Picking and choosing? (a reblog)

by Richard on August 19, 2010

I’m reblogging this post as part of the conversation that’s going on about how we use the Bible. I’m not able to write anything fresh today, and this still says what I want it to. I’d also point you to Why Bible-believing Methodists Shouldn’t Eat Black Pudding, Bishop Alan: Reading the Bible 101 and Internet Monk: Icebergs, Onions and Why You’re Not As Simple As You Think.

In a comment on another post, commenter James* says

This is about the authority of Pauls Epistles. There can only be two schools of thought:

1) The Shelby Spong group where Paul is just some bloke who wrote stuff 2000 years ago, enterpreted it for him and his time but now is redundant due to context etc… This I understand and it is quite a strong argument.

2) The view that Paul was inspired by God and that everything he writes has Gods approval. This helps when dealing with more imaginary concepts like Grace and Justification but for our enlightened minds we cme unstuck when it comes to creationism and (of course) homosexuality.

What James says about St Paul’s epistles might just as well be said of the whole of scripture. In a nutshell, it’s all either made up or it’s been dictated by God. No other options: all or nothing. The implication seems to be that if you adopt any other approach, you simply have no basis for making an informed and reliable interpretation of the text. James seems to believe that the alternative to his stark choices is to pick and choose from the text merely on the whim of the individual interpreter.

Is that really how things are?

If you’ve followed any of the recent threads here, it will come as no surprise that I don’t think so. Rather than construct a theoretical argument about interpretation, I thought I’d just give a couple of simple (non-controversial!) examples to demonstrate how I believe we need to come to St Paul (and indeed the rest of the Bible).

Take Romans 14, the question of eating meat. Paul says quite clearly that the weak (in faith) “eat only vegetables”. He urges strong-faithed meat-eaters not to despise their weaker sisters, but still: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables”.

I’m a vegetarian. Does this verse allow you to conclude that my faith is weak? To quote St Paul — “By no means!” (There may be other reasons for you to come to that conclusion, of course) You see, what Paul has in mind is nothing to do with vegetarianism as such, and everything to do with the practice of gentile butchers selling meat that has been offered to pagan idols. In other words, you have to look beyond the words and ask about the reasons that they were written. I’ve never met a vegetarian who became so because they were concerned that the meat might have come from a pagan sacrifice. I have, however, met the occasional Christian who is content to think of vegetarians as having weak faith “because Romans 14:2 says so”. Except, of course, that it doesn’t.

Context. ‘What did this text mean to those who first heard it?’ is a foundational question for exegesis of the Bible. Until you’ve answered that, you can’t answer the question(s) about what it means for today.

Context alone is not enough though. We have to recognize that the Bible is not a simple book and if we are to take it seriously we can’t treat it as a collection of free-standing inerrant sayings. The scriptures are a whole and they must be interpreted (horrid word alert!!) holistically. That is to say, whenever we read the Bible we read it in the light of what we know of the rest of the Bible says. It is self-evident that the more we know about the Bible, the better we are able to interpret it. And yes, some bits of scripture do supersede others, and there are times when we need to decide which way round the superseding works. Let’s take an obvious example: Matthew 5:38,39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The law of the Torah (itself a merciful limitation on revenge) demands strict retribution, but Jesus both overturns and fulfills this law. The words of Jesus sublate the text of Exodus — the meaning is taken broader and deeper. Sublation occurs all through the Bible, and it means we should always be careful about the way we use the phrase “The Bible says…”

So when we come to, say, homosexuality and St Paul there are questions that have to be asked. First, there’s context. When you read ‘homosexual’ in an English translation of St Paul, is it certain that he has in mind long-term committed same-sex relationships. The answer to that isn’t obvious. Remember the vegetarians of Romans 14? The words that Paul uses, and the way that he uses them, have to be examined carefully. In a case like this, just reading the ESV won’t do. Neither will simply listening to your ‘approved’ teachers. Biblical interpretation is too important just to take someone else’s word. Every Christian is called to wrestle with scripture as strenuously as they are able, and that means taking account of a variety of opinions. Second, how might the teachings of Paul be sublated? Changing tack for a moment, Paul nowhere condemns slavery. It took the church 1800 years to see that while slavery is explicitly approved by scripture, it is implicitly illegitimized by a whole host of texts many of which come from Paul himself. For 1800 years the church lived with the buying and selling of human beings, but now I know of no Christian who regards slavery with anything other than abhorrence. Is it too much to suppose that the something similar may happen to the church’s view of homosexuality? I don’t believe it is.

The simple fact is that there are gay Christian couples living lives of commitment and care who experience the blessing of God in their mutual love. Some of us find this difficult to believe, but it is true. Just as the ministry of women has been blessed against the expectations of those who declare it unscriptural, so gay men and lesbians are, in fact, being used by God in his Kingdom.

Ultimately, that experience will lead the church to a deeper understanding of her scriptures.

* I’m not getting at you, James. You just provided me with a useful starting point.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


Tim Chesterton 08.19.10 at 7:24 pm

Bishop Alan nails it as usual.


dh 08.19.10 at 7:28 pm

I’m still with James on this one. I still believe that what has been discussed by Richard seems to be “red-herrings”. However, I respect his views even though I happen to disagree. Richard, love ya in the Lord. :)


dh 08.19.10 at 7:30 pm

I don’t believe (1) is a strong argument though and (2) on Grace and justification those are not “imaginary concepts”.


methodist preacher 08.22.10 at 10:07 pm

He’s away.


Pam 08.23.10 at 1:25 am

Back to the future with dh. Not a place I want to visit.


Richard 08.23.10 at 8:02 am

Who’s away?


Anonymous 08.23.10 at 9:33 am



Richard 08.23.10 at 10:16 am

Ah. But there’s nothing in this re-blog that would be offensive to James. And nothing public that links to any specific James either. However, I’ll drop him an email, just to be on the safe side.

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