The Moral Sense of Scripture

St. James warns pithily that theological correctness is not a ticket to heaven when he writes: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.” (James 2:19).  He gets that pithiness from his cousin and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who says:

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Obedience to God, not mighty works–including mighty works of Correct Theology–is what will save us.

That means that, as important as a correct understanding of who Jesus is, it ‘s not enough.  After seeing Jesus clearly in Scripture, we have to make it our business to walk in his Way.  It’s not enough to know about Christ: we have to be like him.

For this reason, the Church has always looked in Scripture not merely for images of Christ, but for images of discipleship to Christ.  That is, it has always seen in Scripture a moral sense which shows us pictures of how the Christian life is supposed to look.

Of course, much of the moral sense is not exactly mysterious.  Scripture is replete with examples of straightforward natural law such as “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery”.  In addition, it has moral teaching which is not merely natural but supernatural, such as the command to love, not simply friends, but enemies as well.  All such didactic teaching is available to anybody able to read or listen to plain English (or Greek and Hebrew, as the case may be).

But in addition to the plain didactic moral teaching of the Bible there are other ways in which the moral teaching is communicated to us.  For Scripture is also filled with imagery as well as words.  Jesus, for instance, gave us, not a preachment on servant kingship but an icon when he wrapped a towel around his waist, took a basin and washed the filthy feet of the Apostles.  He gave us a picture.

The Holy Spirit does the same as he inspires the Old Testament.  Instead of homilies about the triumph of the faithful weak over the powerful of this world, Scripture shows us David and Goliath.  The temple becomes, for Paul, an image of the human body that must be kept holy and undefiled.  Warfare in the Old Testament (such as the conquest of the seven nations of Canaan by Joshua) becomes an image of our struggle to conquer the seven deadly sins under the command of our new captain, Jesus.  Physical beauty and ugliness become symbols of moral beauty and ugliness.

One of the difficulties with the moral sense of Scripture is that it is emphatically an example of the fact that revelation in Scripture is not static but developing.  Israelites commit acts which are clearly incompatible with the full revelation of Christ and the developed teaching of the Church.  The psalmist praises anybody who will smash a Babylonian baby’s head against a rock in vengeance for the sufferings of Israel in Babylon.  David promises to abstain from vengeance on his enemies, but then tells Solomon to rub them out after he dies.

There are three wrong ways to cope with this problem: 1) Ignore texts you don’t like; 2) Spiritualize the literal sense of the texts out of existence; and 3) Try to subordinate the New Testament to them.

A wiser approach, I think, is to recognize that biblical revelation is an unfolding revelation.  The Old Testament writers are growing in understanding.  Some talk, early on, as though there is no afterlife (for instance, Ecclesiastes).  Others have a murky notion of “sheol”, a sort of dim underworld.  The revelation of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory doesn’t become clear till the revelation of Christ.  Likewise, the understanding of punishment for sin tends to precede the understanding of mercy for sin.  David and the psalmist know something of justice.  It’s just that they don’t know everything.

That’s partly why Christ has come: to utter mysteries hidden since the foundation of the world and to make it possible for us to live those mysteries.  For without revelation, 99% of us would never dream of loving our enemies.  And without the help of the Holy Spirit, those who did would find it impossible to do.

Likewise, without revelation, we’d be as clueless about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory as the author of Ecclesiastes.  But we are not without that revelation, as we shall discuss next week.


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