The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul:
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
CHORUS: More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart:
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever:
the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
From my college days through my final years in the church, that song was one of my favorites. Its lyrics are taken from Psalm 19 and, to me, expressed the perfection and utility of God’s Word, the Bible.
That’s why it was not until the final phase of my deconversion that I was able to face the horrible things God commanded or actively brought about in “The Good Book” — the enslavement, genocide, infanticide, and rape, just for starters. When my mind finally opened enough to see these passages for what they were, I asked several pastors and professional apologists for answers to my show-stopper questions, but we found none. It became impossible for me to believe that there could be a God who was both perfectly good and perfectly represented in the Bible.
That was over six years ago. But in November of this year, someone suggested I read Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?. Dr. Copan is of my evangelical tradition, so imagine my surprise when I read this part of his solution to the problem:
We do see some tensions between earlier texts (like Exodus 21) and Deuteronomy 15. We don’t need to throw up our hands in despair at hopelessly contradictory texts. Rather, what we have here is a dynamic adjustment and a moral upgrade taking place within a short span of time in national Israel’s early life. … This is a far cry from Christopher Hitchens’s notion of “unalterable” Old Testament laws. (p1ge 148)
If that’s true, Christopher Hitchens wasn’t the only one under the misimpression that Old Testament laws were unalterable. King David was, too. He wrote the longest chapter of the Bible, Psalm 119, on the subject of the Bible as it existed in his time (which would include the aforementioned Exodus and Deuteronomy) and nowhere does the Psalm even hint that some parts of it are “moral upgrades” to others or that any law is less than eternal.
On the contrary, verse 91 says, “Your laws endure to this day.” Verse 138 calls God’s statutes “fully trustworthy.” (How can something that needs “moral upgrade” be “fully trustworthy”?) And what could be more clear than verse 152: “Long ago I learned from your statutes, that you established them to last forever.” Or verse 160: “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”
Not only were Christopher Hitchens and the Psalmist under the impression that God’s Word was supposed to be eternally valid, but so I was taught for my entire 40 years in the church. The exceptions were the sacrificial and ceremonial laws, which Jesus was said to have fulfilled once and for all. But the rest (referred to as moral laws) were immutable.
That is why evangelicals still cite Leviticus 18:22 to say God opposes homosexual practice. It’s why they still cite Exodus 21:22-25 to argue that abortion is murder. (Yes, a broad spectrum of Jewish rabbis interpret that passage to mean the opposite, but that’s a topic for another day.) It’s why the first chapters of Genesis are upheld not only as the foundation for science, but as the bedrock for everything else.
So, as much as I admire Dr. Copan’s willingness to acknowledge “hopelessly contradictory texts” in the Bible, we must bear in mind that the average evangelical does not share his sophisticated understanding.
But I do wonder: would Dr. Copan entertain the possibility that the Bible’s passages against homosexuality need a “moral upgrade” in order to allow everyone to experience an intimate relationship with the person he or she loves?
Would those who, like Dr. Copan, devoutly worship Jehovah allow for “dynamic adjustment” when a 15-year-old girl has made the first truly huge mistake of her life and finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy? I don’t know about Dr. Copan, but most evangelicals I know would answer these questions with an emphatic “No!”.
Such believers might remember the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” You wish for a holy text whose moral commands hold for all time and believe you have found it. Good luck to you, but be aware that when you consider its most difficult passages, you have disqualified yourself from taking an out that even Dr. Copan found necessary.
Some will reply that the canon of scripture is now closed, so “moral upgrade” and “dynamic adjustment” must have ceased. But this idea that God’s final word has already been given dates back at least to Deuteronomy 12:32: “See that you do all I command you: do not add to it or take away from it.” Hundreds of years and many chapters of scripture later, Proverbs 30:6 gave the same caution. And then in New Testament times we have the famous verse from Revelation, the last book of the Bible although possibly not the last one written. If God’s revelation did not stop in Deuteronomy or Proverbs, why should it stop with the New Testament? Indeed, one church in my town sometimes displays a banner like this one:
Where do you stand? Would you say the Bible is God’s unchanging truth and believe that its difficult passages ultimately have a justification, or would you say that some of its passages were necessary moral upgrades to others? If you’re of the “upgrade” camp, do you think that upgrades ceased when the last page of the Bible was written, or might they continue to this day? Why?
Next time I will consider another of Dr. Copan’s escape hatches: that God moved “incrementally” in the Bible. After that, I’ll consider specific cases where he does not believe either escape hatch is necessary.