How do we handle and use the Bible in our private and corporate lives? What do we do with the teaching and the authority of the Scripture in our personal conduct and in shaping our responses to the world? What does biblical authority mean and how do we deal with the inevitable tensions and questions around it?
These are just a few of the questions I want to ask in response to a number of posts on the blog around the SOR’s. Having set out that our engagement and position on the SOR’s is NOT a moral endorsement of sexuality but is an affirmation and recognition of human rights and the call on Christians to serve, that assertion has led to a number of interesting and helpful discussions around biblical authority itself.
So that’s what I want to explore here. And I have a feeling this might be an interesting discussion, so please remember the usual requests – politeness, gracioiusness and Christlikeness in all we say on here. I want to beigin the discussion by responding in general to the issue of why we appear to get so hot under the collar about sexuality – but that is only an introduction, so could we have the discussion about biblical authority, NOT JUST ABOUT SEX.
Sex and the bible.
I have repeatedly made my position on human sexuality clear. It is shaped by the teaching of Scripture. I am conservative in my approach and believe that the best place (and God designed place for that matter)for sexual activity and sexual relationship is one of marriage as defined by the Scripture, which is a lifelong, monogomous relationship of fidelity, trust and commitment. This relationship is publicly witnessed and witnessed by God, and is for good or bad, well or ill, etc. Clearly that then leads to questions about sexual practise outside that context – not just homosexuality, but heterosexual relationships outside of marriage etc. I refuse to single out homosexuality as worse than other pratices outside the biblical imperative on marriage.
Grading Biblical Morals? I also refuse to elevate sexual behaviour and responsibility above the biblical teaching on other things, such as judgementalism, legalism, gluttony, greed, hypocrisy, lying etc not to mention the decalogue and the wide breadth of teaching and command contained within both Testaments of the Bible. I would be interested to know if you think that sexual practise is actually more important, than the teaching of Scripture on how to treat asylum seekers, foreigners, the poor, the hungry, those in need for example. Or indeed whether or not you think the Bible’s commands around use of arms, or charging of interest on money, or cancellation of debt etc also carry moral and spiritual weight in the same way as the teaching of scripture on sexuality does. Indeed, there is also an argument that indebtedness itself is a sinful lifestyle choice, therefore we are faced with a decision about mortgages, loans, banks, pension funds etc. The plain truth is that far too often we pick and choose – is that a fair way to treat the bibke? Are we not just guilty of doing what Marcion did, only we do it by stealth?
Biblical Authority – how do we handle it?
The discussion about biblical authority is a very important one. What do you think? But I do not think that narrowing the dicussion of biblical authority to those things you agree with is a fair way to have the discussion. What do you think about the way we tend to highlight sexual sin over all others. What do you think about usury, indebtedness, foreign policy, taxation, how you treat the poor, how you feed the hungry, embrace the needy etc? Are these in the Bible? If they are, what weight are they given? For example, why does the New Testament (and the teaching of Jesus in particular) devote about 500 verses in the Gospels on how to use and treat money and possesions, yet way less to sexual practise (In fact Jesus says nothing about homosexuality at all – although I think there are very clear exegetical reasons for that and I think the whole teaching and trajectory of the bible needs to be taken into consideratgion – which brings much more clarity to the issue). If you think we should return to strict application of the Old Testament law for example (which I do not) should we then re-introduce stoning for adultery and the whole range of Old Testament punishment? I do not. If you think we should live within the literal context of the New Testament, should we demolish church buildings, re-introduce slavery, so that we can encourage slaves to obey their masters, consistently denmand that women remain silent in the church and start a campaign to remove all images of Mary riding into Bethlehem on a donkey (because it is not in Scripture)?
Some of those questions may seem frivilous, but not one of them is. At what point do we each recognise that the question of the authority of the bible IS a key issue, not least because we are ALL subjective in choosing those bits that apply to us and those bits that do not. (The idea, for example that the ceremonial law and the moral law of the Old Testament can somehow be separated so we live by the second and ignore the first is a dichotomy that the people of Israel would never understand because TORAH is about all of those regulations, and the stories and accounts of creation and covenant and hope and eschatology etc.) We too often talk about the ‘authority’ of the bible whislt at the same time we ourselves ignore huge chunks of it. So we actually mean the authority of th bits of the bible that I think are important.
