Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sola Scriptura, Hermeneutics and Homosexuality

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has voted in its Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, to accept gay and lesbian candidates for ordination and to allow individual parishes to accept same gender partnered pastors. In order to do this it needed a two thirds majority in its voting procedures. This issue had been discussed at previous assemblies and it seems clear that the mood and attitude of members of the ELCA has been moving in a more inclusivist direction for some time.

Predictably, this has not been universally welcomed in some other branches of the church and, indeed, not universally within the ELCA, but two thirds is two thirds and does seem to reflect a movement within American Protestantism following recent decisions within the Episcopal Church.

Part of the predictability of the response has been the trotting out of the same tired “theological” arguments against homosexuality.

What frustrates me about this is the ease with which some Christians, while claiming to be in obedience to scripture, continue to be very selective about which parts of scripture they choose to remain in obedience to without, it seems, any sense of awareness of such an irony.

We have ditched slavery and we have ditched the subjugation of women and we have integrated the races all of which could be argued to have pretty strong scriptural support and yet it has been decided – pretty universally – that these are no longer to be applied in modern life. At the same time many of those who are against any relaxation of the alleged prohibitions against homosexuality (while presumably accepting black and female pastors) are quick to accuse the desire to fall in with current cultural norms as the motivating factor.

Only yesterday my friend Steve wrote to me that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Holy Scripture. Well, that is clearly not the case just in the examples I have already mentioned. I fear that the assumption that the Holy Spirit is a footsoldier to be deployed to support any argument is one that is gaining rather too wide currency. The Holy Spirit is the transcendent agent of God at work in the world today and we are in danger of diminishing her (ruach-Hebrew, feminine) and making her too small if we claim that she is to be confined within the Bible, unless we believe that God’s revelation was completed the moment the canon of scripture was set. Personally I don’t.

One of the other arguments that is being deployed is that of sola scriptura – the notion that Christian doctrine can not be formulated from non-biblical ideas. The ELCA and TEC have ditched the notion of sola scriptura allegedly. However, Sola Scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God: that a belief or doctrine is not in scripture does not mean that it can not be accepted. There is no doctrine of the Fall in Genesis: this doctrine was subsequently developed by the church as was the doctrine of the Trinity – also not a worked doctrine in the New Testament.

Clearly there are times when Christians have to struggle with the Bible and develop theology and doctrine and that, at least in part, is the role of the Holy Spirit. To be working theologically and to be developing doctrine is not necessarily to be working against the principle of Sola Scriptura. Luther did it himself perpetually and we could take his argument on infant baptism as an example. Jesus isn’t recorded as practicing infant baptism and yet Luther argued so strongly that infant baptism could be justified that it became part of the practice of the church. The Sola Scriptura argument shifts from an attitude that says if it isn’t in scripture you can’t have it to an attitude that says if it isn’t specifically condemned in scripture you can make a case for it.

This leads us to where we are now: the impasse on whether or not homosexual practices are actively condemned in scripture. The conservative wing of the church maintains that it is and the liberal wing maintains that it isn’t. My frustration here is that I believe that many of the churches have ducked this one in the way that they traditionally teach about the Bible week by week from the pulpit. By which I mean that ordinary Christians - Mr. and Mrs. Average in any pew in any church in any country have not been introduced to the idea of hermeneutics: aspects of Biblical criticism and ways of understanding the Bible are not simply academic disciplines to be confined to the rarefied atmospheres of theological colleges and university theology departments. All priests/vicars/pastors learn these disciplines but relatively few seriously introduce their congregations to these aspects of Christian understanding. Luther himself was an awesome theologian, a university professor of theology no less: he wasn’t satisfied with a simplistic or literalist approach to understanding the Bible. On the contrary he struggled with scripture and hermeneutics and the Lutheran church exists today because he did. What a shame that we and other churches don’t model our approach to the Bible on that foundation. The church has been lazy and patronising to the laity over this matter and it has done a huge disservice to the work of the Gospel in refusing to engage adequately with hermeneutics.

What we all too often have is the medieval approach to scripture: Father knows best. Those who are charged with the responsibility of passing on their knowledge often don't pass it on because what they have learnt is too challenging to the religious worldview they had before they entered theological study and they have not let that study impact one iota on that religious worldview. "Religious myth as a valid genre of Biblical writing? But I am a creationist. I shan't be sharing that notion with my congregation even though I can write the essay." And too often too the laity have been passive in colluding with this and have accepted like sponges without question what they have heard. "After all he went to college."

What we often have instead is the dumbed-down lowest common denominator in Biblical exegesis: it means what it says and it means it for you today. Don’t tamper, don’t interpret, just accept and obey. What a travesty of Luther’s position. When someone starts to move beyond those paramaters they are knocked back with “the wisdom of this age” argument, the anti-intellectual, anti-theological catch-all default position against going deeper, (the position as taught at Hicksville Baptist Bible College where no formal theological qualification or understanding is required to teach).

The situation we face is one where people believe they know their Bibles: after all they can quote verses at the drop of a hat as if that were somehow evidence. That is not the same as understanding their Bibles and without understanding there is not knowledge. Without understanding and knowledge there can not be evaluation.

If one seeks to understand rather than just to know it would help to have been told about the religious practices of the time, not just of the Jews but of their neighbours, the neighbours who could overwhelm them militarily and culturally at any time unless they were alert to both dangers. That the writers of Leviticus were warning the ancient Hebrews about the dangers of the religious expressions and practices of their pagan neighbours not their own personal relationships; that St. Paul and the Romans were having a similar conversation based on notions of pagan cultic prostitution; that these dialogues were about the danger of apostasy arising from adopting pagan practices seem to pass us by.

That many people don't recognise this today because they do not have an understanding of the background to these ancient conversations and therefore have got quite the wrong end of the stick about what Leviticus and Romans were saying does not seem to be a motivating force for the religious education of congregations. Rather these ideas should not be introduced to "ordinary" Christians because that would just muddy notions of the authority of scripture and then where would we be? Rather we carry on teaching a dangerously flawed understanding based on the theology that the literal reading of scripture, regardless of its context, different writing genre and nuances of translation is one hundred percent the revealed word of God.

Of course some Christians are in denial. They don't like what hermeneutics comes up with because it is too challenging and so, like the medieval clergy Luther railed against, they subvert it and censor it and in doing so they mislead the faithful.

Let's be absolutely clear here: everyone interprets scripture. Every stance we take on scripture is an interpretation. There is no value-free understanding of scripture.

We don’t need to go over the contentious Biblical passages. They are well known and well rehearsed. What is less well known is that to understand what these passages were trying to say to the original audiences and to understand the religious background of those times is to discover that they do not offer a blanket condemnation of monogamous loving homosexual relationships. To continue to use those Biblical passages against the supporting evidence of what they were trying to say is to misuse scripture.

We are not the target readers nor the implied readers of those scriptural passages. To act as if we are is to deeply misunderstand the message of the writers. This is the meat of Sola Scriptura and it demands intellectual and theological engagement by the Holy Spirit.

Luther would be spinning in his grave.