This article appears in the August 1999 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Return to August 1999 CMQ

God’s Word: The Last Word in Moral Theology?

Richard Atherton

Let me begin with a statement which, for this readership at any rate, should be beyond dispute: the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the privileged, though not exclusive, source of our knowledge about God and about God s designs for us. It would seem undeniable, therefore, that it must play a vital role in shaping our moral lives. From there, for some people, it is only a short step to the notion that the Bible is a sort of moral rule book, and that all that is required is to look up the rules and behave accordingly. That is why nowadays, when concern is expressed about lowering moral standards, the cry is frequently heard: 'We need to get back to the Bible (the ecclesiastical equivalent of 'back to basics’, or 'It’s all in the ten commandments or, in the immortal words of an American car-sticker: 'God said it, I believe it, that settles it’.

But, of course, life is never so simple as that. In fact the relationship between scripture and morals is one of the knottiest and most hotly debated issues in modern theology1. Before examining why that is so, it may be helpful to recall that Vatican II states clearly that sacred scripture is the 'very soul of sacred theology’2 and, in particular, that moral theology must draw 'more fully on the teaching of holy scripture’3. In similar vein, the Pope insists that 'Sacred Scripture remains the living and fruitful source of the Church’s moral doctrine’4. In the days before the Council, the typical Catholic position was that there were two sources for moral knowledge - scripture and natural law. But in order to find common ground for the moral life of all men and women of good will - and that of course is a very, laudable aim the tendency was to give prominence to natural law arguments and then to bring in biblical material in the form of proof-texts, a kind of scriptural topping-up of arguments already given. Much the same approach was used in documents of the magisterium; so, for example, condemnation of contraception was based on natural law argumentation, but then the story of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) was cited as evidence of biblical support, though of course nowadays it is accepted that the Onan incident has nothing to do with contraception as such, but rather with Onan’s selfish refusal to fulfil his duty towards his deceased brother by raising up children to him.

The practice of resorting to Scripture, as though it were an arsenal of proof-texts for positions already established on other grounds, seems to treat God s inspired word as a convenient afterthought. It also represents a use of Scripture that can only be described as simplistic, showing no awareness of the difficulties, alluded to earlier, which face those who wish to use the Bible as their moral guide. In the first place, it is obvious that the Bible does not consider, is not even aware of, and so has no precise answers to, many of our current ethical issues - surrogate motherhood, genetically engineered food, UNO s bombing of Kosovo, cloning, multinationals, designer babies, arms deals.

Secondly, even where the Bible does seem to offer precise moral guidance, it is clear that much, if not all of it, does not owe its origin exclusively to divine revelation; for example, the contents of the ten commandments, certainly of the second tablet of the commandments (4 -10), are matched by moral codes of other middle eastern countries, such as that of Hammurabi, King of Babylon in the mid-eighteenth century BC. In fact, the Commandments seem to be nothing more than basic, common sense rules for harmonious social living: unless murder, adultery, stealing, perjury and so on are proscribed, how could there could be peaceful co-existence in any tribe or society? And if we turn to the New Testament, we have to acknowledge that Jesus himself offered no systematic moral teaching5; indeed, one contemporary Catholic moral theologian suggests that 'our assumption that Jesus was preoccupied with morals says more about ourselves than about Jesus". Even the lists of virtues and vices given by St Paul were not a Christian invention but common currency in the Greek world of his time. All this suggests, and it will be necessary to examine it more closely later, that, so far as content is concerned, perhaps there is little if anything that is specific to Christian ethics.

But let us move on to the third, and most fundamental, reason why the relationship between scripture and ethics is so complex; it arises from the difficulty of applying these ancient texts to our world and our concerns. It has often been said that, just as by the incarnation Jesus, the Word of God, took upon himself all the limitations of being a man, a Jew, an inhabitant of a certain land at a certain time in human history, so the inspiration of the Bible, God s written word, is enmeshed in all the limitations of the cultures and variety of literary genres and styles of its various human authors. The fact that members of the Dutch Reformed Church invoked sacred scripture to support apartheid in South Africa or that many Christians, Catholics included, have used scripture to justify persecution of Jews, is surely enough to remind us how easily the Bible can be misused, how easily it can be interpreted in accordance with our own presuppositions. (It is reminiscent of the government minister - not from this country - who is reputed to have said: 'Let’s do an objective study to prove that multinationals are evil’! I suspect there are people who approach the Bible in much the same 'objective spirit’. As Shakespeare’s Antonio expressed it: 'In religion,/ What damned error, but some sober-brow/ Will bless it and approve it with a text , or, more simply, though even more devastatingly: 'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’. (Merchant of Venice)

If we are to try and avoid such pitfalls in applying 'what the Bible says to our own ethical concerns, in other words, if we are to pass safely from text to life, there is a double task ahead: first that of trying to establish what the original writer meant by what he said - and that may not be as simple as it sounds (the exegetical task, the task of interpretation); and second that of discerning how the text can then be taken from its original context and made relevant to ours (the hermeneutical task, the task of appropriation). A word or two about each of them.

