I often hear statements like, “The Bible is so old, how could it really apply to us now?” or “How could modern people take this collection of ancient writings seriously?” What do we do with the popular notion that the Bible has become obsolete, that it is no longer relevant, authoritative, or that its power has diminished because of its age?
Since we often write off the Bible on moral issues on the grounds that it is outdated, let’s consider the widely accepted—but problematic—line of reasoning that sloppily mixes chronology and moral reasoning.
Don’t Confuse “Descriptive” with “Normative”
First, a word about words. We often err by not distinguishing descriptive statements from normative statements. A descriptive claim represents how something is/was, and moral assessment is not involved. In contrast, a normative claim evaluates and essentially prescribes moral judgment on how things ought to be. With this in mind, consider the argument that nowadays, since society (descriptively) disagrees with the Bible, the Bible should be (normatively) rejected. This conclusion breaks down under scrutiny because it takes for granted the idea that morality depends on popular opinion.
Does Old Automatically = Bad?
We can think of many things in history that were once thought to be good/permissible and now are now considered bad, or vice versa. For instance, some say that now we “know better”regarding slavery, but years ago, our culture accepted the practice. Using this example, we could descriptively say slavery was once widely practiced in the United States and many people were okay with it. Yet in a normative sense, though slavery was “okay” descriptively (it was legally permissible), it was still morally wrong. By making this distinction, we rightly assess a time-bound culture by a timeless ethic. Accordingly, morality should have very little, if anything, to do with the chronological time.
You might argue some old ideas (such as one race being superior to others) have since been rejected or revised because now most of us “know better.” I grant that. But on what basis has revision happened? Has it been because popular opinion has changed over time, that society has simply experienced a change of taste? Or is there some true moral reality we’ve finally become aware of that has corrected our previous flaws? To put it another way, would slavery suddenly become acceptable if the majority of people began to think it was okay again? Of course not. Popular consensus cannot establish morality.
Consider each flow of thought in the table below. In left column, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises; yet in the right column, the argument works:
|Confused Moral Reasoning||Logical Moral Reasoning|
|Many people used to believe slavery was okay (descriptive claim)||Many people used to believe slavery was okay (descriptive claim)|
|Therefore slavery was actually okay back then (normative claim)||Slavery was wrong even when people thought it was okay (normative claim)|
|Conclusion: The morality of slavery depends on what people think||Conclusion: Slavery is wrong despite what people think|
Old Can Still Be Good
So, while it’s true that the earliest portions of the Bible were written around 3,500 years ago (the rest written sporadically over roughly 1,500 years), the issue of elapsed time is not necessarily problematic. As the case of slavery proves, morality has a timeless element; that’s the reason why we still read ancient philosophers and other ancient texts. Thus, thinking the Bible is obsolete because of its age turns out to be suspect; when doing so, one cannot adequately answer necessary questions like:
- In what year did the Bible’s validity expire?
- What is the shelf-life for moral claims and systems of acceptable behaviors?
- What criteria should we use to determine when moral claims have run their course?
- How long should we hold the moral views we presently have (regardless of where they came from) and when and why ought we change them?
Consider again each flow of thought in the table below. As we saw before, the right column is sound while the left column’s conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.
|Confused Moral Reasoning||Logical Moral Reasoning|
|Nowadays, people reject much of the Bible (descriptive claim)||Nowadays, people reject much of the Bible (descriptive claim)|
|Therefore the Bible isn’t a good moral guide (normative claim)||Though rejected, timeless Biblical truths hold up (normative claim)|
|Conclusion: The morality of the Bible depends on what people think in a given era of time||Conclusion: The morality of the Bible exists independent of what people think|
If morality is real and meaningful (e.g. slavery is actually wrong), as opposed to being a mere expression of opinions (e.g. we simply don’t like slavery), we ought to give pause before criticizing the Bible simply because it doesn’t line up with our culture. When deeming the Bible flawed, critics of its morality—perhaps even without even realizing it—are actually calling on a greater and timeless normative criteria. And when we begin to call on something greater and timeless to make sense of morality from a given era, well, then we’ve actually wandered back into God’s territory.