. Anyway, here’s what the class is about. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is: Okay, well, what is inerrancy? And where does it come from? And you know, why does it have such appeal? The second part is: Okay, yeah, but it doesn’t really work…what are the problems with inerrancy? Why does it actually cause more problems than it solves? And the third part is: Okay, listen, with that in mind, what is life like after inerrancy for people who want to take the Bible seriously as of spiritual value? So that’s the class! It is on July 21st, 8-9:30pm Eastern Time. And folks, the best part—well, actually the best part is the course itself—but the second best part is that it is Pay What You Can. For more information, thebiblefornormalpeople.com/summerschool. 

[Jaunty intro music] 

Pete   

Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode. Our topic today is Christian Ethics & the Memory of Jesus. And our guest is David Gushee. 

Jared   

David is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, and Chair of Christian Social Ethics at Vrije Universiteit (“Free University”) in Amsterdam. That is a mouthful. 

Pete   

That is a lot to be. 

Jared   

A mouthful. And he has a new book called Introducing Christian Ethics, and yeah I thought it was really good. Because one of the things—in all of this conversation we’ve been having about the Bible over the last five years, I think a lot of questions that I get are around, “Well then, how do we ground our ethical ideas? How do we know what’s right and wrong? How do we behave now in the world if the Bible is not this rulebook that gives us infallible rules to follow?” 

Pete   

Right. And I’ve heard that myself from people I know well, and how concerned they are about…once you start questioning the Bible, like how do you even know how to live? And I think one thing that came out in this interview is that, well, you’re always sort of I guess bringing this ethical, contextual, socially embedded thing into new contexts anyway, you know? And that’s something that’s, I think, worth remembering. We don’t get a free pass by citing passages and saying that’s all there is to it. Even if they’re “clear,” I mean, my favorite example is, you know, “God is love.” That’s great. And “love God and love your neighbor.” That’s great…but how? In this particular moment, in this day and age, what does it mean to love God and to love other people and even to love ourselves? And we never have the heavy lifting done for us. And I guess that can change in different cultural contexts and probably change over time. 

Jared   

Right, yep.  

Pete   

Yeah.  

Jared   

All right. Well, let’s have this conversation with David! 

David  

[Jaunty intro music plays over David speaking in an excerpt from the interview] The Bible offers goals or visions of the good life, or of how Christians should live or what we should be striving for. I think the most significant, from a Jesus perspective, is the kingdom of God. But also love God with everything, love your neighbor as yourself, and the command to do justice. And so, kingdom of God, love, and justice, are goals that we strive for, not just rules. 

Jared   

Well welcome, David, to the podcast. It’s great to have you! 

David   

Thank you, Jared. 

Jared   

Well we want to jump right into it and ask the question: What is Christian ethics? And what role does the Bible play in it? Because I think that’s a question that a lot of our listeners are very curious about. 

David   

Well, the simplest answer is, Christian ethics is when Christians try to figure out how we’re supposed to live. More technically, I define it in my book Introducing Christian Ethics as “the effort of the church to know and do God’s will, as we have met God in Jesus Christ.” So a couple of things about that. And it helps to clarify, maybe get us to the role of the Bible—Christian ethics is an effort on the part of a community, you know, the church writ large, as well as every place Christians are around the world. In this sense, it is contextual, it has a historical dimension, it’s a human project (though hopefully helped by the Holy Spirit.) It’s a fallible project because anything that human beings do is subject to error. It’s a socially located project. And in light of all of that, Christians ought to, and should, and are commanded to, eagerly search the scriptures for guidance as to the answers to the question: How shall we follow Jesus?  

5:00 

What does it mean to do God’s will? The scriptures are, I mean, there is no Christian ethics without, I think, a pivotal role for the scriptures—but there are other sources. And it’s complex to read the scriptures rightly, I think, for Christian ethics. 

