Savage words for Dan Savage’s guide to interpretting Old Testament law

Remember when this blog was about philosophy and Christian apologetics before all the politics? Believe it or not, I still do, and I want to get back to doing some of the good ‘ole Lord’s work. Dan Savage, the prominent same-sex marriage and gay rights activist, affords me the opportunity to do both. So, what’s that saying about birds and stones?

Basically, Savage attacks the Pentateuchal laws in regard to homosexuality as null and void because the rest of the stuff in there is no longer followed or believed to be binding. He calls condemning homosexuality and ignoring all the other rules about menstruation, diet, ceremony, etc. is hypocritical. Furthermore, the Bible’s alleged treatment of slavery and lack of abolitionist sentiment severs any credibility and authority about any other moral claims it establishes. Savage paraphrases from Sam Harris that “The Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent.” And as such, the book is ethically bankrupt.

Well, no, and here’s why. The schtick about cherry-picking what to follow from the Old Testament is an all too common criticism, but it relies on sloppy exegesis. First of all, Christian theologians for ages — I’m talking as far back as Augustine and Tertullian — recognized three categories of laws within the Leviticus and company. Ceremonial laws dealt with issues such as circumcision, diet, cleanliness, sacrifices and priestly garments. Civil/judicial rulings for things like crimes and business exchanges. The moral category involved basic normative principles often involved in the Ten Commandments like murder, theft, deceit, adultery and idolatry. Also of import, Israel, as God’s chosen and holy people, was supposed to be a theocracy. Hence, the ceremonial and civil/judicial laws are considered to be only applicable to the Jews at this time. Therefore, this section of the legal code is not viewed as appurtenant to Christians, as we don’t live under the same circumstances. The moral laws, on the contrary, transcend time and space and are authoritative. So, the ones about human sexuality, like those in Leviticus 18 and 20 about homosexuality, are still very much in play. Indeed, Savage is mistaken: The Christian, who denounces homosexuality on the basis of the Old Testament, is being fully consistent in his or her beliefs.

Of course, there’s also the New Testament edicts that prohibit homosexuality in Romans 1: 26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, which bears the notion the entire Bible needs to be interpreted comprehensively, not this sniping of verses and passages out of context. The Old Testament often does not make sense without the New Testament and vice versa.

This exegetical principle now brings me to Savage’s, and those of like mind, fixation on slavery in the Bible. Admittedly, the issue is not so easily dismissed like his first criticism, especially given our cultural and righteous aversion to the institution in modern Western society. However, it’s crucial to remember that the Bible is to be understood holistically. Scrutinized verses need to be weighed against similarly themed passages and with the whole of Scripture. So obsessing about relatively miniscule chunks, loading them into your anti-Christian cannon and blasting away as if your ammo is deadly to the whole Christian worldview is honestly nothing more than blustery. Let me also write, given my two years in graduate school, such attitudes presented to other positions in academia would be deigned as inappropriate and ineffective. There is something called the principle of charity, which deems a critique as efficacious if it attacks the strongest form of the argument, not the low-hanging fruit.

Hence, Savage and other “New Atheist” types who attack the Bible are too content with their marauding diatribes about the hateful, capricious God of the Old Testament, the atrocities against the Canaanites and, in this case, slavery. They claim victory prematurely, as Christians have been grappling with these passages since the 2nd century A.D. Yep, sorry to burst your bubble, but these criticisms aren’t some new insight never considered. Enter Origen who proposed the Bible must be read through the lens of Jesus. In other words, if you read Leviticus and think God endorses slavery, this conclusion makes no sense in the light of Christ’s love in his death and resurrection, and you therefore, have misinterpreted the text. Following from this idea, C.S. Lewis advocated what’s known as “mere Christianity” or the foundational propositions of the Christian worldview. As William Lane Craig notes, “If God exists and has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, then Christianity is true, and the rest is working out the details.” According to Craig, the slavery accusation, as it is often asserted, is very much in the details and has no bearing on whether or not theism is true or the historicity of Jesus. Admittedly, Savage here never claimed these alleged contradictions mean Christianity is false, — only its moral claims — but such a view is implied and plausibly inferred. In either case, the apt reply to Savage’s obsession with the little things is “so what?”.

