Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An Approach to Scritpure

Finding the once-and-for-all, undisputed, incontrovertible meaning for the bible is, in most cases, a fool's errand. And trying to do so requires logical leaps that I'm not comfortable making.

So as we move closer toward looking at the texts in the bible that address homosexuality, we first need to look at how we'll approach scripture as we do so. What you'll see below is just one approach to scripture. It's the one that'll be used going forward in this discussion, but it's far from being the only approach.

Catch up on the last post here.

Coming Clean

I believe the bible is both an historical and a supernaturally inspired document that has been collected over millennia, canonized, translated, and interpreted to give us the document that most of us read (or don't). 


Yup. I really think that God inspired scripture. I don't know exactly how or why, but I do think that within the bible we have the attempt of the creator of the universe to communicate with human beings for the purpose of bringing human beings into a better relationship with that creator.

I don't think that every word of the bible was dictated from on high. I don't think that the bibles we have today are without human interference. And I don't think that the inspiration removes the need for us to work hard to understand the historical context of the original documents.


The bible wasn't written in one sitting, but over the course of hundreds or thousands of years (depending on how you date things). It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It was written as poetry, history, law, music, oracle, letter, biography, parable, wisdom, and a special genre known as apocalyptic. Many of the books of the bible combine several genres, in fact.

Each of the books was written to a specific group of people in a specific historical context. And it is impossible to disambiguate that context from the meaning of the text. As Osburn wrote (Women in the Church, pg. 104):

The "meaning" of a text is the meaning intended by the author within a particular literary and historical setting.

Collected and Canonized

The 66 books of the bible that we have today (or more for the Catholics) weren't handed down from Mount Sinai etched in stone (and bound with leather). Instead the individual books all circulated for some time before they were collected together and then those collections circulated for more time before church leaders voted to canonize (i.e. make official) the books that were in and out of the bible.

I have a high degree of faith in the collection and canonization process because it happened over such a long period of time, with so many disparate belief systems, and the people involved had so much agreement throughout the process. There's far more study that you could do on this topic, but one example is that the entire New Testament was duplicated in quotes in the writings of the early church fathers (important figures in the church in the centuries prior to the canonization of scripture).

The Approach

So now that you know how I view scripture, I'll tell you a few things about what that means in regards to approaching it.

First, I'm not going to try to convince you to see the bible the same way that I do. I'm assuming these things to be the starting point from which we'll reason our way forward. If you think the bible is full of fairy tales that don't matter, then nothing after this will even attempt to convince you otherwise. If you think that the bible was literally dictated to the writers and has remained unchanged since that moment, then nothing after this will even attempt to convince you otherwise.


That there are controversial texts in the bible is without question. In our approach to those controversies, we will do our best to employ an historical-critical reading of the text. 

Professor Willard Swartley (Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation) suggests that the chances of finding the meaning of a controversial text can increase when:
1.  The historical and cultural contexts of specific texts are considered seriously.
2.  Diversity within Scripture is acknowledged, thus leading to a recognition that intra-canonical dialogue must be heard and assessed.
3.  The basic moral and theological principles of the entire Scripture are given priority over statements which stand in tension with these principles or with other specific texts on the subject.
Swartley also offers some tips on missing the meaning of controversial texts.
1.  Numerous texts, occurring from here and there, are strung together with disregard for their cultural and historical particularity.
2.  The interpreter assumes a "flat view" of biblical authority in which all texts, regardless of their original context, must be harmonized into one, rational, propositional truth.
3.  Specific texts are used legalistically.  
I hope I don't need to say that we're going to aim for the former instead of the latter. 


It's not just the controversial texts that need careful handling, but the culturally specific ones. The commands of Paul for men and women to have appropriate head-coverings and hair-length (1 Corinthians 11) aren't terribly controversial (unless you're trying to explain them to a teenager), but they are highly culturally specific. 

The following guidelines come from David Scholer's article in Evangelical Quarterly (1988) entitled "Issues in Biblical Interpretation." The basic idea is to look at the commands and examples in the bible and to see how likely they are to be either universal or culturally specific. 

