Monday, May 07, 2007

A concession to hard-hearted wickedness

Matthew 19:1-9
After Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went southward to the region of Judea and into the area east of the Jordan River. Vast crowds followed him there, and he healed their sick. Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: "Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for any reason?" "Haven't you read the Scriptures?" Jesus replied. "They record that from the beginning `God made them male and female.' And he said, `This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together." "Then why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?" they asked. Jesus replied, "Moses permitted divorce as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery--unless his wife has been unfaithful."

What sense do you make of this passage from the standpoint of biblical inerrancy? Jesus is claiming that some things which are part of the Jewish law which are not just, but which are nonetheless part of the law as concessions to human hard-hearted wickedness. If this is compatible with inerrancy, then this seems to open up a way for an inerrantist to maintain that slavery is morally wrong.


Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Disclaimer: I am not in the usual sense an inerrantist. Meaning that I think that everything in Scripture is true but not necessarily factual.

As I imagine anyone reading your blog knows, the Law has several faces, several "codes" that are intertwined in the Torah: a moral code, a "code of ritual cleanliness," a sacrificial code, etc. The rules concerning divorce and slavery are part of the moral code.

When Jesus says -- that some of it is a "concession to your hard-hearted wickedness," I think the point is that this is the absolute moral bottom line, nothing below this point is even barely acceptable.

This makes sense in context with Paul's saying that the Law cannot justify, it can only condemn. The law sets a bogey: if you depend on the Law, you have to meet all three standards (cleanliness, sacrifice, and morality); failure in any of these areas is condemnation.

Well before the coming of Jesus, the Prophets had made very clear that the moral code was the most important of the three -- "I do not desire your sacrifices," and all that.

The "Council of Jerusalem" set aside most of the code of cleanliness, and all of the code of sacrifice. Even this was conservative, for with Christ, we move beyond "codes" to Spirit.

In-spired, indwelt by the breath/spirit/wind of God, we are to live not by Law but by Love. The Commandments on which all else hangs are "Love God, love your neighbor as yourself," a triune description of perfect Love that structurally resembles the three religious virtues and the three Persons of the Trinity:

Perfect love of God - Faith - Father
Perfect love of self - Hope - Son
Perfect love of neighbor - Charity - Spirit

(or something like that). The point being, that we are no longer to aim at a minimum level but as high as possible, to attempt to "be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect." Failure is forgiven in advance, but failure to try is unforgivable because it does not seek forgiveness. ("I am not and will never be perfect, but I can choose to live in the service of perfection." -- R. Fripp)

So if the moral laws represent a moral minimum, then we need to ask again and again how we can do better than those laws. Divorce is a concession to hard-hearted wickedness? Surely we must aim not to be hard-hearted or wicked; then divorce becomes a failure.

The example of divorce, then, shows us that not everything permitted by the Law is perfect, is an instantiation of love. Looking at the laws of slavery, we ask, are these perfect? Are they instantiations of Love? And I think the answer is a clear negative.

Mike Darus said...

Inerrancy does not require that the moral codes in the Bible must be of the highest development at all stages in history. It permits a progressive revelation of morality. Abraham did not have the benefit of the laws of Deuteronomy. If one permits a progressive revelation of morality so that standards can be tightened up, then there is no errancy issue in the permissive language concerning slavery and adultery.

Mike Darus said...

I didn't finish...
The value of the historic moral code frozen in history is not measured by how much worse it is than what we may practice now, it must be measured by how much better it is making the situation. Mosaic regulations concerning slavery did not legitimize the practice, it limited the cruelty. Eliminating slavery in the ancient world was too much too soon.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...


Progressive revelation is not why I am not in inerrantist. It is because I do not believe in 7-day creation, that Israel had two simultaneous divergent lines of kings, or that pi equals 3 (as the Molten Sea would require).