moralizing vs. theologizing

when reading the Bible,

by James A. Sanders

March 3, 2019

I have for some thirty years, at least, told my students on the first day of class to stop moralizing while reading the Bible, but instead learn to theologize while doing so. That is, do NOT first ask of a text what we should do but rather ask what the text indicates God was doing and has done, that is, to theologize first.

A basis for this “rule” was Martin Luther’s hermeneutic of textual analysis, res et argumentum. Res for Luther was the Gospel and argumentum all else, that is, that in Scripture which derives from the customs and culture of the period of a biblical text was secondary to the passages which laid forth the Gospel, especially God’s work in Christ but also God’s prior work as divulged in Scripture. Both passages we have looked at from I Corinthians (14:33b-35 and 11:2ff.) demonstrate the importance of this rule for both reflect the customs of the period in the Greco-Roman world that Paul and his churches lived in—the place of women in the churches should be what it was in the Greco-Roman world of the time. This moralizing practice in Paul’s advice to this churches was very similar to the moralizing practices in the Iron to Persian Eras in which the First Testament took shape. To moralize in reading such passages today is but to lock in ancient truths that have become uncouth even in fundamentalist-type churches today and simply ignore those passages that do not fit what current social culture and customs demand, but stress those passages which fit the social customs of the situation of such churches. The Bible has been martialed through its history to support what the reader(s) wanted to support—all the way back to the Persian and Hellenistic periods when most of the Bible was stabilized and passed down. But God’s story (“God’s Spell”=Gospel) is eternal, while human stories are lived out limited to specific cultural and moral frameworks.

On the contrary, if we theologize on reading the Bible we emphasize and celebrate what God has done to liberate human beings wherever they live. In the case of the passages from I Corinthians in which Paul demands the women in the Corinthian church live and act like the best of the general society of the first century in Corinth, Paul wants the women there to act “normally” according the mores of their place and time so that the “gospel” could be heard without hindrance. That puts the stress on the gospel and what Paul preached about what God had done and was doing in their time. To see what that was one must read the whole of the epistle and indeed the whole of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel. The answer lies in I Cor 10:31-11:1 for the one passage and I Cor 14:1 for the other. The Corinthian church especially was noted for believing that it lived in “the resurrection” and was living it up in glory. Paul’s morals for that church were almost rigidly those of the society around it which Paul wanted to be able to hear the Gospel without hindrance so that the members of the church would stop their loose morals. Paul’s rules set forth in I Cor 1:9-10 were almost verbatim the best of morality of the Greco-Roman world. But Paul was surely not advising such “moral tables of conduct” for all time, but rather for his time in the Corinthian church.

The tremendous and lasting value of the Bible and its primary demand is its launching of the monotheizing process. This in effect is a basic attempt to obey Jesus’ first commandment (love God and neighbor) and the first of the Decalogue itself. The Shema’ says that we should love God with all our heart (how we think), with all our soul, that is, nephesh (or self with all its desires and appetites), and with all our might (or possessions, whatever power we think we have during our short stay from birth to death). This means, at least, that when we read a biblical text we should first ask what it indicates God has done according to the biblical story and then thereupon ask what we should do: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (I Cor 11:1). The point is that we should recite the gospel story of what God has done first and out of that decide what we should do (Micah 6:1-8).

Then thereafter, should we ask what that reading indicates we should do. This in effect amounts to ethics being based on the gospel, that is, what God has done according to the biblical story. We should first read the biblical text seeking out of it what God was doing with humans in the historical contexts and situations of the time of the formation of that text. Then after perceiving clearly what God has done should we then discern what we should do, that is, go and do likewise (Matt 5:48). Or, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Philippi, we should “have the mind in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). And that mind for Jews of the time was “Torah thinking,” that is, God’s way of thinking (Isa 55:9) no matter how difficult it might seem. [See “A Disciple in Damascus” in BTB 2017]

Use Micah 6:1-8 as a first text example. We should first recite God’s “mighty acts” (6:4-5) then figure out what we should do (6:6-8) within the parameters of the human situation.

Then use Genesis 50:20 (50:15-21). To moralize first would be to think that since selling a brother into slavery worked so well then “let’s sell some more brothers into slavery.” But no, the text says we should act like God (be “perfect”) to the extent it is possible, that is, try to figure out from the Joseph Story what we should do. [Cf “Joseph Our Brother” in God Has A Story Too] To theologize would mean that celebrating what God did in that story means we should learn that even when humans make slaves of their fellow humans God can convert that dastardly deed into a blessing, and we should recognize that making slaves of any fellow human is a sin that only God can forgive but that God can turn into a blessing despite our evil intention.

To moralize first in reading a biblical text would in effect mean accepting ancient Iron Age to Hellenistic Age morals and ethics as divinely condoned for all time. But the Bible itself provides how ancient laws become uncouth and are updated in later laws (the laws made in “The Book of the Covenant” are changed in the Deuteronomic laws), and so provides canonical ways and means of updating biblical laws today.

Read Isaiah 28:16 and explain how God could take an Assyrian siege stone and convert it into a blessed cornerstone of a new foundation. Focus on the hermeneutic question in reading the passage. Then stress how all the prophets monotheized in teaching that the god of Israel’s enemy was also Israel’s god--the lesson of all the “true prophets,” or, the monotheizing process.

Then finally use Isa 45:1 and how evangelicals moralize in citing its calling Cyrus, king of Persia, to apply to Trump, but how monotheizing it celebrated how Israel’s savior was not Israelite, but a Persian (Iranian), an unbelieving foreigner, that is, celebrating God as God of All just as the pre-exilic prophets said that the God of Israel was also the God of their enemies.

One example from the Gospels will suffice. In Luke 7:36-50 an Episcopal, I mean Pharisaic, host sees how Jesus accepted the loving gift of a prostitute as evidence of her faith as, on the contrary, as his approving of prostitution. The passage is clearly centered on Jesus’ self-understanding as the Herald (Luke 4:16-30) of God’s Jubilee Year, and Jesus’ acceptance of the woman’s gift as a gesture of genuine love of God.

Finally, to theologize on reading the Bible means celebrating God’s grace in converting human evil into divine blessing in any age.

This principle was expressed by the medieval church fathers in the expression: errore hominum providentia divina=God’s grace works through human sinfulness. One might well say that if that were not so, God wouldn’t have much to do on this particular planet. Yet, if one moralizes on even that principle it might induce folk to believe that they might as well sin some more so that God’s grace would have more to work with. Paul dealt with the issue firmly in his clear advice given in Romans 6:11: “Shall we sin the more that grace may the more abound?” Absolutely NOT, was his answer!

All biblical literature must be read not only in its full literary context (all of the Corinthian letter or the Roman letter), but also in its full historical (culture and moral) context in antiquity.