“When Christian Ethics aren’t Christian Ethics”?: Response to Matt Oxley, Part 1

The title of the post I will be responding to is “When Christian Ethics aren’t Christian Ethics.” According to fundamentalist atheist Matt Oxley, “Christian Ethics” are, “Biblical Ethics and, more specifically, the ethics demonstrated in the New Testament and by the early Christian Church as described in the New Testament.” Presumably, Matt means sometimes what people call Christian ethics are not actually biblical, demonstrated in the New Testament, or by the early Christian Church as described in the New Testament.

Matt complains about a radio program he has been listening to and writes, “Stopping abortion, refusing homosexual equality, guarding capitalism, and  protecting both monuments and prayer to their god in the public square are examples of these supposed Christian ethics I’ve heard lauded on this program and in my daily conversations with believers.” He questions, “But are they truly? Are they even Biblical principals [sic]?”

Matt’s first argument concerns abortion. He asserts, “if you believe abortion is evil because the Bible says so, I think you’ve chosen the wrong document to argue from , because not only does the Bible NOT condemn abortion, as we’ll see, it promotes it.” Quite the bold claim, so we will see whether or not Matt actually backs it up.

Matt makes the following claim:

Pro-life advocates use such verses from the Bible to justify their morally superior position as:

Luke 1:44b , “…the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”

Jeremiah 1:4-5 ,  Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, ” Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”

and

Exodus 21:22-24, If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

He comments on these verses, writing, “These verses on their own might lead one to think that the authors of this text believed in the sanctity of the fetus in the womb.” Well yes, they do. But Matt just leaves the verses alone. He does not explain them. Instead, he posts a series of verses out of context complete with links to…“The Skeptics Annotated Bible”! He asks, “do these themes exist consistently throughout the Bible?” His answer, presumably, is “No.” Why? He claims, “Not only were infants not counted in the census of Numbers 3:15-16 until they were at least 1 month old, they held no value until that time as well (Leviticus 27:6).”

But Matt is missing the boat here. He is supposed to be arguing against the “sanctity of the fetus in the womb.” The verses he provides support no such argument.

In Numbers, the census is with regard to the children of Levi, which is to say, the priestly class. The reason for the census here was to determine who would be devoted to serve in the temple, and, as Levites, exempted from military duty. Now, those not yet born, could neither serve in the temple nor fight in war. The purpose of the census pertains to service, not to the value of the yet unborn infant. Analogously, children are “counted” in various ways in the United States once they are born, but still mean something while they are in the womb. So for example, my daughter did not receive her Social Security number until she was born, but had my wife been murdered while still pregnant, it would have counted as a double homicide. Likewise, in Leviticus, the child is devoted to the service of the temple. The passages Matt merely cites, but does not quote or exegete within their contexts, make no claims about the sanctity of unborn life.

Matt continues, “Furthermore, there are numerous occasions in which YHVH gave direct orders to kill infants or fetuses still in the womb: Hosea 13:16 – Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”

Unfortunately for Matt, no command or orders are ever given for anyone to kill infants still in the womb in Hosea 13:16. Matt is making the very basic error of confusing descriptive and prescriptive texts. God is merely describing what He will do, not prescribing what we should do. Moreover, the desolation of Samaria is a particular situation, not a universal proclamation concerning the ethics of abortion.

Matt does the same thing when he quotes from Numbers, writing, “Numbers 31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Matt takes a direct command for Israelites to kill people in a particular situation and act of war and attempts to derive a universal principle from it. But that is neither how believers are to read the text, nor is it how they derive ethics from the Bible, nor is it a valid inference!

Matt boasts, “it doesn’t seem like the pro-life position is very much a Biblical one.” And why not, Matt? He doesn’t say. Remember, Matt is familiar with texts popularly used to defend the sanctity of human persons in the womb. But he does not address them. Rather, following the exceedingly ignorant people at Skeptics Annotated Bible, he attempts to make a number of fallacious inferences from biblical texts that do not address the status of the unborn baby at all.

Matt asks, “What if the Bible included the equivalent of a morning after pill that was administered by a priest in a ritual used to determine whether or not she had been defiled by another man?”

