Biblical inspiration, human interpretation: The LGBT issue, part 7

Taking biblical inspiration and authority seriously also requires humbly acknowledging a long history of Christian fights over “what the Bible says.”

Gushee David croppedBy David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee

The (Protestant) Bible has 66 books, 1,189 chapters and 31,273 verses, spoken, written and edited over more than a millennium, in three different languages, in multiple social settings, by dozens of authors, with the last composition completed over 1,900 years ago.

Despite these obvious evidences of human authorship, Christians in most confessions — I am one of them — also have historically claimed that this Bible is divinely inspired, truthful and trustworthy, carrying unique authority for guiding Christian belief and practice.

Protestants, more than other Christians, have tended to claim that the Bible is the primary or even the sole authority for determining truth in Christian theology and ethics. Some conservative Protestants have heightened their claims about the truth of Scripture with language such as infallibility and inerrancy. The more heightened and more exclusive are the claims about scriptural truth and authority, the more intense are the debates about how the Bible is to be interpreted. Claims about (my/our interpretation of) what “the Bible teaches” are viewed as settling all controverted issues.

Protestant traditionalists who stake their knowledge claims on biblical inspiration and authority — as opposed to Catholic traditionalists who more often stake such claims on natural law or the authority of divinely inspired Church teaching, of which the Bible was the first stage — generally express strong certainty that the Bible clearly teaches that there can be no morally legitimate same-sex (sexual-romantic) relationships. Some express incredulity that any alternative view is even under discussion. This is viewed as the ultimate open-and-shut case based on the “plain sense” of Scripture.

Skeptics, on the other hand, ask how exactly it is that Christians “know” that a particular portion of the (Protestant) Bible’s 66 books, 1,189 chapters and 31,273 verses should be selected and assembled for authoritative citation when it is time to argue about this or any other contemporary issue. They further ask how Christians “know” which way to interpret the verses they do select from the vast canon of Scripture.

I will ask us in upcoming weeks to consider how Christians connect the biblical dots within the vast canon of Scripture when it comes to this issue or any issue, and how we know who is doing it right. Who determines authoritatively whether we are connecting the biblical dots correctly?

Some skeptics consider this dot-connecting to be an essentially random, arbitrary, normless, process, or one more determined by personal preference or power relations than anything else. (Some of those skeptics, by the way, are our own children, weary of our arguments.)

Sometimes such skepticism is well-informed by knowledge of a long history of often bitter and sometimes deadly Christian argumentation about a wide range of theological and moral issues. In this history:

a) Christians have come to fundamentally different conclusions about myriad issues;

b) Christians have cited Scripture on all sides of such issues;

c) Majority Christian opinion on various issues has sometimes shifted profoundly;

d) Christians have often felt so passionate about Truth as they see it that they have sought to exclude or destroy their enemies, and have done so when sufficiently empowered.

Candidates for most bitterly contested theological and moral issues in 2,000 years of Christian history, issues about which determined Christians have quoted Scripture against each other, are plentiful. A random list of issues I’ve studied or witnessed that might make such a list would include:

•Whether Catholics (or Protestants, or Baptists, or ...) should be persecuted/prosecuted

• Calvinism v. Arminianism as more accurate in describing the divine and human roles in salvation

• Whether charismatic/Pentecostal practices are mandatory, permissible or of the Devil

• God’s plan for (men’s and) women’s roles in church, home and society

• Whether torture of U.S. prisoners in the “war on terror” might be morally legitimate

• The morality of the sale and use of alcohol

• The nature of proper Christian Sabbath observance

• The morality of (name your) war

• Whether slavery, colonization or abolition is mandated, permitted or banned by Scripture

• The morality of continued U.S. racial segregation vs. racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s

• God’s preferred economic system between capitalism, socialism and a third way

• Whether to cooperate with Nazism or stand in resistance and at what points in 1930s Germany

• What to think and do about “the Jews” theologically and politically

• What to think about modern Israel

• What eschatological scheme to embrace

• The morality of apartheid in South Africa

• The morality of child labor and other practices of unregulated industrial capitalism

• Whether divorce might be permissible and for what reasons

• The morality of eating (factory-farmed) meat

• [Your issue here]

With each one of these issues, it is easy to find relevant contemporaneous literature labeling the various sides as “the biblical position” and the opposing side as unbiblical.

The most interesting interlocutors in any contemporary Christian moral or theological debate are those aware that these oft-bloody historic interpretive battlegrounds fill the Christian landscape. These wise souls are therefore aware that the text/s of Scripture, on the one hand, and the interpretive process, on the other, are not the same thing. They recognize that Christians fiercely committed to Christ, Scripture and truth frequently do differ. They acknowledge that anyone’s reading of a text or an issue at any given moment may turn out to be quite wrong. They understand therefore that humility and charity are called for when engaging in theological and moral argument.

The least interesting interlocutors are those who seem to have learned nothing from our own conflicted history, and who therefore repeat that history over and over again in their certainty that their reading of a text is God’s Own Truth.

All of these fights over biblical texts and their interpretation, of course, lead many to a deep skepticism as to whether the canon of Scripture should be viewed as having such profound authority. Some of these skeptics are fellow Christians, often (ex-)Protestants scarred by too many battles over the Bible. Catholics and Orthodox, of course, have attempted to resolve their religious authority issues in different ways. You might have noticed that it’s no easier for them. Because humans see through a glass darkly, there is no way for us to avoid struggles over competing truth claims and how they are authoritatively grounded.

Questions about why ancient sacred texts still carry so much authority in contemporary religious communities, or whether there is any rhyme or reason to how believers connect the biblical dots, or whether anyone can coherently claim to offer “the biblical perspective” on any issue, are exceedingly important. There are some who consider such questions so intrinsically devastating that all Christian efforts to propose a moral norm and ground it in biblical citations are essentially invalid — or that no one’s perspective is any more defensible than anyone else’s perspective. How often I have quoted a Bible passage in an online article about something and immediately been met by derisive citations of Leviticus. Whimsical humor about the folly of attempting to read the Bible as if it might be taken as authoritative is common today.

In this series of columns I am not really writing for such skeptics. I am instead writing for fellow believers who, like me, have despite it all retained strong belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible for the Christian life.

I am writing for Christians who believe that there are indeed better and worse, more or less defensible, ways of selecting, interpreting and applying sacred scriptures to address specific issues.

I am writing for those who believe that anyone attempting to propose moral norms for contemporary Christians needs to do their biblical homework, show that work (like in algebra class) and test it in community.

I also am writing for those who are aware that while theological and moral inquiry rely on excellent biblical exegesis and interpretation, broader processes of analysis and discernment, in loving Christian community, integrating head and heart, are required to understand not just what a text once meant but what it means for the believing church today.

I write for those who think that honest, fair-minded individual and collective inquiry is indispensable in Christian life, and that this is in fact how truth is sought among us, with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Next week, in this spirit, I will begin digging into the texts most relevant to the LGBT issue.

Previous columns:

If this is where you get off the bus: The LGBT issue, part 6

Six options for the churches: The LGBT issue, part 5

Gay Christians exist: The LGBT issue, part 4

Change we can all support: The LGBT issue, part 3

What exactly is the issue? The LGBT issue, part 2

Starting a conversation: The LGBT Issue, part 1

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.