Sola Scriptura….

In what sense does the Bible inform our understanding of ‘goodness’?

by Simon Aston

I am perhaps not unusual in that throughout my schooldays I shared the journey of youthful enquiry with more than one teacher who acquired a kind of legendary status. One in particular comes to mind. A chorus of shushing would make its way down the corridor as the advanced lookout warned of a sighting. He was a history master who imprinted upon every fibre of his callow charges a demeanour of terrifying strictness and, having been informed, well in advance, of his impending arrival, the hubbub of the lower fifth rapidly dispersed, as stillness and quiet descended, and we made what we fancied was convincing display that we had, all along, been dutifully at our studies. Like many a legendary teacher, he had legendary saying, and the return of essays was invariably accompanied by the admonishment to, ‘define your terms of reference gentlemen’. What, may one ask, is meant by that word ‘goodness’? Let me illustrate what I mean, by borrowing some famous lines from Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end which they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental co-locations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris the universe in ruins…. all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.[i]

Accordingly, if there is no God, no life beyond the grave, no eternal home; if such thoughts are a fantasy, with no place in the rational scheme of things, if religious diktats are no more than crumbs of comfort, no more real than those that might, had they remained on the ground, have led Hansel and Gretel safely home.  In what sense is it meaningful to refer to anything as ‘good’?  So the challenge is this… How can we find a place, in the material world, for the spiritual values, which alone will provide the hope and meaning, the loss of which Russell laments?

At the heart of this question, lies the dilemma illustrated in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’. It is a coliseum of learning, nearly all the major thinkers of classical-times parade across the canvas; and, at its centre, are those two great figures from antiquity Plato and Aristotle.  Plato is pointing upwards, to the heavens, and Aristotle downwards, towards the material world.  Plato points to the source of eternal purpose and meaning, to a world of moral absolutes and universal values; but his problem is that the heavens have not communicated with him, it is all speculation.  Aristotle, by contrast points towards the material world, a world that can be measured, a world of particulars, real things, real people.  His difficulty is that, in the end, these have no lasting meaning; as there are no eternal values, which can only be found in the heavens.

At a recent lecture I was shown a video campaigning on behalf the charity Tear Fund; in the course of which a link was made between man-made climate change and poverty. The appeal was entirely in accord with Christian virtues of charity and ecological concern; but the argument presented turned not on the Christianity, but upon the Science; the evidence for man-made climate change. The appeal for good conduct rested, ultimately, on experiment, not Scripture. Writing in the immediate post-Reformation milieu Francis Bacon said that the purpose of the Arts and Science was to recover that which was lost by the fall. Revelation is limited, and this leaves vast scope for human endeavour, which is wonderful; but the Arts and Science have their limitations in turn. For although they may aid us in doing ‘good’, they cannot (as we have seen from Russell) give us; either a coherent understanding of ‘goodness’, or a reason for caring in the first place.

I have before me a copy of CS Lewis’s `The Abolition of Man`. Inside the front cover it contains the following words: ‘And the master, he said, he who sets to work on a different strand destroys the whole fabric’; Confucius, Analects. Now it is undoubtedly true, that the Bible is not unique in pointing humanity to the idea that there are absolute truths of right and wrong; other religious traditions and great philosophers would make similar claims; and I am not going to argue that it (the Bible) stands alone in helping us understand what is good, but I am going to argue that it has a unique place in helping us answer such questions.

On Rogation Sunday in 2010, as I joined the congregation of one of Wren’s fine City churches I was, in the course of the sermon, unexpectedly, ‘on the edge of my pew’….to quote from Rector Peter Mullen’s words that morning:

Where the eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and their prettified imitations in Hampstead drawing rooms, have preached otherworldliness and renunciation, a world of pure spirit, and where their modern opposite, the creed of materialism, insists there is nothing beyond earthly satisfactions, Christian civilisation has given us the only metaphysical principle upon which lasting coherence can be built: this is the vision of reality in which spirit and matter are at one: the Incarnation: the Word made Flesh: the God who is also Man.’[ii]