He continues as follows:

It does in Numbers 5:21-31:

21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot , and thy belly to swell; 22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell , and thy thigh to rot : And the woman shall say , Amen, amen. 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse : and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. 25 Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar: 26 And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. 27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled , and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell , and her thigh shall rot : and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28 And if the woman be not defiled , but be clean; then she shall be free , and shall conceive seed. 29 This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled ; 30 Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. 31 Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.

Many readers will proclaim that this simply isn’t the case, that this is some sort of godly endeavor to determine whether or not a woman sinned, but read it again. This is precisely what happens with chemically induced abortions – the uterus swells and contracts and issues all of the tissue lining it, including the zygote.

Actually, I did “read it again,” and Matt is well off the mark here as well. Step back and think about what Matt is claiming here. He states that the ancient Hebrew priests had a “morning after pill.” Not only that, but it acts in “precisely” the same way as a modern “morning after pill.” Apparently Matt believes the ancient Hebrews had the means to perform “chemically induced abortions.” Apparently they had the knowledge, and means, to not only obtain, but administer high doses of estrogen, progestin, and levonorgestrel to women caught in adulteries. Never mind that the text actually tells us what the “bitter water” consists of. It is dust from the floor of the temple, water, and scrapings from a document. (Numbers 5:17) So far as I know, none of these elements normally contain estrogen, progestin, or levonorgestrel. Moreover, while the morning after pill can cause abdominal pain, it does not rot thighs, so far as I know. That would be rather inconvenient, after all. And how Matt would even begin to explain why guilty women have all the effects of the ancient Hebrew morning after pill made of dust and water while innocent women do not is beyond me. Perhaps it is Matt who needs to “read it again.”

Matt continues by turning to the topic of homosexuality. Unfortunately for Matt, he is big on claims and weak on support for those claims. In fact, he provides no support for several of his claims. He writes, “there have been no credible reasons to find any possible or likely harms that might come about as a result of homosexual marriage.” Going on, he writes, “Even when the excuse comes down to the fear that children adopted into such a family might be exposed to dangerous things and end up with some grave abnormality as adults, these claims fall flat in light of any study that’s ever been done to determine the validity of such a claim.” I won’t address these claims, since Matt does not provide any support for them. However, he does incorrectly imply that the alleged consequences of some practice especially as interpreted by an unbelieving atheist have some bearing upon a Christian ethic. Matt writes about an alleged lack of perceived harms, but a lack of perceived harms is not justification for a practice in a Christian view of ethics. Remember? The Bible is the source of Christian ethics, according to Matt. So he has inadvertently switched over to an external critique of Christian ethics in his comment, not an internal one.

Matt writes, “Even with perceived harms, those who calls [sic] themselves a believer [sic] must ask whether or not this is a fight they are actually instructed to take on and, like abortion, any serious attempt at determining the answer to this will end in a profoundly loud NO!” Again, ipse dixit. Matt capitalizes “NO” as though it makes his case for him. It doesn’t. Christians are not called to roll over. The Bible does not call us to “come out and be ye separate” from ethical or political discussions. Rather, the Bible encourages us to enter them informed by Scripture.

Next, Matt proclaims, “The Bible DOES indeed discuss homosexuality, it NEVER discusses the marriage of homosexuals.” Well of course not. There is no such thing as homosexual marriage in the Bible. Marriage is defined as taking place between one man and one woman. This is nothing new.

Matt goes on, “Once again, it’s unfortunate for the believer that the Bible says the same thing about homosexuality that it does about polyester blends and putting cheese on your burger: It’s against the Law, corrupts you, and makes you unclean.” I do wonder if Matt is really this ignorant of a biblical hermeneutic and the Christian response to his contention, or if he is merely being dishonest. He should come out and say one way or the other. Matt claims to have a good knowledge of the Bible. He spends a lot of time piously rebuking Christians regarding what he, as an enlightened atheist, thinks Christians should or should not do. However, unless he is just a liar, Matt indicates here that he does not know much, if anything, about a Christian understanding of Scripture. If he did, then he would know that particular elements of the law are fulfilled in Christ, such as ceremonial acts of holiness regarding shellfish and clothing made from mixed material and the like. Christians are not merely picking and choosing what they choose to believe in the Bible. They believe it all, but they also offer a hermeneutic for the proper understanding of how the Bible fits together as one coherent whole. There are moral principles in the Old Testament, such as the abhorrent wickedness of homosexuality. Many of these principles are also picked up again in the New Testament. The one regarding homosexuality, again, is a great example. And by the way, I thought Matt was addressing the New Testament, not the Old?

