Answers to Chapter Six

by David Crabtree


David Crabtree has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter six of The Language of God.

Question #1

How one answers these questions will depend greatly on how one envisions the surrounding circumstances–factors that are unstated.

a. If the road is closed and there is no traffic, then the road should be safe for my child to cross without an adult.

b. If the road is closed for repaving, then it is still dangerous. The trucks and equipment will be working on the road.

c. If the child has turned 21 he should be old enough to determine on his own when the street is safe.

d. If the street is the safest place to be under these circumstances, then I would allow my child to go into the street regardless of the risks from traffic.

e. If there is a pedestrian overpass, then my child should be able to cross the street safely without an adult.

f. If the street is no longer functioning as a street, it should be safe.

g. If the child has shown that he understands the dangers that a street can hold and has shown that he is careful to avoid those dangers, then I would allow him to cross without an adult.

As I think back over what I did as a parent of small children, I rarely made all my thinking explicit. When around a busy street I often mentioned that they should hold my hand because a car might hit them. It would have been clear to them that my concern with respect to the street was cars. I never specifically told my children that they no longer had to hold my hand while crossing the street. I suspect that I gradually released them from this rule. I suspect I began to allow them to cross streets alone when they wanted to go on ahead of me and I could see that it was safe and I could see that they had looked to see that it was safe. If they began to prove themselves consistently vigilant and careful, I stopped insisting that they hold my hand.

The interesting thing that emerges from doing this kind of exercise is realizing how little explicit instruction we impart to our children and how much we simply rely on our children growing up to see the world the way we do. My youngest child has Downs Syndrome. We have had to explicitly teach him hundreds of things that we never explicitly taught our other children. Take, for example, standing in line at a grocery store; how far ought one stand behind the person in front? Our other children learned this from observation; we never taught it explicitly. But we have to be very explicit and specific with our Downs child. This raises the distinct possibility that Scripture would present the principles by which we are to live our lives much more implicitly (rather than explicitly) than is generally recognized.

Question #2

The issue the Pharisees are raising is whether Old Testament law permits divorce no matter what the reason. It is important to note, however, that they are not asking because they genuinely want to know, but because they want to trap Jesus. This is an observable pattern in the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees. They know that Jesus is condemning of the practice of divorce. Jesus voiced this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:32). What he said there was much more strict than the teaching of rabbis at the time. The then current rabbinical view was that the law permits men to divorce their wives for even the most trivial causes of offense. Such a position was probably very popular with men. The Pharisees want to undermine Jesus’ popularity by getting him to restate publicly this unpopular position.

Instead of simply answering the yes or no question, Jesus turns the question on the Pharisees to show the incoherence of their view. He begins by citing from the Old Testament, which the Pharisees would acknowledge to be authoritative, regarding the institution of marriage. Marriage was God’s idea, not man’s. Provision for it was made in the creation itself. Marriage was designed to meet man’s need for intimate companionship. Marriage is so intimate that when two people marry they merge their lives to such an extent they become, in a sense, a single entity. So if a man and a woman get married, we are to see that as the beginning of a God-given assignment for the two to become one. If this is the God-given assignment that comes with marriage, whence the authority for a partner to the marriage to terminate that assignment? Jesus’ point is that we have been given no such authority.

Furthermore, merely entertaining the possibility of divorce undermines the purpose for which marriage was established. The level of intimacy that marriage provides is due in large part to the permanency of the relationship. If the existence of the relationship is in jeopardy, serious problems must be kept hidden as much as possible lest they bring the relationship to an end. If the existence of the relationship is not in jeopardy, serious problems can be dealt with without fear of jeopardizing the relationship. If the relationship is permanent, it is in the interests of both parties to iron out difficulties as soon as possible. Thus the intimacy that marriage is designed to provide is dependent upon the stability and permanency of the relationship. A permissive policy with respect to divorce would run counter to the very basis of the institution of marriage. Jesus’ line of argument is very much consistent with the perspective on the application of biblical injunctions outlined in this chapter-one must assess the rightness and wrongness of a specific course of action in light of a whole perspective on life.

Had the Pharisees shared this view they would have felt an obligation to give a response to what Jesus just said. But they do not. They are probably at a loss to know how to rebut what Jesus said. But the force of Jesus’ argument in this regard is entirely missed on the Pharisees, because they do not feel a need to address this question on the grounds of a comprehensive and coherent understanding of the biblical worldview. They apparently think that all they need is one verse that appears to grant permission to divorce, even if this requires looking at that verse in isolation from the rest of scripture. The Pharisees respond by quoting a portion of a verse from the book of Deuteronomy which is described as a “command” to divorce and send one’s wife away. They have seized this as justification of their position with respect to divorce.

In the context, however, the words that the Pharisees quote merely acknowledge the practice of divorce. Jesus points out that the Old Testament merely allowed for divorce as a concession to man’s rebelliousness. Such concessions are commonplace in the Old Testament law. The entire sacrificial system is a concession to man’s sinfulness, but that does not mean that sin is good. Similarly, just because there is provision for divorce does not mean that divorce is right. Jesus says, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.” When God designed the institution of marriage, divorce was not a part of that design; rather, it was allowed in order to salvage a good institution when implemented in a society of sinful human beings. In other words, divorce may be a necessary concession to the sinfulness of man, but it is nevertheless to be seen as a regrettable failure. To see divorce as something that is good and proper is to embrace a practice that is antithetical to the very basis of marriage.