Moreover, another thing to remember, the Bible is less interested in individual social standing than it is invested in spiritual salvation. Whether or not a person was a master or a slave doesn’t really matter when the soul could be forfeit.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

The Bible repeatedly urges devotion to the eternal than what is material and temporary. It’s message breaks the chains of sin. That’s the paramount biblical message, i.e., the Gospel.

However, some might find find the above described exegetical strategies and explanations as wishy-washy, so here are some more little “details.” For example, the slavery laws clearly belong civil/judicial category, which had no intention of application to any gentile society, let alone modern America. Similarly, Biblical slavery most likely resembled indentured servitude and not the plantation-style Antebellum South practice with which we strongly associate. It was voluntary and like a form of welfare for the destitute, with many of the laws protecting the slaves from harm. Service was also supposed to be temporary, as mandated in Deuteronomy 15:12. It was actually quite humane and progressive for its time.

It might be objected that regardless of the favorable conditions, it still is deplorable to own a person as property, and surely a just God would reflect that moral truth in its decrees. Ah, but the Bible does twice in Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. Still, I don’t see why the Bible must overtly express abolitionist sentiment to be considered morally authoritative. Moreover, this objection seems in line with the same thinking behind the arguments from evil, only it’s posed specifically around whether or not the Bible has moral worth, not around God’s existence:

  1. If the Bible is moral, then it has laws that prohibit the possession of people as property.
  2. The Bible has laws that permit and regulate the possession of people as property.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not moral.

As a modus tollens, it’s valid, but it’s not sound as the first premise is not solid like in similarly formulated arguments from evil. For there could be a morally sufficient reason for God tolerating the temporary and voluntary possession of people, such as to prevent widespread poverty that afflicted ancient peasants as is suggested in the Bible. There could be others, but the fact is humans are epistemically limited and have about an amoeba-sized view inside the Earthly petri dish. God’s perspective is rather all-encompassing, so it’s conceivable that we don’t have all the information to judge why God would tolerate the owning of people. Premise 1 also is colored by a Western-centric interpretation of slavery: If the Bible does not meet that worldview’s expectations in regard to morality, then it’s devoid of normative weight. But that conditional is clearly false.

Furthermore, I think Savage’s contention that the Bible “is a radical pro-slavery document” is a gross mischaracterization. His ignorance becomes incredibly evident when he makes that jab at the book of Philemon. In the letter, Paul beseeches Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s who had become a Christian. He implores Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave” but “as a dearly loved brother” (Philemon 1:16). Although Paul didn’t speak against the institution of slavery, the implications of the Gospel were not conducive with the practice of institution. As all people are sinful, they’re all equal, and moreover, equal as brothers and sisters in Christ. This claim clearly is not compatible with the Roman or American South’s slavery institutions. This might be speculative, but I would conjecture this idea also undergirded Christian abolitionists’ rationale for ending slavery and influenced the Founding Fathers’ revolution and subsequent nation-building.

So, the Bible did not get “the easiest moral question” in the Bible wrong if, indeed, it’s in regard to slavery. It took a nuanced position on a complicated issue that only faintly resembled what Americans consider as slavery. If anything, the Christian tenants, properly understood, implied the buying, selling and trading of human beings as chattel as morally reprehensible and laid the groundwork to formally ending the injustice. Then for curiosity’s sake, what is “the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced?” Infanticide seems pretty straightforward, as it seems pretty hard to justify the killing of babies unless of course, they happen to be inside the womb. Then it’s not even ok; it’s a woman’s righ—oh, wait…

This also reminds me: Isn’t it interesting the famed champion of the bullied refers to the Christian students who walk out on his tirade delivered from what is a bully-pulpit as “pansy-assed?” Savage justifies his behavior as executed in self defense, despite the video shows Savage verbally segueing to talk about the Bible in his presentation and seemingly no students are heckling him for his sexual orientation or offering any sort of provocationThough it does bear asking, why the hell is Savage speaking, first of all, at a high school journalism conference, and secondly, why is the Bible a topic at such an event? All but the iron—no sorry, I mean hypocrisy is lost on me here. Here is a man who is vehemently condemning ethical double standards and slavery, who openly endorses the breeding and purchasing of children to gay couples as equality under the law.

“Chattel slavery, also called traditional slavery, is so named because people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of an owner and are bought and sold as if they were commodities.”

Google it,

Modus Pownens


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