Scripture and moral theology
A young Catholic growing up in the years before Vatican II would find it very curious to discover that the teaching of the scriptures is the “soul of all theology” (Richard Gula’s Dei Verbum, p. 165, REASON INFORMED BY FAITH). My experience as a student in a Catholic elementary school during the years before Vatican II is that there was very little teaching from the Scriptures at that time.
In fact, although Vatican II brought about a renewed emphasis on Scripture, many non-Catholics still view the Catholic Church as devoid of a biblical foundation. Chapter 12, “Scripture in Moral Theology” (Gula, p165) contains an overview of the critical use of Scripture and pre-critical use of Scripture and then engages in some discussion of Scripture as a basis for moral decision making .
Catholics today almost universally understand the need for critical analysis in the use of Scripture. However, a contrary use of Scripture is to employ a method called proof text. To understand this method, one must first accept the fact that some place more emphasis on natural law than on Scripture.
Using this theory, after a problem is determined on the basis of natural law, a scripture review is conducted to corroborate the natural law position. Therefore, as Gula says, it is a kind of afterthought or an attempt to justify natural law. Furthermore, “While it gives the appearance of a biblical foundation to moral theology, the proof texts do not really allow Scripture to enter the fabric of moral theological reflection” (Gula, p.166).
While critical use of Scripture tends to rule out the validity of test text messages, Steven D. Cline, in his article, “In Defense of Test Text,” argues that the problem is not text messages from evidence, but rather the misuse of the biblical text that should be in dispute. Mr. Cline says, “Those of us who disdain test texting may not have distorting Scripture in mind. I have the idea that they mean we should discard the honorable practice of giving books, chapters, and verses when we commit. to teach a Biblical Truth “(Crane, bible-infonet.org). He goes further by using examples where Jesus used Old Testament passages to support His teaching to argue for the proof-text method. It also discusses Peter’s great sermon in Acts in which the Old Testament is cited as another validation of test text messages. I am not sure if Mr. Cline is a Catholic or not, but from some of his comments on denominationalism I have the impression that he is not. His arguments are not without merit despite this fact.
Critical use of Scripture requires an analysis of the passages from different perspectives. Gluttony draws on Kenneth R. Himes’s analysis to explain four related tasks that a person must undertake in order to relate Scripture to moral theology. They are “… (1) the exegetical task: determining the meaning of the text in its original context; (2) the hermeneutical task: determining the meaning of the text for today; (3) the methodological task: using writing in moral reflection , (4) the theological task: explain the relationship of Scripture with other sources of moral wisdom “(Gula, p.167).
Celia Brewer Marshall in her book, A Guide Through the New Testament, defines exegesis as “… the term New Testament students use to describe what they are doing when they try to see what a New Testament passage meant. when it was written. ” written for the first time “(Marshal, p.15). Therefore, the criticism of the passages, not as an exercise in finding fault, but rather as analysis, is our effort to discover what the text meant at the time of write it, because that has a profound influence on what it should mean for us today. Ms. Marshal lists several areas of critical analysis. They are textual, source, form, writing, and literary analysis.
The textual is comparing the language used in a particular passage in various translations. For example, you may find a different wording in the New American Bible than in the Revised Standard or the King James Version. The second analysis is the source. Ms. Marshal says that, “Critical source theories are just that: hypotheses that may or may not be useful for comparing the Gospels” (Marshal, p. 15). She goes further to explain that source analysis is not really a problem in the other books of the Bible, but only in the Gospels.
“Form criticism tries to go back beyond the written documents and see what the individual units might have been in their pre-literary form” (Marshal, p. 15). Ms. Marshal explains that editorial criticism views authors as editors and looks at how Bible stories are “edited”. Literary criticism simply looks at what can be learned from the text. Gluttony says that, “limited as it may be, careful exegetical work is the crucial first step leading to the successful fulfillment of the other tasks in the use of Scripture in moral theology” (Gluttony p.168).
