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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: May 2010

3 - Kant, the Bible, and the Recovery from Radical Evil


A familiar feature of Kant's religious thought is his moral theory of biblical interpretation. His position enjoys a capsule statement in Kant's reaction to the contemporary biblical critic J. D. Michaelis, who comments in the following way on a prayer for revenge in Psalm 59: “The psalms are inspired; if they pray for revenge, then it cannot be wrong: We should not have a holier morality than the Bible.” In his rather wry response, Kant notes: “I pause here at this last statement and ask whether morality must be interpreted in accordance with the Bible, or the Bible, on the contrary, in accordance with morality.”

Embedded in Kant's obviously rhetorical question is his utter lack of interest in the running debates over the Bible's historical and literal accuracy that were consuming the scholarly energies of the day. Referring to such debates, Kant would argue that we “should not quarrel over an issue unnecessarily, and over its historical standing, when, however we understand it, the issue does not contribute anything to our becoming a better human being” (R 6: 43). Properly read and interpreted, the Bible simply reminds us of what we already know, since morality for Kant needs no instruction from the “outside.” In particular, we need no assurance regarding its historical accuracy to rely on such moral lessons that the Bible may convey.