"What constitutes a faithful reading of scripture?"
Discussion Paper #1: Dialogue on Same-Sex Unions: Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Canada)
Prepared by the Commission on Faith and Doctrine (Anglican Church of Canada)
Dr. Edith M. Humphrey (a member of the Primate's Theological Commission)
A faithful reading of scripture is crucial to understanding the issues and questions before us. Scripture is key to the thinking of the Christian Church, and therefore of the Anglican communion. While we are first of all people of Christ, we are also people of the Book. It is most particularly in the Bible that the supreme glory of our Lord is shown so that the church can together know the One who is the Truth, and therefore worship together. As members of the Christian community, we are grateful for the many ways in which Christ as divine Word has spoken to us. We are also grateful for the manifold Biblical narrative in which He speaks, through the Holy Spirit, to our human situation.
To read scripture as it is meant to be read, we begin with an understanding of its character. It is not a static deposit of precepts to be mined, but a vibrant collection of books by which the church is taught, and by which she is identified. The story of scripture can be understood in 5 great acts: Act 1 tells us about a creator God; Act 2 speaks of a good creation gone askew by death, corruption and sin; Act 3 presents the call of the nation Israel to be a light to the world, Act 4 shows how that calling was fulfilled in a surprising and crucial way in the coming, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ; Act 5, in which we find ourselves, describes the ongoing life and healing mission of the church through the Holy Spirit in this world. We await the finale of this drama, but are given wonderful intimations of God's purposes for his people and the entire cosmos.
The Bible came to us in human words, particular to time and place. To recognize this is not to suggest that they are arbitrary or without authority. Rather, we see in the Bibleís many forms - narrative, law, gospel, psalm, epistle, apocalypse - Godís coming to be with us, for us and in us. We learn this story intimately, so that we can indeed repeat it with human lips, and learn to play an authentic part in it. Particularly important to a faithful reading of scripture is the recognition of this "we" factor: the scripture implies, and indeed states explicitly, that the Word is heard not privately, but by the whole community, past and present.
When we as todayís faith community recognise, understand and pass on what (and Who) has been revealed, we are using the God-given faculty of reason. Our experience and reason are not actual "authorities" as we understand scripture or decide about present concerns. Instead, experience (especially the common experience of the church) is our context, the place where we receive God's love and wisdom; reason is a "tool" or means of interpreting what we hear. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we weigh our own thoughts and inclinations against the biblical and traditional witnesses which we have already recognised and received. In other words, we measure the helpfulness of current ideas against a long established understanding of God, the world, and humanity, to see if they stand up to the test.
There is a contemporary trend to appeal to "mystery" when dealing with scripture. Indeed, some matters are mysterious. Some truths translate better into human words than others, as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 12, where he speaks of "unutterable things." And so to receive revelation is to recognise the mysterious character of what is being shown. Having said that, we must be careful not to appeal to "mystery" and "complexity" in those many cases where the scriptures are straight-forward, coherent with each other and clearly expressed. The recognition of "mystery" and "complexity" is appropriate where it encourages our capacity for wonder and reverence. We must not use "mystery", however, in order to suggest that a clear but awkward passage is ambiguous, or hard to understand. Such a tendency is not moving in the direction of a faithful reading.
As members and interpreters in the community of faith, we are in a sense actors in a divinely conceived drama. Our role as actors is not, however, to improvise with abandon. In reading the scriptures together, and by honouring the "actors" who have gone before us, we keep within our memories and hearts the central, major "part" in the drama - Godís. As those who have received the Spirit, we will want to share in the mind of Christ, understanding the word personally, but not autonomously or individualistically. The church has, from the beginning, struggled over difficult matters. Her reflection and decisions about such matters subsequent to the time of the New Testament should not be relegated to the archives but, together with the New Testament, acknowledged as authoritative for us younger brothers and sisters in the same family. This is especially so of the decisions and creeds of the ecumenical councils of the church before the time of the Great Schism. Together with God's whole church, past and present, we are called to discern Godís voice and will, in humility, and in confidence that the Holy Spirit is active in our midst.
This humility and confidence will mean that we do not lift our 20th-century western perspective above the perspective of other Christians in other times and places. What is more, we will not consider the voice of the scriptures to be simply another set of data among competing claims, between which we are then to arbitrate. It is true that the words of the scriptures are interpreted words from God. However, in recognising a limit to the canon, the church acknowledges that the "interpretation" made by the Old and New Testament authors is authoritative.