Matt claims, “it’s easier to pick and choose what you want to reject – it’s even easier when society makes it permissible to bully and condemn people that aren’t within the accepted status quo.” Note the switch to accusatory, emotional language. Suddenly Christians are bullies who condemn people. Why? Because they believe the Bible? Because they want God’s best for other people? Because they care enough to tell someone when those people are in the wrong? Who is being a bully and condemning people again?

Matt goes on, “Furthermore, the few verses that actually discuss homosexuality and condemn it apply directly to the nation of Israel.” Note, by the way, that Matt has not mentioned a single verse yet regarding this topic. He has not quoted any. He has not done any exegesis. He just makes bold, sweeping claims and expects us to accept them on his say so. I feel sorry for those who follow him. They are being misled, and discouraged from thinking critically about the topics Matt is addressing here.

The law was given to Israel. That much is clear. However, other nations were responsible for following the law of God. They were punished when they did not. They were made negative examples to us. This happens repeatedly throughout the Bible. Matt has no support for his radical claim that biblical ethics and in particular the condemnation of homosexuality do not apply outside of Israel. The law of God reflects the nature of God, and it persists throughout Scripture, even in the New Testament where it is, indeed, delivered to Gentiles as well as Jews.

What about Christians in the New Testament? Matt claims, “Christians in the New Testament weren’t people with any sort of power over the political system, they had no ability nor intent to control the morality of others – unless, of course, it was through converting them.” Matt is overly confident that no government officials or politicians were Christians. He also neglects to see that even if that were true, it says nothing about whether or not it is right or wrong to attempt to use a political system to promote the well-being of those who seek to do good. Indeed, many Christians today do have the ability and the intent to exert power within the political system. In the United States we are all granted that privilege to a certain extent.

Matt’s true colors are showing here. He wants to have his say in the realm of ethics and politics, and he wants Christians to shut up. Sorry Matt. No can do!

I commented on Matt’s post and wrote the following:

“I appreciate you questioning the sources of ethical stances within evangelicalism. That’s important to do. I am curious though, what ethics books, if any, you consulted for your post?”

His reply?

“Had I consulted any ethics sources I would have stated so.”

Which is to say, Matt hasn’t actually studied the topics he attempts to address. That is almost certainly why his post consists primarily of ipse dixit, vague references to ethical principles in Scripture, assumed statistical data, poor hermeneutics, and just a general ignorance of all things Christian and ethical. Matt hasn’t done his homework, and it shows. I hope he will consider the problems I have raised with the first half of his post, and either revise it, or take it down. But I also doubt that will happen.


4 Comments

Dane

Not to mention that Matt has to use the Christian worldview to try and explain his. I am glad to see you posting in defense of the faith.

RazorsKiss

Sounds a lot like Matthew Vines’ assertions that Dr. White addresses here. I think I’ve heard every single one of these “assume your own position and call it an objection” assertions before – and their refutation – just on the Dividing Line 😉 It never ceases to amaze me just how little they bother to listen to what we say in response to their arguments.

Jim Etchison

C. L., I started this response a few days ago and have run out of time, but I’ll comment with what I’ve written so far:

Quote:
“He is supposed to be arguing against the sanctity of the fetus in the womb.”
End Quote.

Matt was never making that argument, and by attacking this fictional position, you’re using the “Straw man” fallacy. Matt’s argument states that the Bible is at best inconsistent on the subject, so therefore the pro-life cause and “Christian ethics” do not have a valid connection. All Matt has to prove to achieve his goal is Biblical inconsistency of “fetal sanctity.” I think he does that quite well. How Matt personally feels about fetal sanctity is not important for his argument.

But does Matt prove Biblical inconsistency regarding fetal sanctity? I think he does. You managed to chip away at a few of his statements, but the foundation of his argument is still entirely sound. First, I’ll say that your refutation of the census in Numbers might be adequate. That a fetus isn’t counted in a census might not mean that it’s not “sanctified.” But from there, your arguments become entirely inadequate.

Quote:
“Matt continues, “Furthermore, there are numerous occasions in which YHVH gave direct orders to kill infants or fetuses still in the womb: Hosea 13:16 – Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”
Unfortunately for Matt, no command or orders are ever given for anyone to kill infants still in the womb in Hosea 13:16. Matt is making the very basic error of confusing descriptive and prescriptive texts. God is merely describing what He will do, not prescribing what we should do. Moreover, the desolation of Samaria is a particular situation, not a universal proclamation concerning the ethics of abortion.”
End Quote.