Jared   

So what I’m hearing you say in talking about it being a human and a fallible project, and socially located, is that it’s more complicated than maybe the old conservative cliche, “the Bible says it, that settles it” in terms of the ethics of how we now today should live. So can you say a little more about that human element? Because again, I think a lot of people are coming from this idea that the Bible is an infallible rulebook. If it says… 

Pete   

And clearly so. It’s “clearly” so. 

Jared   

Right, there are like laws and rules, and you just read it, and it’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to do now. So can you maybe unpack how that’s unhelpful? 

David   

I would say that despite that rhetoric, it has never been that simple, and even those communities that have attempted to use that language, “the Bible says that, I believe it, that settles it” are doing a whole lot of other complicated things but they’re not owning the things that they’re doing. Like taking context seriously, and taking human life seriously, and, you know, paying some attention to the tradition of the church and all those other things. I mean, one problem with reading the Bible just as a rulebook is that those rules are socially located in ancient Israel and in ancient, you know, first-century Palestine and the Greco-Roman world. And the culture crossing project—understanding the cultural dimension that lies behind the rules that we find in the Bible, and then making a 2,000- or 3,000-year leap to today and thinking about how it might translate—that is complicated. And we never stopped being readers, I mean, in a context. So it isn’t just that we have an infallible understanding of what those rules actually meant at the time, because here we are in 2022, reading the Bible and trying to make sense across those cultural barriers of what was going on then.  

David   

But the other thing is in ethics we say that the Bible has a whole lot of other kinds of formative roles besides rules. Just to tell you about a few of them—one is that the Bible offers goals or visions of the good life, or of how Christians should live or what we should be striving for. I think the most significant from a Jesus perspective is the kingdom of God. But also, you know, love God with everything, love your neighbor as yourself, and the command to do justice. And so the kingdom of God, love, and justice are goals that we strive for. That’s not just rules. The Bible also gives us norms for character, like our inner essence, so who we are as people—and Jesus sets the paradigm there. But there’s other teachings about character and that goes beyond rules. The Bible also gives us pictures of communities: the Jewish community in different stages, the Christian community, the early movement around Jesus. And so to the extent that Christian ethics is about the community of believers, one of the things we’re paying attention to when we read the Bible is what kind of communities were developing in the Jewish community and the Christian community. I would also say that the Bible offers some core principles or you might say broad parameters of responsible living before Christ. And so responsibility goes beyond rules, as we would know—those of us who attempt to live responsibly in everyday life in the midst of various relationships—that rules are part of that, but it goes beyond that. One last thing, the Bible tells stories, and the stories have ethical significance. And I think one of the most fruitful ways to think about Christian ethics is how do we live within the story that the Bible tells? What does it look like? All of that goes beyond prooftexts. Good preachers know this, good teachers in the church know this. So it’s time to put, you know, moralism and “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to a long, long sleep. 

Pete   

Okay, goodnight! [Laughter]  

Pete   

But it may not be a good sleeper, like many toddlers who are gonna keep waking up. Something that struck me, David, as you were mentioning these different angles and different ways of looking at Christian ethics, let’s say biblically, I remember years ago John Goldingay from Fuller wrote a book I think was called Models of Scripture or Models of Interpreting Scripture. I forget the title. But he talks about, you know, there is a legal metaphor for reading the Bible.  

10:00 

But it’s only one of the metaphors, there’s [also] a prophetic metaphor which is oriented towards the future. And that seems similar to what you’re saying, but… My experience is that many Christians within the evangelical and fundamentalist paradigm look to Scripture almost exclusively from a legal metaphor. These are the rules written down, and this is what you have to do. 

David   

I think that that is definitely characteristic of fundamentalism. I think evangelicalism, if there is a difference, tried in some quadrants to get away from it, and to have a broader reading. I mean, like Stanley Hauerwas, his emphasis, you know, on narrative ethics, you know, it swept the field for a while, you know, from the 90s, at least forward. But rules always resurface. Rules provide at least the illusion of certainty. And rules maybe are especially appealing when you feel like the societies that you live in are confused morally, or even chaotic. So, people, you know—when everybody around you seems confused about the most basic things of right and wrong, rules seem especially important, I think, as an anchor or bulwark against confusion and chaos. 

