33 The Bible clearly states – or does it?

On this blog my readers will have noted that I have put forward some outspoken, even uncomfortable statements about the Bible.  I have talked about a selective reading of passages from Scripture, finding a point of teaching from a single quotation while ignoring other passages that say something different.  The other technique, to which I strongly object, is to suggest that the only valid truth statements are those that are factual and scientific in some way.  If the Bible says, to take a random example, that God is going to make the Nile dry up (Isaiah 19.5) then presumably this is something that will have to happen one day because it is in the Bible.  For most of us truth statements come in a variety of forms – poetry, drama, story, symbol as well as factual statements.  Does it matter that people in America and across the world claim to believe that when the bible makes an apparently factual statement then that is how we have to understand it?  Yes I believe it does because in some situations this belief system causes some individuals very real harm.

In the news, as I write, is the report of the Anglican bishops in England who write that they ‘agree to disagree’ on the issue of gay relationships following the Pilling report.  Elsewhere in the world the Anglican bishops see this as a total betrayal of Anglican standards.  The Archbishops in Nigeria and Uganda, while quoting Scripture, have loudly supported moves to outlaw gay relationships by their respective governments.  While the Ugandan authorities seem to be hesitating before signing new measures into law, no such reticence is to be found in Nigeria.  Those suspected of homosexual activities are already being rounded up and put in prison.  It would not be a total exaggeration to say that ‘the Bible put them there’, even though there are many other factors, cultural, historical and social.

When we examine the rhetoric of these fervent Anglican African leaders on this topic, we frequently find the expression ‘the Bible clearly teaches’.  No doubt this is a turn of phrase that is heard in conservative pulpits across the world.  When I started to think about this expression I began to realise that this personalisation of the Bible is a nonsense statement.  Let me explain what I mean.  The Bible is a compilation of writing across many centuries and is enormously varied in the approach it takes to almost any subject you can name.  A book cannot anyway teach anything unless it is written by one person over a fairly  short period.  For me one of the fascinating discoveries of being a Bible student was to discover that Paul changed his teaching over time.   If we do not get consistency in this single writer we can name, how can we, or should we, expect consistency within the writings of other anonymous authors over centuries?  I would like to see the liberal Anglican bishops argue forcefully against this claim that the Bible has a single view on the gay issue or any other one for that matter.

I could go on to talk about all the things that are in the Bible and we like to avoid noticing, like God commanding the slaughter of women and children but that is not the point I want to end on.  I want to come back to the issue of rhetoric and the way that conservative Christians use rhetorical devices to confuse their opponents as well as their followers.  When writing about the thinking of George Lakoff in an earlier post, (December 20th) I mentioned that he saw many of the debates between progressive and conservative in American politics being bedevilled by the manipulation and loading of language to suit the conservative point of view.  The expression ‘the Bible teaches’ or ‘the Bible clearly states’ is another rhetorical device which needs to be challenged every time it is said.  We cannot easily talk or dialogue meaningfully with such crude and unhelpful expressions which are, in the last resort, virtually meaningless statements.  We must challenge the person repeating  these slogans and suggest  that he restate his position to say, ‘in a certain period in Biblical times people believed that the following was the will of God.’  ‘The Bible clearly states’ has to be translated to say, ‘there is a passage which appears to have this understanding of God’s will.’  Having stated it thus we can then go on to have a sensible discussion about whether these ancient insights apply to us or not.  I can find numerous ideas from the Old Testament that clearly do not apply to us and each and every moral injunction from those days needs to be tested thoroughly through the prism of Christ’s revelation and the insights of modern understandings.

The Anglican bishops have been under a lot of flak for not coming on one side or the other over the gay question.  Perhaps this failure to agree is more helpful than it looks.  By agreeing not to agree they are saying loud and clearly that the church as a whole has to live with disagreements.  In other words if you want to claim the name Anglican then it is part of the course to recognise that you have to live with people who do not agree with you, without telling them that they are inspired by satanic thinking.  Anglicanism needs to exorcise intemperate intolerance.  If the conservative churches in Africa and elsewhere continue to condemn those who disagree with them, then they may need to be a parting of the ways.  There is only so long that anyone can live with another person who is unable to see any goodness or light within you.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “33 The Bible clearly states – or does it?

  1. Stephen, get on the Comment is Free (CiF) blog posted by Andrew Brown on this subject. Google Cif Andrew Brown Bishops. There are petitions and so on.

  2. I agree that “the bible clearly teaches” is generally ultimately meaningless, and often has the negative uses you helpfully examine.

    I tend to think that if you object to the “personalisation” of the bible in this way, then perhaps it is no more helpful to accuse the bible as you do over the persecution of gay people, and suggest “the Bible put them there”. It isn’t the bible, it’s people doing that. They may be misled about the bible and misusing it in the process, but we need clarity over that, just as we need clarity over what, whether or how the bible can teach us.

    The bible is like some medicines. It’s very powerful, and in the wrong hands it can be very dangerous or made into an abusive tool. It’s also a unique source of life. A child can benefit immeasurably from dipping into it – or misunderstand and be damaged.

