Wheaton College scholar seeks to shelve Old Testament moral rules

(COMMENTARY) The unending debate over the Bible and same-sex relationships is the most troublesome one for U.S. Protestantism since the Civil War.

It first broke into the news agenda big-time 47 years ago at a conference of the large United Methodist Church. As religion specialists well know, an emergency Methodist conference that opens Saturday in St. Louis is to weigh whether the UMC will split over this.

Simultaneously, a book on sale next week has potentially explosive relevance: “The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context.” Of course, “Torah” in the title refers to the Old Testament’s first five books and also the material therein normally called Biblical law.

The book – nota bene – does not emanate from liberal “mainline” Protestantism. The publisher, InterVarsity Press, is evangelical, and the authors are veteran Wheaton College (Illinois) Old Testament professor John H. Walton along with son J. Harvey, a University of St. Andrews doctoral student.

“We cannot reconstruct a moral system from the Torah or any part of it,” they contend. “That is not what it [the Torah] is designed to do.” Rather, “order in society was the goal, and it was achieved through wisdom,” not Biblical “legislation” or “rules.” The Old Testament God was simply not “imposing morality or social ideals on Israel through the stipulations of the Torah.”

Writers should, of course, join me in reading the complete book to fairly grasp the argument, but chapter titles well summarize the key points.

“We cannot gain moral knowledge or build a system of ethics based on reading the Torah in context and deriving principles from it.”

“The ancient Israelites would not have understood the Torah as providing divine moral instruction.”

“Torah cannot provide proof texts for solving issues today.”

The Waltons specify that this holds for the venerated Ten Commandments, and for Leviticus 18, where God’s “statutes” abominate homosexual acts as well as adultery, incest and bestiality. Regarding same-sex activity and gender identity, the authors warn against extracting “Biblical principles” to “substantiate a particular position today as if that position is thereby built on moral absolutes.”

That should provoke hot responses from traditionalists, Jews included. The book follows the shelving of Old Testament dictates proposed last year by another prominent evangelical, megachurch preacher Andy Stanley.

Backing up a bit, Wheaton is an influential evangelical campus where Walton and colleagues affirm that scriptures “are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.” But then, the book asks, what did the scriptural writers actually intend to say to audiences in their long-ago ancient context? And what is the Old Testament saying to us these millenniums later?

Relying heavily upon other writings from the ancient Near East, the Waltons say the Old Testament reflects that wider culture in most instances. Though the modern West emphasizes individual rights, God’s oracles were given to upbuild Israel as a community and foster good social order as then understood, to forestall chaos. Thus the Ten Commandments opposed adultery, false witness, murder and thievery, like neighboring cultures did, to prevent disruptions of ancient society.

Christianity has always embraced the Old Testament as part of its authoritative Bible, but the numerous Old Testament statutes have posed questions for the church. Why did God command Israel not to cook a kid in milk, or not to mix woolen with linen threads? The usual Christian view, rejected by the Waltons, is that Old Testament moral principles are valid for all time, although the elaborate ritual and civil rules were abrogated by the loss of Israel’s nationhood and Temple and the rise of Christianity, which transcends national and ethnic boundaries.

The Waltons say such a formula cannot be applied consistently, for one reason because matters that might be considered moral are intermingled with others. For instance, Leviticus 18 includes both that sexual code and a ban on sex with a menstruating woman, another head-scratcher for moderns.

Jewish writers in the New Testament continued abhorrence of same-sex behavior, so there’s an obvious question reporters will want to pursue with Professor Walton. Does that same-sex aversion in the New Testament bind Christians 2,000 years later, and if not why not? Also, if all those Old Testament tenets are limited to ancient times and cultures, what’s the value of these writings for today’s Christians?

Contacts: John Walton – john.walton@wheaton.edu or 630 – 752-5276. IVP publicity 800 – 846-4587 or Alisse Wissman (print), awissman@ivpress.com, or Krista Clayton (broadcast and online), kclayton@ivpress.com.

A statement released by John Walton:

In my forthcoming book, The Lost World of the Torah, I explored the genre of Torah in relationship to what we learn from the ancient Near East. I proposed, among other things, that the Torah’s purpose in its context is to provide covenant stipulations, not a comprehensive moral system. That doesn’t mean that the Torah has no relevance for our modern thinking about morality — far from it. The book is primarily interested in sharpening our methodology of interpretation.

Richard Ostling’s GetReligion column addressed a question that I do not address in the book — how the Torah relates to same-sex marriage. I suppose in 2019, this is the question that is foremost for many. However, I hold the traditional, conservative view on that issue, which is in line with the statements of faith of both Wheaton College and the publisher, IVP Academic.

My point is that our traditional approach to the Torah is often too simplistic and can be inconsistent. I believe we are still firmly hitched to the Old Testament and consider it essential as God’s authoritative revelation to us, which has been the mainstay and anchor of my 40 years of teaching, as anyone who reads my books would know.

This article was published at Get Religion.