Jared   

Well, maybe we can talk more about some of the other ways you talked about because I think there may be confusion there, too. So if we say, “Yeah, we’re agreed, let’s put the rules to bed.” But there’s these other things that the Bible has for us from an ethical standpoint, like this vision idea. It gives us this vision of the kingdom of God, or, you know, within the story, there’s character, you know, calls to certain kinds of character. But I think even within that, there’s other visions, too—and there’s other character traits that we might say are not to be imitated. And so in some ways, I don’t know how we get away from…we bring an ethical framework to the text that’s culturally situated or culturally conditioned. And we’re reading, we’re filtering the Bible. Even when it comes to things like the vision of the kingdom of God or character, we’re filtering it through some other ethical framework. Is that fair to say? And what’s Christian about that, if it’s coming from outside the Bible? 

David   

One way to say it rather sternly, or prophetically, is that it is not easy for—how about if we try this—authentically biblical or Jesus-centered readings of the Bible to survive the impact with our culture, and ideology and bias. Right? 

David   

Yeah, can you maybe just say that in a different way? Like what do you mean by that? 

David   

In the church, we want people to follow Jesus, and we want them to read the Bible and say, “Yeah, I want to be like him.” But the people—we ourselves, who if we’re leaders or just regular people—we are being shaped every day by other visions. Say, xenophobia or greed or, you know, prejudice or whatever. And sometimes when it’s our powerful cultural frameworks on the one hand, and Jesus, who we meet in Scripture or in preaching or whatever, on the other [hand], culture wins. And you know, when it’s even most dangerous is when people don’t know that what they think they are reading in the Bible was really just a replication of their own bias. You know? 

Pete   

[Sarcastically] That never happens. 

David   

[Sarcastically] No, that never happens, right? I emphasize a lot, I mean, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you need to be in the gospels a lot. And, you know, Glen Stassen, who wrote Kingdom Ethics with me, talked a lot about concreteness, like, Jesus taught specific things like forgiveness, and enemy love, and, you know, keeping your promises and not telling lies, and so on. And so these really matter. So I actually am more rule-oriented than some people on the progressive side because I think Jesus taught some specific rules of life, or some specific binding norms. And we are to live in that way. But ethics has other dimensions too that I think it’s important to emphasize. 

Jared   

Would it be fair to say, just from hearing you talk too that one of those filters for you as you think about Christian ethics, is through Jesus as we find him in the Gospels? So there may be parts, I think it’s very true, obviously, that our culture impacts how we read the Bible. But sometimes I think the Bible also just gives bad like moral guidance. Like I’m thinking in the Hebrew scriptures of violence and other things like that. And so how are we adjudicating that?  

15:00 

I’m hearing what you’re saying is we filter it through a Jesus-shaped lens. 

David   

The 1963 Baptist faith and message once said, “All scripture must be read according to or through the criteria of Jesus Christ” and that got taken out when the Baptist faith and message was revised under fundamentalist leadership in 2000, which I think is very interesting. And so I’ve written something like this, “the Bible is not flat. Christ is its peak and center. All scripture is to be read in light of Christ.” I mean, again, that doesn’t resolve everything. And I do believe in urgent, earnest respectful engagement with the text from Genesis to Revelation, to see what’s there. To see what can be helpful. But yeah, Jared, I do believe that there are texts of Scripture, Hebrew Bible and New Testament, that are morally problematic. And I never see such in Jesus himself, but I see it elsewhere. And part of where we’ve gone wrong, is because we’ve had to have this kind of myth of the inerrant Bible, when people run into those problematic areas, and their parents or pastors or whatever, say, “Don’t notice this, this is not a problem.” Then they’re forced into crises of conscience that sometimes drive them right out of the faith. It’s totally not necessary. A more thoughtful reading of the Bible can permit honesty and engagement with all kinds of texts—respectful, you know. There is a kind of a liberal dismissiveness sometimes about the Bible, “Oh, you know, Paul, he was just a misogynist, throw it out.” I never ever counsel that attitude towards the Bible. I want a respectful, engaged, serious exegetical effort. But everything gets filtered through Christ. And the question is always how do we follow Jesus most faithfully? 

