‘Biblical values’ not easy to define

Published 8:10 am Sunday, May 26, 2019


Contributing columnist

What are biblical values? That title kick-started at least one Bible scholar to teach a new course and then write a new book titled, “What Are Biblical Values?” His subtitle is “What the Bible Says about Key Ethical Issues,” and his readers should be prepared to be surprised.

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The scholar is John Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. The kick-start came during the election of 2016, when he heard an ad urging listeners to vote according to “biblical values.” When he learned what the alleged values were, he had questions and began a new course, which has now issued in his new book.

According to Collins, “A lot of people in antiquity and in modern times have assumed their traditional values are in the Bible. But if you actually read it, they are not.” One recent “easy and unfounded application of scripture to political viewpoints” that he cites is former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ June 2018 defense of the administration’s family separation policies as reflecting the “biblical view of Romans 13 (obedience to authority).” Many Pauline scholars knew better.

Where Collins spends his time is on the split in the churches over biblical values.  For conservatives, he finds, “biblical values” tend to focus on abortion and homosexuality, along with same sex marriage.  On the liberal side, the focus is apt to be concern for the environment and social justice. His question is not about whether these issues are important or not, but about whether they are “biblical values.” (My next column will look current abortion ban debate in this light.)

Beginning with abortion, Collins finds that the Bible says nothing on the topic. Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has said that she has never seen “a more Biblical president than President Trump” because of his pro-life stance (which now turns out not to support abortion bans). Abortion decisions warrant serious moral attention, but not due to Bible rules.

The Bible simply does not address rights, as in a right to life. It has commandments about not killing persons, but in the Old Testament, says Collins, “the penalty for almost everything is death.” There is no absolute prohibition of the death penalty.

On the matter of gender, Collins acknowledges two verses in Leviticus prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex, but homosexuality otherwise is very seldom mentioned. The priestly authors of Leviticus are concerned with “improper mixing” — intermarriage with non-Israelites, sowing a field with two kinds of seeds, wearing a garment made of two kinds of material, and assumption of a passive female sexual role by a supposedly superior male. In the New Testament, Jesus does not mention it; and two mentions from Paul’s writing are focused in one instance on homosexual practices connected with idol worship and in another on adult men and boys.

On the environment, Collins points out that the Old Testament sometimes gets bad press because of the references in Genesis 1 to subduing the earth and having dominion over it.

“On the whole,” however, “the ethos of the Old Testament is to preserve the earth.”  He cites references to letting the soil rest in the seventh year, not cutting down trees unnecessarily, and leaving the mother bird to live when taking an egg.

On the issue of social justice, Collins regards it as the most compelling reason to cite the Bible.  He writes, “For me, social justice is the central biblical value. In both the Old Testament and New Testament, how you treat your fellow human beings is fundamental.”

One recalls that some representatives of the extreme religious right have been known to label references to social and economic justice by church leaders as code words for fascism and communism.

Since the scripture of no religious tradition enjoys constitutional status in our American democracy, arguing on behalf of “biblical values” should not settle questions in public political discourse. Supporters of social justice causes, for example, need to muster other support than the citation of verses from the Bible or the scriptures of other religions. Moral concerns growing out of religious traditions should be voiced in the public square, but we need to make arguments that are intelligible and convincing to people of other religious traditions, or none.

There is still another question surrounding “biblical values” that needs attention, and Collins does not disappoint his readers. What do we do with issues on which the Bible does not speak with one voice or with “biblical values” that need to be rejected?

Regarding the role and status of women, advocates of the subordination of women have been able to cite Bible verses for support. Defenders of gender equality have also claimed biblical support while opposing the patriarchy and subordination pervading the cultures that produced biblical writings. Which biblical values should people support? And why?

What about the “biblical value” of slavery? We are embarrassed today by the support by some of our forebears of slavery on biblical grounds. Liberation from oppression and deliverance to captives are also pivotal biblical themes, but history is littered with the willingness of religious leaders to defend oppressive status quos. If we care about “biblical values,” we need to learn to read with a knowledgeable and critical eye.

For one more example, what about the use of violence? History is also littered with the casualties of holy wars or crusades. The earliest understanding of their God by the Israelite ancestors was as a war lord. There is scriptural support for demonizing enemies, as well as for loving even one’s enemies and blessing those who curse you. One can cite “biblical values” in support of both conscientious objection to participation in war and conscientious participation.

Collins has done us a service if we give him a hearing. Calling something a “biblical value” may not be correct. If it is correct, it may not be right.  If it is right, believers need to make their case in the public square with more than the quotation of verses from scripture.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.