This does nothing to refute Matt’s point. Did God tell the Israelites to kill fetuses, or did God just *want* to rip them to shreds? If either one is true—whether it’s descriptive or prescriptive—I don’t think we’re required to look any further. If fetuses are not to be killed, if they are pure and perfect, then why would God want to kill them? This proves that God does not see infants as sanctified. The only way to say otherwise is to say that either this passage is not “True Scripture” or that God has since changed his mind on the subject.

Quote:
Matt does the same thing when he quotes from Numbers, writing, “Numbers 31:17 Now therefore kill … every woman that hath known man by lying with him.” Matt takes a direct command for Israelites to kill people in a particular situation and act of war and attempts to derive a universal principle from it. But that is neither how believers are to read the text, nor is it how they derive ethics from the Bible, nor is it a valid inference!
End Quote.

You’re saying Biblical Morality changes with context. Murdering a fetus is okay if its mother was born into the wrong family, but is it specifically not okay when the baby was conceived out of rape? The Amalekite fetus is not protected from abortion, but all other babies are. This passage continues to serve Matt’s argument, because it shows (drum roll …) inconsistency. These are not the words of a God who created a universe where an unborn person is somehow different from born people. This is how a God behaves when he doesn’t care about anyone but the Israelites—kind of (exactly) how the author of Numbers might have felt.

Quote:
“Matt boasts, “it doesn’t seem like the pro-life position is very much a Biblical one.” And why not, Matt?”
End Quote.

I bet it’s because Matt sees moral inconsistency for what it is. His logic is sound:
Premise A: God wanted to rip unborn fetuses to shreds
Premise B: God wanted to kill the mothers of unborn fetuses.
Conclusion: God is not consistently pro-life.

Even if you throw in Premise C: God knew Jacob and John the Baptists while they were in the womb, the conclusion is still entirely sound.

In order to confabulate a “Biblical Morality,” Christians have to tolerate and explain this inconsistency if they believe The Bible to be inerrant—much the way you are attempting here. Saying a scripture is descriptive or prescriptive doesn’t nullify that the God who supposedly hates abortion did, in his recent past, want to rip babies to pieces. Matt successfully proved was the Biblical inconsistency on the subject.

Quote:
“Remember, Matt is familiar with texts popularly used to defend the sanctity of human persons in the womb. But he does not address them.”
End Quote.

He quoted three of those scriptures. Luke was talking specifically about Jesus (perhaps John the Baptist?). Jeremiah was talking specifically about the prophet himself, not all babies. Exodus is talking about a man causing a married woman’s baby to be aborted. This clearly did not apply to any non-Israelite, so can easily be seen as a sin against the father’s right to progeny or a sin against Israel’s commandment to populate the earth. None of these scriptures specifically state that all babies are sanctified before they are born. Do you have any other examples of scriptures that clearly state how unborn babies are special in some way? It needs to be *clear* because God’s example on the subject is very clear: if the baby is among the enemy, he wants to rip them to shreds.

So let’s move on to when a Hebrew man suspected his wife of getting pregnant by another man.

Quote:
Apparently Matt believes the ancient Hebrews had the means to perform “chemically induced abortions.” Apparently they had the knowledge, and means, to not only obtain, but administer high doses of estrogen, progestin, and levonorgestrel …
End Quote:

I’m not sure what Matt believes on the subject, but whether or not the concoction worked (sounds like it didn’t) it was still a social deterrent to keep women from committing adultery—using the threat of exposure and abortion to shamefully expose them. Clearly the fetus in question is not important here. Kill it if it’s a bastard! What’s important is the man’s honor. This little experiment probably worked very well at establishing the man’s honor because the bellies never swelled and the thighs never rotted. It seems obvious how the social mechanism worked, and we can glean that the Israelites did not believe in fetal sanctity. And those who believe that this passage is God’s work can, by inference, assume the same of God.

