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ss nucleus - autumn 1997,  Dionysius Dialogues - Ethics

Dionysius Dialogues - Ethics

Dionysius and Nitpickerus continue their debate on ethics...

Nitpickerus: How can a Bible written 2,000 years ago speak to the ethical situations we face in the late 20th century?

God Doesn't Change!

Dionysius: Because the Bible is God's Word, and God doesn't change.[1] He's the same yesterday, today and forever.[2]

Nitpickerus: Yes, but the Bible was written to a preindustrial middle-eastern culture and primarily addresses preindustrial middle-eastern issues: cows rather than cars, vineyards but not ventilators, stone tablets rather than silicon chips.

Dionysius: Perhaps, but the principles apply across the generations. Why else would Paul say to Timothy that a study of Scripture (and Old Testament Scripture at that), would make him 'thoroughly equipped for every good work'?[3] It's only the context in which the unchanging principles are to be applied that is different.

Nitpickerus: But we musn't be tempted to take the text out of its context.

Dionysius: I agree. We must first see what the text meant in its immediate historical and cultural context. But we can't stop there. If we don't move on and ask how the text applies to us today then we are only doing half the job.[4] Our understanding of how the text applies to us (hermeneutics) is just as important as our appreciation of what it meant to the original hearers (exegesis).

Nitpickerus: But isn't there the danger of going beyond what the original author intended?


Dionysius: There is; but we have to remember that the Bible's real author is God.[5] We have to take on the hermeneutical task - sorting out how God's unchanging principles apply to contemporary situations which may not have been envisaged by the human authors, but were nonetheless prepared for by God.

Nitpickerus: That sounds too much like hard work!

Dionysius: Maybe, but if we are to live in obedience to God in today's society (and we have no choice because this is exactly what knowing[6] and loving him[7] involve), then we have a responsibility to use our minds[8] to work out contemporary codes of conduct based on the revealed principles we find in Scripture.

Nitpickerus: It would be a whole lot easier if we could simply look up euthanasia, abortion and genetic engineering in a concordance.

Dionysius: Perhaps, but God hasn't arranged it that way. He expects us to think.

Nitpickerus: So where do we start?

Euthanasia, Abortion and Genetics?

Dionysius: Well take euthanasia for an example. You won't find the word in the Bible, but there are two cases described[9] and several others of suicide.[10] We know too that human beings are created in the image of God[11] which is why it's wrong to kill.[12] While there were exceptions in the case of guilty human beings under the Old Covenant,[13] the intentional taking of innocent human life was universally proscribed.[14]

Nitpickerus: Even for compassionate motives on request?

Dionysius: There are no exceptions given. It doesn't matter that syringes and drugs aren't mentioned by name. The very fact that only a limited number of killing implements are listed,[15] doesn't mean that one isn't guilty for using other means to kill.

Nitpickerus: What about abortion?

Dionysius: Again you won't find it in a concordance; but there is much about intentional killing,[16] the value of prenatal life[17] and child sacrifice.[18]

Nitpickerus: And genetic engineering?

Dionysius: Again there are principles of stewardship for God's world,[19] and even the cross-mating of species.[20] You just have to look.

Nitpickerus: But so many contemporary debates aren't even touched on in the Bible.

Sin under another name

Dionysius: I disagree. Adultery, murder, theft and lying are endemic across human cultures. It's just a matter of finding how a particular group of people disguise and sanitise them. The problem is that we so often lack the courage to call a spade a spade. Divorce and remarriage is adultery.[21] Selective reduction is murder.[22] Tax evasion is theft.[23] Insincerity is telling lies.[24]

Nitpickerus: Give me some more examples.

Dionysius: Take the whole area of negligence. That's a big issue in medicine. Under Old Testament Law you were obliged to build a parapet around the roof of your house so that people wouldn't fall off and get injured.[25] Now clearly we don't use our rooves as verandahs in the way that middle-easterners did; but might this not be saying something about, for instance, the fencing of swimming pools? After all if you dug a pit and someone fell into it, you were criminally responsible.[26]

Nitpickerus: Is this a biblical model for public health?

