Jennifer Wright Knust is an ordained American Baptist minister and assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Boston University. She takes to the “On Faith” column of the Washington Post today with a startingly original thesis encapsulated in the title of the piece: “Debunking ‘Biblical marriage’: Why the Bible can’t dictate today’s sexual morals.” Never, ever thought I’d hear that from a mainline religion department professor.
She starts out this way:
Lately biblical interpretation has become the frontline in a heated battle to determine what God really thinks about sex and marriage. As a biblical scholar, historian and Baptist pastor, however, I find this debate to be misguided and destructive. The Bible is simply too complicated and too contradictory to serve as a guide to sexual morals. Treating the Bible as a rulebook impoverishes the biblical witness and short-circuits our ability to speak honestly about sex. Since the Bible never offers anything like a straightforward set of teachings about marriage, desire, or God’s perspective on the human body, the only way to pretend that it does is to refuse to read it.
Treating the Bible solely as a rulebook does indeed “impoverish the biblical witness,” because it is not meant to be first and foremost a rulebook, but the revelation of God to humanity for the latter’s salvation. Does that mean that there are no rules, no laws, no commandments that are applicable for 21st century Christians? Apparently so.
If we do take the time to read the Bible, we are likely to discover that the biblical writers do not agree with us, whatever version of sexual morality we are seeking to promote.
I would hope not. They aren’t supposed to agree with us, we are supposed to agree with them, though Dr. Knust seems to reject this idea as well.
Written more than 2,000 years ago at a significant historical and cultural distance, the Bible gathers together a diverse collection of ancient books, edited over time, not a coherent, divinely inspired set of instructions that can easily be applied.
I don’t know that anyone has ever claimed that the Bible is a set of instructions that can be applied as easy as putting together an Ikea bookcase. As for the rest, the vast majority of the Christian world, including evangelicals, see these as a both/and, rather than an either/or. Unfortunately, she doesn’t explain for the sake of the rubes why it isn’t possible for the Bible to be both a two millenia plus, diverse and edited collection of books and at the same time divinely inspired.
Tracing even a few, limited topics from one biblical book to another can make the point: If one book forbids marriage between foreigners and Israelites, the next depicts such marriages as a source of blessing, not only to Israel but to all of humankind. If one insists that women are saved by childbearing, the next recommends that women avoid childbearing altogether in order to devote themselves more fully to God. If one suggests that sex with a relative, the wife of another man, or with a male lover will certainly lead to the nation’s downfall, the next depicts heroic kings engaging in precisely these forms of sex. And these are just a few examples.
Since she doesn’t give references, there’s no way to know exactly what she’s talking about in these examples. The reference to being saved by childbirth, I’m sure, is 1 Timothy 2:15, a notoriously difficult verse to interpret, but I can’t find any reference in the New Testament to women being told not to have children. The Law certainly does prohibit certain types of sexual activity, and the fact that the historical books depicts kings engaged in those activities no more sets up a contradiction that does the fact that any state’s laws are broken by some of the people who live under them. Without specifics, this is simply a way of preaching to the choir that is already convinced that the Bible is hopelessly contradictory.
Is it any wonder, then, that the Bible has failed to settle current debates about what a divinely sanctioned sexual morality might look like? Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that it can.
Once again, this isn’t an argument, it’s a preconceived idea meant to arrive at a preconceived conclusion.
The Bible can, however, invite further reflection about what means to have a body, to be human, and to love one another. I first learned this principle from my mother, who read biblical stories to me every day before school. Waiting for the school bus, we would open the pages of our oversize picture Bible and read all about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and just about everything in between. Instead of trying to make the Bible dictate morality to us, we asked questions about the stories we encountered, guessing at what they might mean. Thanks to my mom, by the age of nine I already knew that the Bible is filled with curious, contradictory and sometimes troubling stories.
Gee, thanks Mom. It’s a pity she didn’t explain to her daughter how to interpret the Bible, rather than just leaving her “guessing” at what it all meant. But then, maybe she didn’t know herself. It also sounds as though she may have made the same mistake that so many of us do in teaching our children the Bible, which is to focus on the stories to the exclusion of other material that might actually explain what the stories mean. I know when I first read the Bible as an adult, I didn’t really understand the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection until I read Romans. Of course, it’s a lot easier to treat stories as intellectually ambiguous than didactic material, so it’s wonder that Dr. Knust wants to focus on the latter. But again, that’s not because the Scripture requires her to do so, nearly so much as because that way she can use those stories to uphold her own preconceived ideas and goals (as we all do, to at least some extent).
