Saturday, May 30, 2009

The big four issues for hermeneutics and human dignity

The concept of human dignity is simply the acknowledgment that each human being is to be respected, treated justly and with good manners, because human beings are special creatures within God's creation: the only beings 'made in God's image' (Genesis 1.27). Human dignity flows from this understanding of our creation: it is not earned and it belongs to us irrespective of subsidiary characteristics such as the colour of our skin or the level of our IQ. Many commandments in Holy Scripture reflect the concept of human dignity. A notable instance is the commandment not to kill. Traditionally Christians have been agreed on applications of this commandment such as prohibiting abortion. But there have also been disagreements over matters such as capital punishment and waging war. But right now the issues of the moment in respect of human dignity, especially as they impact on the Anglican Communion, are not centred on the commandment not to kill.

The biggest issue, at least in terms of media headlines, concerns (i) homosexuality, but there are some others close at hand. They do not necessarily generate headlines, but they are issues which cannot not be considered when we think about homosexuality in the context of 'hermeneutics and human dignity'. I suggest there are three further connected issues, and I will explain why they are connected.

(ii) The ordination of women (iii) Remarriage of divorced persons (iv) the roles of men and women in marriage. Notice that all four issues involve either sexuality or gender or both.

Among the connections are these: the ordination of women is charged by both conservatives and progressives with going against the grain of Scripture, and both are keen on consistency, the former concerned that we should not go against the grain of Scripture on either (i) or (ii), the latter keen to make progress on both (i) and (ii). Then, if consistency matters, there is a realization that the remarriage of divorced persons within the life of the church (once rare, now common) also goes against the grain of Scripture. Next, questions about whether women may lead men (because ordained to the priesthood or episcopacy) cannot be answered without considering the roles of men and women in marriage. In turn, this discussion reminds us of the huge changes 'modern' and 'post-modern' life have brought to the Western world (but not only to the Western world), which tends to bring us to recognition of a huge sexual revolution which has taken place in the last forty years, offering social acceptance of virtually any sexual relationship one can imagine, providing 'no one gets hurt', and thus the church has felt obligated to ask - for both missional and ethical reasons - just what its views are on this that and the other aspect of the sexual revolution, in which homosexuality has figured prominently.

Another way of thinking about the connections is from a quite different starting point. If we accept that God ordered creation in such a manner that the good order of society depends on healthy marriage and family life, with healthy marriage itself being ordered so that the husband and father is head of the wife and mother, then it is logical that the church, as the family of God, and as the bride of Christ, reflects and expresses this order. Consequently, (i) - (iv) above are resolved: women may not be ordained, marriages should not end in divorce, roles for men and women in marriage are already set down, and homosexuality represented in sexual relationships outside of marriage is prohibited. At first sight, this approach implies that there are no hermeneutical issues around the human dignity of men and women, of gays and lesbians, and of divorced persons, because the Bible is completely clear on these matters. But second sight tells us that life is more complex and the Bible turns out to be less than completely clear. A key issue at this point is the high number of divorced persons in the life of the church in the late modern and early post-modern eras: the churches of the West have simply not coped with this issue in the sense of preserving a high quotient of unbroken marriages and resisting the remarriage of divorcees. (It is an illusion that the Roman Catholic church, by focusing on 'annulment' as the means of reckoning with the break down of marriage, has avoided the general problem of marriage and divorce in the West).

Enough for now. More later.

Postscript: since writing the above, John Richardson has published this relevant post, entitled 'The God sex guide'.

Friday, May 29, 2009

There are no Hermeneutical Hills to die on

In an otherwise excellent post about the Church of Scotland, its recent decisions re homosexuality, and evangelical Presbyterian strategy in response, Carl Trueman says this:

"Unwelcome also was my hint that the gay issue is the result, in part, of a hermeneutical shift on the Bible’s teaching on women’s ordination (`not a hill to die on’ according to the Stillites) which shift has now come back to haunt the evangelicals on the issue of homosexuality. This point, if press reports are accurate, has not been lost on opponents of the evangelicals who have been quick to exploit the inconsistency."

