This blog is dedicated to the challenging question of how we read the Bible. It is premised on the observation that Christians often disagree about what the Bible means - disagreement that can occur between 'liberals' and 'conservatives', Protestants and Roman Catholics, AND between 'conservatives', Protestants, 'liberals' and Roman Catholics. These disagreements mean it is always a lively question when we ask, How might we either reach agreement on a matter of current disagreement, or agree to live with our disagreement.
In the background and foreground is, of course, the particular present matter of disagreement about what the Bible says about how we should live sexually. But there are plenty of interesting if not urgent disagreements among us about a range of other matters: Baptists and Presbyterians read the Bible differently on baptism ... conservatives read the Bible differently on women in ministry ... and on creationism/theistic evolutionism. The following post on the Guardian's Comment is Free offers a good reflection on various matters to do with how we read the Bible and why we read it differently:
It's introductory heading is:
"Not much to do with the Bible
The Bible can be read in many different ways. The church's confusion about sexuality has its roots elsewhere"
This comment piece is by Judith Maltby.
"The question: Is the Bible anti-gay? [Note: this is a topic for the week; others have written on it here, here, and here]
Is the Bible anti-gay? Well, yes: it is anti-gay in the same way it is in favour of beating children, capital punishment and slavery. The question does not get us very far but it does point to a far more important issue of how we read the Bible. Two points to make about that.
The first is the awkward truth is that we all read the Bible selectively. Everybody does: from the most liberal Liberal to the most fundamentalist Fundamentalist. We all make choices (not always very consciously) about which verses, passages and books of the Bible we regard as more authoritative than others. These choices are personal as well as communal. For me, the parables of Jesus are amongst the most challenging and engaging passages in the New Testament and the ones to which I return most often. But that's just me – I wouldn't suggest that everyone must think so. Most Christians would, I hope, privilege Jesus' teaching to "love your neighbour as yourself" over Paul's insistence that long hair on a man "is degrading to him". To read the Bible "proportionately" is to read it with the respect it deserves.
The second point concerning how we read the Bible is that we always read it contextually. We can no more step out of our historical setting, our time and place, our human condition, than Christians in the first or second centuries could. Nothing illustrates this better than the seismic shift that Christians made on slavery. Once seen as part of the God-given natural order – a view endorsed by a reading of the Bible – I hope I am right in saying that it is now universally condemned. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, Christians argued bitterly over the morality of slavery and the Bible resourced the spirituality of the slave owner and the abolitionist alike.
Some might say that the slavery example is too loaded. Here is a middle one. Can one be a Christian and serve in the armed forces or does obedience to the gospel demand the position of pacifism? Does Jesus' instruction to "turn the other cheek" trump Paul's view that the civil authority "does not bear the sword in vain"? Clearly, most Christians for most of the church's history have given the hand to Paul. The 39 Articles of the Church of England condemn pacifism and endorse capital punishment. I am an Anglican priest who values the presence of the pacifist tradition in my church while believing that the use of force can be morally justifiable. I utterly condemn capital punishment while I acknowledge that my position is in opposition to the traditional teaching of my church for the vast majority of its history and that the Bible can be used to defend either view.
The church that I love is able to hold together people who believe in the morality of the just war and the moral integrity of the pacifist. At the same time we appear to be incapable of holding together those who believe that a gay Christian in a loving and committed relationship is living a moral life and those who do not – in fact this is something more worthy of schism than disagreements over the taking of human life. One is left wondering how much the global Anglican psychodrama over sexuality is to do with the Bible at all."
My posting this does not mean I agree or disagree with the sentiment in Judith Maltby's final sentence. What I do agree with her on is that an historical perspective on how Christians have read the Bible might keep us appropriately humble and hesitant about asserting that our reading is the certainly true reading. I also agree that we would do well to think further and deeper about why we can live together with some disagreements and (seemingly) not with others.