Martyn Percy, Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, has contributed to an ongoing series of posts on the Via Media blog setting out the view that the Bible is not clear in its teaching about marriage—or on anything else for that matter. It is an interesting series, in the sense that it points clearly to the idea that those wanting the Church of England to change its position on same-sex relationships actually are looking for some wholesale changes in the way the Church has historically viewed Scripture and doctrine—which is in fact what those defending the current position on marriage have said all along. Although same-sex relationships are the presenting issue, in many ways this debate is the manifestation of some much deeper and wider differences in the Church.
It is also worth noting that very few of these arguments are in any sense new. Scepticism towards the Bible as a coherent theological document has been around in the West since at least the late 18th century, and the position of Liberal Protestantism has deeply influenced theology and biblical studies in both our universities and many of our theological colleges until very recently. But it is still worth exploring the claims made, and seeing whether they stand up to scrutiny; we need to be committed to following the evidence where it leads, and not be tempted to dismiss different views on merely dogmatic grounds. Are there good reasons for treating the Bible in the way Christians have done so traditionally, or does the evidence lead us somewhere else?
Percy begins with a quotation from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and thankfully agrees that it is ‘not quite right’. But Brown repeats some commonly held myths about the Bible, and is reflecting the ignorance of much contemporary culture. ‘Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations and revisions.’ This is nonsense; the evidence of textual criticism is that the text of both Testaments has been preserved incredibly carefully by scribal copying, so we can be absolutely confident that what we have is what the first authors wrote. A nice recent example of this is the remarkable deciphering of the ‘En Gedi’ scroll using scanning technology, which demonstrates that the Masoretes, who consolidated the textual traditions of the Old Testament around 1000 AD and destroyed all the other manuscripts, in fact preserved faithfully the earlier texts.
Brown’s second claim, on the lips of his character Teabing (whose name is an anagram of the real person he is based on, Michael Baigent), is that ‘More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only [four] were chosen for inclusion’, another popular nonsense. It turns out that the canonical gospels (those in the canon of the New Testament) are quite distinct from the so-called apocryphal gospels, which are all late, unreliable, and don’t really merit the term ‘gospel’ as they do not relate good news about Jesus. It turns out that, despite their considerable variety, the four gospels offer a remarkably coherent perspective on Jesus and his followers, as most reputable biblical scholars note.
Percy himself then articulates a quite widely held view, that the Bible can only acquire authority by an external process, and not claim such authority for itself.
Views about the authority of Scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself. The bible has no self-conscious identity. As a collation of books and writings, it came together over a long period of time. Indeed, the word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek biblos, simply meaning ‘books’. Equally, the word ‘canon’ (here used in relation to Scripture, not as an ecclesiastical title) simply means ‘rule’. So the Scriptures are, literally, ‘authorised books’. The authorisation of the compilation took place sometime after the books were written.
At one level, the most trivial, it is true that ‘The [B]ible has no self-conscious identity’. It is certainly the case that the writers of the different books didn’t anticipate the cultural artifact that we now call ‘The Bible’—but that does not mean that they were not aware of transmitting something of authority as a revelation from God. Percy here fails to distinguish between the question of authority, and the question of recognition. My wife is a doctor, and many of her patients might recognise her authority to act and give guidance, but that recognition alone does not constitute her authority. F F Bruce made this observation long ago:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960, p. 27).
And J I Packer comments: ‘The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by his work of creation, and similarly he gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.’ The words of Jesus that we have in the gospels are not authoritative because they are in a book recognised by the church; they are authoritative because Jesus said them.
The ‘books’ are indeed plural—from the neuter word biblion, meaning a parchment or scroll, plural ta biblia—and in the New Testament Jesus often refers to ‘the scriptures’, αἱ γραφαὶ, those things which have been written, but this plurality does not seem to imply any sense of incoherence. Indeed, this does make the Bible very ‘self conscious’ in a way that, for example, the Qu’ran cannot be. Different parts of the Bible refer, implicitly or explicitly, to earlier parts of it. Two of the most striking are the references to the ‘book of the law’ in Joshua 1.8 and 2 Kings 22.8, which imply within the narrative the existence of a written text which is treated as authoritative (the arguments about the historicity of this notwithstanding). The effect is to (nearly) bookend the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, the story that runs from Deuteronomy, through Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, with reference to whether the people of God obeyed the teaching of the Torah, their failure to do so leading into exile.