The human authors of the scriptures, then, wrote in particular historical contexts. This fact of itself says nothing about how the Bible is to be used in any particular controversy in the church today. The problem of moving from the context of the original writer to application today should not be used as a pretext for bypassing explicit teaching or perspectives which we find difficult. Rather, in each case, we are to read all the pertinent texts carefully. Even where we see that a prescriptive passage is particular to a moment in the history of God's people (e.g. prohibition of pork or head coverings for women), we acknowledge and respect the underlying theological/ethical truths. Some prescriptions have an enduring claim (e.g. the command not to murder) because they are essentially linked to what has been revealed about the world, our nature, and the nature of God in the salvation story
A sensitive reading of the scriptures will heed the cues given in each text concerning its historical and literary context, its genre and intent, and the way it is related to the divine drama. As Paul puts it, in concert with the perspective of Luke, Hebrews and 1 Peter, God acted definitively both "at just the right time" (Romans 5:6) and "in the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). To see a text as moored in historical space and time and at the same time transcending such particular moments calls for the most careful thinking. It does not call for us simply to relativise the detail and flow of human history, but to see each particular moment described in the text in relation to the greater story. In one sense the coming of Jesus renders pale the significance of every other time; in another sense, God's coming to us heals, dignifies and transfigures the whole of human life - and, in time, the life of the whole created order (Romans 8:18-26)
God works in a variety of ways, and in the scriptures speaks a word that is at once challenging and confirming. The biblical record is unique in its authoritative witness to who God is in Christ. Yet, that grace and light extend beyond the time upon which it centres, into the living tradition of Godís people down to the present. Godís entry point into humanity - the Incarnation - questions, illuminates and transforms all that came before and all that comes after. A faithful reading of scriptures thus means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself.
While the meaning of the scriptures is often obvious, all of us interpret the Bible from a particular time and place. We are influenced by sometimes unacknowledged sources. It is also true that we are sometimes confounded in our reading because of "blinkers" that have been given to us by our formation or by the company which we now keep. There is no such thing as "simply reading the Bible." Thus, there is a challenge for us to reflect seriously on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular traditions by which we have been formed and informed. The promise that the church would be led into all truth should strengthen our minds and imaginations as we struggle with what divides us.
What is the purpose of human sexuality in Christian understanding?
This is at first blush a difficult question, since the idea of "sexuality" carries with it all sorts of assumptions and is indeed a fairly recent construct. As a working definition, sexuality may be understood as that which makes us both distinct and inherently inter-related, as male and female. Thus sexuality would include but not be limited to physical aspects, and biological "sex" would be a component of "gender". Since we are physical, social, and spiritual beings, it is not likely that we can understand our sexuality by considering only one of these spheres. Several clues to the complex nature of our sexuality are given in scripture itself. There we see that male and female, masculine and feminine are considered in various genres and from different angles, from the narrative(s) of creation to the metaphor of God's relationship to Israel (in the Old Testament) and the church (in the New).
From the creation narrative or narratives we learn that our created sexual differences are key to our identity as human beings. The solemn declaration of Genesis 1:27 stresses both diversity and unity: "So God created adam in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. Again, in the more homey stories of Genesis 2 and 3, God creates Adam and Eve with equal dignity, in a complementary but asymmetrical relationship. They are intimately connected for good or ill, in blessing and in deprivation. Taken as a whole, these chapters say that sexual distinctions are part of Godís good (very good! 1:31) creation.
Yet sexuality, along with other facets of human life, has been deeply affected by sin and by divinely imposed limitations. The judgement declared for disobedience - "You shall surely die" - is partly fulfilled in the less-than-spontaneous and complicated inter-relations in which humans, even in their most intimate bonds, now labour. Yet the bond created in the beginning between husband and wife still retains its original stamp of goodness, for in it Eve becomes the "mother of the living" and in their harsher surroundings human beings learn the wonder of inter-dependence and dependence upon the One who has made them in two sexes. This inter-dependence is presented as part of the initial and perfect will of God: "It is not good for the man to be alone"; "This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh"; "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." The innate relationship, however, is distorted or exaggerated as a result of the limitations imposed by the Fall (3:36-7), so that healthy inter-dependence can become something else, such as "co-dependence."