I sometimes wonder how a lesson taught to me when I was a little girl can seem so elusive to adult purveyors of “biblical morals” today. Loving the Bible means reading it and reading it means that our preconceived notions about its teachings will be overturned.
Perhaps because the lesson taught to you as a young girl was wrong, and adults have seen just how wrong it is. Why is it that only those who don’t take a liberal perspective on theology and ethics are required to allow the Bible to overturn their “preconceived notions”? This woman has a Ph.D, and is apparently using the knowledge she has gained through that study to reinforce ideas she picked up from her mother when she was six.
Let’s begin with an easy target: “biblical marriage.” Despite frequent claims to the contrary, not a single biblical book endorses marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation.
Oh, come on. Genesis 1:28 and 2:24 (be fruitful and multiply, and “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”) have nothing to do with one man and one woman, marriage and procreation? Really? The promise of descendants to Abraham, and the way that barrenness was looked upon as a calamity in the Old Testament, has nothing to do with procreation? Jesus holding up an ideal of marriage based on Genesis has nothing to do with the matter? No one denies that there’s polygamy in the Old Testament, but there’s also no hint that it was permitted in the New. No one denies that sex is for more than just procreation, but also no hint that it is morally permissible outside of a setting where children are a proper consequence of it.
Directed at men, the laws attributed to Moses assume that Israelites will marry as many wives as they can reasonably support. By contrast, when Jesus speaks about marriage, he largely warns against it, presenting family life as a distracting waste of time. The apostle Paul follows suit, teaching that celibacy is the best choice for Jesus’ followers. He recommends marriage only as a concession to those unable to keep their sexual impulses in check.
Huh? Jesus warns against marriage? Where? He affirms the unbreakable nature of marriage when He speaks against divorce, and says there will be no marriage in the resurrection. But when does He teach that family life is a “distracting waste of time”? He did say in Matthew 12:46-50:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
No doubt that means that brothers and sisters in the faith are to be even closer to us than our biological families, but how does that translate into biological families being “a distracting waste of time”? That’s more than a leap–it’s an Evel Knievel-style leap across the Snake River canyon. As for Paul, while he did say what Dr. Knust says, he also wrote the incredible passage in Ephesians 5 that made the bond between a husband and a wife analogous to the bond between Christ and the church. That doesn’t sound like a man who thinks marriage is worthless apart from keeping people from sexual immorality.
Later New Testament writers do sanction marriage, but not for the sake of procreation and romantic love. Instead, marriage is portrayed as a venue for testing the fitness of male church leaders, who are told to love their wives and to be kind to their slaves. Wives, children and slaves, however, must obey the men in charge, no matter what, and this in a culture where the sexual access of masters to their slaves was simply presupposed. Biblical books never speak to marriage as currently practiced in the US and what they do say is totally contradictory.
Where to start? Let’s just list the absurdities here:
1) Of course the New Testament doesn’t speak of “romantic love,” a notion unknown in those days. But it does speak of marital love in terms of agape, a far deeper and Christ-like form of love. And if marriage is “not for the sake of procreation,” why the need to speak of how children should be treated?
2) Marriage is not a “venue for testing the fitness of male church leaders.” Leaders of the church were supposed to fulfill a variety of qualification, including those having to do with marriage (if they were married; many of them were not) before they could be considered for leadership, in part because they were expected to be role models for their congregations. And the idea that that was the only purpose (the implication of “instead”) is simply ridiculous.
3) The reference to slaves begs evidence, if she is suggesting that Christian men took advantage of slaves the way that others in Roman society did. The letter to Philemon certainly suggests a very different pattern. Yes, slaves were supposed to obey they masters, but that is always mentioned in the context of admonitions to masters, which seems to indicate that those instructions were given in Philemon/Onesimus-like situations.
4) The claim that what the various books of the Bible say about marriage is “totally contradictory” just defies belief. I don’t expect Dr, Knust to be an inerrantist or anything close to it, but this claim just simply doesn’t stand up to inspection, once context, genre, history, etc. are taken into account. as to whether they speak to “marriage as currently practiced in the US” is both obvious and irrelevant. The question is, does what the Bible says about marriage still pertinent to and practicable for Christians.
Apparently the Post wasn’t happy about my evisceration of Gene Robinson (here, here, here, here, and here–and yes, I know they weren’t responding to me), so they decided to send out a certified biblical scholar to try to make the same basic case. We’ll see how she does, but this isn’t a promising start.