Does the Bible “endorse” or “condemn” cultural institutions?

Critics of the Bible contend that it tacitly endorses harmful institutions like slavery, polygamy, leviration, the subjugation of women, ritualistic violence, and war. Few would deny that, on the surface at least, Bible texts provide a great deal of ammunition for such critiques. A popular Christian apologetic response, however, claims that the Bible cannot technically endorse anything sinful, and that, interpreted in the proper context, it actually condemns these institutions with divine authority. A rather empty expression of this assertion has been popping up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds in the form of this cartoon, but it has been argued with more dilligence and plausibility by apologist pastors like Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. For most evangelicals, this has become “common wisdom,” something everyone should know about how to read the Bible correctly. But does this truly and effectively answer the criticism? Is it clear from a plain and honest reading that the Bible denounces institutions like slavery and polygamy? The answer, like the Bible itself, is rather complex.

The Bible is fundamentally polyvocal, meaning that it is comprised of many diverse perspectives collected together. Interpretive communities (like churches and denominations) may emphasize certain thematic threads and choose to recognize these as a unifying divine “voice,” but the uninterpreted texts remain undeniably diverse and no two Christian interpreters have read every passage in the library in the same way. The problem with claims that the Bible “endorses” or “condemns” an idea or institution is that they typically sidestep the admittedly difficult work of interacting honestly with the various voices represented therein. While I personally believe it is possible to discover within the Bible an inspired trajectory away from harmful human systems and institutions, it is simply less than honest to say that the whole Bible explicitly and uniformly condemns them.

“Biblical” Marriage?

Marriage provides an interesting test case. In the Hebrew Bible polygamy is the norm and the ancient Israelites practice a form of levirate marriage in which a man’s brother is expected to marry and reproduce with his widow. Tim Keller has famously argued that the Genesis stories represent an implicit condemnation of these practices, since they yield chaotic results in every generation. There was a time when I found this response compelling and even echoed it in my own writing and teaching, but now I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it is a distinctly modern maneuver which projects our type of sensibility onto an ancient text. These institutions are absurd from our vantage point, but in the world which produced the Bible they were mundane. That’s not to say that the authors of scripture would refrain from decrying something just because it was familiar (prophets often passionately denounce the status quo). However, the Bible stories in question never explicitly censure the marriage practices of the patriarchs and, moreover, other texts that do address and regulate marriage for the Israelite community neither criticize nor prohibit polygamy or levirate marriage. In fact, by regulating these institutions the Torah laws (said to come directly from the mouth of God) might be said to affirm them. Later, in the New Testament, there are strong hints that a form of monogamous marriage has become culturally normative, though there is no formal repudiation of polygamy from any figure or author. Both Paul and Jesus seem to favor celibacy but acknowledge marriage as a fitting compromise for those with sexual inclinations.

Looking at this brief survey, can we say with confidence that the Bible either “condemns” or “endorses” polygamy, leviration, or any form of monogamous marriage? I don’t think we can. Different texts presuppose different forms of marriage. Different writers/speakers present different opinions about the nature and value of marriage. No specific form of marriage is ever denounced or recommended. It depends on what passage you’re reading.

Principles, Not a Blueprint

What the Bible does provide with remarkable consistency is spiritual and moral guidance regarding fidelity to relationships within one’s cultural context, whatever it might be. “Do not commit adultery” is a majority report, to coin a phrase. God’s people do not violate their covenants with one another or abuse their neighbors’ covenants. How this plays out in regard to marriage will look very different from culture to culture, from era to era. Attempts to reconstruct the cultural norms of an ancient world to solve the moral dilemmas of today are misguided and do real damage to the people caught up in the reconstruction.

It would be very convenient (for some, at least) if the Bible pronounced with more clarity which cultural institutions were acceptable and which were dangerous, but this is not what its contents were designed to do. Instead, they appealed to personal integrity and moral faithfulness within the cultural structures of their own time. It may not be easy to extrapolate and adapt those principles within a very different world, but that is the way forward for Christians who cherish the Bible and desire that it should inform the way they live. We seek principles that bear good fruit in the arena of real life, not a blueprint for conformity to an ancient ideal.

Of course, this question gets even more colorful when discussing topics like slavery and so-called “holy” war. Unlike marriage, these institutions are (almost, God help us) universally repudiated in the modern Western world. Exploring the Bible’s presentation of these realities is no less complicated and, frankly, often more disturbing. For my part, I would point to the divine voice, most loudly audible in the teaching and legacy of Jesus, that forges a radical trajectory away from exploitation and violence and toward empathy and egalitarian love. In that sense, I believe that the Bible represents a powerful, even heavenly condemnation of institutions that enslave and victimize. But this strand has to be discovered and embraced, and to find it we must be prepared to interact honestly and boldly with an ancient and disarmingly foreign library of books.

At the heart of this question is a bigger question, one that opens a larger can of worms. At the core of the evangelical response outlined above is the presupposition that God in some sense authored the Bible, and that criticism of the text thus amounts to criticism of God, which is unacceptable. This relates to the very volatile “inerrancydebate, and illustrates one of my major criticisms of inerrancy as a belief. If the evangelical’s first sworn duty is to defend God and His reputation, and if the Bible is somehow God’s “autobiography,” then it too must be defended at all cost. The result is that scripture cannot be read with open eyes, mind and heart, and difficult questions cannot be addressed honestly. And ultimately, ironically, the very potent truth at the heart of Bible will go untapped by those most eager to get their hands on it.