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July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 35–37 

Response to Elmer Martens

Response to “The Problem of Old Testament Ethics” by Elmer A. Martens 6/3 (1977): 23–35.

Ben C. Ollenburger

The subject of OT ethics has long been a perplexing one, and one that has not received much attention. We should be grateful to Elmer Martens for a masterful job of describing the nature of OT ethics and reflecting on the hermeneutical problems. My response to his paper is primarily positive. I will begin by picking out some points in the paper with which I want to express agreement and which I believe need emphasis.

A. OT ethics works out of a context of liberation. The paper emphasizes that OT ethics is an ethics of response, and that response is to Yahweh. Although the covenant construct may be more our invention than Israel’s, it is helpful in emphasizing the relational character of biblical ethics. That is, Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, established by {36} liberation from Egypt, is the basis for every moral demand. This has often been referred to as the “Gift/Task” pattern by Christian ethicists. The liberating act of God is that which grounds every moral obligation experienced by Israel.

B. OT ethics is not legalistic. That is, neither people nor acts are judged moral or good because they conform to laws or regulations. This is a point which needs to receive constant emphasis because (i) it is radical in nature, and (ii) it raises a host of questions about the interpretation of passages which are explicit ethical commands. Jesus’ claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath—and that the Sabbath was for man and not vice-versa—is the liberating perspective from which our ethics (and our interpretation) must proceed.

C. OT ethics emphasizes virtue as well as obligation. Recent writing in Christian ethics has addressed the question of whether morality is principally concerned with obligations (i. e. obedience to duty) or with virtue (i. e. character). While attempts to construct a pure ethics of virtue seem to be unsuccessful, there has emerged a growing consensus that any ethics which omits character, disposition, or virtue as fundamental is deficient.

Martens notes an overriding concern in the OT with the development of character (virtue) as basic to the moral life. This has some broad implications for the way in which we do ethics or evaluate moral judgments.

D. OT ethics is community ethics. The Old and New Testaments, and the Free Church tradition, emphasize the social nature of ethical and hermeneutical reflection. Martens speaks well in suggesting that the Church is a vital factor in making ethical/moral judgments. This means that there must be community discernment in establishing the meaning of the text and in the application of its demands.

Additionally, I would like to address some criticisms, or at least questions, to the paper.

A. The paper claims that OT ethics is deontological rather than teleological. That is, moral judgments are justified by their correspondence to duty rather than by any good which they intend to produce. But there seem to be within the OT both deontological and teleological justifications (cf. Deut. 14:28-29). A more fruitful distinction is that between an ethics of virtue and one of obligation. Here, I believe, the OT favors the former. But within this ethics of virtue both deontological and teleological justifications are to be found.

This emphasis on character rather than obligation has the additional advantage of making all of the OT texts morally relevant instead of only those which are explicitly ethical. The story of creation is as morally relevant as the Ten Commandments. {37}

B. Certain hermeneutical points are not satisfactorily dealt with. For example, p. 11 claims that the command of levirate marriage (and others of the same type) is “culturally conditioned,” and thus no longer binding, while the prohibition of adultery transcends culture and is binding. What principle grounds this distinction? Both commands are moral and not ceremonial. Both are directed toward the preservation of the community and the protection of individuals and their rights. Neither is specifically rejected elsewhere in the Bible. I suspect that levirate marriage is rejected because it is culturally odd and would no longer be particularly useful. This, I would maintain, is not a sufficient hermeneutical guide for other texts in the Old or New Testament.

C. The description of OT ethics could be rendered more significant by considering the political ideologies which are explicit in the OT texts or implicit in Israel’s social structure. For example, an examination of the role played by the symbol “Yahweh” within Israelite society gives us a hermeneutical key for describing OT ethics. Within this framework we can see just how both levirate marriage and the prohibition of adultery functioned for Israel as Yahweh’s people. What did these two norms contribute to the society which allowed it to express its moral character as people of God? It is not a matter of saving one command and tossing off another as time-bound. Rather, we must see what was the “virtue” that was to characterize Israel, which both levirate marriage and marital fidelity served. We are then in a position to make the translation into the present without facing the task of determining which commands are permanent (the Ten Commandments?) and which are culture-bound (slaughtering prisoners of war or capital punishment?).

My criticisms are primarily technical, and perhaps minor. Elmer Martens has gone a long way toward making the Old Testament useful in the life of the Church.

Ben Ollenburger was instructor in Bible and Philosophy at Tabor College and is presently in doctoral studies.

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