The use of the Bible in contemporary moral decision making is a complex hermeneutical issue, and there are conflicting views among biblical scholars even as to the role and status of Scripture in arriving at ethical decisions. For some, the Bible represents the absolute and sole authority for the Christian, and provides the solution to moral problems encountered in all areas of life, ranging from economic practices to family obligations, from one's duty to the state to one's duty towards one's neighbour. For others, however, the Bible constitutes merely one factor (albeit an important and perhaps primary factor) in the adoption of ethical positions; according to this view, other sources of authority (reason, conscience, experience, tradition, etc.) must also be allowed to play a role in the formation of normative judgements. Still others argue that the ethical provisions of the Bible are so alien and foreign to contemporary society that its statements, principles, and practices are of little use in the formation of a Christian social consciousness (cf. Sanders 1975: 130).
Most biblical interpreters incline towards the second position, the first being generally regarded as too simplistic, while the third is viewed as too extreme. To regard the Bible as the only source of authority in ethical decision making overlooks the fact that decisions reached concerning moral dilemmas are often the product of subconsciously internalized norms that reflect the values of the culture in which the individual has been nurtured. On the other hand, to dispute the legitimacy of using the Bible at all in the formation of a Christian consciousness appears strange, for any system of social morality that claims to be Christian must surely be guided and informed by the ethical teaching contained in Scripture.
But if the Bible is to function as a source of moral authority for the Christian, the question remains: how is it to be used? The question arises because the application of the Bible to modern decision making is by no means as straightforward as might be supposed. In this regard, two problems in particular call for comment. The first concerns the so-called culture gap that separates contemporary communities of faith from the communities to whom the texts were originally addressed. The biblical authors expressed their insights in terms appropriate to the time in which they were writing, and they inevitably reflect the attitudes, outlooks, and beliefs of the people of their age. As a result, many of the provisions recorded in the Bible can no longer be regarded as binding in our own secular, pluralist society. The other side of this coin is that many issues that might feature prominently on our moral agenda (such as sexual equality or care for the environment) hardly feature at all in the Bible, and many ethical dilemmas facing people today (such as nuclear war or genetic engineering) simply did not exist in biblical times. The problem caused by the historical and cultural distance between the biblical world and our own is therefore twofold: on the one hand, many of the laws and customs of the Bible no longer seem relevant to contemporary communities of faith; on the other hand, many problems which do arise in the complex, technological age in which we live are such that the Bible offers no guidance or direction by which they can be resolved.
The second problem is that several passages in the Bible (especially in the OT) appear to advocate moral standards that seem, to the contemporary reader, to be offensive and unacceptable (cf. Kaiser 1983: 247–304; Rogerson 2001: 31–2). Many of the laws contained in the OT (such as those that require the death penalty for adultery; cf. Lev. 20: 10; Deut. 22: 22) appear, by our standards, to be harsh, cruel, and intolerably vindictive, and even some of the motives given for right conduct in the laws (riches, honour, long life) seem morally suspect. Moreover, several of the narratives recorded in the Hebrew Bible (such as those which describe the massacre of the Canaanites by the Israelites in Josh. 11: 16–23) relate acts of extreme violence and bloodshed, and—to make matters even worse—such acts are often performed at the express command of God himself (v. 20; cf. Deut. 7: 1–2; 20: 16–18). Even some of the Psalms, so often regarded as the high-water mark of Israel's faith, frequently breathe a spirit of unbridled revenge and malice, and exhibit an attitude of exclusivism and provincialism that smacks of the worst type of xenophobia (cf. Pss. 109, 137).
The problem caused by the temporal gap between us and the peoples of biblical times is often resolved by seeking out the underlying principles contained in the biblical texts and reapplying them in appropriate ways to issues of contemporary concern (cf. Wright 1983: 40–5; 1995: 57–66). For example, the institution of animal sacrifice in the OT may appear to be completely irrelevant as it stands; yet the principle that underlies the institution may be entirely applicable in so far as it serves as a reminder of the gravity of sin and the human need for forgiveness (cf. Bright 1967: 148–9). Similarly, in the NT, the practice of the early Christian community of sharing all possessions in common (Acts 2: 44–5; 4: 32–7) may appear to be highly impractical if applied literally to members of the contemporary church, but the principle underlying the custom is entirely relevant if it serves as a challenge to Christians to reconsider in a radical way their attitude towards their own material wealth (cf. Hays 1996a: 302–3). Such an interpretative strategy is not without its problems (cf. Longenecker 1984: 3–5), but it is argued that by rooting out the underlying principles of Scripture, the reader can remain true to the spirit of the biblical text while at the same time making it relevant and applicable to the modern world.
The difficulty encountered by the morally dubious passages of Scripture has been resolved in a variety of ways (see E. W. Davies 2005), but the presence of such passages in the Bible should serve as a reminder that its readers have an ethical duty to evaluate its norms and to resist those elements in its teaching that appear to be destructive, harmful, or detrimental to human well-being. Instead of tacitly accepting the standards of judgement established in the text and capitulating uncritically to its demands, they must be prepared to challenge its assumptions, question its insights, and (if necessary) discredit its claims (E. W. Davies 2003). Of course, some are bound to feel uneasy about applying an ethical critique to the Bible on the ground that such a procedure will inevitably impugn its authority as Scripture. However, an ethical critique of Scripture can be justified on inner-biblical grounds, for the biblical authors themselves often exercise a critical role, questioning past beliefs and querying past judgements. The Bible comes to us bearing clear traces of its own critique of tradition, and this may be regarded as providing the contemporary reader with a warrant to dissent from its teachings and to question some of its more dubious ethical pronouncements.