Quote of the Week: Paul Copan on the Is-Ought Fallacy

Christian Quote of the Week

Christopher Hitchens mentions “the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.” In fact, the Old Testament is full of characters who are deeply flawed and all too human. The critic wonders, “What kind of role model is Abraham (who lies about Sarah), or Moses (who murders an Egyptian), or David (who power-rapes Bathsheba and then arranges to have her husband, Uriah, killed)?” The critic has a point: this isn’t the way things ought to be done. But the biblical authors often don’t comment on such actions because (at least in part) they assume they don’t need to. In other words, is doesn’t mean ought; the way biblical characters happen to act isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behavior.

Here’s a question we should be careful to ask: What kind of example are they—morally excellent, evil/immoral, or somewhere in between? Indeed, 1 Corinthians 10 refers to the “ungrateful and mutinous” children of Israel who are full of stubbornness and treachery. They end up serving as vivid negative examples, and we should avoid imitating them. We can reject the notion that “if it’s in the Bible, it must have God’s seal of approval.”

Take King David. He’s more like a figure in Greek tragedies—a hero with deep flaws, a mixed moral bag. David is a lot like you and me. He illustrates the highs and lows of moral success and failure. Old Testament scholar John Barton puts it this way: “The story of David handles human anger, lust, ambition, and disloyalty without ever commenting explicitly on these things but by telling its tale in such a way that the reader is obliged to look them in the face and to recognize his or her affinity with the characters in whom they are exemplified.”

Biblical writers are often subtly deconstructing major characters like Gideon and Solomon, who are characterized by flawed leadership and spiritual compromise. On closer inspection, the hero status accorded to Abraham, Moses, and David in the Old Testament (and echoed in the New Testament) is rooted not in their moral perfection but in their uncompromising dedication to the cause of Yahweh and their rugged trust in the promises of God rather than lapsing into the idolatry of many of their contemporaries.

-Paul Copan in Is God A Moral Monster?, p. 66-67