My own view of Scripture is that is has final authority in matters of faith, doctrine and practise because it carries the delegated authority of God himself. I also think that it must be understood in the light of tradition (although we need to be careful not to elevate tradition above the narrative)and we must examine the way scripture has been handled and understood by the great cloud of witnesses that have preceded us – we are not free to make it up as we go along. To treat scripture in the way and dignity it deserves, we must also use reason – not elevating reason to divinity though – and we must endeavour to understand the context, flow, constistency, language, nuance, lexical and epistemological implications of the words and stories and accounts and genres and idioms and metaphors of Scripture. Lastly, for scripture to have its impact on our world and our lives, it must be lived, encountered and experienced. We must liberate it from the ridiculous ‘proof texting approach’ of many and allow it to become the shaper of our lives, our worship, our witness and our practise. We must also see it as the unfolding story of God in which we ourselves have a part. (I like the idea of the great narrativer story of God and his dealings with the world as defined by Scripture in five Acts as discussed by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham – they are Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. In this approach all of the bible is vital to our understanding of our own lives and the future because we are also part of the last act – the church. This is not dispensationalism, but instead it is acknowledging the great sweep and ovcerarching purpose of God in the world, from creation to consummation. That consummation will not take place until the return of Christ, when he finalised the establishment of His Kingdom, which was begun with his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. We now live in the tension of the last act of history – begun by God through Christ. This is what the jews call the Messianic Age, and we Christians call the Kingdom. But the New Testament is the opening scene of this act and we must stay true to it, live within in and be shaped by it – we are not free to change it. Instead we must do the hard work of understanding and applying it – and all of its principles, not just the ones we like. And we cannot do that unless we understand how it relates to the Old Testament and how we relate to Jesus and through Jesus to Israel etc.
The Faithworks movement is made up of thousands (about 24000) churches, individuals, gropups, charities and projects. Across that range there will be widely diverse opinion on the Bible and how we use it. From the literalisits to the deconstructionists. Faithworks is a purpose driven movment, centred on Christ, a Jesus Movement, not a religious insitution. We are made up of evangelicals, catholics, pentecostals, charismaticvs, progressives, conservatives, social liberals etc. All of those who join the movement do so because they are, according to our charter (a non-negotiable in joining the movement) motivated by Christian faith. So what do you all think?
There is an alternative to the view that we all ‘pick and choose’ the important bits of the Bible to suit our subjective interests. Thank goodness otherwise there would be no reason why I should listen to your views or vice versa except a highly subjective, passing interest. I think that there are key elements of scriptual doctrine that are unchanging and have relevance for all of life largely expressed in the creation narrative, the Ten Commandments, the Sacrements and other certain definitive statements. In other aspects I think it is more situationally dependent although scripture is never completely irrelevant. So, speaking of the UK a country that has virtually no problems with physical hunger but very great problems relating to family breakdown, the Bible’s teaching about families and sexuality perhaps should be stressed more than the Bible’s teaching about hunger (physical) and poverty. When thinking about the world outside the UK (or particular parts of it) the reverse would be more appropriate although, as I say, neither would be irrelevant.
However, back to my first point, in order for this to be worthwhile you have to believe that God is prompting me in some kind of way in this view and I have to believe that he is doing the same with you. And that is my position on the problem of human interpretation of the Bible. Like so much in life we are left at the limits of human reason and expectation crying out for God to break into our world and if he doesn’t then any of us speaking or listening to each other is ultimately meaningless. So I would be very wary of going too far down the road of a relative or subjective view of interaction with the Bible; it’s a dead end.
I agree with the dead-endedness of relative-ism Chris. It also leaves the whole thing way too subjective. I take what I like, and ignore what I don’t type thing. I think is a common mistake.
Thanks for your comments, I think we will see more appear.
Your opening line poses a key question for Christians, Malcolm. How do we use the Bible?
The Bible is a practical book, with something to say about every situation a man or woman will face in life, and it gives clear guidance on how one should live one’s life.
