Give John J. Collins credit for showing his cards up front. In his What Are Biblical Values? Collins aims to lay out, as dispassionately as possible, what the Bible actually says on a range of issues in contemporary debate—abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family, the environment, slavery, violence, and social justice.
Collins doesn’t think the Bible gives clear answers to most of these questions. The Bible is internally contradictory, a “running argument” with “conflicting values.” It doesn’t matter anyway: “Biblical values are not normative or acceptable for modern society simply because they are found in the Bible.” They have to be sifted and critiqued, both by comparison of Scripture with Scripture and by “dialogue with modern values,” which represent “clear advances in moral sensitivity.” The Bible contributes to the church’s deliberations, but “its contribution is not necessarily decisive.”
With that set-up, it’s not hard to predict what will be decisive. The Bible doesn’t ever mention abortion, nor does it trade in the language of rights. (Collins gives only superficial attention to the main text, Exodus 21:22-25.) There’s “much to commend” the view that the Bible is “hospitable to new life and resistant to abortion,” but this construal isn’t “necessary.” It doesn’t matter anyway: “the Bible does not decide the matter for us.” Well, OK. Then why did I read this chapter?
He’s refreshingly honest about the biblical evidence regarding homosexuality. Leviticus condemns anal intercourse between men and judges both partners to be worthy of death. Paul shares the Hellenistic Jewish hostility to lesbian and male homoerotic acts. In both Testaments, “we find explicit condemnation of homosexual acts,” but these appear “only in a few passages” that are “confined to narrow strands of tradition.” This, too, doesn’t matter in the end: A “responsible” treatment of modern homosexuality has to consider more than a “few scriptural passages.” Where has Collins gotten me? Pretty much back where I started.
The rules of his game become clear in his chapter on social justice. Finally Collins finds a biblical value he can affirm without qualm, and all his hesitations and hedges go out the window. Suddenly, the Bible presents “a goal that can guide society,” apparently without the fuss and bother of translation from ancient to modern.
So it goes, chapter by chapter. Summarize the Bible. Reveal complications and supposed contradictions. Neutralize the Bible by repeating the axiom that the Bible isn’t decisive. Nod knowingly toward today’s cultural consensus. Reload.
Inevitably, slavery is Scandal #1, an “indisputable” case of the Bible endorsing “morally unacceptable” positions. Collins is right to emphasize the point, since the Bible tolerates and regulates slavery, and even presents slavery as a Christian ideal: Jesus took on the form of a slave (Phil. 2) and Paul regularly calls himself a “slave of Christ” (Rom. 1:1; Gal 1:10). But Collins misses important subtleties. For instance, Leviticus 25 allows Israelites to hold Gentiles as permanent slaves. But Genesis 17 gives a model of household circumcision, including slaves (v. 23). If an Israelite followed Abraham’s precedent, he would make his Gentile slaves into Israelite brothers who would then need to be freed after six years of service. We can’t know whether or not Israelites did this, but it shows that Torah exerts pressure toward the elimination of permanent slavery.
There’s a strange inverted fundamentalism here. Early on, Collins says that readings of the Bible are constrained by traditional communities of interpretation. Faced with the overwhelming Jewish and Christian consensus against abortion, he forgets the constraints and resorts to Bible-thumping: Sure, some of the church fathers considered fetuses “neighbors,” but the Bible never says that, so opposition to abortion doesn’t count as a biblical value. Working as a tag team, advanced modern sensitivity and critical scholarship thump tradition as well as Scripture. Despite Collins’s claim that the Bible shapes the reader’s imagination, his readings are unimaginative and flat. True, the Bible explicitly mentions homosexuality only a few times, but that handful of texts reflects a thicker theology of sexuality that begins in Genesis, runs through Torah and the Song of Songs, and climaxes in an Apocalyptic wedding feast. Collins ignores all this. Like the “biblical foundationalists” he criticizes, he’s on the hunt for proof texts.
One doesn’t have to be a biblical foundationalist to sniff something suspicious. Collins is too honest to deny that biblical values often conflict with modern ones. The Bible “can inspire and challenge the modern world” and “remains a relevant resource on political and social issues.” But he never actually allows the Bible to dislodge modern sensitivities.
What Are Biblical Values? has endnotes referencing the latest scholarship, but it’s more a political intervention than a scholarly work. As such, it’s a missed opportunity. Framed differently, it could have forced both conservatives and liberals to grapple with the words on the page, so as to stop easy appeals and easy dismissals. As it is, it will only harden factions in the church. Collins reassures progressive Christians who don’t want the Bible to trouble their consciences. He lends the Yale Divinity School seal of approval to those who want to marginalize the Bible—hardly a daring stance, since it’s what many churches are doing anyway. Intentionally or not, he confirms progressives in their view that conservatives are as bigoted as the Bible itself, and supplies ammo to blast conservatives who appeal to “biblical values” in church or the public square.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.