The “On Faith” column at the Washington Post has started a series of articles on homosexuality by Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson. (I’m sure they’ll be having Robert Gagnon do a counterpoint series when Robinson is done. /sarc) The Bishop, of course, is best known as the first gay prelate in the Episcopal Church, so he obviously has a particular point of view on the subject. He also claims to be basically evangelical in his theology. I’m going to follow these articles and offer a critique, beginning with the one that appeared today.
Robinson begins this way:
Let’s begin. But before we begin with any one text, let us ask the most basic question of all: How are we to regard the Bible?
Be assured, I believe the Bible to be the Word of God – but not the “words” of God. That is, I do not believe that the Bible was dictated by God and written down by scribes of one sort or another, unmediated by the scribes’ own life experiences, culture, religious belief and context.
Well, yes, of course. The view he is rejecting is a caricature, held by virtually no one. The one exception is that those who hold a high view of Scripture would say that the Bible contains the “words of God” as well as the Word of God, but that those words–inspired by the Holy Spirit–were nonetheless also the words of men, who brought their own experience, cultural setting and so on into the writing process without at the same time despoiling what God wished to convey. But the truth is that this leads to a far bigger problem for Robinson.
I believe that the Bible is many accounts, by many writers, over a thousand years time, of their experience of the Living God. Their accounts were heard (more often than read) as an experiential guide on how one accesses God (or how God accesses humankind) and discerns God’s will. The Bible is a collection of first-hand encounters with God, as experienced through the faithful (and sometimes unfaithful) people of God – from the Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures (somewhat condescendingly referred to by Christians as the “Old” Testament) and the Christian scriptures of the early Church in the “New” Testament.
As such, it is the place we always begin. In reading these holy texts, we learn the ways that people of faith have historically come to know God and God’s will. They are enormously instructive, and over several millennia, these texts have served as a guide for pilgrims of faith in their encounters with the Living God.
What’s missing from this is any sense that the Bible constitutes God’s revelation of Himself (in other words, that it is the “Word of God”). Everything is filtered through human experience, human perceptions, and human limitations. The key is the sentence, “Their accounts were heard (more often than read) as an experiential guide on how one accesses God.” This makes Scripture into nothing more than a devotional manual, or perhaps a guide to spiritual direction. It is both of those, but before it is those it is a record of God’s disclosure of Himself and His truth to humanity. Robinson puts the emphasis in exactly the wrong place, and in the process leaves us wondering “why the Bible, as opposed to any other human manual of devotion or spiritual direction?”
Some of these texts are history, some are poetry. Some are fables and myths, meant to teach an important truth. Some are personal accounts of individuals, and some are communal accounts of a nation. All are set in a particular historical and cultural context. And context is the central key in understanding these texts, and the all-important task of determining whether the wisdom contained therein is applicable to all people for all time.
Context is key, but it needs to be noted that there is more to context than culture and history. There is also theology, and Robinson gives a sign of what theological context he’s using with that last phrase. If you come at Scripture seeking to determine which parts or passages don’t apply to you, you’re going to find them every time, and chances are pretty good that they are going to match up well with whatever sin you are seeking to justify.
So, first and foremost, in reading texts from the Bible, we must ask, “What did these words mean to their author?” and “What did these words mean to the community for which they were written?” Once the context has been understood, then we ask the question, “Is the message of this text eternally binding on all people of faith, or, has something changed in the context between then and now, which renders this text ‘culturally bound’ and not applicable in the same way to our current situation, given the knowledge and understandings of the present time?”
The first part of that is correct, and I’m glad to see Robinson not indulging in the kind of deconstructive nonsense that would allow us to take all of Scripture and turn it into whatever we want it to be. With regard to the second part, we have to be extremely careful.
For one thing, we have a tendency to think that we’re a lot smarter than the people of the ancient world, and that even goes for our understanding of human nature. There are a lot of things that we think we “know” that in fact we don’t know. For instance, if as I expect him to, Robinson eventually makes the argument that we “now know” that homosexual orientation is genetic and unalterable, he will be illustrating my point. We do not, in fact, “know” any such thing, if by that we mean that there is incontrovertible scientific evidence to prove it. There are a handful of scientific studies, all of which have methodological flaws, and lots and lots of politicized assertion. So any attempt to evade the meaning of Scripture by invoking “the knowledge and understandings of the present time” should be looked upon with extreme skepticism.
Second, we must remember that while culture changes, human nature doesn’t. First century Israel is not 21st century America, but human beings are still the same in their nature. In particular, human beings have an inveterate desire to twist the revelation of God into a shape that they can use for their own purposes, including the justification of their favorite sins. That those who do so in order to justify the conclusion they hold a priori regarding homosexual behavior as being approved of by God are among them is a certainty.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that even if the details of a given biblical command do not directly apply to us, there’s a virtual certainty that there is a larger principle at work that does. For example, I don’t worry too much today about food sacrificed to idols, about which Paul had so much to say to the Corinthians. But the principle that he was expounding in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 regarding love for the weaker brother in matters adiaphoristic is highly important to the life of the church, one we can’t ignore by saying, “well, we don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols any more, so this must not apply to us.”