Paul says as much in II Timothy 3 when in the process of giving advice to a young Christian pastor, he writes: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
Regarding the question of “grading morals”, Paul again gives clear guidance that homosexuality is just one of many moral sins which requires repentance. Notice in I Corinthians 6 v 9-11, Paul places heterosexual immorality ahead of homosexuality in his list of things to be shunned. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”
But the point is – it is sin. The Church of England spends so much time debating the issue, because there are those in its ranks who would deny the scriptures. There should not be the need for a debate on the subject – God has spoken, and those who would deny His truth have no place in the church.
Sadly, its the toleration of such apostasy in its ranks that has led the Church of England to have Ichabod written across its doorposts.
I’m, not sure Paul placed one sin ahead of another in terms of rank John. In other places in his letters, he orders his warnings in a different order – but that is another question. I am sure many Anglicans reading your comments will want to reply – I will leave it to them to do so.
Once again, though, I would ask that you refrain from using phrases such as ‘apostate’ and ‘ichabod’ with fellow Christians.
It’s entirely Biblical to denounce those who purport to take the name of Christ upon themselves, but deny His Word.
As Paul says in I Corinthians 16 v 22: “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.”
When the church of England is laid by men who would deny the basic doctrines of the Bible, then its entirely correct to label that church as Ichabod.
There are many false teachers in Christendom who purport to teach Christ, but who know nothing of the Saviour. As Christ Himself said: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Its time to come off the fence, Malcolm.
Thanks for bringing this interesting subject to the forefront Malcolm. The authority of the Bible and how it should be legitimately read is an aspect of Christianity which I have often pondered.
I have come to realise that there are so many complications when reading the Bible and how perhaps in uneducated hands (I mean those who have no understanding of Jewish practice or any knowledge of the original writer and audience and context of address). Since being taught the basic principles of hermeneutics (bible interpretation), I have realised how vital it is to know these aspects before attempting to understand Scripture. I often wonder how safe it is to allow any Christian to read the Bible at all without at least some assistance in these areas.
As a young Christian I would wonder which aspects of the Old and New Testament I could take as being direct instruction to me. For example, can I read ‘I know the plans he have for you’ (Jer. 29:11) and take this to be directed at me? If so, what do the verses before and after have to do with me? Or perhaps I would read in 1 John 4:18 that ‘perfect love cast out all fear’ and believed this could refer to phobias. Whereas, I realise now that it is talking about being fearless of God’s Final Judgment. Furthermore, I was alarmed to read how dramatically God dealt with immorality and injustice in the Old Testament for example. I could not understand why he would wish people to be killed for their mistakes (Deut. 22). However, in the New Testament Jesus provides a way of escape for the woman who committed adultery (John 8). How flexible are these words?
I realise that there are so many principles that we can decipher from the Bible, so much that we can learn of God’s character and heart for his creation. However, this does not eliminate the fact that so much of its contents: the characters and situations are unintelligible for our postmodern world. Thus, there is such a danger of either standing on one side of the fence and literally enforcing that everything must be taken as literal instruction or standing on the other side and allowing a comprehension of Scripture to be coloured, and even diluted by the beliefs of the world.
We have the Bible and must all agree its validity, worth and awesome power in our lives. However, that does not mean it is a map, or a life manual – as I once believed. But instead, is God’s way of maintaining that his story be preserved and spread across the world for generations. It reveals that he was active and continues to be active with his creation and has never once abandoned them. We should treat these words with respect, since it was God who ordained that they be sealed in this fashion. Yet, we should also acknowledge that they were written years ago, to a people who were very different from our contemporary experience of life.
I am aware that so many people believe the Church to focus too heavily upon sexuality and not enough on seemingly more important issues such as poverty. I would class myself as someone who desires to see that perspective brought back into some sort of balance. However, I also believe that the church should also remain vocal about issues of homosexuality, morality and the like. For even though poverty is an aspect which the Western Church has greatly overlooked (even on their own doorstep – just spend a day in the inner city John M) they must still promote morality, fidelity and God’s ordained order of male and female: marriage. Therefore, I believe a tension is required between issues such as sexuality and poverty. They are both included in our Bible and addressed by our Lord, thus should be reflected in our own lives.
If it’s ok with you Malcolm I will join you ‘on the fence.’ For, I believe it to be the only way to prevent me from becoming a Christian who is legalistic with my understanding of Scripture and is therefore in danger of using it in a way which God would not approve.