Pete   

“Filtered through Christ” is, I think, a common metaphor that people would recognize. Another way that—if you agree with this—another way of putting that might be having the ethics more grounded in Christ or in the Gospel? Yeah, I think of, you know, a rule metaphor has a box and you don’t leave it. To be grounded means you have sort of a central point to keep returning to as you work through the ethical problems of life. And the Gospels can be a place of that grounding. It’s not a grounding that takes the questions away, but it’s a grounding nonetheless, something that you can return to. 

David   

That’s good, that’s a really good image. Another image that comes to my mind is a journeying image, with Jesus going ahead of us and beckoning us into greater faithfulness to him, going off into that future that we are attempting to create alongside him or to be a part of. That’s dynamic, you know, both of those, that grounding image or a journeying image speaks to quest and effort, and struggle, fallibility—but we’re on a journey and the journey matters. 

Pete   

Yeah. And I think, you know, in your book, Introducing Christian Ethics, you have a chapter early on which talks about the kingdom of God as—interesting title here—the kingdom of God as the narrative frame for Christian ethics. So there’s, there’s a central core to the gospel that is of ethical importance for you. Could you flesh it out a little bit what that means? 

David   

Yeah. As far back as Kingdom Ethics with Stassen, we argued that—well, we know Jesus came preaching the kingdom, that’s clear—there’s been some debate of what the content of that proclamation would have been. And, you know, through a lot of exegetical and intertestamental, you know, all the kind of work, we concluded that it’s simply the proclamation that the king, God, is reclaiming the world and Jesus is the emissary of that reclaiming of the world. And everything he teaches, and everything he does, is part of reclaiming the world for the king. It’s a monarchical image, you know, so it’s not modern and democratic. But it is lovely, because it’s like amidst all this brokenness and sorrow and evil comes Jesus saying, “here is how God intended for this world to be and for human beings to live.” And he creates a community of people and teaches them what that looks like, and models it. And so we also argue that there’s specific social content to it that goes back to the prophets. And so we say there are seven marks of the kingdom, including deliverance, and justice, and peace, and inclusion, and community, and so on.  

20:00 

And so the kingdom looks like a reclaimed world, and so in this sense the kingdom becomes the goal towards which we strive, the reality that we get to participate in, and it has lots of moral content to it. So the rules don’t just hang out in kind of midair. They’re all towards the goal of participating in the reign of God. 

Pete   

Well, I mean, let me just ask a question based on what you just said, because it’s something that I hear a lot. And I try to think through, and I don’t know how or what your thinking process is on this. Jesus is telling us, you know, what it means to live in God’s world. Another way of putting it. But many would say the “us” that Jesus has in mind is a particular community of people, the Jewish community of people, and his ethics are very much around this, the King has come and now the reign will begin, you know? Jerusalem will be reconstituted as the center of the kingdom. Israel will be made great again, so to speak. And this is the big question, but is Jesus implicitly talking about an ethic that engages all humans? Or do we have to wait for Paul for that? Or is that something maybe the church has to work out in later centuries? Or is it embedded in what Jesus says already? 

David   

What a great question. 

Pete   

Yeah, isn’t it, though? And do you have a great answer? Because I want one. 

David   

[Laughs] I think it’s pretty clear that most of Jesus’s Jewish listeners were expecting a political reconstituting of the kingdom of Israel under his charismatic leadership. And he did not offer that. He gets crucified and explicitly disavows the political path of rebellion against Rome. So now what you have is, well, you have a crucified and resurrected Savior, and we believe in the resurrection, but then he’s gone and so here we are. And we have these teachings. And we have this proclamation of the kingdom [unintelligible] earthly  kingdom…responsibility for approximating it falls on the church. And so the church becomes the community that gathers around the memory of Jesus, hopefully lives in the spirit of Jesus, and begins to embody the way of life that Jesus taught. But it’s because the idea is that both Jesus himself and then the church is a fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible promise that this is, you might say, the opening up of the Jewish community to the Gentiles, you know? This is the promise of the expansion of God’s law, and God’s will to the whole world. There’s—you already have a built in dynamic towards universalization, towards the globalizing and inclusiveness message that at a new level had never happened in that way. And this vision—the way I understand it—the vision of the reclaimed world is fairly easily universalized.  

