Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Interpreting Scripture

When it comes to making Christian sense of the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction, much depends on how we read scripture. But, that draws us into a much deeper and broader challenge in the contemporary church. There is a good deal of uncertainty across the church as to how best to engage the scriptures and a loss of confidence in some old assumptions about how to do so. One sign of this is the turn to early Church tradition for guidance among Evangelicals.

Absent a Magisterium , as in the Roman Catholic Church, we are left to make sense of scripture in a context in which there is no straightforward, agreed upon, and authoritative hermeneutic for interpreting the writings we believe to be inspired by God and authoritative for the church. The inevitable result is that faithful, pious Christians often come to different conclusions interpreting the scriptures on a given matter. Even people who basically agree on the authority and inspiration of scripture and how it should be read often come to quite different conclusions on important issues.

We all need to give more attention to the interpretive principles by which we configure scripture such that some themes and passages are given more weight than others. And we all need to practice a good deal more charity and humility toward one another when we disagree.

Before looking at any particular passage of scripture that mentions same-sex sexual relations, it is important to look at what makes for faithful interpretations of scripture in general. I’ve attempted a constructive proposal for engaging scripture elsewhere (see The King or a Fox). Everything that follows should be understood in the context of that series of posts. In this post I want to elaborate on one of the criteria I suggested for interpreting scripture – the Criterion of Love, which is closely related to another, the Criterion of Jesus Christ.

St. Augustine on the double love of God and neighbor

St. Augustine, in his guide to interpreting scripture, argued that the fundamental key to faithful interpretation is Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)

It is to teach us how to do these two things rightly that we were given the scriptures in the first place. Augustine goes so far as to make this rather startling claim:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the author demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and certainly is not a liar. (On Christian Teaching [De Doctrina Christiana], English trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 27)

Though this sounds remarkable, the idea that the building up of the double love of God and neighbor is the key for interpreting scripture is at least as well-founded in scripture as is Luther’s insistence that everything be interpreted through the lens of salvation by faith through grace. In fact, Luther, himself, asserted that “faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law.”

Not only does Jesus give us the summary of the law, he applies it himself in a way that was shocking to his contemporaries when he insisted that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

Paul makes several references to the centrality of Jesus’ summary of the law (cf. Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:13-14, Galatians 6:2). And the apostle seems to apply it as a key to discerning moral questions in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)

It does not seem particularly ‘revisionist’ to agree with Augustine that interpretations that “build up this double love of God and neighbor” are to be preferred and that the test for whether or not an interpretation is in the ballpark of faithfulness is whether or not it can be demonstrated to do so. And if, as Jesus says, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; might we entertain that if an interpretation of scripture seems to thwart the flourishing of members of the body of Christ that that interpretation needs to be looked at afresh? And if, as Paul says, the fundamental criteria on moral questions are what is beneficial for Christian freedom and the building up of the body of Christ and individual members of that body, might we ask in the case of Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same sex, “What is beneficial? What enables them to not be ‘dominated’? What builds them up? Would the blessing of Same-sex Unions build up the church? Would such unions inherently get in the way of its being built up?" Article XX of the Articles of Religion enjoins us not to "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." Might we ask of any interpretation of scripture, "Is it repugnant to the double love of God and neighbor?"

Not simple, sentimental, or easy

The double love of God and neighbor is not simple, sentimental, or easy. To love God requires us to know God – through the witness of the Bible, through worship and prayer, through the witness of tradition and the saints, and through the witness of creation. That also requires continual self-scrutiny lest we construct an image of God that suits us and then love the image we have formed for ourselves. To love our neighbor also requires that we actually come to know our neighbor. That too requires continual self-scrutiny to examine our own resistance to love and our tendency to project onto others what we already think they are or should be as characters of the story of our own making. The double love of God and neighbor requires taking up the cross and denying ourselves.

A Roman Catholic principle of interpretation
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has a similar principle of scriptural interpretation. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities:

“Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture ‘contrary to evangelical justice and charity’ they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, current official Roman Catholic teaching does not conclude from this that justice and charity rightly understood lead to the ordination of women or the blessing of Same-sex Unions. But, that merely raises the question of how we discern what is just and what is charitable.

What it is and isn't about

If Same-sex Unions can be a faithful state for Christians it is not about ‘inclusion’ which, in and of itself, is an empty concept. It is not merely a matter of declaring that ‘God loves everyone. Period.’ Few Christians would deny that. But it is an insufficiently Christian declaration (see God’s Love is not Enough).  Nor is it about ‘respecting the dignity of every human being’. Of course we should live into that part of the Baptismal Covenant.  But, respect and love do not mean affirming everything we want affirmed.  Sometimes respect and love mean speaking hard truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Nor is it about sentimentalism or indulgence.

The question, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Really, this is a bit of fresh air given all the contentious debates here at home and abroad.


Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Robb. I appreciate it.

Robert F said...

The church(es),and the world, are now at the juncture of what sociologist and sometime theologian Peter Berger calls a moment of discovery. In a moment of discovery, we recognize the human dignity that we claim for ourselves to also be inherent in another whom we had, up until now, considered excluded. It is these moments, particularly the ones that become matters of widespread public awareness and reflection (for instance, Rosa Parks taking her seat on the bus) that provide the pivotal events around which societal ethics change and develop, according to Berger. We are in just such a moment regarding the rights and, even more essentially, the humanity of GLBT people. Once these moments mushroom in a society's awareness, it is difficult (though not impossible) to go back to the period predating the ethical discovery. Because these moments express transcendent truths, they recur and ultimately are irrepressible. Any hermeneutic that ignores the reality and existence of these moments of discovery in its interpretation of the Scriptures (regarding, for instance, the acceptance of the institution of slavery in the biblical narratives, or the place of women in church and society), and uses this tone-deaf interpretation to countenance current injustices, is ignoring extra-biblical expressions of truth and thereby ignoring the movement of God in human experience and history, and is in fact, as they say, on the losing side of history (and theology). The example of chattel slavery in Europe and the Americas should be a perennial reminder of this fact to most traditional Christian communities. There are ways of reading Scripture that justify horrible injustices; in fact, it is not difficult to make such readings, because the Bible was written by fallen people, however inspired they might have been by God. Hermeneutical approaches like the one you present here, which take into account exta-biblical experience in developing a way to hear what God is saying to us through the experience of reading Scripture about this subject and others, are responsible and very necessary at this time in our history. I myself have had a transformation of viewpoint regarding this subject recently, and I'm grateful to those who made it possible by staying in dialogue with me while maintaining their convictions.