Implicit here (so I interpret!!) is an argument that evangelicals in the Church of Scotland ought to have made the issue of the ordination of women a hermeneutical hill to die on - the presumption being that if the line had been held then against change then the C of S would not be at the point it has now reached.

Now, there is a truth here: if one fights a battle on one hill and wins it, the war is unlikely to proceed to the next hill. But there is also a false analogy here: hermeneutical issues are not hills to die on but problems to be resolved (if possible), and we are not engaged in a war when we are Christians seeking to understand what it means to be human while also being partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

There are other problems with the line Trueman takes (and he is not alone among evangelicals in thinking this way). It makes the churches' understanding of the role of women in ministry subject to fear about the future of another issue. Worse, it implies that women and their concerns are to blame for the situation we have now arrived at (If only we had not agreed to the ordination of women we would not be in the current mess). Once again, male dominance is exerted over women in the life of the church.

There is another way. Human dignity in relation to hermeneutics means that each hermeneutical issue concerning our humanity is treated on its merits. The question of women being ordained and the questions regarding partnered gay and lesbian Christians being ordained or their relationship being blessed are different questions. One should not be confused with another!

Certainly all such questions involve the same Scripture, and the manner of attending to each should involve a consistent hermeneutical approach. This last point is challenging for evangelicals. Here are two questions to ponder:

- what hermeneutical approach was involved in the argument for the abolition of slavery?

- what hermeneutical approach was involved in the argument for the acceptance of the remarriage of divorcees?

If we can be clear, and agreed on the answers to these two questions we could have a good starting point to considering how we might be consistent in our hermeneutical approach to the ordination of women and to issues in regard to homosexuality.

PS There are 'hills to die on' but I suggest they concern basic creedal matters which distinguish the Christian faith from other faiths and from atheism. By definition 'hermeneutical issues' are matters of disagreement within the church because faithful readers of Scripture genuinely disagree as to the meaning of Scripture. Nevertheless I recognize that in past times Christians have killed other Christians for such disagreements (e.g. executing Anabaptists in the 16th century).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Being an Interpreter of the Bible can be Difficult

Bart Ehrman is a leading New Testament scholar, whose current mission seems to be telling the world about all the difficulties in the Bible. But he seems to meet his match here with Steve Colbert, famous US comedian and, as it turns out, no mean slouch as a theologian.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorKeyboard Cat

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The greatest problem in hermeneutics

Learning Hebrew? Parsing the Optative Middle? Discerning the difference between Hittite and Israelite covenants? Deciphering the number of the beast while calculating the weeks left until Christ's return? No, the greatest problem in biblical hermeneutics is a philosophical one: on what basis do we believe that God (incomprehensible, infinite, transcendent, other, holy) communicates something which can be understood by humanity (fallible, finite, familiar, frail, feckless)?

Another way of stating the problem is to observe the chasm between God and humanity and asking how does communication take place across it? One way to think of the chasm could be to think of the difference between an ant and a computer, or the impenetrability of a wall of lead, or a plankton at the bottom of the sea and an eagle soaring above a mountain: communication is impossible across any one of these chasms. It is even more so between God and humanity.

Bringing this back to our understanding of Scripture in relation to the 'Word of God' or God communicating to humanity, we are entitled to ask, is Scripture really the Word of God, or simply humanity's best attempt from its side of the chasm to bridge the divide?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Untangling authority and interpretation

Some Christians seem very ready to sign up to the 'authority of Scripture'; some are as quick to question this concept, quickly bringing up problems with it (notably around the interpretation of Scripture) and/or pointing out other relevant authorities to consider (such as reason, tradition, experience, culture, creeds).

