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?