Is the Bible a Moral Standard?

There are a fair number of Anglicans in the churches of the west who argue that Anglicans need not turn to the Bible for the final word on moral questions. Fr. Tobias Haller, for instance, has recently argued that the Articles of Religion make the case only for the Bible being the standard for matters of faith, not morality. The problem with this line of reasoning is twofold. First, it assumes that the scriptures do not themselves teach us to include morality within our faith. Second, it denies the moral application of scriptural principles within Anglicanism throughout the centuries.

Jesus and the Moral Law

While it is true and worthy of consideration that not all of the Mosaic law is moral in nature, nor is all of it equally applicable to today’s world, the Ten Commandments form the basis of the moral law, as can be seen not just in their original context in Exodus 20 but also in the Gospels. For instance, in Luke 18:18-23, Jesus reaffirms the commandments that deal with our interaction with our neighbor, “do not kill, do not steal,” etc. In many places Jesus actually extends the severity of the commandments, such as in Matthew 5, where Jesus says that unbridled anger is also a form of murder, lust also a form of adultery, etc. His point is not simply to load us down with further restraints, but rather to show how the demands of the law are not merely about our external actions but about our internal purity (Matthew 15:11).

A common objection to this line of biblical reasoning is that Jesus’ intention was not to provide moral constraints but to give us a moral compass in the form of the Great Commandment. The summary of the law that Jesus provides in calling us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves is found in all three of the synoptic gospels. This summary is not simply pulled out of the air. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:34. Nevertheless, the emphasis that Jesus places upon love as the root force behind the law is new. Jesus communicates in no uncertain terms that the law cannot be fulfilled without love as its prerequisite. But this does not mean that Jesus is reducing the law to some simple, non-descript form of love. Indeed, the summary of the law does not substitute for the fulfilling of the law, which Jesus says that He has come to do in such a way that no part of the law can or should be stripped away (Matthew 5:17-20).

Anglican Moral Teaching

In the Catechism of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, every confirmation candidate is expected to memorize the Ten Commandments as well as a detailed explanation of the ways in which those commandments call us to order ourselves in relationship with God and with others. The weight of these commandments is heavy, but the Catechism assures us that it is possible to live in righteousness, not by our own doing but by God’s grace. “My good Child,” says the catechist, “know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the Commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.” Versions of this same catechism appear in more modern revisions of the BCP as well, including in American BCPs up through 1928.

In the 1662 Eucharistic liturgy and other traditional Anglican forms, such as that found in Rite I of the 1979 American BCP, the service begins with the reciting of the Ten Commandments (or in the case of Rite I, the summary of the law may be substituted). The service moves in a natural progression from the burden of the law towards the confession of sin, the absolution, and the comfortable words which give assurance of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and His gift of grace for repentance. The liturgy is focused ultimately on grace, but not at the expense of the moral law which remains intact and applicable for all people.

In a similar vein, the special liturgy for Good Friday found in the 1979 BCP contains a litany filled with prayers related to our moral failings. We repent not just of the general category of being unloving, but of many specific moral transgressions, including among other things pride, hypocrisy, negligence in prayer and worship, and “waste and pollution of [God’s] creation.” These things are not explicitly spelled out in the commandments, but they have antecedents there and they certainly bear expression in other parts of the scripture.

Finally, we find that the moral authority of the scriptures is often echoed in the great theologians, writers, and thinkers of Anglicanism. Take just one brief example. William Law, an eighteenth century English priest and non-juror, wrote extensively about prayer and devotion, linking both to the moral law that is at the heart of the Bible. In response to the Deists, he wrote, “We know our moral and social duties, which have their foundation in the conveniences of this life, and the several relations we bear to one another. But our relation to God we do not know; this is a question which God alone can resolve. Human reason cannot enter into it; it has no principle to proceed upon in it.” While Law would concede that much of the moral law could be ascertained through a well ordered human reason, our moral duty to God can only be known through revelation. Since for Law the foundation of morality is obedience to God, this makes the scriptures an essential authority. William Law is hardly the be all and end all voice on the subject of Anglican moral theology, but his example is worth noting particularly since his voice is that of a high churchman more associated with prayer, sacramental theology, and philosophy than for being a robust defender of the scriptures.

Conclusions

We have seen how the Bible offers moral guidance, first in the form of the Mosaic law, understood through the lens of the Ten Commandments, and then clarified and expanded in the teaching of Jesus. We have seen also how that same biblical morality is upheld in Anglicanism by means of the catechism, classical and modern liturgies, and the writing of Anglican divines. Given all of this, it must be concluded that Anglicanism follows historic, orthodox Christianity in accepting the Bible as the final authority in matters of morality. When the Articles speak of the scriptures being an authority in matters of faith, morality is implied.

This does not mean that all moral questions are easily settled. There are certainly matters of great moral weight that the Church has never been able to fully resolve, such as the proper Christian attitude towards war. There are also moral implications found in the scriptures that have occasionally been obscured by the Church in practice, such as the attitude of the American Church towards slavery in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, despite the difficulty of both ambiguity and occasional historical amnesia, the teaching of the historic Christian Church in general and Anglicanism in particular has always been that the Bible is the final authority on moral questions. The failure of Christians to properly discern or adhere to biblical norms is not an acceptable reason for sweeping them aside. Reason and tradition both have an important place in the conversation, but scripture uniquely reveals God’s intentions for humankind and thus must get the first and last word.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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2 Responses to Is the Bible a Moral Standard?

  1. Excellent essay. I would add (in the leap from the apostolic era to the Anglican) that the Anglican divines (Cranmer in particular) relied heavily on Patristic thought concerning the Decalogue, and also on Augustine’s hermeneutic of reliance on the Summary of the Law as the ultimate “lens” for a proper understanding of the moral law in Scripture. If there is a “moral compass” then this is it. As Augustine puts it: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.36)

    I also very much appreciate your citing the Sermon on the Mount (we’ll be preaching on this in a few weeks!) in Jesus’ own application of the law rightly points to the interiority of anger, hatred, lust as the locus of sinfulness, rather than focusing merely on external actions.

    Good post, and I look fwd to following you.

  2. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I agree entirely with what you say about the way in which the Anglican divines viewed patristic thought on the matter. We would do well with a little more patristic thought in our reflections on these subjects today.

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