Somehow a spirit of fear rather than faith seems to creep into these matters. I sense that the 'authority of Scripture' is feared by some Christians because it has become associated in their minds with abusive power. Conversely, 'interpretation of Scripture' seems to be feared by others because it is associated with undermining the authority of Scripture.

The call to faith around Scripture is primarily to faith in God. The authority of Scripture is, in fact, the authority of the God whose revelation is conveyed to us through Scripture, the God, that is, who is revealed to be Love. To recognize the authority of Scripture is simply to recognize the generous love of God which gifts to us the knowledge of God we need for life to be lived in abundance.

The interpretation of Scripture is the interpretation of the revelation of the God who is truth and light: it cannot be other than clear and straightforward to understand! In fact God's promise to us, the Holy Spirit, is the gift of the One who both inspires and illuminates Scripture. Of course, there are many difficulties as we attempt to understand Scripture, which is a large document, composed of many words, stemming from a multiple set of generations and cultures far removed from our own. But if that is all we see in Scripture, we are likely to see problems and not solutions! The God of Scripture is the God for whom nothing is impossible.

One key to accepting the authority of Scripture and interpreting Scripture is placing our faith in God rather than in Scripture, keeping our eyes fixed on The Author and Interpreter of Scripture rather than on Scripture itself.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Is Holy Scripture the Word of God written or not?

This guy does not think so!

"The honorary title regularly given to the Bible (the “Word of God”) drains away the primacy that belongs to Christ alone. “You diligently study the scriptures,” said Jesus, “because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me” (John 5.39).

Third, the precedents for obeying the Bible (should we be disposed to try) can be dire. That is what the Kirk thought it was doing as it arrested thousands of women for alleged witchcraft. It cited “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22.18, AV). Slave-owners and white racists thought their iniquities were justified by Noah’s saying: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Genesis 9.25).

Women, disabled people, Jews, many other groups, and of course, at the root of the current disquiet, homo sexuals, all know what it is to find Christians against them who claim to be obeying the scriptures.

Fourth, obeying the Bible involves one in the personalistic fallacy. This is the fallacy of supposing that the Bible is a person with whom we have a personal relationship. If this sounds bizarre, you only have to say: “Scripture says,” or “The Bible teaches,” and the fallacy looms large."

Read the whole piece, entitled 'The Word of God was made of flesh and blood, not ink' by Adrian Thatcher can be found here. (H/t Thinking Anglicans).

Does Thatcher himself make a 'christological fallacy', that we can know what Christ is saying to us without the aid of the ink of Scripture?

Why bother with Hermeneutics?

It is true that some readers of Scripture understand Scripture to be wonderfully clear on all matters. It is also true that some readers of Scripture have an unerring capacity to make all matters more complicated than anyone else finds them. But it is not hard to recognize that Scripture is sometimes clear and sometimes not for most people most of the time. It depends a lot on how the question is framed which we want Scripture to answer.

Consider this question: does Scripture teach that Christians should give for the needs of the local and universal church and for the poor? The answer is pretty clear - if not completely clear: 'yes'. But what about this question: does Scripture teach that Christians should tithe their income and give that tenth away? (And if we are to tithe, does Scripture teach what proportion of the tithe should be given to the poor and what to the local and universal church?)

Almost the same questions, but differently framed, potentially leading to similar answers, but not necessarily, and certainly highlighting the clarity of Scripture in one case and the lack of clarity in the other!

Hermeneutics is scarcely needed for some questions we bring to Scripture. It is worth bothering about for other questions!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Branching Out

On my 'main' blog, Anglican Down Under, I pursue a variety of topics, but am wary of the topic of human sexuality. Potentially it could be come very distracting when trying to remain open to posting across a range of matters.

So I am branching out! This blog will focus on matters relating to human dignity: human sexuality, homosexuality, marriage and divorce, roles for men and women in marriage and the church. The aim is to make a contribution to preparation for the next Hermeneutical Hui of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP).

I will try to post weekly!