Not even the strictest fundamentalist or Biblical literalist gives the same authority and moral weight to every word of scripture. Few of us would hold Paul’s injunction against women appearing in church with their heads uncovered to have the same moral weight as Jesus’ injunction to forgive our enemies. Few of us are willing to be bound by all the commands given to us in the Biblical text – otherwise, we would give all we have to the poor to follow Christ, redistribute all the land every 50 years, refuse to charge any interest on our loans/investments, share our worldly possessions communally as did the early Church, and refuse to support our nation’s defense budget in accord with Jesus’ commandment not to resist evil.
He’s certainly right that no one gives exactly equal weight to every verse. Even if we say, as I do, that every word of Scripture is inspired by God, that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot more time and effort pondering the meaning and application of John 1:1 or Romans 3:25 as opposed to 1 Chronicles 5:12 or Matthew 1:15 (though it can be surprising what even genealogies can say to the right person at the right time). But the commands of God and of Christ are ignored at our peril, even if the literal command may not apply in our case. As Robinson has been saying, context makes all the difference, and if a command was given to theocratic Israel as part of its national or ceremonial law, we abuse Scripture trying to make it apply to a Christian or a church. Christ’s commands have a context as well–for instance, the command to sell all and give to the poor was given to a specific man under specific circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore it, or the law given to Israel, for that matter. Each have something to teach us, each apply in some way to us, and our task is to discern how that is. Interesting thing about the examples he gives, though: every one of them (with the possible exception of the Jubilee redistribution of land, which was in any event a national not personal undertaking) has been held by some Christians at some time to apply to them, and perhaps even to all Christians. So they obviously can’t be, and shouldn’t be, dismissed so easily.
We have come to understand certain things as acceptable in the Biblical culture and time, but not in our own – among other things, polygamy and slavery – which few Christians would promote despite their acceptability in Biblical times. As we approach the Biblical texts about homosexuality, we must not conveniently change our stance to one of asserting that every word of scripture is inerrantly true and universally binding on all people for all time.
If I haven’t already, allow me to make this clear: I do in fact believe that Scripture is universally binding on all Christians for all time, and that what it teaches is true no matter what the date on the calendar is. I also believe that within Scripture there is a principle of “progressive revelation,” that God doesn’t unveil everything at once, but rather reveals His truth in stages throughout the life of His people. And so, for instance, polygamy was acceptable under certain circumstances for the people of the Old Testament, but it is laid aside in the New as marriage is seen in light of God’s original design, rather than in terms of the distortions introduced because of sin (the teaching on divorce works the same way). Slavery, as well, while acceptable under limited circumstances under the old covenant, is never spoken of with approval in the New; rather, masters and slaves were instructed to transform their relationship into that of brothers, even if they made no effort to overturn the societal norm. (As an aside, I’ll mention that slavery is usually brought up by folks such as Robinson because of a tendency to make the American experience, where antebellum Southern Christians sought to use the Bible to justify slavery, normative. In fact, throughout the church’s history, when it has spoken on slavery, it has generally been with disapproval, even if it didn’t seek its abolition.)
Understanding scripture in its contexts is no easy task, and it is fraught with potential misuse. All readers of scripture are subject to self-deception – that is, the temptation to interpret the scriptures in a way that satisfies our own selfish desires and biases, rather than hearing the truth of the passage which may challenge, condemn and call into question those desires and biases. That is why scripture must always be studied and understood in community. The temptation is too great to interpret scripture in our own image to attempt it alone. One must always be subject to the larger community’s understandings to guard against only hearing what one wants to hear.
I think he is correct about this. One thing, though: don’t define your community too narrowly. Our community for biblical interpretation should never consist just of people who agree with us, or with the members of a small group, or our own church, or even our own denomination. Instead, we should see the community in which Scripture is to be read and understood as the whole church in every age.
Part of the community whose voice needs to be considered, is that of the Tradition – that is, what has been said over the years about any given passage of scripture. We, in the present time, are not the only ones who have struggled with these passages, and our own understanding needs to be informed by the larger community of the faithful in the past.
And third, we need to use our own reason and experience in interpreting these scripture passages. Our knowledge of science, psychology, and modern scholarly understandings need to inform our approach to these passages. Our knowledge about common allusions in scripture – from leprosy to demon possession, from conception and birth to race and gender realities – will inform our interpretation based on new findings from the secular realm.
