Oct 28, 2021
I’ve had the same exchange with perhaps half a dozen fellow Christians over the years. It goes like this: I’m talking about the numerous benefits of regular exercise, especially outdoors. I point out, following writers like John Piper, that taking care of our bodies is an essential part of spiritual, not just physical, health. We are embodied spirits, and the street between our moral state and our mental state runs two ways. On hearing this, the other Christian will cock his or her head to one side, consider for a moment, and at last say, “That’s true, the Apostle Paul does write in 1 Timothy 4:8 that “physical exercise is of some value.”
Now, I don’t want to be unfair to anyone, especially not for quoting Scripture. But the idea that we need a prooftext to tell us that exercise is beneficial strikes me as a deeply misguided view of Scripture and knowledge.
Exercise is far from the only example. Consciously or unconsciously, Christians frequently scour the Bible for warrant to accept any number of notions that should be obvious through the use of reason and common sense: eating vegetables gets grounded in Daniel 1, getting plenty of sleep and food in 1 Kings 19, having regular sex with your spouse in 1 Corinthians 7, and not committing homosexual acts is grounded in a smattering of verses throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Now, don’t misunderstand: these verses are here for a reason. Either they record sound advice given to specific recipients, convey narrative details that help us see the miraculous work of God in history, or else they make God’s judgment on certain types of physical behavior explicit. But in virtually all of these cases, the Bible’s human authors assume that what they’re saying is obvious—that they don’t need to teach you this stuff. It’s why Paul uses language like, “Does not even nature teach…” when discussing gender distinctions in worship and talks of “Abandoning the natural use…” when discussing homosexuality.
In other words, before the Apostles and Prophets told us that sleep, healthy diets, exercise, and married sex are good, they expected us to know all of this, already.
This gets to the heart of an issue I’ve noticed for years among Christians: that we seem to look at the Bible as if it were an instruction manual for all of life, or as if we have no other sources of knowledge or truth beyond special revelation. But the Bible itself denies this in places like Romans 1 and 2, where Paul teaches that the existence of God, the type of God He is, and even many of His moral standards are “understood” and “clearly seen” in creation and “written on [our] hearts” in the form of conscience. In other words, what it means to be a good human being is no secret. God didn’t hide His instruction manual for His creatures only in the Hebrew Pentateuch. Paul clearly writes that the requirements of that Law were known to Gentiles who never had the Mosaic Law, making them accountable for disobeying it.
This is arguably C. S. Lewis’ central point in “The Abolition of Man”: that objective moral truths and values are accessible to all human beings, and that knowledge of them is in fact the essential trait of the human race. No wonder Dr. Michael Ward remarked in our recent discussion on Upstream that Lewis wrote “Abolition” to call people not so much to Christianity, but to humanity. He saw scholars and educators in his time denying the objectivity of values, and knew that if this approach caught on, men and women would become virtual slaves to their (or other people’s) passions.
Of course, Lewis knew that full and inward restoration to God’s design could never happen without a miracle—without the supernatural intervention of grace from the Holy Spirit. This grace is precisely what the Bible was written to reveal, supremely in the Person of Christ. And Lewis spent most of his public career defending the tenets of that revelation.
But I wonder if, Christians in our day, like the secular thinkers in his day, have fallen into the mistake of denying the moral truths and values evident in creation—of looking to special revelation for things God has revealed in general revelation. Every time we go looking for a prooftext in Daniel or 1 Timothy to support the benefit of exercise or healthy eating, we’re doing exactly that.
But it’s more serious than just prooftexting. You see, when we treat the Bible as something it’s not, we make the moral teachings of Christianity esoteric, obscure, or eccentric. If homosexual behavior is only wrong because Paul said it in a handful of so-called “clobber passages,” then the reasoning Paul himself invokes for those prohibitions makes little sense. If there’s nothing obviously unnatural about certain behaviors—if they don’t violate a “Tao” accessible to all human beings by virtue of their humanity—then Paul is blowing smoke when he calls these things “unnatural.”
The Bible takes natural truths for granted, and builds on them. This is on purpose. And it’s one reason Christians have historically held that God’s grace is given in order to redeem and perfect fallen nature, not replace it. In the Gospel, Jesus calls us not into some superhuman life alien to the way we were created, but back to full humanity.
By prooftexting value judgments and conclusions that the Bible says are obvious from natural law, we turn God’s commands into rules without reasons. And there’s a cost to misusing Scripture this way.
Outside the Church, our prooftexts have little value, and can even be counterproductive. When we attempt to engage our cultures and influence our governments on the basis of Bible verses alone, we imply that non-Christians must become Christians just to share a society with us. Why shouldn’t they kill unborn babies, redefine the family, or perform sex change operations on kids? What’s the problem, if natural law doesn’t obviously cry out against these things? Worse, when we preach rules without reasons, we disarm God’s Law of its power to convict unbelievers of sin. Why, after all, should anyone feel guilty before God when the only thing that says they’re guilty is a book, and what they’re doing violates no plain, universal morality?
Within the Church, our abandonment of natural law has a more subtle, but no less damaging effect. I often hear complaints about how Christians have “idolized” marriage and family. Books have been written, blogs have gone viral, and sermons have been preached all warning believers against seeking a spouse and children too eagerly, and instead urging them to devote their time to the service of Christ. All this at a time when marriages and births are at a historic low inside and outside churches.
Some writers go so far as to pit the Church directly against the family, portraying the relationship as a zero-sum game in which Christ instituted a supernatural replacement family to eclipse the natural family. I’ve sat with more than one young person agonizing over whether his or her longing for a spouse is unspiritual. And on moral issues as diverse as so-called “celibate gay” identity and artificial reproductive technology, countless Christians have concluded that if the Bible does not prohibit something, it must be permitted.
In reality, this is more confusion between grace and nature, more failure to recognize that not all obvious truths are written in the pages of Scripture. Some are written in our natures and bodies. And ignoring those truths is, as Lewis might have put it, an attempt to be more spiritual than God.
My overall point is this: Christians must stop treating the Bible as something it’s not, and rediscover the natural laws and evident truths which the Bible, itself, assumes and affirms. Not everything requires a prooftext, because the Bible wasn’t written to replace creation. It was written to reveal the One who became human so He could redeem creation. We don’t need a chapter and verse to establish every moral premise any more than we need these to know that exercise is beneficial. Because as Dr. Ward observed, being fully Christian in our thinking is vital, but you can’t be fully Christian without being fully human.