Jesus goes on to point out that the spirit that is hidden behind the perspective of the Pharisees is the spirit of adultery. If it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatever and then marry another woman, is this not just a legalized form of adultery? It is not essentially any different. Either we view marriage as a permanent relationship or we do not. Jesus is arguing that the biblical perspective is that marriage is a permanent relationship, whereas the Pharisees are advocating a view that sees marriage as a disposable relationship. Implicit in Jesus’ argument is the fact that the Pharisees say they respect the teachings of the Old Testament, but in fact they do not. The Pharisees choose to see Scripture as law code, a list of rules, and are happy to take advantage of any loophole they can find. If the Bible is truth, then we ought to come as suppliants begging for enlightenment rather than manufacturing justification for our actions.

Jesus, on the other hand, is looking at the teaching of the Bible as a whole, trying to understand the values and principles that lie behind the words of Scripture. The practice of finding loopholes to evade the intention of the law makes no sense from this perspective. The approach we see Jesus taking in this passage is consistent with the one I have advocated in this chapter.

Question #3

This is a difficult question to answer. The best way to approach it is to refer once again to the analogy of a parent/child relationship. When a parent commands a child to do something the child is obligated to do it whether he understands the basis for the command or not. For instance, if tell my child not to play with mercury I expect obedience whether my child understands the reason for my command or not. The fact is that obedience is necessary before the child is capable of understanding all of the reasoning that is behind the command. As a parent, I am doing the reasoning for my child with respect to the dangers of the immediate situation. Over time, through instruction and experience, my child will learn to intelligently assess those dangers himself. But the fact that the parent has given the command means that at this time, at least in the eyes of the parent, the child does not have that knowledge and experience and must simply obey.

If I were to receive a direct command from God, I should obey it whether or not I understand the reason for which it was given. But the Bible does not contain commands given directly to me. They were all given to other people. I have no choice but to make some kind of determination as to whether those commands are or are not appropriate for me to follow at this time. All we can do is make our best guess given our current understanding of the biblical worldview and act accordingly. But as our understanding grows we must be willing to change our actions to conform to a more mature understanding.

Question #4

I know that it is common to think in terms of dividing commands into two categories-those that were bound to a particular time and culture and those that are universally applicable. If my perspective is correct, this division makes no sense. All commands are given to a specific time and culture. They must be examined and the underlying principles incorporated into our world view. Imagine two different parents who both tell their own child, “Never lie.” Even though they both mean the same thing by the word “lie” and they both express it as a universally applicable command, it is still possible that the two parents would want the command implemented differently. One may place such a high value on truth-telling that one should not lie regardless of the consequences. The other parent may think there are some rare circumstances when higher values take precedence. The two parents might give different answers to the ethical dilemma of whether one should admit to hiding Jews in the attic when the Nazi comes knocking at the door. But one could only predict this by reference to each parent’s broader world view.

If any commandment in the Bible could be understood to be universal the commandment “You shall not murder” should qualify. But my position is that even this commandment must be understood in the context of the entire Bible and examined to determine the underlying principles. Presumably this is a prohibition of one human being taking the life of another human being. But is the taking of a life always wrong? There is provision in the Old Testament law for the death penalty, so the taking of a life is apparently justified in this case. On some occasions, during the conquest, God commanded the Israelites to kill all the residents of the cities-man, woman, and child. Clearly God’s concern is not the prolongation of human physical existence. God has and uses the prerogative of taking the lives of people whenever he sees fit. God’s concern is, rather, that man has not been given the authority to decide when a person will die and he ought not arrogate himself to such a position. Human beings ought to have respect for human life. We ought to treat one another with respect, as befits beings created in the image of God, and encourage those around us to do the same.

If this is the principle that underlies the sixth commandment, the provisions for the death penalty can be accounted for. If someone is so arrogant as to presume to decide when another person should die, then God has authorized that that person’s life be taken. Such a person has forfeited his right to live by his act of arrogance.

If we have accurately arrived at the principle behind this commandment, we can now allow this principle to inform our thinking with respect to situations that were not in view when Moses first wrote the commandment. We live in a time when medical advances make it possible to cure health problems that once were fatal. Furthermore, it is possible to prolong a person’s life by hooking him up to sophisticated machinery that carries out some of the functions of the body for him. This raises the disturbing possibility that just as a murderer arrogates himself to the position of taking the life of a person before his time, it might also be possible to try to prolong someone’s physical existence beyond his time. One values the physical existence of a human being too lightly, the other too highly. Both are acts of arrogance. Notice that if this is true, at some point the taking of extraordinary life saving measures crosses a line and becomes the same kind of arrogance that is being condemned in the sixth commandment. Only by examining commands to understand the values that produced the command, can we see all of the ways in which they are intended to be applicable.

Question #5

I have argued that all commands are situational. Every command is directed to a particular audience at a particular time under specific conditions. Whether the speaker would have issued the same command to a different audience under different circumstances has to be determined. In some cases the answer would be yes and in some cases no. In this sense the commands are relative. This would hold true for everyone who gives commands, whether it be man or God.

But if morality is defined as living in obedience to God and if God would have different people do different things at different times, is morality not relative? No. An understanding of what is moral stems from a whole world view. The world view may dictate very different actions at different times depending on the circumstances. Just as the commands of a parent to a child change as the child grows or circumstances change. But this does not mean that the parent’s understanding of right and wrong change. Similarly, what God wants people to do may be different at different times, but this does not mean that God’s understanding of good and evil have changed. James calls God “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:17). Righteousness does not change, but it can manifest itself differently depending on the circumstances. So morality is situational in that the action that it demands varies from one situation to the next, but it is also absolute, in that good and evil themselves never change.

Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree