How can we apply the first Testament laws today? This is an important issue for Christian social issues and one I hope to go some way to answering by examining the Bible’s attitude to slavery. This is particularly relevant today with the Stop the Traffik campaign in its infancy.
The issue of slavery provides a poignant example of how our world-and-life view influences our interpretation of scripture. In the nineteenth century there was a lively debate among Christians about the ethics of slavery: “to argue against slavery in 1850 was to argue the inspiration and inerrancy of the authorative word of God” (Swartley 1983, p199). It is immediately apparent that those who strongly opposed the abolition of slavery were those who stood to benefit directly from it. The Quaker John Woolman claimed that:
The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable” (cited in Swartley 1983, p55)
In using the scripture for self-justification they failed to let themselves be confronted by the text and let the scriptures affect their prior assumptions. If the scriptures are to have more than a paper authority we should approach them with the full knowledge that we have our presuppositions and be willing for the scriptures to challenge them. This much we can learn from the nineteenth-century slave owners.
The issue of slavery is hermeneutical rather than exegetical, that is, it is a matter of interpretation rather than an explanation of certain texts. The Old Testament does on the face of it present a good case for slavery (see especially Lev 25:4446). But then other Old Testament texts suggest we should adhere to strict dietary laws (Lev 11:1-21) and stone blasphemers (Lev 24:14) - who would advocate these commands for today? There have been several ways that Christians have responded to the accusation that the Old Testament supports slavery today. I shall briefly examine six of them.
1. The scriptures are wrong
This is the approach of R. H. Preston (1976); he accuses the scriptures of being wrong in its attitude not only to slavery but also women, capital punishment and homosexuality. This response is wholly inadequate for several reasons: (i) it is arbitrary; who is to say which part of the scriptures is correct and which part wrong? If it is wrong over these issues might not it also be wrong over Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection? (ii) It is a response that is shaped by cultural forces;
2. Cultural distance
Denis Nineham (1976) suggests that we cannot understand the scriptures - and hence its approach to slavery - because of the cultural distance between us and Old Testament times. We cannot understand the Bible author’s world, because we are too far removed from it, therefore we cannot hope to interpret what they wrote. Nineham is right in pointing out the problem of cultural distance; interpreting the scriptures is not a trivial task. But yet the difference between the two horizons, the text’s and the reader’s, are not insurmountable as Thiselton (1980) has shown.
There are, of course, discontinuities between”
3. Dividing the law
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD) first made the distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral aspects of the Law (Kaiser 1983,p412); hence civil and ceremonial - which would include slavery - would not be binding for us today, whereas the moral would. This division is arbitrary and artificial. Christopher Wright (drawing upon Anthony Phillips) divides the Law into: criminal, civil, family, cultic and charitable (Wright 1983, p151ff). Over-riding any categorisation we need to recall that all the ‘Law is God’s law’ (Wright 1983, p159).
Another similar approach is to divide the law into legislative and creation material (Kaye 1976, p8). The legislative material is concerned with the maintenance of the cult and part of the structure of the covenant, its context is
This is a view articulated by Gordon Wenham when he states “slave laws are steps being taken towards the elimination of slavery, towards a world where all men are equal and free” (Wenham 1986, pl0). God presents his laws in instalments, slowly moving to the ideal.
If we unreservedly accept this view, then an unacceptable implication follows: the authority of the text is dependent upon Jesus undermines this when he talked about divorce, he based his arguments on the early creation narratives (Mk 10:1-6, cf Gen 2)
5. Condescension: accommodating the fall
It is important to remember that we live in a world tainted by the fall, hence Jesus explains that the divorce laws were for “your hardness of hearts” (Mk 10:1-6). The Old Testament laws reflect the sinfulness of humanity (Goldingay 1985, p2); they reflect the way the world is, not the way it should be. The Old Testament laws seek to “make slavery work with as little injustice as (Goldingay 1981, p59).
The problems with this principle of condescension are twofold (i) why then does God give us ideal standards? and (ii) it could open up the door to further depravity (Nicole 1985, p5)
An approach developed by Chris Wright (1983, pp40-45; 1984) sees
These different approaches are not of course mutually exclusive. The first approach for those who hold to the authority of the scriptures is unacceptable; but the rest, to varying degrees contain elements of the truth. Nineham’s approach in the extreme is ludicrous but it does serve to remind us that the scripture does have its own context and any responsible interpretation must take that into account. It is to the problem of context that I will examine in part 2.
Richard Bauckham The Bible and Politics (SPCK/Third Way, 1988).
Steve Bishop “Towards a biblical view of environmental care” Evangel 7 (1989) 7-8.
Hans Jochen Boecker Law and the Administration of Justice in
Old Testament and Ancient East (SPCK,1980).
David A Clines “The image of God in man” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968) 53-103 .
John Goldingay Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation (IVP, 1981)
Joh Goldingay “Divine ideals, human stubborness, and scriptutural innerancy” Transformation 2 (4) (1985) 1-4.
E W Heaton Everyday. Life in Old Testament Times (Batsford,1956).
WaIter C Kaiser Toward Old Testament Ethics (Academie, 1983).
Bruce Kaye Using the Bible in Ethics (Grove Booklets no 13, 1976).
Roger Nicole “A response to John goldingay” Transformation 2 (4)
Denis Nineham Use and Abuse of the Bible (Macmillan, 1976).
Dale Patrick Old Testament Law (SCM, 1985).
J A Soggin Amos (SCM, 1987).
Willard M Swartley Slavery, Sabbath, Women and War (Herald Press, 1983)
A C Thiselton The Two Horizons (Paternoster, 1980).
J P M Van det- Ploog “Slavery in the Old Testament” Vestus Testament Suppl. vol 22 (1972) 72-87
Brian Walsh Subversive Christianity (Regius Press, 1990)
Gordon Wenham “The perplexing Pentateuch” Vox Evangelica XVII (1987) 7-21.
D Winton Thomas (ed.,) Documents from Old testament Times (Nelson 1958)