When we as Christians approach ethics we want to do so from the perspective of the Bible and so we approach ethics through a theological lens and this theological lens includes both systematic theology (what the WHOLE Bible says about something) and Biblical Theology (the outworking of God’s plan from the historical perspective of God’s people). Clearly both of these ways of doing theology are interrelated: we cannot know the full meaning of a passage unless we know where it is located in God’s redemptive plan (different times have different contexts) and we also need to be informed by the rest of the Bible on that passage (sometimes the New Testament teaches us surprising truths about what Old Testament passages really mean). This blog post will be focusing on Biblical Theology and its relationship to Christian ethics (or theological ethics).
On the most basic level Biblical Theology is just the application of everyday common sense to interpreting the Bible. We all know that humans learn progressively throughout their lives and that there are different stages in human life. At one time it is appropriate to cry and urinate in diapers but yet at another point in time in human life it is no longer appropriate to do so. What then is the difference between the baby and the adult? The only difference is that the process of progressive learning has led the adult to growth and maturity that demands different forms of behaviours from that of babies. If one were to attempt to understand a baby based on its actions by interpreting those actions through what they would mean if a 50 year old man were doing the same thing would result in very serious misunderstandings. When a baby cries and won’t stop crying it may very well be hungry or thirsty. When a 50 year old man won’t stop crying it’s probably because of a mental breakdown or a tragic event in his life. If a mother were to assume that the baby were having a mental breakdown because it won’t stop crying then that mother might be inclined to take the baby to a therapist or possibly to a pastor for counselling. Seeing as common sense demands that we do not expect from babies things that they have not learned then it is only common sense that when we come to scripture that we do not expect people earlier on in the progressive plotline of the Bible to be aware of things that they have had no exposure to. Also, we would expect God to be wiser than the mother who brings her baby to the therapist – God would talk to people on a level of understanding that they have rather discuss topics they cannot comprehend and expect them to act on information they do not have.
The principle we have seen is that God will talk to people on a level they can understand and deal with them according to what has been revealed and not according what has not been revealed. When we take this principle of every day common sense and come to the Bible we see a variety of ways in which we are then forced to view the texts we are looking at. We see that God does not explain complex redemptive historical concepts to people who have no background for understanding them but instead He slowly reveals truth through types and forms of the real thing that build a basis for understanding the greater complex through and then He explains it; the sacrificial system pointing to Christ. So when we come to scripture we have to look at the text in the context of what the original hearers would have been able to comprehend. For example, when the people of Israel are the only ones who are God’s people then the name “Israel” is also a term that can mean the entirety of God’s people and “gentiles” are a term for all non-Jews and also at the time is synonymous for unbelievers. We must keep these categories in mind when we read Old Testament scriptures such as Joel that tells of salvation being available for gentiles but yet then using Israel as a term for all believers and gentiles as a term for unbelievers who will not be spared judgment.
Plots in movies are progressive and their layout in the building of the story line is usually essential to understanding the movie itself. If we take a movie, cut it in to one thousand pieces, and then randomly put it back together we will have gibberish that makes no sense instead of an entertaining story. When we come to scripture we see a story and the progressive layout of the story is relevant to understanding the lesson from the story. Abraham is justified through believing what God promises and is given promises of being given a land to dwell it and to be a blessing to the nations of the earth prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. The importance of this is the fact that Abraham was counted righteous before God simply through faith before there circumcision was given to him and so the circumcision was not the cause of God approval of Abraham but rather the result of God’s approval of Abraham because of Abraham’s faith. The Apostle Paul picks up the importance of the chronology of the events when in chapter 4 of Romans he tells us that God intended the layout of events to make Abraham the father of all who believe apart from circumcision. One of the large issues in Paul’s day was that there were people who insisted that before someone could be saved they first had to be circumcised – the chronology of events in the life of Abraham proves otherwise. Just as there is purpose in the progressive plotline of a movie so to there is purpose in the progressive events that happen in scripture and ignoring this will result in making similar mistakes to the people of Paul’s day who wanted Christians to be circumcised.
So when we come to a text it is best for us to not only compare it to other texts in the Bible but also seek to see where it fits in the storyline and what such placement means for how we should interpret the text. The process may be long and require much study and contemplation but does God deserve any less from His people than for them to strive to understand and obey His revealed will?