Quote:
And how Matt would even begin to explain why guilty women have all the effects of the ancient Hebrew morning after pill made of dust and water while innocent women do not is beyond me. Perhaps it is Matt who needs to “read it again.”
End Quote:

Of course it didn’t work, but the real question is, do you believe it worked? You are the one proffering Biblical apology for the Glory of God. Based on your statement above, I’d say you don’t believe it worked. So you should explain why The Bible espouses hokum and witchery that doesn’t work. The Bible clearly states that this concoction will only work on the guilty. There’s a long history of this type of trial. Trial by Fire, trial by water, trial by morsel … people believed those worked thousands of years after the above passage was written. It doesn’t matter whether they work—it only matters if people *believed* it worked. You believe The Bible is true, but you don’t even believe this.

But we digress. The point here is that The Bible shows abortion to be a viable outcome in the case of adultery. Matt’s argument is ever stronger.

I’m out of time on this and can’t continue, but I look forward to your response!

Matthias McMahon

Hey Jim,

Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. With permission from Chris, I’ve taken it upon myself to respond.

You take issue with Chris’s statement: “He is supposed to be arguing against the sanctity of the fetus in the womb.” And you call this a straw man. But is it? What is Chris identifying as the argument? Well, in his post, Matt clearly alleges an inconsistency in the Bible with regard to the sanctity of a fetus in the womb. This means Matt is alleging the Bible both affirms it and denies it. As such, Matt gives verses which show the Bible affirms it and gives verses which supposedly show the Bible denies it. Matt is arguing that the Bible denies the sanctity of an unborn child, and this is precisely what Chris is referring to: the part of Matt’s argument where he shows the Bible’s alleged denial of (or “argu[ment] against”) the sanctity of the fetus in the womb. If this is what Matt’s argument requires, then the verses he cites do not supply it. Matt is assuming it while he is supposed to be arguing it.

You ask, “But does Matt prove Biblical inconsistency regarding fetal sanctity? I think he does.” Once again, the denial must be argued successfully in order for the inconsistency to stand. This is precisely what Matt fails to do, and precisely what Chris points out. The basis upon which Matt alleges the inconsistency is not one that reflects an accurate understanding of the passages he cites. I don’t believe you’re following the argument correctly.

Of course, Matt is arguing that Christian ethics aren’t very Christian, identifies Christian ethics as those principles derived from the New Testament, and then uses the Old Testament to try to prove his point. It may be that Matt intends to say “Christian Ethics” *should be* derived from both Old and New Testaments, but he never does clearly say this, and so we’re left to guess.

Moving on, with regard to the Hosea passage, Chris is intentionally highlighting the fact that Matt says there’s an “order” where is none, because we have many people we respond to that make careless inferences. In this case, he has blatantly confused description and prescription. However, you are right that Christians’ ethics are also derived from the way God regards certain things, regardless of whether there is a command concerning them.

This brings us to your next assumption: that God’s punishment of something entails it isn’t “sanctified.” You state, “This proves that God does not see infants as sanctified.” The reason the life of infants is sacred is because the life of human beings is sacred, by virtue of being created in the image of God. There’s no special status afforded to infants that isn’t also afforded to all humanity, though special care should be taken by default for anyone whose life is fully dependent upon another. God told the Israelites to kill fully grown human beings as well. We derive from this that, through sin, man has so corrupted the image into which he was created that being put to death is sometimes a suitable punishment. So your argument that God doesn’t consider life sacred falls flat. In the case of an unfaithful wife, her sin has also caused the life of a child to be taken, and she would never be able to bear children again. Keep in mind that “murdering” a fetus is always wrong, as “murder” is always wrong. However, not all “killing” is “murder.” Murder is the *unjustified* taking of another’s life. Capital punishment is “killing” but it is not “murder.” Keep that in mind so you don’t end up begging the question. (And, though this should be obvious, capital punishment is not abortion either)

“You’re saying Biblical Morality changes with context.” He’s saying nothing of the sort. Chris is saying interpretations differ when contexts differ. This is usually self-evident, and yet when the Bible is involved, atheists have a nasty habit of ignoring such basic rules of inference. The only inconsistency that exists lies between the way you’re viewing the text, and the way the text is meant to be understood.

When you speak of the “social deterrent,” you are merely importing your own conjectures into the text. You’re not looking at the text on its own terms, as you and Matt were purporting to do at the beginning. And so there’s no need for Chris or I to respond to those things. You insist that the things the Bible said happened, didn’t happen, so I’m not interested in exchanging mere nay-sayings with you.

Regards,
Matthias


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