Bible

In the continuing debate over gay marriage the Church Times has published an article by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, ‘If we can’t make up, can we still kiss?’

This is a response. Their conservative evangelical approach is the cause of the problem, not the solution. ‘Good disagreement’ is an odd term, like ‘facilitated conversations’. Both draw attention to the difficulties Christians have in getting on with each other.

Medical researchers disagree about cures for AIDS. Archaeologists disagree about the latest discoveries. Football fans disagree about whether the referee was fair. People know how to disagree, how to join in a debate and let it go where it will, without seeking to control it.

What most people do not do is produce a list of red lines, absolute commitments derived from elsewhere, and demand that everyone accepts them before the debate starts.

Yet this is what Atherstone and Goddard propose. It is precisely this practice which makes Christian disagreements so much more insoluble than any others.

They propose two criteria for their red lines. The first is that ‘when the Bible is clear in its teaching, the Church is not free to modify or reject it.’ Mercifully they do not pursue this one: last time I saw Andrew Goddard he was clean-shaven, contrary to the clear teaching of Leviticus 19:27. In fact there are hundreds of clear biblical commands which Christians regularly ignore today.

Their second criterion is ‘whether our disagreements are over matters of foundational importance for the Christian gospel and Christian discipleship’. So what is foundational? They offer examples:

When a fundamental aspect of the gospel is at stake — such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace alone, or the dignity and equality of every human being — it is wrong for Christians to “agree to disagree”.

The gospel writers didn’t agree with each other about any of these, and since then Christians have always held divergent views. Neither of the criteria offered describe what Christians actually accept as authoritative. What Atherstone and Goddard are appealing to is not a description of Christianity but an unrealistic theory about how it ought to work.

That theory is a product of early Reformation theology. Many Puritans argued that the Bible is ‘clear’ and ‘plain’ on all matters of doctrine and ethics. Because it isn’t, they produced conflicting interpretations. Richard Hooker rescued the situation by arguing that some matters are not clear and therefore permit differences of opinion. In the circumstances, unfortunately, he was unable to go further; but never since then has the Church of England produced an agreed list of the ‘clear’ biblical texts or ‘foundational’ principles. Never has there been the remotest chance of agreement on any such list.

Atherstone and Goddard thus base their argument on a nostalgic appeal to sixteenth century theories which never succeeded in practice. In practice those who agree about the need for red lines have different red lines. Willing to cross other people’s red lines, but unwilling to have their own lines crossed, they generate the impatient ‘bad disagreement’ that persuades others to turn their backs on all religion.

Here is my alternative proposal for ‘good disagreement’:

1) Disagreeing is normal.
2) Nobody knows, or needs to know, everything
3) Nobody knows anything with absolute certainty. Every truth, however well established, can in principle be questioned if there is good enough reason to question it.
4) About public matters needing public decisions, we need public debate. About personal matters, like gay marriage, we can put our foghorns away and leave the decisions to the individuals involved.