Dionysius: It's not as far-fetched as it may seem. Some see a biblical precedent for latrines for example in Old Testament hygiene regulations.[27] Or take the issue of dog-bites; again you won't find it specifically mentioned in the Bible, but the case of the goring bull must have relevance here.[28] The fact is that people were responsible if their animals got out of control,[29] or if others were adversely affected by their actions.[30] Surely, the same general principles still apply today?

Economics and Diminishing Resources

Nitpickerus: What about issues of health economics, like fee for service?

Dionysius: That's another good example. On the one hand the labourer is worth his hire, the worker deserves his wages.[31] On the other hand, the fact that others are unable to pay for our help doesn't mean that we are not obliged to give it.[32] If your neighbour needs money you lend it to him[33]... at no interest.[34] If he comes upon hard times you are to tide him over.[35] If you have the world's goods and don't respond to his need, then how can you say you love God.[36] It's all there in the Bible.

Nitpickerus: Even for the complex problems of the NHS?

Dionysius: Even for those. You probably won't be able to read the answers from Scripture verbatim. You'll need to work them out for yourself; but a mind thoroughly steeped in God's word will be able to apply the godly principles of justice, mercy and humility to new situations.[37]

Nitpickerus: Even to quandaries like allocation of limited resources?

Dionysius: Yes, there are principles there. For a start you must do what you can with what you've got.[38] Not being able to meet the need fully ourselves is no excuse for not doing what we can and demonstrating how the need could be met.[39] God works miracles when we do what little we can do.[40] On the other hand getting a big task done involves time and prayer. It also requires vision, planning, delegation and the involvement of others.[41]

Wider Issues...

Nitpickerus: What about the big problems of our time: AIDS, Kwashiorkor...?

Dionysius: There's a lot in the Bible about sexual morality,[42] and of course compassion for sinners. There's much about feeding the hungry[43] and the causes of injustice too.[44] As we think about contemporary problems in the light of biblical principles, and with the help of God's Spirit, it will become obvious what we need to do.

Nitpickerus: I've got some serious study to do.

Dionysius: Haven't we all? We need to develop biblical minds, a thought worth developing in the next issue of Nucleus...

  1. Mal 3:6
  2. Heb 13:8
  3. 2 Tim 3:16, 17
  4. Acts 28:25-27
  5. 2 Tim 3:16
  6. 1 Jn 2:4
  7. Jn 14:15
  8. Mt 22:37
  9. Jdg 9:54; 2 Sa 1:9,10
  10. 2 Sa 17:23; Mt 27:5
  11. Gn 1:27
  12. Gn 9:6; Dt 5:17
  13. Ex 21:12, 22:2,3; Dt 20:10-13
  14. Ex 21:14
  15. Nu 35:16-18
  16. Ex 21:12-14
  17. Ps 139:13-16
  18. Lv 20:2; Dt 12:31, 22:2,3
  19. Gn 1:26-28; Mt 25:14-30
  20. Lv 19:19
  21. Mk 10:11
  22. Ex 21:14
  23. Mt 22:21
  24. Pr 26:24
  25. Dt 22:8
  26. Ex 21:33,34
  27. Dt 23:12-14
  28. Ex 21:28-29
  29. Ex 22:5
  30. Ex 22:6
  31. 1 Tim 5:18
  32. Lk 1f0:25-37
  33. Dt 15:7,8
  34. Dt 23:19
  35. Dt 15:11
  36. 1 Jn 3:17
  37. Mi 6:8
  38. Mt 25:21; Lk 12:48
  39. Mk 12:41-44
  40. Mt 15:22-39
  41. Ne 2,3
  42. 1 Cor 6:18
  43. Is 58:6,7; Mt 25:35
  44. Is 10:1,2; Mi 2:1,2
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