Less explicitly, we find the prophetic texts alluding to earlier parts of the scriptures. Hosea 4.2 lists five of the Ten Commandments, and the whole book appears to show knowledge not only of earlier legal texts, but of large parts of the biblical narrative, including events early in 1 Kings. For this reason, Fee and Stuart (in How to Read the Bible for All its Worth) describe the prophets as ‘covenant reinforcement mediators’.
Then of course Jesus and others in the New Testament refer to the existing Scriptures—and we even have, in 2 Peter 3.16, a reference to Paul’s writings as ‘other scriptures’. Even if we are sceptical about the Petrine authorship of this letter, it still shows a very early awareness that the authoritative scriptures of Israel have been added to by the apostolic authors. It turns out that the Bible is very self-conscious indeed!
But did these writers have a sense of the importance and authority of what they wrote at the time? It is not easy to determine this from some genres, such as the historical narratives (despite being labelled ‘Former Prophets’ in the Jewish canon) or the wisdom literature. But it is quite difficult to imagine the first recorders of God’s words to Moses (whenever they lived) as thinking they were not recording something of importance and authority for God’s people, especially as the actual words of God they record repeatedly claim this. This does not prove that these are indeed the words of God, or have actual authority—but it does demonstrate a self-conscious claim to authority. The writings that record the words and experiences of the prophets repeatedly claim that ‘the word of Yahweh came to me’, again making an explicit claim to authority. For this reason, John Goldingay (in his Models of Scripture) offers four characterisations of how Scripture sees itself, one of which is ‘experienced revelation’, a sense that what is written has come directly from God and is self-authenticating in its claim to speak authoritatively.
In the gospels, Jesus quotes from 24 of the 39 Old Testament books (supporting the Protestant version of the OT canon); as well as describing them as ‘the scriptures’ and introducing citations with the formula ‘it is written’, he also describes the OT as ‘the word of God’ (e.g. in Mark 7.13, John 10.34), and even cites the narrator’s words of Gen 2.24 as God’s own speech (‘the Creator…said…’ Matt 19.5). This makes it all the more striking when Jesus goes on to use the phrase ‘word of God’ to mean the good news of the gospel which he himself is preaching (Luke 5.1, 8.11), and Luke continues to use this phrase to refer to the subsequent apostolic preaching of the good news (Acts 4.31, 6.7). The implication here is that both Jesus in his teaching and the gospel writers in their recording of it appear to believe that they are adding the authoritative speech of God that they have in the scriptures. Roland Deines, former Professor of New Testament at Nottingham, argues that (for example) Matthew is self-consciously adding to the scriptures:
Jesus’ life and death were perceived among those around him as a revelatory event of a ‘biblical’ scale, to which the only appropriate response was to bear witness to them in the form of Scripture. (EJT (2013) 22:2, 101-109)
One of the most striking claims to this revelatory experience comes (not surprisingly!) in the Book of Revelation. Whereas Paul often ends his letters by taking the pen (as it were) from the amanuensis to add his own personal signature, Revelation ends with the same kind of move—but here the ‘author’ is Jesus, and John is merely his amanuensis!
