In the fifties, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released records as that most familiar American duo, Tom & Jerry. It was the sixties before their now famous Jewish names were allowed an airing. A similar thing happened with Jesus. Truth is, without Paul, Jesus may have been simultaneously too Jewish, too old fashioned, and too radical to make it big. Jesus in the Gospels is not quite the laissez faire hippie that many Christians want him to be. He is quoted as saying
Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery
yet good Christians divorce for reasons other than infidelity all the time. Society’s moral values have changed, and the moral values of Christians have changed with them. Jesus says nothing against slavery whereas a modern Christian placed in his situation and time might feel compelled to speak out.
So it is all very well for Christians to talk of Christian moral values, but what are they?
Christians, just as everyone else, do not agree between themselves on key moral issues, such as abortion, birth control , stem cell research, and capital punishment. One response to this disparity is that dissenters from any given view are not True Christians. Exactly what is required to be a True Christian varies from individual to individual. From my research into the Bible, the number of True Christians is either one male or 144,000 virgins (male). The “No True Christian” defence is of course almost invariably equivalent to the No True Scotsman fallacy.
Biblical ethics are predicated on absolutes. The Jews’ God worshipped by Christians is assumed to be eternal and unchanging. His moral character is also eternal and unchanging. What God finds good will always be good.
Thou art near, O LORD; and all thy commandments are truth. Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.
Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.
If Jesus did somehow “fulfill” the law (whatever that means) so that all of it no longer had to be obeyed, then God’s judgements are not unchanging. God once hated covetousness, now it is the basis of our economic system and he is more than fine with that. Once God was filled with moral repugnance whenever a man lay with a man, now he grumbles under his breath that whatever gays get up to in their own homes they shouldn’t broadcast it. Some even say that God is pro-homosexuality. Many years in the future, it is possible that all righteous Christians will be just as in favour of marriage for all as they now are opposed to slavery and segregation.
When Paul saw in Jesus a less Jewish Jew, a Jew for all, a major stumbling block was the law. All those homogenizing restrictions would never fly across diverse communities. Thanks firstly to Paul’s rebranding, and contributions from many a committee over the next 1500 years or so, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith suddenly came up with the idea that God gave Adam only the moral law. Additionally to the Israelites, for He loved them especially, the Lord gave even more (i.e ceremonial and civil) laws.
In reality, to the Israelites the Law was all three things: it was moral because to do what God commanded was right. It was ceremonial because observance of the law was a constant reminder of the covenant. It was civil because there was no separation of holy and civil law.
The Westminster Confession’s apologetic is popular even in the face of the following words attributed to Jesus:
For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law.
We find in modern times that, contra Leviticus, blasphemy, adultery, working on a Saturday, and dishonouring your parents are no longer punishable by death. Most Western slave owners were Christians, and found support in the Bible for slavery during the debate that led to the American Civil War, yet today you would be hard pressed to find a Christian who is in favour of the enslavement of other human beings. Many Christians are supportive of gay rights, a large number are gay themselves, and would never dream of characterising a man lying with a man as an “abomination”. Despite 1 Timothy 2:12,
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet
we have female priests.
As a young teenager I was greatly amused by a rather uncomfortable and surprised Cliff Richard at pains on a Saturday morning kids’ breakfast show to explain that, yes, it was almost impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, but it could be done, with God.
Why make it so hard for God? Or rather, why take the risk? The powerful are loathe to give up their power, and Jesus here must make room for a greater god. It is also this faithful adherence to Capitalism that negates the commandment not to covet your neighbour’s possessions. For over time, the moral values of Christians have changed due to secular influence. There are indeed Christians who resist changes, and this is a further indication that if there were a God he would have been guilty of failing to tell his flock exactly what values to hold.
Of little contention is the golden rule, which we all (except psychopaths) imperfectly follow, and social humans must have followed long before Christianity or even Judaism. The golden rule is not sufficient to negotiate social life. The rest is pretty much up for negotiation it seems, so that Christian morality is nothing other than the wide-ranging moral opinions of Christians. One apparent way out might be to assert (hope? imagine?) that God gives us instinctive knowledge of what is right and wrong in context-dependent situations. I certainly think even implicit recognition that scriptural commandments are inadequate is to be welcomed, but how do we know it is God instructing us?
A 2009 study at the University of Chicago showed that what religious subjects attributed as God’s will aligned with whatever beliefs they held at the time.
Far from being constant, “the will of God” (as perceived by the subjects) could be manipulated by the researcher. Of course, they may not have been True Christians, or testing God is bound to lead God behaving as if he did not exist, or whatever unfalsifiable defence you wish to use to preserve the divinity of your conscience.