Pete   

Mhmm. 

David   

He moved from a reclaimed kingdom of Israel in which God’s law is now obeyed at last the way that should be, to a reclaimed world, a world of justice and peace and love and mercy and compassion and inclusion. And that world is again off over the horizon. But the church becomes the place that bears witness to it both in its teaching and in its way of life. That’s attractive, and that’s, I think, that’s the best way to draw that connection, or you might say, to make that leap. But again, see how interpretive all of that is, right? You know, it’s a, it’s Jesus—here, I mean, the reading is: Jesus is interpreting the prophetic Jewish tradition, proclaiming the kingdom of God in a particular way, unique way, really—though, not without precedent. Then he gets killed. And the movement continues, and they interpret him interpreting the Hebrew Bible, but they move out into the Greco Roman world and get all those cultural influences. And the story goes on from there. If one wants to talk about Christian ethics, you have to know all of that history, or at least it helps. 

Pete   

Yeah, and that sort of, again, puts proof texting to the side very quickly, because we’re not respecting the context of this drama that’s happening in the Gospels. Now that that raises another question, though, and you began answering it but maybe more explicitly… 

25:00 

I think it’s safe to say that many Christians of the more let’s say conservative Protestant variety, Paul becomes their ethical norm. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, that you look to Paul for certain kinds of things, whether it’s, you know, respecting the government in Romans 13, or human sexuality, or a number of other things. How do you see that relationship between the ethic of the gospel and then the ethic that we see as this gospel spreads in the Greco Roman world and eventually gets to Rome itself? Because the thing is, many people say Paul invented Christianity. Right? “He really started this whole thing.” But there seems to be a relationship between the two, and maybe it’s that Paul and others are interpreting Jesus for a, let’s say, slightly broader and more explicitly broader context. I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, go ahead and answer the way you want to. 

David   

I will first definitely agree with your first factual claim that for many Christians, Paul and the writings attributed to Paul really are the heartbeat of how they understand Christianity. I’ve actually heard Jesus described or his ethics described as “transitional.” “That’s that kingdom of God stuff, didn’t really happen that way, or maybe it’ll be you know, dispensationalism, maybe at the end some of that stuff we can do something with. But what who we’re really reading is Paul.” And even the other writers of the New Testament don’t seem to have that much of a role. It’s Paul. He was, I think, you know, the most creative and significant theological voice at least as of the early church, at least as we find the canon that was passed down to us, right? He was a Pharisaic rabbinic Jewish theologian, who, you know, had that dramatic, transformative experience and ends up having that missionary zeal. And then it goes all over the world. We know the story. Um, I think that Paul probably did more than anybody else to take the “kingdom of God” themes and to lay the burden for that way of life and it’s norms on the backs of local Christian communities, and say, “the world is not going to be transformed into a kingdom of justice and peace right yet, at least not until Jesus returns, but we are aware that is visible.” So that’s a lot of pressure on people. I also think that Paul was still working some, you know, somewhat with Jewish legal norms. For example, in the area of sexuality, and those norms still carried some punch for him in a way that should be noticed. And you see him evolving, I think, trying to make sense of what God was doing, what’s happening with the Gentiles, how to make this transition out into the Gentile world. And I think that he’s complex in his own right. And I don’t think we want to create a kind of a Jesus versus Paul paradigm. But, even Paul, I think should be read through the lens of Jesus—Jesus as the ground, not Paul as the ground. 