Critical analysis allows us to arrive at the original meaning of a text and hermeneutics allows us to close the cultural gap between the culture of the writers and the culture of the readers. Dr. Brian Allison says, “Biblical hermeneutics is foundational and foundational to the entire theological (and apologetic) endeavor” (Allison, Biblical Hermeneutics: An Alternative Paradigm). Gluttony states that this analysis is very important and uses some examples to illustrate his position. Allison, on the other hand, seems to say in her article that cultural-historical differences are not that important. It is an interesting analysis and I have attached it for your interest. I agree with Gluttony, as he points out in his example, that the eschatological environment of the first century puts some of the proclamations made by Jesus in a different perspective. Once a person has done an analysis of the text, they are in a position to use it in the decision-making process.
The methodological task is to put the scriptures to use in moral reflection and decision-making. Gluttony relies on Gustafson to explain that there are two ways of looking at the direction given in Scripture. Revealed morality is looking at the text as a directive for action. It breaks down revealed morality into four subsections, law, ideals, analogies, and great variety. For me it is a kind of hierarchy where the law is the fundamentalist vision where the Word is the law and that’s it. From there you go to a view where the Word is a set of ideals and not simply rules to follow. Third, by analogy, biblical stories can be compared and applied by analogy to current situations. The great variety, as Gula describes it, is a kind of midway between revealed morality and revealed reality, viewing Scripture only as informative and not specifically determinative of morality. A great variety seems to say that the scriptures are important but not all-inclusive. It allows intellectual reflection and other sources as a basis for moral reflection as does the approach to revealed reality.
In her analysis of the approach to revealed reality, Gula analyzes the covenant and the kingdom of God. The covenant according to Gluttony is the response we give to God’s offer of love. God calls us and gives us some structure for relationship. This structure is found in the rules and commandments and, as Gula says, they are “… presumptions and burdens of proof for the moral life” (Gula, p.173). In a covenant relationship, we unite with our God by accepting his love and way of life. Then, Gula looks at the kingdom of God as another way of looking at revealed reality. “The kingdom of God is not a place, but a community-building activity in which each person experiences a strong sense of solidarity with others. Covenant with God allows us to enter into relationship with others also in covenant with him and allows us to experience “shalom” A kind of peace. We find Jesus giving us direction in the scriptures on how to move into this kind of existence. It is more than just rules to follow. It is a step towards a life of hope lived through reverence, conversion and responsibility. Hope “… always points to the love of God as the basis for the realization of the new possibilities of human well-being, hope is the source of our energy to respond creatively to the new possibilities of recreating society “(Gula, p. 177).
If you contrast revealed reality with revealed morality, you will find that the latter focuses on the “black and white” of everything. But if one believes that the Scriptures are given to us as a set of laws that we must blindly follow, what should we think of the radical sayings of Jesus? Are they just figures of speech? Gluttony considers that the message of Jesus gouges your eye out if it causes you to sin. Jesus came to save us. He came to offer forgiveness. To “gouge your eye” is contrary to His message. Therefore, I would suggest that they are not directives like the great commandment, but attempts to get our attention and make us think about the relevance of the message. Blindly following all the scriptures leaves no room for the stimulation of our creativity and imagination. It seems to me that there are some rules to follow and there are passages in Scripture that give us those rules. In addition, there are stories, exaggerations, and other literary devices that allow us to creatively interpret the “rules” and apply them.
In a final attempt to reconcile the difference between revealed reality and revealed morality, Gluttony discusses the great commandment. There seems to be little room to discuss what Jesus is telling us in answering the Pharisees’ question in Matthew 22. “He said to him,” You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your soul. your whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is similar: you will love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments “(Matthew, 22: 37-40). Here is a good illustration of the difference between revealed morality and revealed reality. In a sense of revealed morality, you take this literally and love everyone. However, what is love and how should we live in love? It requires critical analysis to understand what Jesus means by his directive to love your neighbor. What is your neighbor? next door? Is it the person on our block? What is neighbor? And what is love? If our neighbor is of the opposite sex, should we “love” that person in a kind of man-woman? Certainly, Taking Jesus literally is not as easy as it seems at first, so we look at the reality behind the statement and extract the direction from it and then create the reality that we are going to live in from that analysis.
There are many different opinions on the use of Scripture in the development of moral theology. The search for an absolute may be noble, however the best search for me would be to educate myself not only in the words of the Bible, but also in the Bible. By learning about the Bible, we can gain an understanding of its place in our lives and use the messages it provides to help us in our attempts to make moral choices that allow us to live our lives in accordance with God’s will.