1. The further one moves from the central message of the Bible, the greater the possibility of cultural relativity.
2. Assess the relative amount of emphasis given to a topic. The possibility of cultural relativity increases as the amount of treatment decreases.
3. One should distinguish normative teachings from descriptive narratives that must always be assessed in terms of normative teaching.
4. Note when a teaching on a particular point has a uniform and consistent witness and when there are differences. Different terminology, emphases, or structure increase the likelihood of cultural relativity.
5. Distinguish between principles and applications. A culturally-relative application may be supported by an absolute principle, yet the application may not be absolute.
6. Within the canon, reversal may indicate cultural and/or historical relativity.
7. The degree to which a writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of cultural relativity.
8. Compare the biblical setting with our own cultural setting. Significant differences may uncover culturally-limited applications of biblical texts.

 Now What?

How do you think people from a different culture might misunderstand what you've said? 

How would you apply the above principles knowing what you know now? 

Do you disagree with these ideas? If so, why? 

Read the next post here

Monday, June 29, 2015

What Gay Marriage has to do with Women in the Church

Way back in 2001 Carroll Osburn wrote a book about the issues surrounding women in the bible, He took a measured and thoughtful approach looking at scholarship on both sides of the issue in an attempt to allow Christians to come to their own measured, thoughtful conclusions.

Women in the Church continues to be one of the books that has most affected me and my view of scripture, not for the conclusions it draws, but for the care with which it not only treats the arguments, but those making the arguments.

"Women" Passages and "Gay" Passage

I began thinking about this book -- nearly fifteen years later -- because of the striking similarities between the arguments going on in the church now over gay marriage and the arguments that have gone on (and still do) over the roles of women. 

One of the most important points is that there are just a handful of passages in the bible dealing with these issues. For each topic there are roughly six passages (it depends on which ones you want to count) that address the issue. Contrast that with topics like love or prayer which have hundreds of passages and you get the idea. 

That's not to say that a dearth of passages make something invalid, but it does require some special treatment of the text to ensure that the true message is coming through. And it requires some special grace with interpreters because it is nearly impossible to come up with an unassailable interpretation on any side of the issue. 

How to Interpret the Bible

I don't think I'm going to be able to cover all of biblical interpretation in one section of one blog post. What I want to do, however, is to point out some interpretive methods that don't help and suggest some that do. 


Ultimately a literalistic interpretation of the bible isn't helpful in this situation. It's not my place to say that such an interpretation is wrong, merely that it is not helpful for the discussion that I'm trying to have. A literal interpretation of the bible says, essentially, that every word of the bible must be taken as literal truth without question. So prohibitions against homosexuality and tattoos and wearing gold jewelry are given the same weight as commands to love your neighbor. 


Essentially the polar opposite of a literal approach to scripture. Looking at all of the text figuratively allows one to place any meaning they want onto the words. The Song of Songs is interpreted as a love song from God instead of erotic poetry, the commands of Jesus are taken to be good teachings when they're convenient rather than lifelong pursuits of committed disciples. Like with the literal approach, it's not my place to say that the figurative approach is wrong, simply that it's not helpful for this discussion. 

 Stuck in the Middle

So where can we stand when we interpret the bible? How can we have confidence in scripture if it's not literal and how can we dismiss parts of it if it isn't all figurative? 

I believe that the bible is both an historical document and an inspired document. I don't think that its historicity diminishes the inspiration nor that its inspiration obviates its historicity. Simply, the bible was God's message to the specific historical audience that received it. For me to interpret it well, I must understand what it originally meant before I take the step of figuring out what it means today. 

To that end I look at the context of the bible, I look at the genre of the text, I look at the historical situation, and I look at the linguistic situation. All of those disciplines together help to approach an interpretation of scripture. 

Middle-Dwellers Unite!

I'm one of those in-the-middle people. And I think most people are. But the majority of the public conversation is from the loud margins. We have literalist and figurativeists shouting at each other so loudly that it's difficult to hear anything. 

This blog series is for the middle-dwellers. It's for the people who love the bible and want to apply it to their lives. It's for people who want to take the time to understand what the bible says. It's for people who want to come to their own conclusions. 

I've done a lot of study on this topic and I'm still not sure exactly where I land. I will do my best to put you in the same position (in the good way). There are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue and there are some lame arguments that don't hold much water. My hope is to weed through the various arguments and provide you with some fodder for coming to your own conclusions.

Conclusion Beginning

So as we start this journey, what questions do you have? What would you like to see? What are you afraid of?

Oh, and before the commenting gets started in earnest you might want to review this.

Read the next post in this series here