Because the biblical texts are human expressions of faith, they cannot but be time-bound, culturally-bound documents. A refusal to accept that is, at root, a refusal to accept the consequences of the Fall. To take some obvious examples: if, according to the Old Testament, God seems to approve of polygamy or of 'Holy Wars with their indiscriminate killing of the enemy, may that reflect not so much the unchanging will of God but the historical and cultural conditions of the people of those times? Similarly, what are we to make of those, to us, bizarre purity regulations, which lump together, as though there was little to chose between them, such diverse activities and processes as contact with a corpse, menstruation and cross-dressing? In their original context these regulations have little to do with what we would nowadays call sexual morality; they are simply ancient religious taboos concerned with ritual - not moral - purity.

However, difficulties are not confined to the Old Testament. We need only recall Jesus disconcerting remarks about plucking out eyes, cutting off hands, hating relatives, turning the other cheek, giving away all that you own; what are we to make of them? Are they commands for all times and places, or are they pious ideals? And if the latter, on what criterion do we accept some of his teaching as binding, allowing of no exceptions (divorce, for example), while at the same time we regard other parts as hyperbolic, not to be taken literally? Still in the New Testament how reconcile the words of St Peter; 'Slaves must be respectful and obedient to their masters with the Church s current absolute condemnation of slavery? Or, how reconcile St Paul’s command that women should wear hats in church with the fact that the average church congregation today is largely made up of hatless women? Furthermore, even where the Bible uses the same terms as we use, it does not necessarily follow that it is dealing with the same reality. The 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" came in for some criticism on the ground that it employed a doubtful exegesis of St Paul in its condemnation of active homosexuality. Is it certain that when Paul condemns homosexuality, he has the same reality in mind as we have when we use that term?7

To discern the objective meaning of a text in its historical setting and for its particular audience, is, as has been said, the task of exegesis. But it already overlaps the second task, the hermeneutical task of applying the text to today’s situations. One of the great defects of the use of proof-texts, ‘biblical one-liners’ , as they’ve been called, is that it takes words out of the Bible, without reference to their historical and literary context, and applies them ‘neat’ to a completely different cultural and historical world. Again, an example may help: it is generally agreed that many early Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent; whereas you and I, though we do believe in the Second Coming, hardly imagine it is just round the corner. Of course, we may be wrong in our assumption, but that does not alter the fact that we do harbour, and live by, the assumption that time is on our side. But differences of outlook of this kind may have profound implications on the way morality is perceived and presented; so, when St Paul urged his friends in Corinth to remain as they were, single or married, because, as he put it, ‘the time is short’ he may well have been influenced by the conviction that the end was nigh. And might not the same mind-set help to explain why the early Christians felt it was not incumbent on them to work for social changes such as the abolition of slavery or the social equality of women? It has been shrewdly observed that the restructuring of the ballroom will not be high on the agenda of people who believe the ship is sinking8.

You may feel that I have resorted to extreme examples, though I assure you that many more might be added; but all I am trying to show is that there is often a long and difficult road to travel between the biblical text and moral teaching. Indeed you may well be wondering at this stage if I have not proved too much: if things are as I have suggested, then in what sense, if any, can God s word be described as the last word where morality is concerned? Perhaps I can best answer that question by going back to something I said earlier: I suggested that, so far as content is concerned, it is hard to point to anything new in the Ten Commandments. Indeed, very many, probably the majority, of theologians today would maintain that, at the level of concrete, behavioural norms, there is very little, if anything, which is distinctive about Christian morality; in other words, there is no kind of additional moral teaching avail able to us only through revelation. They would argue that, at the level of content, Christian morality is human morality, not of course any kind of human morality but human morality at its best, morality in accordance with what is authentically and holistically human. (Indeed it is traditional Catholic teaching that without revelation, it is difficult for people to discover their moral obligations ‘easily, with certitude and without admixture of error’). Since we have all been made by God and made for the same eternal destiny, is it surprising that there should be only one essential morality for all human beings?

I have been careful to refer to the content of morality and have suggested that, at that level, the Bible may have little new to offer us. (In passing, may I mention two points: the first is that there are obviously some aspects of Christian living which in the nature of the case are exclusive to Christians, in that they arise directly from our discipleship; such as our faith in Jesus as Lord and our praying to him, the celebration of the sacraments, the recognition that our work as teachers or doctors or nurses or priests is a 'vocation , not simply in the popular sense of the word but in the sense of a response to a call from the Lord. The other point is that there are some types of behaviour which I believe can only be labelled as uniquely Christian: as an example, I would point to forgiveness of enemies, forgiveness of the Gordon Wilson variety.)

