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Where does morality come from -- Part 4

By John Draper ~

In Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, I asserted that morality is discovered by humans, not revealed by God. Specifically, religious folks say the superstructure of morality is erected by God in scripture. I think that’s not the case. But I think we’re stuck with the Bible. It’s too embedded in our culture. The Bible influences believers and nonbelievers alike.

That being the case, it behooves us to use scripture wisely.

There is truth in scripture. But we—not God—put it there. Scripture plays two roles. One, it reminds us of what we’ve already figured out on our own. Two, by providing us inadequate descriptions of the character of God, scripture provides a picture of what not to do.

This post will look the first of those two propositions, that all scripture does is remind us of what we’ve already worked out on our own. Said differently, God doesn’t reveal His moral will for us through scripture—any more than He does with any literary work of human hands. What we have in scripture is the word of man—for good and for ill.

For example, we know the noblest parts of Jesus’ teaching are true—and there a scattering of Jesus’ teachings that are ignoble—because they resonate with our humanity.

Take the Good Samaritan.

Everyone knows the story. Jesus’ parable flowed out of a discussion he had with someone about “how to inherit eternal life.” Jesus asked, “What Does the Law Say?” The man answered that the Law teaches one must first love one’s God and then love one’s neighbor. “But who’s my neighbor?” the guy continued, wanting—scripture tells us—to justify his hard-heartedness.

So Jesus tells the story of this guy who was robbed and beaten en route to Jericho. A priest encountered the unfortunate man lying wounded in the ditch, as did a Levite, both respected religious leaders, and they passed him by. In fact, they even moved to the other side of road.

Then a Samaritan happened by—a hated Samaritan—and he took pity on the man, tending to his injuries, taking him to an inn, and paying for his continued care.

Jesus asks, “Which one of the three men who happened upon the road was a neighbor to the beaten man?”

“The one who had mercy on him,” the man said.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus concluded.

At first blush, Jesus comes across as some sort a moral savant. But Jesus just framed his response in terms of what the law already said. Jesus was no moral innovator. He was all about obeying the Law. “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” He was a real prickly pear when it came to obeying the law.

In other words, what Jesus said was common knowledge. If that common knowledge had become uncommon, it was because we had suppressed it. It’s so much easier to find villains to blame than to see everyone as our neighbor. What Jesus did was show this man what he knew to be true in his deepest self. I mean, it’s not like Jesus revealed a new primary color or some such thing. The man didn’t say, “I never would have thought of that, not in a million years!” Instead, he averted his eyes, shamefaced at what a sinner he’d become.

Jesus’ words rang true.

So it goes with the worthwhile portions of scripture. Believers talk about “being cut to the quick” by a passage from the Bible. In those cases, scripture brought to mind the lessons we’d already learned. That’s why so many “aha” experiences with scripture are accompanied with repentance. The scripture tells the believer to get back on the Narrow Way. The value of biblical truth is that it’s the same thing over and over again until we get it through our thick skulls.

Any other human literary work could fulfill the same role. If you doubt that, attend a meeting of a local book club and see the revelations people draw from current bestsellers. More lessons have been drawn from scripture because the words have been pored over for centuries. We’ve polished the words so as to reveal new facets of truth. In fact, sometimes we surprise ourselves—humans are clever.

That’s not to say that everything in scripture is laudatory. Far from it. There’s plenty of dross peddled as the word of God. I will turn to those passages in my next post.