    Unlocking its potential is a journey of discovery that needs patience, humility, wisdom and learning. Most of us have no more than a little of those advantages, so we are where we are, and with luck, others who are further along the way help us. It’s very important though that those who see themselves as experts with authority do not impose their understandings on those who are aware of having limitations.

    Interesting that you use and turn the language of satanic accusation back on itself, by stating that it is intemperate intolerance that needs the exorcism. I agree.

    1. Haikusinenomine when I included ‘the Bible put them there’ referring to the gays, I was still operating with the common way of thinking that the Bible has a point of view readily discernible. I put it in inverted commas to show it as a point of view operating within that logical framework. It is only in the next paragraph that I get on to the wholesale questioning of ‘personalising’ the Bible. I think we probably agree. I am in the process of examining many things for myself in this blog, one being why we have allowed this kind of rhetoric for so long without challenging it. Hope you find my thinking out loud helpful even if I make unjustified leaps of logic at times!

  3. The other phrase that is often heard is ‘God says in the Bible’. It normally precedes a brutal denunciation of someone or some group of people. I feel that those who are responsible for our liturgy should rethink the term ‘This is the word of the Lord’, to be said after Bible readings – it leads those susceptible to believe that no interpretation is necessary. God DOES speak to us through the Bible, but only if we open our hearts to hearing his voice through the words. One way we can perhaps encourage others (those of us in ministry in particular) is to encourage people to consider what overall themes the Bible conveys to us – mercy, compassion, tolerance, inclusion, forgiveness, love and justice to name a few. Is our claim that when we use the phrase ‘God says in the Bible’ compatible with these overall themes? If not, then maybe we’re not being true to scripture at all?

    1. I also find “this is the Word of the Lord” too much at times, and if you can’t use it all the time, should you use it at all? “Here ends the first lesson” is perfectly servicable. Hidden in here are all those difficult questions about what if anything is the special authority of the bible. I show my hand a bit by not capitalising “bible”. On the other hand though, I am unable to regard it as a book like any other. It is still Holy Scripture to me in some very deep sense, and somehow I think that’s important and necessary for us to hang onto, even as we deconstruct and criticise it left, right and centre at times. After doing that, I will still come back to at least some passages with the greatest reverence. I still go to it with the hope and expectation of hearing a word from God and being nourished in my spiritual journey. I am probably more likely to capitalise Gospel than bible. So it’s lots of questions for me and not many answers.

  4. The death penalty, the unacceptable face of capitalism, racism, war, all supported by the statement, “The Bible clearly states”. Today, the clones who teach the prosperity doctrine are up to the same old tricks.
    Yes selective use of scripture has a lot to answer for.
    ” You nullify the word of God by your tradition” Mark 7: 13

    Chris Pitts

  5. Good points made above. Sometimes if I think “this is the word of the Lord” is inappropriate, I don’t say it! No-one’s complained yet. Like the “curse” part of the story of the Fall. “Dust you are and to dust you will return”. I just leave it there.
    “The Bible clearly says” is just French for “I think”! We should challenge it.

  6. Welcome to the blog James. You make a good balancing point. While we may want to reject a bullying, cajoling and threatening use of Scripture, there are also times, after reflection, that something really important is being revealed to us. It takes this reflective, sensitive and imaginative thinking to tease out the gold from the banal and misleading. Obviously there are problems about interpretation but we do have the church’s experience over hundreds of years to fall back on and which will help us. Anglicans call it tradition. Not a bad thing really.

  7. I have the opportunity to preach on Sunday week, and the text would be “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is a big deal for me, as I haven’t felt up to doing any preaching for a long time. And I have been so busy recently I haven’t made any time to get my head round this again. But I would really like to do it, and this discussion is helpful in focusing me on it. Actually I’ve become much more switched on in recent years to the place and the importance of the Old Testament, even if I’m still pretty ignorant about it. And we’re promoting it in our churches this year, having decided that people find it difficult, often ignore it, and it’s a stumbling block.

  8. I think the contrast between Old and New Testaments is best conveyed by a series of images. The contrast between unfocussed and focussed. The contrast between murky and daylight. The image of a lens is always a good one because the Old is revealed through the lens but it is not sharp but very fuzzy. Jesus recognised the strivings of the Old Testament, he saw what they were on about but he want to give focus. ‘Now I see thorough a glass darkly but then I shall see face to face’ is another exploration of the kind of contrast. This could also be used to illustrate the difference between old and new. The old has truth in embryo but Jesus seems to bring it much clearer. There are of course problems in the interpretations of Jesus himself but that is for another time!

    1. Nice image which might help! But one thing I’d like to explore is why the OT has something to say, and is worth reading. The logic of this lens image is that we might as well scrap the fuzzy when we’ve got a better lens.

      1. Oh that would be a shame. The OT characters are so three dimensional they make for wonderfully dramatic readings and fabulous stories. The text as given could be interpreted to mean it would all be accomplished soon. And what would be accomplished would be the resurrection rather than the second coming.

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