This is a common trope among some Episcopalians and lots of Methodists. The latter even refer to it with doubtful accuracy as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” There is some truth here, inasmuch as it is inevitable that both our reason and our experience are going to play a role when we interpret Scripture. There’s simply no way for us to avoid some measure of subjectivity. These need to be put in their proper place, however, and that can only happen when we recognize both reason (even in its “scientific” form as it pertains to Scripture) and experience as idiosyncratic. Every person’s mind works a little bit differently, even when he or she is seeking to operate logically, and certainly every person’s experience of life is different. That being the case, neither reason nor experience can ever be put on the same level as Scripture, nor should they be employed to stand judgment on Scripture, as if our highly limited experience and fallible reason can ever be said to be capable of sorting out truth from falsity in the Bible, or to be able to judge what constitutes God’s revelation and what doesn’t.
One final and important note: I do NOT believe that God stopped revealing God’s self with the closing of the canon (officially sanctioned as “holy” and official) of Scripture. Some would argue that God said everything God needed and wanted to say by the end of the first century of the Common Era (a less condescending way of referring to that time since the birth of Christ). They would posit a God who, when the scriptures were “finished” bid the world a fond farewell and went off to some beautiful part of God’s creation (the Bahamas, Patagonia, Nepal?!!), leaving us to our own devices, given that everything had been said that needed to be said. I don’t believe that.
And here is where Robinson completely falls off the turnip truck. It is one thing to say that God continues to speak to His people–that’s certainly true. It is another entirely to say that revelation continues. Not only is that a reprise of the Montanist heresy of the 3rd century, it is the way of fanaticism and ecclesiastical disintegration, not to mention moral chaos. That is especially the case if we have no qualms about saying that God is contradicting Himself, saying that what was previously wrong is now right, which is where Robinson is going.
In John’s Gospel, which is largely made up of the conversation Jesus has with his disciples at the Last Supper [sic], Jesus says: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16: 12-13a) I take this to mean that Jesus is saying to the disciples, “Look, for a bunch of uneducated and rough fishermen, you haven’t done too badly. In fact, you will do amazing things with the rest of your lives. But don’t think for a minute that God is done with you – or done with believers who will come after you. There is much more that God wants to teach you, but you cannot handle it right now. So, I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into that new Truth.”
Robinson rather slickly slides from “all the truth” to “new Truth.” (Why the capitalization? Because apparently the approval of homosexual behavior is the biggest thing since sliced bread, I suppose.) What he means by this sleight of hand is that the Holy Spirit is going to offer up something that contradicts what God has said in the past, now that we are mature enough and have enough scientific knowledge to handle it. Unfortunately, there is no standard by which to measure that “truth,” so what we are left with is nothing more than warmed-over Gnosticism.
The Church used scripture to justify slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Church acknowledged that it had gotten this all wrong, and began to change itself and the culture into a more inclusive community. Was that not the Spirit leading us to a new truth about people of color?
No, actually it wasn’t. The basis for that “new truth” was always in Scripture (for instance, in Paul’s declaration that the walls between Jew and Gentile had come down, or in his statement that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek”). He’s simply wrong about slavery, as the Rodney Stark article linked above shows, and continuing to repeat the incorrect assumptions by American mainline liberals doesn’t make it so.
For centuries, and still to this day in some quarters, scripture has been used to denigrate and subjugate women. But many of us have come to know the error of those ways as we experience the gifts for ministry that women have been given. Is that not the Spirit leading the Church to say “we got it wrong” all these years?
In most of the church, no He isn’t. And to the extent that the American mainline churches (a very small portion of world Christianity) are now ordaining women, they’ve done so on the basis of biblical data that has been there all along. Whether I agree with them or not isn’t the point. The point is that there is a case to be made from Scripture, one that isn’t dependent on “new revelation” or political correctness, that women may be ordained. It’s true that a lot of the supporters of women’s ordination have never bothered to make that case, believing that getting in touch with their inner feminist was more important, but there are those who have, and they are the ones we should be listening to, not the folks who simply take it for granted in this egalitarian age that the church “got it wrong.”
And now, in these times, we are swept up in the holy chaos of asking, “Could we, people of faith, have been just as wrong about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? Might it be the Holy Spirit leading us to a new truth about homosexuality? Do we have the courage to admit we were wrong all these years? Are we open to being led by the Spirit to a new place?
Once again, the answers to Robinson’s questions are no, no, no need to, and not if it means proclaiming a God who contradicts Himself. Once again, there is no “new truth.” There is only carnal desire combined with lousy theology. The Holy Spirit simply is not going to “reveal” something that contradicts the plain message of Scripture. That being the case, it’s going to be necessary for Robinson to make the case that we’ve misunderstood the Bible all these centuries, and that in it God actually approves of, or at the very least does not disapprove of, homosexual behavior. We’ll see what he does with the biblical material in the weeks ahead.