Pete   

And maybe it’s a matter of, even to take a step further back—I’m trying to sort of frame this in a way that will help our listeners understand the complexities of appealing to the Bible ethically. Even Jesus’s words were interpreted by four communities, at least, because we have the four Gospels and they don’t always agree on every point. And has it ever not been the case that interpretation is involved in driving, let’s say, moral lessons or an ethic from these biblical documents? 

David   

That’s absolutely true. I think it’s interesting to see where you have these fragments of Jesus material that have been circulating orally or in writing, maybe, you know, for three or four decades and then they start getting written down. And when they get written down, the fragments get assembled in different ways, by different gospel writers, with in some cases different kinds of implications. And then you have specific examples of teachings that are different. Two of them that I think are fascinating is the teaching on divorce. Matthew has the porneia exception, which is no divorce except for porneia—whatever that means, right?  

30:00 

Sexual immorality is how it’s usually translated, but that itself is debated. And when Mark has that teaching Mark doesn’t say that. It’s just no divorce. So did Jesus…I mean, how wooden is it when people say, “Well, Jesus taught it one way in one audience and another way in another audience.” I don’t think so. I think it’s these authors working with the text, the material that they have, and interpreting it. Another interesting one is the teaching on forgiveness. I was doing some work on this recently. In Luke, the “70 times seven teaching,” you know, the “How often do we forgive? 77? Or 70 times seven?” But in Luke, it’s conditional upon repentance. We forgive 70 times seven if they repent. I think it’s the Matthew teaching doesn’t have that. So which is it? 

Pete   

Yeah. And when you think of, you know, gospel criticism, how it seems pretty clear to most scholars that Matthew and Luke are using Mark, but intentionally volitionally changing what they read probably because of the portrait they’re painting for their communities, which has ethical implications. 

David   

Yeah. So it’s interpretation—I would say all the way down, but all the way down gets to Jesus, the memory of Jesus, the fragments of tradition and teaching around Jesus that were, in fact, so memorable. But then it’s communities and individuals interpreting, and us interpreting them, and then us interpreting the—and all that across the generations. It’s an art form. We sometimes do it better, sometimes do it worse. A very human but a lovely process if you think about it, because here are people in Pennsylvania and in Ghana, and in Amsterdam today, attempting to study the Bible to figure out how to follow Jesus faithfully. And that wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been 2,000 years of other Christians doing that and passing forward a tradition of reflection that we are the heirs of. That’s something I say a lot in my writing: moral tradition matters. We don’t just read the Bible as if nobody else has ever interpreted it before. There are traditions of interpretation of all significant biblical texts, and we stand on the shoulders of those who have done those interpretations. And sometimes, by not even knowing that we are borrowing somebody’s interpretation, we make mistakes that we could prevent if we paid attention to the history of interpretation. 

Jared   

I think that’s a good segue, because I want to make sure we have a little bit of time to talk about how we read the Bible today, and how we have a Christian ethic today that can incorporate not just those traditions—and I think that is a really important understanding, even just for biblical interpretation in general, you know, not just for ethics or morality—that we’re all part of a long standing tradition. We don’t just go back to the text. That’s almost an impossibility at this point because of our own context and culture that we find ourselves in. But how do you incorporate modern understandings? And I’m thinking of, you know, advancements in psychology or neurobiology around ethics and morality, while staying true to a Christian ethic. And maybe in the background of the question is: I kind of grew up with this idea that those were separate, they were bifurcated, like—you can have a Christian ethic or you can have a secular ethic. And the secular ethic is going to assume things like evolution, and you know, and they’re going to do the sciency things. But a Christian ethic is going to just be based on the Bible. And that got confusing as I got older and started to kind of break down that binary a little bit. How do we integrate all these wonderful things that we’re learning while maintaining it as a Christian ethic? 

David   

One of the things I say in the book is that this question “how should we live?” is a general human question. I even say that it’s wired into us, like fundamentally. Something about the way human nature has evolved is that we’re all the time wired to ask, “What should I do? What should we do? What should we not do?” So I think that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were taught to separate ourselves from the general human quest and to know how to live. It goes back to the conflicts with science and evolution in the 19th century, but also a not very appealing spirit of Christian superiority. “We know the truth. They are desperate pagans, so we can’t listen to them. We can only listen to ourselves and our Bibles.”  

