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What are Biblical Values?

John J. Collins—

For many Christians the importance of biblical law and ethical demands has been relativized by the Christian emphasis on faith. “We know,” writes Saint Paul to the Galatians, “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith of Jesus Christ.” The Pauline concept of faith is notoriously controversial. It arguably refers both to the faithfulness of Christ as a model for his followers and to their trust in and fidelity toward Christ. It is quite clear, however, that biblical faith never excuses anyone from the demands of ethical behavior. The same Paul insists to the Corinthians that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” and provides a list of wrongdoers to illustrate his point (“fornicators, idolators, adulterers,” etc.). Indeed, Paul’s ethical admonitions are in accord with Jewish law and tradition to a remarkable degree, apart from the matter of circumcision and the food laws.

All of the Bible presupposes belief in a God who created the world and chose Israel as his special people. Since this belief was integral to the identity of biblical Israel, the assumption did not require confessions of faith in ancient Israel and Judah. The belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, raised from the dead and enthroned in heaven, was novel in the first century CE. It formed the basis of a new identity among his followers, so we read much more about faith in the New Testament than in the Old. But simple belief was never enough. Faith in Christ always implied that the faithfulness of Christ was a model for his followers. In the words of New Testament scholar Richard Hays, “It is the enactment of a life-pattern into which we are drawn.” Paul tells the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). What he means by faith in Christ is acceptance of an approach to life, not just propositional belief. Moreover, Paul’s language of faith is only one of several theological formulations in the New Testament. Others, such as the Gospel of Matthew, have a more positive view of Jewish law. The clearest formulation of Christian priorities in the New Testament is arguably the judgment scene in Matthew 25:31–46. There, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, nothing is said about belief or faith. What matters is how people acted: whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned. Faith in the sense of belief is no guarantee of how a person will act. Faith is commitment. Its value lies in the kinds of action and lifestyle to which it is committed.

Many Jews and Christians worry that a critical approach to the Bible subordinates it to modern values. That is not the intention here. The Bible deserves a hearing, but to give it a hearing, we must respect the fact that it was written long ago and in another culture. Its values are often at odds with our own. We have much to learn from it, but the dialogue is not a one-way street. The Bible must be appreciated in its complexity, with the recognition that it is also often at odds with itself.

Biblical values are not normative or acceptable for modern society simply because they are found in the Bible. They must be sifted and evaluated critically like values proposed in any other source. In the case of the Bible, that critique is twofold. On the one hand, it is inner-biblical. Values endorsed in various parts of the Bible must be measured against the central values of love of God and neighbor, affirmed in both Testaments but explicitly prioritized in the Gospels. On the other hand, the critique lies in dialogue with modern values, which have increasingly been developed in terms of human rights and must be credited with clear advances in moral sensitivity on such issues as slavery, the use of violence, and the role of women in society. I believe that these two lines of critique, based on inner-biblical priorities and modern sensibilities, are generally compatible with each other, but it is not my intention to produce a synthesis of normative values for the modern world. Values are inherently debatable. The Bible has much to contribute to that debate, but its contribution is not necessarily decisive. On many issues it may leave us with more questions than answers, but it always gives us food for thought.

Adapted from What are Biblical Values? by John J. Collins. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. 

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