dianoigo blog

Monday 27 May 2019

Moral Theology vs. "What the Bible Says"

Over the years I have observed, in discourse amongst Christians, a certain approach taken to moral questions that arise, say in a Bible study group or an online discussion, along the lines of, "Is it wrong to x?" or, "Is it okay to x?" where x is a particular behaviour or practice. In my experience, I have often seen the question rephrased, either by the questioner or someone else, in the form, "What does the Bible say about x?" In this brief (by my standards) article, I will argue that this approach to constructing Christian morality, which on its face appears ideal, is problematic, and that thoroughgoing moral theology is better.

The question, "What does the Bible say about x?" implicitly makes direct biblical witness—what the Bible does or does not say about x—the definitive criterion for answering the original right-or-wrong question. An obvious difficulty is that there are numerous behaviours of contemporary relevance—e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, gambling, masturbation, smoking marijuana, cremation, contraception, cloning, physician-assisted suicide, littering, polluting—about which the Bible has little or nothing to say directly. If we take same-sex relationships as a (particularly controversial) case in point, there are about half a dozen passages that together form the crux interpretum for those debating the 'biblical' point of view. In the equally heated debates over abortion, there are even fewer texts that directly bear on the matter. On numerous other issues mentioned above, the Bible is completely silent.

Christians taking the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality often disagree on both the meaning and relevance of the salient passages (if there are any). There is inevitably a "No" camp (those who hold behaviour x to be forbidden) and a "Yes" camp (those who hold behaviour x to be permissible, or at least subject to personal freedom of conscience). However, both sides of the debate often appear to presuppose that a binding conclusion on the goodness or wickedness of behaviour x can be reached only if the Bible makes an explicit statement on the matter. The Bible's silence is equated with God's silence, and in a civilisation in which personal liberty and autonomy are paramount values, God's silence is understood as his signal that each individual is free to arrive at a personal position and behave accordingly. This is why the "No" camp clings doggedly to a handful of proof-texts that they assert are airtight and unambiguous (to overcome the force of personal autonomy), while the "Yes" camp is often content to merely cast reasonable doubt on the "No" proof-texts (more specifically, by pointing to ambiguities in exactly what behaviour is being forbidden, or disputing whether the prohibition is still in force). If God's will concerning behaviour cannot be discerned with the explicitness of a "Thus says the Lord," it is safer to refer the matter to the court of personal autonomy.

Serious problems with the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality should be apparent to the reader. For one, by limiting the scope of God's revealed moral law to direct biblical testimony on specific behaviours (prescriptions and proscriptions), we are handcuffed—perhaps even God is handcuffed—from making decisive judgments, and speaking as Christians with collective conviction, on a large number of relevant moral issues. The church, endued with heavenly authority to "bind and loose," seems only to be able to hand its members slipknots, which they may pull or not as they see fit. The "Yes" camp seems to have overlooked the possibility that God's will concerning behaviour x might be discernible even in the absence of a direct biblical commandment or precedent. Meanwhile, the "No" camp entrenches itself behind proof-texts and becomes almost obsessively concerned with behaviour x as the moral battleground for the present generation. Their opposition to behaviour x strikes others as pedantic and mean-spirited because the "No" camp seems to oppose it simply because "the Bible tells me so" and not as part of a holistic, coherent moral framework. "The Bible says you can't do x," moreover, is likely not the best formula for proclaiming the Good News.

If "What does the Bible say about x?" is not a sound approach to discerning the will of God, what is the alternative? It is moral theology. Mostly, but not exclusively, associated with the Catholic Church, moral theology can be defined as
That branch of Theology which states and explains the laws of human conduct in reference to man's supernatural destiny, the vision and fruition of God. As a science, it investigates the morality of human acts, that is, the moral good and the moral evil in conduct in relation to man's ultimate end.1
The difference between moral theology and the approach criticised above does not lie in the authority assigned to Scripture. The Catholic Church holds Sacred Scripture to be divinely inspired and infallible, biblical interpretation plays an indispensable role in moral theology, and indeed the Ten Commandments are the rubric within which Catholic moral theology is usually expressed (as, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Rather, what distinguishes moral theology from "What does the Bible say about x?" is, firstly, that moral theology draws on resources other than revelation, such as philosophy (especially natural law) and science; and, secondly, moral theology does not seek a "Yes/No" judgment on the morality of a behaviour as an end in itself, but only in relation to humankind's ultimate purpose, as ordained by the Creator. Moral theology first posits underlying aspects of the human condition, such as free will, knowledge, responsibility, and sin. It defines virtues and vices. It sets the moral law concerning specific aspects of human life (e.g., sexuality) within their divinely intended purpose. These features of moral theology enable the Church—not by her own strength but under the direction of the Holy Spirit—to arrive at sound, authoritative judgments concerning the rightness or wrongness of specific behaviours, even when those behaviours are not directly addressed in the Bible.

We might summarise by saying that, whereas the "What does the Bible say?" approach to morality is concerned primarily with the what of right and wrong, moral theology is concerned with the why, convinced that God's law is not arbitrary or helter-skelter but rational, coherent, and compelling. If you want to see Catholic moral theology at its best, read the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Human Life") of Pope Paul VI (1968), which set out the Catholic Church's (much-maligned) teaching concerning contraception. The document makes no attempt to claim that the Bible says anything directly concerning contraception, and does not address contraception as one more isolated moral issue, but places it in the context of a coherent theology of human sexuality, oriented toward the divinely ordained purpose of human life itself—hence the choice of title.

I must say in closing that I have used the "What does the Bible say about x?" approach to morality as a foil, knowing full well that there is not a sharp dichotomy between this approach and moral theology, but rather a continuum. Many Christians who make this question their starting-point for investigating a moral issue still attempt to situate the behaviour in question in relation to more fundamental moral-theological concepts, and to arrive at general principles of conduct rather than merely a list of dos and do nots. In like manner, moral theologians are not averse to seeking direct biblical testimony concerning a particular behaviour. Even where the Bible is crystal clear on the "what" of morality, though, moral theology helps to illuminate the "why," which is equally important. There are too many Christians making arguments like, "Behaviour x is wrong, because the Bible says it is, end of discussion," or, conversely, "The Bible says nothing about behaviour x, and therefore it is permissible," or, "therefore, it is subject to personal freedom of conscience." The antidote to this muzzling of the will of God is moral theology.


  • 1 Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology: A Summary (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), 1.