After my article about gay marriage a number of people asked me to explain my understanding of certain biblical texts that applied to that topic. This I am happy to do, but I felt it would also be helpful if before doing so I took a step back and explained how to understand ‘what the Bible says about’ anything, as it is often the case that a disagreement about what the Bible says about a particular topic actually stems from a difference in how to understand the Bible as such.
The first thing that I would point out is that the question seems to assume that there is one single answer to the enquiry ‘what does the Bible say about…?’ This is a mistake, and it is a mistake with very particular Modern origins, which I’ll explain below. One of the most important things to understand about the Bible is that it is a library of Holy Scripture – that is, there are many different voices within the Bible (even within particular books of the Bible) – and this is of God. That is, it is in recognising both what different books have in common, and where they disagree, that an individual Christian is enabled to come to a mature understanding of the text.
Let me give an example, which will hopefully not be too controversial. In the Old Testament there is a long-running tension between the priests and the prophets. The priests are those responsible for the correct administration of the cult (ie the sacrifices in the Temple) which were ordained by God in great detail in books like Exodus and Leviticus. The prophets are those who speak the word of God against the priests and people, and who criticise the administration of the cult in great depth. This is the tradition that has striking texts like this from Amos chapter 5: “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
The art of understanding the Bible properly is to realise that in the interplay between different points of view lies the truth. Imagine that you come across a group of people having an intense conversation about a subject you know very little about – let’s say it’s about football tactics and whether the new England manager should use a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 in the forthcoming European championships (I favour the latter – but you don’t need to understand why in order to get my point!). As you listen to the different voices you start to get a sense of what the different viewpoints are and then, as time goes on and you learn more and more, you start to develop your own perspective. However, unless through this conversation you also realise that there is a game called ‘football’, and that the purpose of the game is to win football matches (either through playing or coaching) then the point of the discussion is being missed. Someone might become a wonderful expert in the language of tactics, and be able to hold forth with great knowledge about the importance of the ‘false nine’ to modern football (eg Lionel Messi of Barcelona) – but this is just abstract unless there is a link to an actual game being played.
In other words, the Bible points beyond itself. The point of the Bible is not that we become experts about what the Bible says, but rather that we recognise what it is that is being talked about – and then get on with pursuing that (which is, for a Christian, all about getting to know Jesus and becoming more like Him). Buddhists would call this distinguishing between the pointing finger and the moon which is being pointed to, but the Christian tradition has its own way of describing the difference. In one of his many angry confrontations with the Pharisees, Jesus says “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – in other words, the Pharisees, despite their very great knowledge of Scripture, didn’t realise what the ultimate point was. They were like football fans whose only knowledge of the game came from reading reports in the newspapers, and who had never actually seen a match played, let alone kicked a football for themselves.
This is why the Bible can’t be assumed to have one single unequivocal thing to say about a topic. Sometimes God actually wants us to use our own judgement about a question – and a good example of that comes with the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, which shows the early church deciding to dispense with some clear Scriptural commands about circumcision, because ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them’. Do we take this as simply an amending of an existing legal process – which can then not be amended again – or do we take this as a worked example of the authority that Jesus has given to the church, and which therefore allows the church to amend what is acceptable over time? The answer given to that question will, of course, largely shape the answers to many other questions that arise in our common life.
I said earlier on that the idea that the Bible does have a single and unequivocal meaning is a particular Modern idea. Whilst it has some earlier roots, it really came to a head with the influence of something called ‘Scottish Common Sense Philosophy’, which was a philosophical school that initially flourished in the eighteenth century, and which had a major impact especially in the United States. This philosophical perspective taught that, with respect to the Bible, there was a clear and simple meaning associated with a particular passage that was open to any reader. There was therefore no need for a community to have any specified authority to determine the sense of any particular passage, all that was needed was the reader and their own Bible.
Now there are lots of things wrong with this perspective philosophically, which I won’t go into, but there are also problems with it from a Christian perspective. The major problem is that it privileges a particular technology, in that it is only possible within a society that has invented printing. For the first 1500 years or so of Christian thinking, the Bible was something that was primarily read and interpreted by a community, not by individuals (indeed, the ‘individual’ is itself a post-Biblical concept!). The Bible was read out loud when the community gathered together (out loud because ‘faith comes by hearing’) and it was the community as a whole which then interpreted the meaning of what has been read. Furthermore, it is the community which decides what books (ie what Holy Scriptures) are included within the Bible in the first place. In other words, the long history of understanding the Bible in Christian practice has been primarily communal. The idea that it can be done on an individualistic basis is simply part and parcel of post-Enlightenment thought in Western society (which is why Fundamentalism – which is what Scottish Common Sense philosophy leads to – is also, rather ironically, entirely a product of the Enlightenment).
For myself, as an Anglican, I accept the Bible as having supreme authority, but the Anglican view is that such authority is necessarily mediated by a worshipping community (what we call tradition and reason). Whilst any individual thinker can have their own views and beliefs about what the Bible says, it takes the endorsement of the worshipping community to say whether those views and beliefs are correct or not. In what I write in further articles, I will be writing very consciously from an Anglican perspective – and next time, I’ll talk about the texts which reference homosexuality in Scripture.