Book Review: David Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible

Instone-Brewer, David. Moral Questions of the Bible. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 286 pp.; Pb.  $12.99  Link to Lexham Press

Instone-Brewer’s Moral Questions of the Bible reminds me of a discussion starter book a youth pastor might have used for Bible studies in the 1970s. Each chapter is a short introduction to an issue intended to stimulate thinking about difficult issues. Instone-Brewer does not intend to solve any of these issues in the few pages he devotes to them, rather these are intentionally brief teasers which invite for further meditation. This is exactly the kind of book that would make for a good small group Bible study since it gives some information on the topic but is open ended enough to generate a stimulating discussion. This book covers thirty topics in six sections. The topics include difficult ethical and moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, racism and slavery. Some topics include personal issues like childlessness divorce submission in marriage. Others concern the practice of the church, such as female leaders and self-promoting leaders. 

Moral Questions of the BibleAs should be expected by anyone familiar with Instone-Brewer’s other work, he does an excellent job comparing the culture of the Roman and Jewish first century to the culture of contemporary society. In many cases, he concludes culture is different today than the first century. This difference may very well help us to understand how to apply a text in a modern context. This is certainly the case for several of the topics which concern the role of women in society in church. He observes long hair in the Roman world was advertising for casual sex. It would be like “wearing fishnet stockings or pending a condom package to your lapel today” (236). 

The first section deals with larger questions of method. Instone-Brewer asks if the Bible can be used as a foundation for Christian morality. For some, the Bible is an ancient book that has very little to do with contemporary issues. Someone might scan down the list of topics in the table of contents and assume that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has nothing to say about most of them. But as Instone-Brewer suggests in his first topic (“can God’s law change?”) the value of the Old Testament Law lies in its message about God’s purposes. It is through the Law God taught his people what was supremely valuable to him. There’s certainly examples of laws that have changed from the old covenant to the new, such as allowing polygamy in the Old Testament and ruling it out in the New Testament. But Instone-Brewer is clear, God’s principles are unchangeable.

If the Bible can be used for a foundation of Christian morality, what method should a Christian reader use to determine which rules are “for them and which ones still apply to us”?  In the second chapter of the book, Instone-Brewer suggests the rule of love and identifying timeless commands which reflect God’s character and/or expressed or implied in the same way throughout the Bible. This is in contrast to commands Instone-Brewer describes as not timeless. For example, some commands are tied to a particular time and place. He points out that the biggest group of changeable commands concern how to worship God and how God’s people are to live lives of holiness. In the Old Testament living a holy life involved sacrifices and purification rituals. In the New Testament, Christians no longer sacrifice or follow the commands concerning purification rituals before worship. God had changed his Law from an outward ritual to an inner spirituality. For Instone-Brewer, this is the result of Jesus’s death in the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. 

The second section is entitled children, and covers for topics including abortion and infanticide, rebellious children, childlessness, and whether girls should be educated. This last topic seems surprising, of course girls should be educated! However, in the history of the church, this is not always been the case. Instone-Brewer shows how the command to allow women to learn in 1 Timothy 2:11 implies that women ought to be educated. (they are to learn in exactly the same way the men should learn). He believes this lays the foundation for a society that would educate both girls and boys.

The third section of the book deals with sex and marriage. Here he covers things like sexual immorality including homosexuality polygamy but also divorce and marrying non-believers. He also has a short section on what it means for a wife to submit to her husband for the sake of the gospel. For the most part there’s nothing surprising here, he agrees with the New Testament teaching there should be no polygamy, but he does recognize the divorce happens, and believers should avoid marrying non-believers. 

Instone-Brewer entitles the fourth section of the book “church issues” such as female leaders, self-promoting leaders, church discipline. He also has a brief discussion on conversion or tolerance. Since many readers will immediately go to the chapter on female leadership in the church, I will point to his conclusion is that society have changed so that women are no well-educated in perfectly able to teach. However, he does point out that no one should except the authority of either a man or a woman who teaches, preaching should be based on the authority of the Bible. He says “today, both the church and society have listened to Paul’s plea that women should be educated and trusted” because in Christ there is neither male nor female (p. 140). 

Section five covers personal vices. Here are sections on alcohol, drugs, gluttony and crude language. Remarkably, he includes racism under this heading as well. American readers tend to think of racism as a black versus white issue, but as he points out, there are all sorts of racist attitudes throughout the world. He relates this to xenophobia found in most societies. What is Jesus said in the parable of the good Samaritan, Christians are to do good to those who are in need regardless of their race or background.

The sixth section of the book deals with Christian responsibility towards others. The first to deal with variations on hospitality, including visiting prisoners. He includes slavery here but then also several rather practical issues. He deals with fashion, eating animals, and retirement. Remarkably he has a short section on Jesus’s effeminate hair. This chapter also includes the section on head coverings, always a very difficult problem on the application. Instone-Brewer conclude hairstyle is not a timeless command. However, hairstyles or head coverings may hinder the gospel in some cultures.

ConclusionMoral Questions of the Bible succeeds as a collection of brief discussion starters. For the most part the issues that he included in this book will address many of the questions Lee people have in the church today. However, I find it strange that he has not included anything on science or medical ethics. There are many topics which Christians have questions about, such as in vitro fertilization, end-of-life issues, or genetic modifications. Although he has a section on what to eat, it would have been interesting to include a discussion of genetically modified foods. 

Although Instone-Brewer does ground his comments in both the culture of the first century and the importance of the question in the modern world, leaders will need to do some additional homework in order to be fully versed in these topics. The book could have been improved with a short for further reading section at the end of each topic for a bibliography of other detailed studies of applied Christian ethics. 


NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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