To return to Raphael’s painting, Plato’s world of the spirit has, in Christian understanding, communicated with Aristotle’s world of matter, and we can not only argue,  as Confucius, Plato and Aristotle did, that good and bad have real meaning but, unlike them, we can do so on the basis of a principle that undergirds and sustains such a view. But in order to be fully clothed, and not left naked, to whistle against the icy wind in Russell’s universe of unyielding despair, we must understand something else. We must see that it is not enough for matter and spirit to be at one; the world of the spirit must communicate truth and meaning; the Word must become Flesh; it will not help us much if God is silent. A sailor navigating the seas in ancient days would rely upon the North Star for his sense of direction, if cloud covered the star it would still be there, but would lose all value in assisting the mariner to find his bearings. To act as the essential reference point, without which any sense of direction was lost, it was vital that the Star be visible. It will not aid us in doing good if God sits behind a cloud shrouded in mystery, it must also be true that He has come out from behind to speak truth and meaning to us. It is not only God’s eternal existence, but the proposition of Revelation, from spirit to matter, that is required as effective medication to Russell’s despair.

It is a matter widely acknowledged that Christianity has led to a dazzling array of cultural achievement; and, to state the obvious, such goodness could scarcely have been accomplished had Christian people not found instruction from the Bible; here are just a few examples.

A.N. Whitehead the famous Cambridge mathematician said Christianity ‘was the birth mother of Modern Science’.  It was, he argued, no coincidence that Science arose in Christian Europe and not in ancient Greece, Egypt, or the East; as its rise was inextricably linked with the Christian insistence upon the rationality of God.

Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome, and were accompanied by the virtual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe.  When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so against strenuous Papal opposition. When William Wilberforce and the abolitionists finally succeeded the cost of the British Empire was a half of its annual budget. Historians have been desperately trying to figure out why they were willing to sacrifice so much, but no one has succeeded in showing that those who campaigned for an end to the slave trade stood to gain in any way, or that the measures were other than costly.  Slavery was abolished because it was wrong, and Christians were the leaders in saying so.

More recently, Matthew Parris, writing in The Times, under the title, ‘As an atheist I truly believe Africa needs God’, alludes to the Christian underpinnings of liberty.

Christianity, post-Reformation, with its teaching of a direct personal two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and not subordinate to any other human being, offers something to hold on to, for those anxious to cast off the crushing tribal group think. That is why, and how, it liberates.  Those who want Africa to walk tall amidst 21st-century competition must not kid themselves that material means, or even the know-how that accompanies these, or what we call development, will alone make the change.  Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and a machete’.[iii]

The idea that the Bible, as Revelation, is indispensable to liberty may be counterintuitive; but unlimited freedom is indistinguishable from chaos and anarchy. In this regard, it is perhaps telling that, following the ceremony to displace the Church and enthrone the ‘goddess of reason’ in Notre Dame, the revolutionaries of France had to ask the Catholic Church to return. The presence of the religious conviction that there were absolute standards of morality was indispensable to restoration of good order.  A later Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre (1946), was to give the lie, to the enlightenment notion, that reason alone could provide any sort of basis for moral absolutes:

For since we ignore the commandments of God and all values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary. Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view, or the action, of anyone else’.[iv]

Accordingly, liberation movements must seek the exercise of freedom within certain bounds; and their great challenge is to define absolute boundaries, without resorting to oppression; and, as Sartre so helpfully points out, such absolutes are only determined in the light of God’s revealed law. 

It might be thought, that this analysis overlooks the dangers of theocracy on the one hand, and the virtues of democracy on the other; but neither objection will stand. The Reformation stood against the theocracy of the established church, on the basis that God’s law could be read and determined by ordinary men and women, and was no longer the sole prerogative of an ecclesiastical hierarchy; a trend entirely consistent with democracy. To suggest that liberty can flourish on the basis of a democratic ideal, shorn of any sense of higher moral obligation, is clearly at odds with the recent lessons of history; such a view leaves us unable to condemn the Revolutionary atrocities committed in the name of Rousseau’s ‘general will’, or the election of the Nazis in Germany. Democracy may condemn oppression and espouse liberty, but there is no guarantee that it will do either of these things, as it is simply an expression of popular human will. God’s revealed law provides that higher moral obligation.

Simon Aston
12th October 2012

[i] ‘A Free Man’s Worship’, Bertrand Russell 1918; in Mysticism and Logic, Routledge, 1986
[ii]   Sermon Archive, Rogation Sunday 2010
[iii] www.thetimesonline Matthew Parris, Thursday 8th January 2009
[iv] ‘Existentialism is Humanism’ Jean-Paul Sartre 1946 in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Jean-Paul Sartre, Ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989
Simon Aston, 16/10/2012