Thus the initial stories of Genesis present dynamically the relationship between the sexes, showing that sin complicates an already intricate relationship. This complexity has caused great difficulty as commentators of various ages and backgrounds have struggled with the text of Genesis. Earliest writers seem to have been overly influenced by their own contemporaries' low view of the physical. Thus, they sometimes understood the physical sexual act as in itself sinful, and engaged in special pleading to explain how the injunction to "multiply" given before the Fall might have been obeyed without erotic desire -- or even in a non-genital manner! These teachers of the church allowed the plight of humankind in Genesis 3 to obscure the goodness declared in Genesis 1 and 2 - at least, with regard to sexuality.
Contemporary thinkers have tended to err in the other direction, taking seriously the first stage in the drama, creation, while denying the deep implications of the second, the Fall. Yet this tendency ignores the way in which distorted human sexuality is implicated in the ongoing traditions and stories of the Hebrew Bible. We see this in the temptations and dangers faced by the patriarchs and matriarchs (e.g., the tensions experienced by Sarah, Hagar and Abraham in polygamy), the careful legislation of appropriate sexuality in Leviticus, the stories of David and Solomon (whose sins and indiscretions are not whitewashed, but used as examples for the faithful), the severe sanctions against inter-marriage after the exile, and finally the teaching of Jesus and Paul on marriage and celibacy.
Quite clearly, sexuality is not tangential to human experience: in our divinely protected but vulnerable world it must be understood as both a great gift and a powerful instrument for good or ill. In it is the locus of healing fidelity and looming destructive faithlessness. Here, in our most common and most demanding relationship, we see a powerful symbol of the relationship which God desires with us as the body of Christ. Single and married people alike know that the relationship between male and female is a "given" in life, but also that it is difficult. So the epigram: "Marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy."
The popular recognition of a "war of the sexes" sits uneasily side by side with expressions of the "religion of love" found in practically every age and tirelessly promulgated in pop culture. The one view grasps disharmonious sexuality without acknowledging its fundamental integrity. The second lays on human love a burden it cannot bear, romantically ignoring human fallibility. Among other scriptural witnesses, Hosea, Ephesians 5 and Revelation 21-22 teach us that the highest purpose of human sexuality is to serve in marriage as an icon of Godís relationship with his people. This is lost in the idealisation of romantic sexual encounters.
In summary, the Bible presents sexuality as a divinely-prescribed mode of being for human beings, valuable in itself and in its iconic representation of divine-human relations. From the beginning, sexuality entailed interdependence, companionship and procreation; the distortion and strained fulfilment of these good things, subsequent to the Fall, has not completely thwarted the original intent (the celebration of human love in the Song of Solomon, and the explicit blessing of marriage in the New Testament).
How is human sexuality related to Godís plan of redemption?
So far we have not considered what the fourth act in the drama (the Christ-event) means for our understanding of human sexuality. To do this, however, we must go further back in the story of redemption, and consider the importance of sexuality in the teaching of the Old Testament. The prophets of the Old Testament frequently use the profound lessons taught by inter-dependent spousal relationships to declare Godís covenant plan and redemptive will for Israel. The books of Judges, Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel portray the covenant in explicit terms of sexual love:
This positive use of sexual imagery is balanced in the Old Testament by passages that describe the infidelity of Godís people and their breaking covenant. This metaphoric use of sexual pictures in the Old Testament assumes that faithful marriage between husband and wife is a great good in itself, but not that the marriage relationship per se is in itself redemptive. Jewish Rabbis subsequent to the Old Testament period sometimes understood the physical union of husband and wife as a means of restoring an original, undifferentiated human being, an androgynous Adam. In Gnostic writings, celibacy was frequently enjoined for similar reasons, in an effort to seek an identity that was neither male nor female: "When you make the two one, inside like the outside, and outside like inside . . . and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female . . . then you will enter the Kingdom." (Gospel of Thomas 22).
The New Testament and ongoing Christian tradition (with significant detours) has understood sexuality differently in relation to redemption. In harmony with Jesusí words about the householder who brought forth old and new treasures, we see in the New Testament both consistency with the Old Testament understanding of marriage, and some revolutionary ideas as well.
