Wordsearch puzzle

The debate continues. In my recent post about same-sex relationships I accused Susie Leafe, Director of Reform, of making five errors about the Bible. In the comments at the bottom of the post on my own website is a defence of Susie by Philip Almond and an invitation to continued dialogue.

I’m torn. Part of me feels angry that anyone should use such complicated systems to make the Bible mean what they want it to mean. The other part welcomes dialogue as our best hope of the two sides making progress. So I offer a general overview of the two most common ways to interpret the Bible, leaving to the end – as a kind of appendix – my detailed replies to Philip.

Two ways to read the Bible

Philip takes a sentence from a vision by an 8th century BC prophet, notes a reference to it in a first century AD gospel, and by combining the two deduces a conclusion that neither texts says.

Similarly, from Paul’s claim that his ‘gospel’ had been taught him through a revelation from Jesus, Philip deduces that everything Paul taught must have been taught to him by Jesus; so despite the lack of any texts saying so, Jesus did, after all, teach that same-sex partnerships are immoral.

This is what I mean by a ‘wordsearch puzzle book’ reading of the Bible. The deductions are ‘biblical’ if and only if his method of interpretation is the right way to read it.

I’m presenting my responses publicly because it isn’t just Philip. I have no reason to assume that Philip is stupid or uneducated. I am guessing that he has been miseducated, since a great many people have been miseducated in the same way.

Contextual readings

There are two common, but contrasting, traditions of biblical interpretation. Let’s call them a ‘contextual’ approach and a ‘miraculous’ approach. I describe them in much greater detail in my Liberal Faith in a Divided Church .

The contextual approach assumes that each biblical text was originally written for the sort of reason people wrote things down in their time and place. Later they got preserved because people found them valuable, and over time they earned a place as old, venerated scriptures. If nobody had found them inspiring they would not have been preserved.

This does not mean every statement in them is accurate. The point is that each text, as a whole, was judged to be inspired and therefore worth keeping.

Nor does it mean the scriptures provide answers to every relevant question. On the contrary, what makes people value their scriptures is that they are fruitful – that is, that their insights lead to further insights which may not have occurred to the original authors. So just as Euclidian geometry has developed far beyond what Euclid taught, the Christian tradition, by reflecting on the Bible, came to oppose slavery even though the Bible does not explicitly condemn it.

In this contextual tradition, the Bible is a basic resource for Christians, the ‘canon of scripture’, the roots of our tradition out of which the changing face of Christianity has grown.

Miraculous readings

What I am calling the ‘miraculous’ tradition takes little or no interest in the human authors. The assumption is that the texts say what God wanted them to say. In effect God is the real author.

This changes their significance. The texts of Scripture are now quite unlike any other texts. As Reform’s statement of beliefs puts it, ‘God’s word written’ has ‘infallibility and supreme authority’. Three principles follow.

  1. Every statement in it must be true.
  2. It contains answers to all questions on matters of Christian faith. If we do not find the answers easily we must search for them.
  3. The answers are clear. Human historical and literary studies cannot improve on God’s revelation but can mislead.

These principles follow pretty inevitably from the assumption of divine authorship, but they conflict with each other. If every statement in the Bible is true, then every statement must be given not its ‘clear’, most obvious meaning but a meaning that does not contradict any other biblical statement.

Within Christian Protestantism, therefore, the attempt to defend this ‘miraculous’ theory of the Bible has produced five centuries of analysis designed to interpret each text in such a way as to suppress contradictions.

So when Philip claims that disagreements arise ‘because the Bible is not being believed and/or read with sufficient care’, he really means it is not being interpreted in the manner to which he is accustomed.

Exegesis of Philip’s exegesis

I now turn to the details. On my account Susie’s five errors occur in the following statements:

If we follow the teachings of Jesus and we believe that he is God, then what he says is eternal. It’s not something that is fixed in time… And it doesn’t mean that if you’re not married, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, that you can’t have a fulfilled life. Jesus himself was a single celibate man.
1) Jesus as God

Me first time: The Bible never describes Jesus as God just like that.

Philip: John 12: 37-41 is clear that the One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple (Isaiah 6) is Jesus Christ. The One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple is Yahweh of hosts.

Me now: So Isaiah has a vision of the Lord of hosts, and 800 years later John quotes a passage from it. John’s gospel is the one where Jesus often claims to have a specially close relationship with God. In this passage Jesus performs ‘many signs’ but the people do not ‘believe in him’. John remarks that ‘they could not believe, because Isaiah also said…’ and then comes the quotation from Isaiah 6:

He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.

So John quotes this text from Isaiah, quite clearly – Philip is right here – drawing attention to the parallel between the unbelief of Judeans in Isaiah’s day and the unbelief of those who saw Jesus’ ‘many signs’.