35:00 

And this cut us off from the general human quest to know—to know truth, to know reality, to learn new things, and to answer the question, “how should we live?” So I’ve argued, you know, more recently for a sense of Christian participation in the common human quest to know truth, to build a better world, to live in better ways on the planet. So I think we need to incorporate ethical insights from other moral traditions carefully, with a governing Christ-centeredness and everything we’ve talked about. And we do need to pay attention to the sciences. In fact, in ethics, just about every issue that matters, there’s a whole kind of body of scientific research that is relevant. That makes at least social ethics very interesting, always, but also complicated. Like, if you’re gonna write about economic ethics, you have to know something about economics. If you’re going to deal with climate change, you have to know something about climate change. If you’re gonna deal with abortion, you got to know something about, you know, cell biology in the human developmental process.  

Pete   

[Sarcastically] That’s some pretty radical thinking there, David. 

David   

Think about that. If you’re gonna write about LGBTQ issues, you need to know something about human sexuality and how it works, and gender identity and so on. You know, in the Christian college paradigm kind of the way for a while we thought this was to be done was, we have the truth, we listen cautiously to those scientists out there, and we cull through it and maybe take what we can and tell them where their worldview is distorting their thinking. I’m not too high on that approach right now, again, because I think it’s prideful and too closed. But I think wherever there is valuable truth to be culled or assessed or integrated into moral reflection, we need our experts, I think, to help us go there. And just in general, everyday people can, if we can do just some basic research, we can learn some things that can inform our moral vision today. 

Jared   

You know, some of the examples you were giving there, I think leads pretty easily and directly into a conversation around—that I think is quite relevant right now—this idea that, you know, the separation of church and state here in the US that is kind of laughable in some ways. I think we sort of pride ourselves on separation of church and state and that line is pretty non-existent a lot of times. How does this work out where we can advocate for our ethical vision as Christians without legislating a particular Christian ethic? Because I think that’s a difficult line for some Christians, to sort of figure out how can we advocate for, vote for, push for policy that’s based on our particular Christian ethic while maintaining this separation of church and state? 

David   

This is a really good example of ethics and practice. So it’s a good experiment ground, you might say. One thing to be said is that the Bible is a very complicated source when you deal with modern politics and policy because there’s not a democratic bone in the Bible’s body, you might say. It’s this ancient world, you know, it’s theocracy and tribal confederation and Roman Empire and so on. So the Bible can be misleading, even actively problematic, if you are just reading your politics off of the Bible, there’s not much democracy there. And I think Christian authoritarianism, even as we have it today, is partly fed by proof texting from the Bible. So that’s one thing. So you need a deeper theology of the Church, of the mission of the Church, which I describe in Introducing Christian Ethics as “proclaiming and seeking to embody the reign of God.” This includes living according to and publicly articulating our core moral principles like justice and love, offering service to our neighbors, seeking the common good, and bearing witness to kingdom values. I don’t believe in separatism. I do think the Christians have something to say, to bear witness to into the public arena. But I think there’s reason to set limits on that, out of respect for the fact that at least in America, we live in a pluralistic, democratic rule of law, religiously disestablished context in which Jesus is not in our Constitution and Christians are not the official religion of the state, and that’s a good thing. So we also have a theology of the state that is available from Romans 13 and elsewhere, in which, you know, God gives us states to, you know, to keep order and pursue the common good and do justice.  

40:00 

And so we ask the state to do its job, we remember what our job is, and where they overlap we try to work cooperatively where that’s possible. But we don’t try to create a theocracy. I think a lot of Christians are totally confused about this. 

Jared   

Can you define what theocracy is? Because you used that earlier, and I think maybe people understand it, but they don’t know that word. 

