Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Doug Chaplin on Themes against Verses

One issue in the reading and understanding of Scripture is the extent to which verses outweigh themes and vice versa. Most Christians, of whatever persuasion, are liable to trumpet a verse to settle an issue. Having trouble with opposition? "Love your enemies" might be quoted to us. Why should I bother to go to that community meeting on a wet and windy night? "Love your neighbour as yourself" our spouse might prod us with. Of course there are other instances you will think of re controversial issues such as the ordination of women and acceptance of same sex partnerships.

But we also, perhaps as it suits the argument (!!), bring out themes to settle an issue. Should Christians go to war or not? Hard to find one text which settles that issue, but there are great themes running through the Bible concerning service of our country, to say nothing of working for justice and the protection of the innocent, which yield support for a 'just war theory'. Does a stillborn baby go to heaven? Hard to think of a verse which answers that question. Easier to find themes of love, grace, and mercy in the heart of God running through Scripture to draw on.

Doug Chaplin of Clayboy has a nice post on Themes and Verses.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Doing and owning theological work

I draw your attention to my post at Anglican Down Under on a thoughtful charge against TEC that it has not yet done all it could and should do theologically on homosexuality.

There is a sobering lesson there for ACANZP.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Consistent Hermeneutic

Most people do not understand the whole of the Bible literally. A 'creationist' (the world began literally in seven days pace Genesis 1) is likely to baulk at 'Sell everything you have and give to the poor'. Conversely, the person who says something like, 'the Bible is all metaphor; no one understands it literally these days' probably will be found out to take some parts literally. 'Of course "love your enemies" means "love your enemies".' In short: there is a challenge for all readers of the Bible, though only a few will be bothered to take up the challenge, namely, to explain the consistent hermeneutical principle by which one reads one part of the Bible in one way, and another part in another way.

In respect of human sexuality and the Bible, this challenge is very much one to which many are alert. One form of the challenge is 'the church has changed its mind on following the Bible on slavery, remarriage of divorcees, and treatment of women, it now ought to change its mind about homosexuality'. Another form, focusing on Mosaic law, suggests (often in mocking tones, one might add) that if we eat prawns we should not be against (faithful, stable, loving) gay and lesbian partnerships. A tough challenge Down Under where shellfish and the like are plentiful and delicious!

But this challenge is also one to which some may not be alert. Go back, for instance, to 'Sell everything you have and give to the poor'. It can seem so obvious that this does not apply to most of us most of the time that we may scarcely be aware that if we do not sell everything we have and give to the poor, we really really ought to use our time profitably to develop a consistent hermeneutic!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The inadequacy of the liberal Protestant approach to biblical interpretation?

Ephraim Radner (quintessential conservative Episcopalian) reviews a book by Tobias Haller (quintessential progressive Episcopalian). You can probably guess what the book is about from reading these last paragraphs of the review:

"I admit to finding the liberal Protestant paradigm of biblical interpretation inadequate, for many reasons but especially for its ultimate loss of Scriptural joy and life: what historical reason has left behind must inevitably wither. Reading Haller on Leviticus, for instance, a book for which I have had a special concern, is like reading a chemistry problem. Ironically, given his frequent (if anachronistic and decontextualized) citation of rabbinic material, Jewish tradition has always seen Leviticus as a cohesive and living word, bound to the fullness of both Torah and the prophets and writings.

It is just here that, to my mind, Haller misses so much in trying to minimize the book’s broad theological reach that itself acts as an authoritative interpreter of Genesis 1-3, and not merely as an outlying problematic. And it is just this cohesion of scriptural word that goes utterly missing in Haller’s approach. In Berkeley’s phrase, Haller reads Scripture like a “minute philosopher,” picking it apart to throw away the useless bits and to get at its “essence,” but in the process losing the form and the shape that has in fact ordered the Christian tradition most especially in its development of a relatively stable understanding of marriage.

Ultimately, the kinds of “objections” to same-sex marriage that Haller is trying to refute emerge from such a larger scriptural vision, and not from their status as discrete arguments. The central element of procreation in marriage, for instance, is bound up with the character of Israel’s calling in fallen (and the Fall has no place in Haller’s scheme) human history — genealogy — and ought not simply to be examined in terms of this or that individual person or couple (a rather modern obsession). But this cannot be grasped outside of a coherently engaged Scriptural text. I t certainly makes no sense through the lenses of a truncated and dissected Scriptural witness, translated into abstracted principles of individual relations. The same is true of the traditional understanding of sexual differentiation and so on.

One sorry side effect that has come from the migration of theological argument to the debates of the blogosphere — swift and rhetorically pointed, but also inevitably constricted in time and length — is just the loss of context for the extended kinds of scriptural reflection that Pope John Paul II in fact offered in the addresses collected in his Theology of the Body. The arguments over same-sexuality and marriage deserve such continued reflection. Haller’s book will have its uses, but not in that context."

The whole review, published by The Living Church, may be found here.

The book details are: Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality By Tobias Stanislas Haller. Church Publishing. Pp. 192. $18. ISBN-13: 978-1-59627-110-4

POSTSCRIPT: Tobias Haller himself has commented below, requesting that the book itself is read, rather than an assessment made about the book by relying on the review itself. (The review has been severely critiqued here for instance). I encourage readers to read the book. I shall be ordering a copy for the Theology House library! However I posted the review excerpt primarily to offer an instance - a snapshot if you like - of the ongoing character of the debate between "liberal" and "conservative" on hermeneutical matters; secondarily to note a specific book on homosexuality, and some specific issues in the debate over hermeneutics and homosexuality. One issue which Radner highlights (and which may or may not be a problem in Haller's book, one must read it to make a determination) is whether the question of homosexuality and the Bible is better approached from (what I call) a biblical theology of marriage and human sexuality, or by discussing individual texts.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Bishop Gene Robinson has been talking about Romans. The Episcopal Church is taking seriously the possibility that the Church of England at its forthcoming General Synod might take a decisive step on a journey towards communion with the Anglican Church of North America.

So we find Bishop Robinson saying this about Romans 1 and its limitations as a human document:

"“We have to understand that the notion of a homosexual sexual orientation is a notion that’s only about 125 years old," Bishop Robinson told CNSNews.com. "That is to say, St. Paul was talking about people that he understood to be heterosexual engaging in same-sex acts. It never occurred to anyone in ancient times that a certain minority of us would be born being affectionally oriented to people of the same sex.”"

And we find TEC offering this as a 'talking point' in the run up to the COE GS:

"The Episcopal Church laity and clergy believe the Christian faith as stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. We look to the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the understanding of the Scriptures. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Together the two statements highlight a challenge for hermeneuticists, Does the Bible being 'inspired' alter the status of statements? In this particular instance, can Paul's authoritative statements in Romans 1 be as casually set aside as Bishop Gene does, himself speaking with all the authority of modernism and its inherent presumption to know better than the eras which have gone before it?

It is intriguing that we simultaneously have an example of one statement from TEC underlining the divine origin of Holy Scriptures, and the continuing divine utilization of Holy Scriptures, and of another from a teaching officer of TEC underlining the human fallibility of Holy Scriptures!