A Yale University Divinity School professor defended abortion, gay marriage and the Palestinian cause in a recent public lecture, saying modern Christians have misinterpreted the Bible.
On abortion, Professor John J. Collins argued the Bible does not support a right to life, the Bible does not mention abortion, and early translations of scriptures only recognized a fetus as a person after birth.
“The modern assertion of a right to life is not Biblical” and “there is no discussion of abortion in the Bible,” he said. Citing a brief, early translation, he added “usually the fetus was only regarded as a person after birth or at least after the crown of the head appeared.”
He added that today people often fail to review Biblical text when they denounce something, instead assuming their customs are rooted in divine law. He said based on the Biblical text, society should be the deciding factor on abortion.
Collins, who teaches Old Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale and formerly taught at Notre Dame, made the comments at a Texas State University lecture on Sept. 19.
About 100 students and scholars attended the presentation, described by university sponsors as “a public lecture on the concept of biblical values and how the idea plays a role in contemporary ethical discourse.”
For nearly an hour, Collins, who identified himself as an Irish Catholic, read from a prepared text serving in part as a retort to views previously expressed by evangelist Rev. Billy Graham.
“Those who appeal to Biblical laws as determinant to hot-button issues such as gay marriage or abortion must be highly selective in their choice of laws,” Collins said.
Instead, he advised to discuss Biblical values rather than Biblical laws, referring to the former as “basic principles that apply to decision-making.”
On the topic of creation, Collins said it’s something human beings can only imagine and can only be described in the medium of myth.
Collins said that unlike the idea of divine creation, nontheistic philosophy acknowledges freedom of choice and is a belief in personal independence.
“This sense of creaturehood and dependency is alien to modern and secular humanism, which affirms the privacy of human agency and responsibility and regards the limitation of human potential as something to be challenged rather than accepted,” he said.
In reference to monogamous heterosexual marriage, Collins said Genesis I is “a sketch of creation and not an outline of all possible variations.”
Collins also pushed back on Graham’s Biblical-based argument in favor of support for Israel and U.S. policy as it relates to the Jewish state.
Politicians motivated by Biblical values for their support of Israel “should remind Israel or the U.S. of its moral obligations under the covenant and insist that the very existence of Israel is conditional on its behavior,” Collins said.
Citing what he considered a lack in mention on “justice” in what he called Graham’s “manifesto,” Collins dedicated the lengthy final part of his speech to the tenet of “social justice” as it relates to the Bible.
“Anyone who claims to speak for Biblical values and fails to address the requirements of justice, is not only giving an inefficient account of the Biblical message,” he said, “but is seriously distorting it by changing its priorities.”
A quote by Collins on his official Yale Divinity School website that pulls from his book The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticisms in a Postmodern Age, offers similar sentiments:
“It should be clear, however, that ethical principles or theological truth, are not simply given by the Bible, regardless of whether one operates within a historical-critical or a postmodernist paradigm. . . Biblical theology and biblical ethics, in short, can never be determined sola scriptura, by appeal to “the text itself,” but always have the nature of a dialogue between the Bible as we understand it and whatever knowledge we may have from other sources.”
Fix contributor Jose R. Gonzalez is a student at Texas State University.
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