David   

A society in which the king is God, and in which the political—like the Constitution or the laws say that God is king of this country, basically. Yeah. So we don’t have that in this country, it was explicitly intentionally rejected. A democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So I think that a factor here is that in the United States, there have always been some people, always some Christians who did not accept the disestablishment of religion. They sure wish Jesus was written into the Constitution. And if they could get politicians to agree with them, they would do that now. But others have been inflamed by a sense of, you know, “the liberals have taken over,” you know, “all of our values have been rejected.” And so it’s kind of a reaction to what they understand to be the enemy and enemy values. And without much of a sense of any self constraint on attempting to impose those on other people. 

Pete   

Yeah. Well, maybe we have time, Jared, for one more question at this point. Yeah, let’s end with this. And we’re broadening the circle out a little bit further. How, in your opinion, how does a Christian ethic prepare us to be good world citizens? Or should it? I mean, you know, I don’t mean to dichotomize here, but—let me just—yeah, leave it at that. Does the Christian ethic prepare us to be good world citizens? Define good world citizens anyway you want to. 

David   

I think that yes, a Christian ethic should prepare us to be good world citizens. What I hear there is constructive participants in not just the church and not just the nation, but the global community of, what is it, 7.5 billion people? The world that God loves. The creation that God loves. And all the human beings and creatures that God loves. And we are a part of this world, and we need to have a loving presence within this world. Not a hostile, angry presence. Not hunkered down, and “you’re the enemy, and we’re not going to let you corrupt us” presence, but a presence for the kingdom of God, for love, for justice, for the dignity of all, and so on. And so yes, in my book After Evangelicalism I use the phrase “Christian humanism,” the provocative phrase, perhaps, but it’s not original to me. Christian humanism, for me, means that we take our place as Christian humans who care about all humans, as well as all creation, and we seek to love our neighbors. It’s not about gaining power for ourselves. It’s about giving ourselves away the way that Jesus did. And that’s my best shot at answering your question. I wish more Christians were taught that, even that aspiration to be good world citizens. 

Jared   

Yeah, I think that’s a great vision to end on, to think about ways where we might, again, use our Christian faith as an engine toward this broader love toward our neighbors globally, locally, and all in between. So thank you so much, David, for coming on and for educating us on how we can bring these worlds together, of a desire to be ethical and to be moral and to be good global citizens with the Bible, which again, for my tradition, sometimes those felt like they were in conflict. So thanks for giving us a way forward. 

David   

You’re very welcome. Thanks for the chance to be with you today. 

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight, audio engineer Dave Gerhart, Creative Director Tessa Stultz, marketing director Savannah Locke, and web developer Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening! [Jaunty outro music ends] 

Stephanie   

[Jauntry outro music plays] You just made it through another entire episode of the Bible for Normal People! Well done to you. And well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producers Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. So a big thanks to Amanda Oster, Travis Jantz, Leroy Prempeh, Peter and Mary Wall, Poul Mark, Cindy Dean, Tracy Roberts, Matthew Henry, Allison Knoll, and Geof Hileman. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/theBiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support. 

[Bloopers] 

Jared   

Alright. 

Pete   

Alrighty.  

Jared   

Yeah… 

Pete   

[Pete emits an enormous burp] Did you get that? 

Jared   

I did get it. 

Pete   

Did you get that? 

Jared   

I did. 

Pete   

Dave… 

Jared   

Dave’s gonna use it. 

Pete   

David, you are not permitted to use that. Yeah, I don’t care. 

Pete   

I’ll just say it was Jared. 

Jared   

Alright. 

Jared   

[Laughs] Keep the context. Keep the context. 

Pete   

[Laughs] 

[Beep to signal next blooper] 

Pete   

Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is Christian ethics [whistle sound from Pete’s mouth happens during the ‘s’ in ethics.] I just chirped with my teeth. I’m gonna do that again.  

Jared Byas   

Yeah, mhmm. 

Pete   

Ready, Dave? Dave, if you use that, I will kill you. I’m gonna—remember, I’m going to see you in June. I will end you. Okay. Anyway. 

[Beep to signal next blooper] 

Jared   

Yes. And David is professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and Chair of Christian Social—[stumbles over word]. Ugh I gotta try that again. 

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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