The problem is many of the pressing daily decisions we must make were unheard of to those to whom the biblical authors wrote, and many of the daily concerns they faced were quite different from our daily preoccupations.
For example, eating meat that has been offered to an idol, a concern, Paul responds to in 1 Corinthians 8, is not a problem I have ever confronted in my ministry. I did face a somewhat similar situation when asked by pastors in Vietnam how they can, when invited to a family feast to revere their ancestors, honor both their theological convictions and their Christian commitment to honor their parents, as stipulated in the Ten Commandments. We took the teaching in 1 Corinthians 8, along with passages about family, and crafted a strategy that would honor both these teachings in their contemporary situation. They had to balance the competing demands of these passages in a way that honored the full counsel of scripture. This was not a job for the lazy or unimaginative.
In another example, Moses relates a clear teaching on who may and may not eat the sacred offerings and who may and may not come into contact with those offerings. There is even guidance about what to do if one eats the offering accidentally (Leviticus 22). I have had questions about the observance of communion but no queries about sacred offerings.
Jesus gives clear guidance on the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24), yet I have never had a question about paying the Temple tax in all my years of teaching Sunday School. I guess people don’t pay that anymore.
Nor has there ever been a conflict, in my experience, over fraternizing with someone who collects government taxes (Luke 5:27). It just never comes up.
My point is, many of the daily pressing questions of the people to whom the Bible was first directed are not our questions. Likewise, many of our concerns were unknown to them: global warming, gun control, cloning, and the availability of health insurance, to name a few. (One concern that runs through the entire Bible and is front and center in in our day as well is economic inequality; on that issue we have clear and timely mandates.)
On the other hand, many of these original readers’ deepest concerns are ours as well: greed, generosity, loving our neighbors, honesty, forgiveness, grief, economic justice, caring for our families, and how do we use power. In many ways our lives are not so different. Still we must often make an imaginative leap from the particulars of their situation to the particulars of our situation because these concerns come clothed in different in different circumstances.
The Bible can still guide us even though our daily concerns may be quite different. I have walked with many churches through conflicts. Picking and eating grain on the Sabbath has never been a bone of contention in these disagreements (Matt. 12:1-8). Jesus saw this immediate controversy over Sabbath behavior through the lens of the competing claims of mercy and sacrifice. (Spoiler alert: He comes down clearly on the side of mercy.) The tension between mercy and sacrifice has often been at the heart of many church conflicts. One has to imaginatively extrapolate from the grain issue to the matter at hand in the conflict. It is not a direct application, as in “just do what the Bible says," but one can find some direction in this story.
How would our lives be different if rather than looking for some proof text we asked what is the merciful thing to do? We must with our hearts and our minds fully engage with the Spirit and apply ancient values to new situations. This is hard work.
The Bible is not just an answer book to which we take our questions and then find a simple unequivocable answer for all people at all times in all places. In other words, the Bible is not for lazy unimaginative people who wish to “Google” it for one sentence answers. It is for people who are willing to struggle with multiple texts written to a wide variety of people in a diversity of situations, each with their own distinctive preoccupations.
Under the guidance of the Spirit, serious Bible readers discover values, priorities, and principles that can be applied to new situations. The Pharisees in Matthew 12 were not willing to struggle with the inherent tension between mercy and sacrifice in the Hebrews scriptures as they sorted out picking grain on the Sabbath, thus they ended up condemning the innocent (Matt 12:7). They were dull minded and more interested in justifying themselves than in discovering the wisdom of the full counsel of scripture.
So to my original question: What does Jesus think about nuclear power? This is a good test case for us to apply our Bible reading skills. We must extrapolate from what the Bible says about related concerns. The Bible tells us we are to be good caretakers of God’s creation; this gets at the issue of the destruction of the ozone generated by coal-fired power plants vs. the dangers of nuclear waste. We are to love and care for our neighbor: this raises up the safety of the workers in nuclear power plants and those who live around those plants. Yet, affordable energy is a positive thing that enhances my neighbor’s life, whom I am to love. Like so many of our concerns, we have to balance multiple biblical themes to find our way.
We are confronted with decisions of which the ancients never dreamed. So we must work to find answers. Since this is an imaginative enterprise guided by the Holy Spirit, we will not always agree on everything. The Apostle Paul gives us some good guidance as we find our way through life:
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:8-13).
Faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these being love. These are not bad guides to follow for now, particularly the thing about love.
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State