But Philip then goes on to claim that ‘the One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple… is Jesus Christ’. Neither text says that. It is not the Bible, but Philip (or perhaps his source) who makes this leap.

2) Jesus on same-sex partnerships

Me first time: There are no known teachings of Jesus about same-sex partnerships, either within the Bible or anywhere else.
Philip responds with a number of biblical quotations. 2a):

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:12-13)

Me now: This is nothing to do with same-sex relationships. Of course there are lots of things worth knowing that Jesus didn’t teach. We might imagine that if he had survived the crucifixion he would have denounced same-sex partnerships, but we’d only be guessing. We might equally imagine that he would have approved of them.

Philip 2b):

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12)

So we have to pay attention to what Paul wrote.

Me now: Philip’s logic here seems to be that because Paul claimed that his gospel was received ‘by revelation’ from Jesus, therefore what Paul taught had previously been revealed by Jesus. Well, neither of us can claim to have a full account of what Jesus ‘revealed’ to Paul. I only claimed that there are no known teachings of Jesus on That Hot Topic. Anyway, when Paul refers to ‘the gospel I preached’, we don’t know what it was. We only have his epistles. Perhaps Paul had some kind of revelation from Jesus telling him to denounce same-sex partnerships, and perhaps he did denounce them, but once again we have absolutely no evidence.

Philip 2c): In Ephesians 5:18-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 Paul teaches that male/female asymmetry is part of the ‘very good’ humanity created by God before the Fall intervened. And in the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1) this asymmetry appears in the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Me now: we’re not debating whether heterosexual marriage is good. Both of us think it is, in general. However there are some people who don’t want it. I’m happy to assume it isn’t good for them. Philip doesn’t say he thinks it should be compulsory for everyone. If he does, this will explain his opposition to same-sex partnerships and I would disagree with him. If he doesn’t, affirming the goodness of heterosexual marriage is irrelevant to the question of same-sex partnerships.

Philip 2d): It is inconceivable that same-sex attraction could have been part of the ‘very good’, asymmetric, pre-Fall human nature described in Genesis 1 and 2.

Me now: Philip doesn’t tell us why it is inconceivable. But I don’t care. I don’t believe in an original state of perfection followed by a primeval Fall. There is no doctrine of a Fall in Genesis. The only places in the Bible where it appears are Romans 5:12-14 and Romans 8:18-23, both passing references while Paul is concentrating on something else. Jews never developed the idea.

3) Eternal teachings of Jesus

Me first time: Nowhere in the Bible are we told that the teachings of Jesus are eternal. We may think some, like the Golden Rule, are indeed eternal, but the Bible makes no such specification.

Philip: This has already been answered by Dennis Richards. But I comment on his post that the ‘wide disagreements’ he mentions arise because the Bible is not being believed and/or read with sufficient care.

Me now: Dennis’ suggestion was Mark 13:31, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. Dennis is not Philip, and it’s Philip I’m responding to here.

In retrospect I should have been more precise. I should have specified that I was denying that all the ethical teachings of Jesus were eternal, since this was Susie’s claim.

Still, Mark’s text is there. What does it mean? It appears in Mark’s chapter about the End of the Age.

In those days… the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven…
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Mark 13:24-31).

That’s where it is! If Jesus had intended it as timeless ethics for the millennia, Mark didn’t exactly find the ideal place to record it, did he?

4) Did Jesus marry?

Me first time: Christians have usually assumed that Jesus never married, but there is no serious evidence either way. The Bible does not tell us.
Philip: Jesus knew that he came to die. It is a reasonable deduction that he did not get married.

Me now: So did I. And Philip. I don’t know about Philip but I did get married. Even though I know I am going to die. I even have children and grandchildren, despite being fully aware that they too will die.

5) Was Jesus celibate?

Me first time: Even if Jesus was single, the Bible does not tell us he was celibate.

Philip: Given that he was single he must have been celibate since he was without sin and the Bible teaches that sex outside heterosexual marriage is a sin.

Me now: Eventually, Philip fails to offer a biblical reference. Paul condemns ‘porneia’, which is often translated ‘fornication’ or some such word. New Testament scholars debate what he meant, but I don’t know any who think the word covers all sex acts outside heterosexual marriage. That may just be my ignorance, but what I am more confident about is that most biblical authors did not make any such claim. There are plenty of biblical passages that condemn sex acts by women outside heterosexual marriage, but not by men. For men, whether married or not, sex with independent prostitutes and slave girls was normal, and plenty of biblical texts accept them as permissible. Here’s one:

For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, to preserve you from the wife of another, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life (Proverbs 6:23-26).


Do not treat the Bible as a wordsearch puzzle book. Do not hunt in it for what you want while ignoring the rest. Hear what it has to say. Listen to the wisdom of the ages.