The first novelty is the dignity afforded celibate singleness, both by Jesus and Paul - not because sexuality is understood as inferior or as a block to spirituality, but as a sign that human sexual relationships are less than the final or ultimate good, given humankindís more foundational need for a right relationship with God. What the Old Testament affirms through its injunction to periodic sexual abstinence, the New Testament dignifies as a lifestyle sign. Thus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 Jesus affirms the normative goodness of monogamous marriage --"What God has joined together let no one put asunder". He also affirms the complete validity of a human life that foregoes this usual fulfilment --"Some become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom". The sacrificial foregoing of erotic love is of value in the establishment of Godís rule (witness Jesusí own pattern of life), but the symbolic import and fundamental goodness of marriage is never questioned. Paul echoes this understanding both in his personal comments and his teaching on singleness and marriage (1 Corinthians 7). Marriage is honourable and even an unbelieving partner may be influenced by a godly spouse: singleness is also a gift to the community of the church and has its place in the healing of humanity.
A second new departure is the way in which marriage moves from a simple pictorial reminder of Godís desired intimacy with his people (as in the Old Testament), to take on a "sacramental" significance. This difference between Old Testament symbol and New Testament sacrament follows the same pattern as Old Testament talk about Wisdom personified, and the New Testament declaration that Godís Wisdom has taken flesh in Jesus (John 1; 1 Corinthians 1:30). The incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made what was only metaphor a living reality. Similarly, the relationship between husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with the church, and actually partakes of it (as does voluntary and devoted celibacy). In this sense, acts of toil and sacrifice, such as a husband's toil for his partner, and a woman's pain in bearing children, themselves take on a glorious role in Godís saving work: they are sub-creative acts, dignified and glory-tinged by the toil and pain of Jesus. The curse has been reversed by the last Adam. Sin, sorrow, pain and death have lost their sting: the plumbing of the depths of our condition, and the victory of resurrection seen in Jesus, give us a living hope. Thus, amid other signs of healing and reconciliation, the barrier or strain between the sexes is lifted in Christ ("there is no male or female"). Yet we still await that new age in which there will be no mourning, pain or death. Until that new age arrives our lives (in fullness and in deprivation) are being worked into God's plan.
How does sexuality itself help us to grow as Christians?
The most obvious role of sexuality in our growth as Christians is to call us into a demanding yet fulfilling relationship, in which we learn that dependence and trust are essential to our being. Because we are fallen creatures, these lessons will involve pain, and sometimes will be taught inversely (that is, by our experience of the opposite of trust and dependence) yet they are invaluable. As with our membership in Godís church, we should not approach marriage simply as a "voluntary association." but as an inviolable covenant. Here, we learn to express love in good times and in trouble, when the other is strong in fidelity or not. Similarly, a faithful decision to be celibate and yet in dynamic and life-giving relationships with persons of both genders is an arduous calling of great benefit to both the celibate person and the community of God. Both godly lifestyles, when lived out consistently, are potent expressions of the surprising truth that in Christ God has done something about "hardness of heart" (Matt. 19:8, 11-12). This perspective renders faithful marriage and celibacy a creative adventure in which Godís grace is enacted, rather than an abhorrent or impossible lifestyle choice that impinges upon our freedom.
On the most basic level, our unity and differentiation as sexual beings mirror Godís tri-unity. Within the arena of a fallen world, our complicated inter-relationships may become part of Godís medicine, though by foreclosing on relationships we do not always allow this medicine to do its healing work. Neither an uncommitted heterosexual relationship nor a same-sex union can ultimately fulfil this role, although "in its early stages it may have an appearance of particular beauty and spirituality" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III. 4). This is because both the uncommitted liaison and the attempt to find fulfilment in one of the same sex are expressions of autonomy, "trying to be human in the self as sovereign man or woman" (again Barth, CD III. 4). However, self-controlled sexuality (kept within the limits of monogamous marriage, or expressed in the choice of celibacy) shows forth to the church, and to society which looks on, the glories of faithfulness and self-sacrifice. The scriptures teach that the physical dimension of sexuality is both under the authority of the person (1 Corinthians 6:18) and a gift for the benefit of oneís spouse (1 Corinthians 7:2-4). Thus our sexuality, expressed appropriately in a monogamous physical union, or expressed chastely by single persons in means other than those that are erotic, becomes a powerful factor in helping us to be healed, and to grow up into what we are meant to be. Amidst current assumptions that sexuality is for the purpose of self-gratification, the churchís different attitude towards this great gift is bound to be a strong sign in the world of Godís love and righteousness.