Percy goes on to suggest that the diversity of this collection of books then leads to its imperfection, since ‘God always chooses to mediate that power through less than perfect agents (such as language, people, times and places)’. I am not sure what the logic to this is; Percy appears to be confusing things which are limited (such as language) with things which are ‘imperfect’. It is an odd argument to claim that, because the books of Scripture are diverse, they are therefore (in some theological sense) ‘imperfect’. Rowan Williams offers a more coherent perspective:
Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God – that is, they believe that the texts that make up the Bible were composed by the help of the Holy Spirit and that they communicate God’s will perfectly when they are taken together and read in the context of prayer and worship…
The Bible is, we believe, a book that speaks with one voice about God and his will and nature; but it does so – to use a popular Christian image – like a symphony of different voices and instruments of music, miraculously held together in one story and one message about God, a story whose climax is Jesus.” (Rowan Williams, text of a lecture given at the international Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday 23 November 2005)
Percy then appears to set up the straw man of fundamentalism:
So, some Christians believe that Scripture has come from heaven to earth, in an unimpaired, totally unambiguous form – like a ‘fax’. Such views are fundamentalistic: the bible is the pure word of God – every letter and syllable is ‘God breathed’. So there is no room for questions; knowledge replaces faith. It is utterly authoritative: to question the bible is tantamount to questioning God. So the bible here is more like an instruction manual than a mystery to be unpacked. It teaches plainly, and woe to those who dissent.
But to those who believe that Scripture is a more complex body of writings, the authority of Scripture lies in the total witness of its inspiration.
Of course, these fundamentalists are inferior to people like himself, who are of ‘a more mainstream, broad persuasion’, and I think it is unfortunate and unhelpful to read these constant, rhetorical power-plays. But do these ‘fundamentalists’ really exist, and if so, where? First, it is worth noting that it is Paul, rather than ‘fundamentalists’, who believe all Scripture is ‘God breathed’ in 2 Tim 3.16—so once again it is Scripture itself making claims about the other parts of Scripture. But in Percy’s critique, he conflates questions of authority with questions of simplicity. I cannot think of a book written by evangelicals that does not highlight the variety and complexity of the Bible—indeed, usually the very reason for writing is to try and make this complexity manageable for the ordinary reader. The diagram above highlighting the library of books that makes up the Bible is on just about the first page of any one of these introductions. Perhaps I should donate Percy one of my copies of the Lion Handbook to the Bible!
He then goes on: ‘But blind obedience to all of Scripture is not practised by any group of Christians known to me, or who have ever lived.’ Indeed, and I am not sure who is claiming that this ever happens. This does not, however, mean that Scripture offers no coherent view on any issue, including marriage. That is why most evangelical biblical scholars end up writing a ‘Biblical Theology’ under one title or another—because the work of moving from careful consideration of the text to distilling a biblical theological position on a range of issues is, well, work! The only people who think that you can move simply from a single text to a theological position are the very ill-informed—or those who want to parody people they disagree with.
Martin Davie does the spadework, and points out that the Bible does in fact, taken together, offer a coherent position on the nature of marriage—and it is one that explicitly informs Church of England doctrine and liturgy:
What we have here is a normative pattern for marriage, upheld by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-6, Mark 10:2-9), that sees marriage as a freely chosen, permanent and exclusive sexual relationship that is between one man and one woman and is outside of the immediate family circle. Moreover, as Genesis goes on to make clear through the subsequent story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1, 2, 25, 5:3), it is through marriage that the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28 is to find fulfilment…
The answer to the question posed in Professor Percy’s article is thus that the Bible really does give us a clear definition of marriage. Marriage is what God says it is in Genesis 2. The Church of England is thus justified in saying that:
… marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
This statement reflects the teaching of Scripture and so for the Church of England to depart from it either by changing its theology or its practice would mean departing from what God has laid down, something which it is not authorised to do.
Percy goes on to assert:
So the bible itself is a covenant sign. It is a marriage – a union of Scriptures – that can only be understood in the totality of its witness. And that is partly why I am so committed to same-sex marriages. I see no reason why such unions cannot reflect the love of God, and bear testimony to God’s grace, truth and power.
Actually, many people who, like Percy, argue for the rightness of same-sex marriage, can see some very clear reasons, and are quite open that in taking the position they do, they are going against the clear and coherent teaching of the Bible.
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order. (William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality p 323-4)
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct. (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”)
This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700”, p 705)
As I noted at the beginning, this specific debate, whilst it has particular interest for ethics and patterns of life, involves much more fundamental (pun intended!) and far reaching issues for the Church.
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