Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is it Wrong to Steal a Bible?

Or, put more clearly, if someone who is used only to a life of crime becomes interested in Jesus and steals a Bible so they can find out more about him, is that wrong? I remember hearing someone speak who did just that - it may have been Tal Brooke, but I'm not sure, so I'll call the person Jimmy. Once they became a Christian, they later returned the Bible.

Argument that it is wrong

The Bible quite clearly says "Do not steal". It's in the 10 Commandments, Jesus repeated it, Paul repeated it. Stealing is wrong.


Romans 2 is clear that the law applies only to those who know it, and those who don't are judged by what is seen of God's Law in their own consciences. Jimmy may honestly not have known that God didn't want him to steal the Bible. And yes, that probably means that Jimmy is guilty of stealing an awful lot of things previously, but in this case it's not actually his fault.

Furthermore, Paul says that "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23). If we take that as a definition of sin, which it works well as, the stealing the Bible could actually be from a nascent faith and hence be the best thing Jimmy has yet done in his life.

Funny Link

The discussion was spawned by mention of this magnificent song, which was of course released for free download...


Daniel Hill said...

Custard, you say:
`Romans 2 is clear that the law applies only to those who know it.'

I don't agree. I think Paul is saying in Romans 2 that the Gentile will be judged (i.e. have sentence of punishment determined) according to his or her knowledge of the law. Compare: one can still be guilty of breaking the law in England even if one didn't know that one was breaking it. Nevertheless, one's ignorance can be a mitigating factor in terms of sentence.

You also say:
`Paul says that "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23). If we take that as a definition of sin, which it works well as.'

I don't agree that Rom. 14:23 was intended as a definition of `sin'. I think the Bible defines sin at 1 John 3:4, which says:
`Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.'
By this line, stealing is sin since it is against God's law.

What about Jimmy? Stealing is always wrong, so he did something wrong. If he hadn't realized that he had done something wrong this would have been taken into account in his judgment. But when he repented and believed Christ he was forgiven all his sins, known and unknown.

John said...

So do you then think that the 10 Commandments apply outside those participating in the covenant at Sinai? What makes you think that?

Daniel Hill said...

Yes, the 10 commandments apply to all people at all times (except maybe the 4th commandment). My reasons for thinking so are:
(i) Romans 2 itself
(ii) the fact that Gentiles are punished for sinning
(iii) the fact that it's wrong for Gentiles to murder, commit adultery, swear etc.

John said...

So is it wrong for Gentiles to wear clothes made of mixed cloth? If not, why the distinction?

Daniel Hill said...

The distinction is that wearing clothes made of mixed cloth is part of the ceremonial law, whereas the 10 commandments are part of the moral law. For a brief discussion of the distinction, see, e.g.:

John said...

Is there any evidence for that distinction in the Bible? No. Is there any clear reason why the law should be put in one category and not another? No.

Daniel Hill said...

Yes, there is evidence for that distinction in the Bible: for one thing, the fact that God doesn't punish Gentiles for wearing clothes of mixed cloth, whereas he does punish them for lack of hospitality, rape, etc. This shows that wearing clothes of mixed cloth is not from the moral law (since that does apply to all, I say).

Apart from that I don't have much to add to the discussions available in standard commentaries on the Westminster Confession or on the Web at, e.g.,:

John said...

That's just reading your framework back into the text though. You assume the categories exist, then argue that they do because some laws still apply and others don't.

We can agree that there's some kind of normative social justice which is expected of all people. I suggest that that can be overridden by concerns springing from faith.

Daniel Hill said...

It's not reading it back into the text. It doesn't matter what you call the categories: it is a datum that some commands given in the Bible apply to all people at all times, and some don't (cf. Mark 7:19). The fact that theft is condemned not just in the OT but also in the NT in letters addressed to Gentiles (e.g. Romans 13:9 and Ephesians 4:28) shows that it isn't one of the commands that applies only to Jews. That's why I think it was wrong for Jimmy to steal.

Speaker for the Dead said...

In Exodus 1, the Hebrew midwives are rewarded for lying to the Egyptians about Moses. (This is before the law is given, of course, but moral standards - including ones against lying - are already in place.) In 1 Samuel 21, King David ate consecrated bread, an act which did violate the given law.

So I don't think anything is as clear-cut as we would like it to be.

I don't think the comparison to the law of England is valid, just because (as far as I know) God's law isn't bound by the conventions of common law. I'm sure there (could) exist legal systems wherein ignorance of the law could absolve potential criminals. (I see interesting parallels between this and the idea that children - or foetuses - who die are saved.)

As far as Romans 2, it seems to say that Gentiles are judged by their consciences - a somewhat scary thought, although "...much will be required of everyone who has been given much..." (Luke 12:48).

I'm not sure any of us is in a position to determine whether or not God punishes certain people for violating certain laws. What we do know is that laws concerning mixed cloths probably are not as central as commandments to love God and neighbor. I think it would be better to treat OT laws as lying along a spectrum, not as clearly divided into two categories.

Daniel Hill said...

I don't want to usurp Custard's blog, but just a comment or two on speaker for the dead's post.

First off, I don't agree that in Exodus 1, the Hebrew midwives are rewarded for lying to the Egyptians about Moses. I think they are rewarded for the end result of saving the children, not their chosen means to that end.

If children that die in infancy are saved it's because of Christ's atoning sacrifice on their behalf. They are not innocent; they are guilty for original sin like the rest of us.

I agree that Gentiles will be judged by their consciences, but that doesn't mean that their consciences determine what is right for them and what is wrong for them.

OT laws come in many categories, but one way to divide them is into those that still apply and those that don't. It seems to me that theft is in the first category (as it is forbidden in the New Testament) and wearing clothes of mixed fibre is in the second.

Speaker for the Dead said...

I guess we have usurped it...

That they were rewarded implicitly legitimizes their lying. (I find this story interesting to compare with Uzzah's, who was not rewarded for trying to do a good thing like saving the cart. Of course, instant death isn't really that bad from an eschatological perspective.) Why would God reward them if he did not approve their means?

I don't accept original sin, but that's a whole 'nother story.

Theft and wearing mixed-fiber (I'm American, sorry about the misspelling :D) clothes are good examples of extremes on a spectrum. I don't think it would be prudent to take all the commands in the OT and divvy them up into two categories.