But back to the main point: there may be little or nothing specific in the content of Christian morality despite its connection with the Bible. However, when it comes to the context of that morality by which I mean its inspiration, its motivation, its underlying values it is an altogether different matter. Here the Bible, and above all the New Testament, does have a unique contribution to make. It is crucial that the Ten Commandments were given in the context of the covenant: in their content they may not be original (i.e. unknown and unknowable without revelation), but in their context they are utterly original (i.e. the reason given for keeping them is that God has entered into an intimate relationship with his 'peculiar people’, and they must behave accordingly). If this is true of morality in the Old Testament, how much more so of morality in the New: the foundation of Christian morality, both the hope which inspires it and the grace which makes its achievement possible, are rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus and our participa tion in his victory. Christian morality means that through Christ God has taken the initiative, and we are invited to respond. Christian morality is response to a Person not to a rule; it is not a niggardly 'how far can I go affair but the expression of our relationship with God, made manifest in and through our relationships with others. And so Christian morality is something more dynamic, more exciting, more responsible than simply living by revealed propositions from a book. The real value of the book is that it provides insight and inspiration that make us the better able to discern what is appropriate to Christian living.

Moral judgements, like any others, are not made in a vacuum: they are made by people who see the world in a particular way, whose outlook and vision are conditioned by their life’s experiences, by their culture and, for Christians, that means in particular by the Bible. In fact Christianity itself might be compared to a culture which we imbibe, and a central feature of that culture is the Bible. Karl Rahner speaks of the Christian faith giving us a ‘faith-instinct’ in moral matters, by which presumably he means that this is the fruit of the stories, symbols, aims and intentions that are our particular heritage, and the Bible is the classic and indispensable statement of that heritage. If this sounds rather too vague and esoteric, then may I invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation that took place in Bavaria during the last war when a Catholic couple had decided to hide a Jewish family in their home. ‘The police may kill us as well’ said the husband ‘if they come and search the place’. ‘But why should we worry?’ replied the wife. ‘We believe in Jesus’ death and Resurrection’. Notice, no mention of rules or commandments, no quotations from the Bible; just a magnificent reply which captures the fact that the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday have radically changed the way Christians should construe the world and the values by which people normally live.

Most theologians today would probably agree with this summary of the use of scripture in moral theology: ‘we depend on the Bible for the great formative stories that tell us who we are and what the world and the human community are about, ... these stories have a bearing on moral judgement, and we find clues to that judgement in the ethical material of the Bible’9. Another modern writer enumerates some of the special perspectives that we gain from the Bible: 'God’s fatherhood and the consequent brotherhood and sisterhood of all people; the goodness of creation; the world entrusted to our stewardship and responsibility; God’s care for all people, especially the weak; the dignity of each human person, created in the image of God; God’s patience and never ending forgiveness; the example of Jesus in his intimate relationship with his Father and total avail ability to people, his attitude to evil and his acceptance of the cross. . .’ He adds: ‘These insights will not give us an immediate solution to a concrete moral problem but they can sensitise us to certain values and colour our attitude to daily life’10.

What emerges, therefore, is the fact that Jesus is the norm for the Christian moral life, not so much because of any explicit teaching he may have given, but rather on the basis of who and what he was and is: the embodiment of God s loving invitation to us and also the embodiment of the perfect human response to that invitation. That is why the Christian moral life is not primarily a matter of principles, regulations, laws, or strategies for solving moral dilemmas but rather of keeping our eyes on Jesus of Nazareth so that we may exhibit in our own life his virtues and allow what he revealed about God and human life to inform our moral discernment, for, in the words of the Vatican Council, he is ‘the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of history’11.

And so, though perhaps not in the sense initially envisaged, it can be stated with complete confidence that God’s Word is indeed the last word for Christian morality.


  1. R M Gula S.S., Reason Informed by Faith p.165f - Paulist Press, New York (1989); he writes: ‘... increased attention to this issue (by Catholic and Protestant scholars) has not yet produced a consensus on how to relate scripture and moral theology’.
  2. Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) �24
  3. Optatam Totius (Decree on the Training of Priests) �16
  4. Veritatis Splendour �24
  5. NP Harvey, The Morals of Jesus, p32f- Darton, Longman and Todd, London(1991): ‘the thrust of Jesus’ life and teaching was at most oblique to anything that could reasonably be called morality’.
  6. T Deidun p18 - in Christian Ethics: an Introduction - B Hoose(ed)- Cassell, London(1998)
  7. R M Gula S.S. p167 - op- cit.
  8. T Deidun p9 op- cit.
  9. V MacNamara The Truth in Love Gill & Macmillan, Dublin (1988)
  10. S Fagan SM - Does Morality Change? Gill & Macmillan, Dublin (1997)
  11. Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) - � 10

Mgr. Richard Atherton OBE is the former Senior Chaplain to the Prison Service. His paper is based on a talk given at the Annual Symposium of the Guild, Liverpool, April,1999.

Return to August 1999 CMQ