Are all the moral commands of the Bible meant to be obeyed exactly for all time, or are there some that need to be adapted for our modern world? In Moral Questions of the Bible, David Instone-Brewer helps answer this question by showing how the Bible’s moral commands were understood in their ancient cultural context. In this interview, we ask Instone-Brewer about biblical morality and his expertise in the ancient world.
Lexham Press: Tell us a little about yourself and this book.
David Instone-Brewer: I’m a Baptist minister who has been seconded into the academic world, so I’m really pleased to be able to share some of my research in an accessible way. I’ve been unusually privileged to work on subjects that actually impact on our lives (usually academic biblical studies delves into details which are necessary, but not of immediate interest, unless you’re a Bible geek like me).
I’m particularly interested in the ancient rabbis at the time of Jesus, and in their world, the Old Testament was the whole of God’s word. This gives me a great respect for the way God spoke to ancient Jews and a curiosity about why the message appears so different from what we read later in the New Testament.
My book Moral Questions of the Bible takes both Old and New Testaments seriously and asks: what are God’s unchanging purposes? It is subtitled Timeless Truth in a Changing World because I discovered that God doesn’t change his mind about what he wants. However, when the world changes, he employs different methods to attain the same purposes.
LP: Is it right to ask the Bible contemporary moral questions? If so, how do we do it properly?
DIB: Yes, we must ask the Bible these questions—because that’s how God chose to communicate with us. But it isn’t easy, because the world is very different now. However, the method in this book works really well for discovering the unchanging purpose God has. Once we know that, we can see how to attain that purpose in our lives.
LP: Did you find any of the chapters particularly difficult to write? And were you ever surprised by your own conclusions?
DIB: The background to some of these chapters is really heart-breaking. The worst is the one on infanticide, which was the ancient equivalent of abortion. You laid your newborn baby on the floor in front of the paterfamilias (your husband, or father-in-law) and he either gave it a name or turned away—in which case you had to abandon your baby on a hillside or (more likely) a street rubbish dump. The NT isn’t silent on this issue, but we’ve missed the obscure language for a long time. We have now discovered that the NT contains a straightforward message about killing babies.
LP: How is your expertise in historical backgrounds relevant to modern ethical questions?
DIB: The Bible doesn’t directly tell us about modern problems like psychedelic drugs or internet pornography for the same reason that the OT didn’t say anything about visiting prisoners: the issue didn’t exit. (In OT times it was very expensive to build secure walls, so punishment was fines or physical harm, not imprisonment). If we don’t understand the history of the time, we can’t figure out the reason for the specific rules. When we know God’s purpose, we can apply his principles to modern life.
LP: How can we pursue moral clarity without entering into a legalistic mindset towards ourselves and others?
DIB: Morality or ethics are the general principles, while laws and regulations are the nitty-gritty details. These are important, but I’m not sure that theologians are the best people to figure them out. I find that lawyers are the first people to recognize when stringent regulations are inappropriate, while (paradoxically) the rest of us think that everything can easily be colored in black or white. Legalism occurs when those of us who can’t see grey (let alone other colors), try to make simplistic rules. I prefer to stick to the general principles taught in the Bible, and leave God to convict people in their hearts in matters of morality.
LP: Are there things about a British person that may surprise someone from another country?
DIB: I spend a lot of time with other nationalities at Tyndale House, where we normally have people from at least a dozen countries at any one time. They are often surprised by British reserve. For example, I was talking with a couple of Africans about the type of food they enjoyed, and asked what they would eat if they were on their own. The Kenyan looked puzzled as though I’d asked about quantum physics, and the guy from Congo just burst out laughing at the absurdity. They explained that eating a meal alone is something they’d never do—it is as undesirable as going to a movie by yourself. They sometimes feel rejected by our flat emotions or our lack of interest in their extended families, and they can’t figure out why timetables appear to be more important than people. I can’t help feeling they have a point!
LP: Is black pudding immoral, gross, or neither?
DIB: Black pudding is dry and only slightly more tasty than boiled cabbage. The favorite meals in the UK are curry or burgers. Brits aren’t that keen on British food! Personally I love American fast food, so it is a good thing I don’t get to eat it too often.
LP: Do you think Christians are usually more or less moral than unbelievers?
DIB: The stats suggest that Christians get divorced at a slightly higher rate than non-Christians, but that might be because they are also more likely to get married in the first place. My impression is that Christians are less likely to break the law or tell a lie—but perhaps we are just more careful not to get caught! The point is that we are sinners—and that’s OK, so long as we are seeking God to help us do better, and so long as we don’t look down on other sinners.
LP: Who do you want to read your book, and what do you want them to take from it?
The chapters are coffee-break material. Short, self-contained and every one has a punch or a surprise that you want to tell someone about. But they’ll also leave you thinking—sometimes in disagreement! So this is a book for intelligent people who know about things outside of the Bible, and who can think for themselves.