I have to say, its sad reading comments like that which come from someone who is a professing Christian.
To in any way imply that the Bible should not be read is completely contrary to all that Christ would teach.
The Holy Spirit says in Psalm 119 that “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” and also that “the entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.”
Would you have the lost stumble around in the dark without the Word of God? Would you deny the light of the gospel to those who are in need of salvation?
While a warm blanket and a bowl of soup will help the body and are commendable actions, we are talking about the eternal souls of men and women heading to a Christless eternity in Hell.
How would you reconcile Paul’s statement to the Romans that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” with your desire to keep the Word of God a closed book?
As for your view that the God of the Old Testament is in someway different from the God of the New, well that just bears no scrutiny whatsoever. Read Malachi 3 v 6: “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” The LORD Himself is saying that He is the same God for all eternity.
If you would suggest that Christ brought a new message, then read the words of the Lord on the subject of the Old Testament. John 5 v 46: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.”
The Old and the New Testament proclaim the same message – that humanity is shapen in iniquity and without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin. Without repentance, man’s eternal fate is death. But Christ is the remedy for sinful humanity, for those who trust in Him.
Peddling the notion that the Bible should only be read by the scholars is an insult to the teaching of Christ. Did Christ preach only to the Pharisees and Scribes? Of course not – he brought His word to the common man and woman every bit as much.
Vicky, I would suggest to you to open the Book a bit more, and find out exactly what Christ has to say.
That’s why men like William Tyndale died to bring the scriptures to the common man and woman.
Well John in response to your comments I would like to reaffirm my position on the Bible.
I do read it, and value it, and believe it to be God’s word. I acknowledge that God inspired the individual authors of every book via his Holy Spirit and more so ordained that it be put together into the book as we now know it.
However, I also realise that it was written by Jewish men many many years ago and that their customs, culture and audience are completely different from our own. Therefore, I was simply saying how careful we must be in attempting to derive theology from its pages without before hand seeping ourselves in hermeneutics.
Moreover, I never said that God has changed. In fact quite the opposite, since I know him to be the same God throughout all time. Yet, I merely observed the blatant differences in his approach to judgment and discipline throughout the OT and the NT, which is evident for all to see when they ready systematically through the Bible’s pages. This fact intrigues me and makes me ask questions, but does in no way cause me to doubt an unchanging God. It simply tells me that I should be careful when attempting to comprehend God’s involvement with his people.
In conclusion then I believe that all Christians should read the Bible. I believe this for many reasons: because it reveals to us a God who is in control, who has a BIG plan for his creation, who loves us and goes to extreme lengths to be in a relationship with us. It shows us what our Saviour was like when on earth and promises us that he will return for us one day. However, I do believe that Christians need to be taught how to read the Bible within a church congregation context. Meeting together and listening to teaching is a Biblical precedent and this is due to the fact that teachers will be able to assist others understand how to live in a Godly manner. Without this process of working through the Scripture together how will immature Christians know where to start, comprehend the different Jewish customs? Of course they will be able to decipher many things from reading God’s Word alone, yet it is my belief that they will learn and appreciate so much more with assistance from a scholar (in the loose sense of the word).
I pray I have been a lot clearer on this subject today. I do not profess to know everything, but I have realised from my own personal journey with Christ that the Bible is full of untouched wealth without a better understanding of the context and culture of the individual letters and books.
How important is it that we should know the different opinions concerning what the bible means before we decide how we should obey what it says?
For instance, when we talk about reintroducing slavery so that Paul’s instruction can be obeyed, would it help if we knew that there were several different types of slavery in biblical times and it is not likely that Paul would be referring to slavery as it became known in the 18th/19th centuries.
When we talk about women being silent in our churches, is it important that Paul is not calling for women to be banned from being involved in worship? He is actually stating that if they have questions about the worship, they should ask them at home rather than disturbing the worship with their questions.
When he says the same in 2 Timothy, it is written in the context of gnostic teaching. In Gnostic circles women were upheld and glorified as “favoured instruments of revelation” and feminine imagery was freely applied to God and his/her emanations.
When that is understood, that and the particular words used in the passage show that this was a local teaching applying to that situation.