Christian Zionism vs Biblical Theology

These brothers of mineChristian Zionism isn’t something I’ve come across very much. I have a feeling it’s a bigger deal in the USA than it is here in the UK, and as such I don’t recall meeting anyone who was particularly big on it here. Because of this, I hadn’t really read or thought much about it before, and didn’t really know what it was about.

I’ve just finished reading a book which changed that: “These Brothers of Mine” by Rob Dalrymple. It’s subtitled, “A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism”. Rob is formerly a Christian Zionist (if that’s the right way to describe it), and he has come to believe that position is wrong.

This book is a response to Christian Zionism, analysing it using the tools of Biblical Theology. “What is Biblical Theology?” I hear you ask. That’s a good question.

Biblical Theology is about understanding the Bible as a narrative running from Genesis to Revelation, seeing each book in the light of Scripture’s big picture. It’s about seeing Scripture in the context of redemptive history and seeing how it fits in within the key story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. We know that each part of Scripture speaks of Christ (e.g. Luke 24:27) – Biblical Theology is about finding out how the promises God makes in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ, and how they will ultimately be fulfilled in the new creation.

To give one example – which Rob expounds within the book – think of the land which God promises to Israel. Is it the physical Promised Land, or does it actually have a spiritual significance which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ? How are the promises God makes to Abraham fulfilled in Jesus, and what does that say about Israel as a nation? Rob sees the promise of land as being fulfilled in Jesus – although if you want to find out exactly how, you’ll have to read the book…

Before I went off to theological college, I did a few units of the Moore College correspondence course. Two of them (Introduction to the Bible and Promise to Fulfilment) introduced me to Biblical Theology – and they really transformed the way I understood the Bible. In fact, even now, looking back I think that first unit (Introduction to the Bible) was one of the single most useful things I ever did in terms of understanding the Bible.

Consequently, I would recommend this book not only for people who have an interest in Israel / Christian Zionism, but also for people who just want to read and understand the Bible better. This is a helpful looking at how Biblical Theology might apply to something like Christian Zionism. It’s not a light bedtime read, but it’s not technical either – well worth mulling over especially if you want to understand the Bible better and this kind of thing sounds new to you.

Taking God at His Word and reviews

Taking God at his WordEarlier this year, fellow blogger The Alethiophile suggested a sort of ‘book exchange’ – he would take book requests and review them, if readers would take a suggestion from him. He suggested ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ by Greg Boyd, which I reviewed a few months ago, and I suggested ‘Taking God at His Word’ by Kevin DeYoung for him to read.

Today, he published his review of the book. I started this blog post off as a comment, but it got a bit out of hand, so I publish it here and hope that others might find it helpful. You’ll almost certainly want to read his review before reading this, otherwise it won’t make much sense…


Hi there, as I was the one who recommended the book to you in the first place I feel a duty to respond :) I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy the book, but – as I said on Twitter – I do feel that you have been unfair in this review, and I’ll try to explain why. By and large the problem is I feel that you are writing a review of a book I don’t recognise.

My suspicion is that DeYoung has got your back up with the comments you mention about wanting someone else to accept his interpretation. His tone is polemical at times – perhaps you felt like he was attacking you and your views – and I think you’ve reacted strongly to that, which has coloured how you’ve read and reviewed the book.

Anyway, I’ve divided this up into a few sections which examine the points you make; I hope this isn’t too much but I find it helps to keep things neat and tidy.

1. DeYoung’s interpretation?

You don’t actually quote DeYoung’s full comment about interpretation (and in fact you don’t quote much in the review at all. I would say it’s generally good form in a review to let the author speak for themselves where you can and summarise where you have to.) The full quote is: “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding, because it’s not my understanding. It’s the teaching of the New Testament and the affirmation of the orthodox Christian church throughout the centuries.”

So DeYoung is not claiming himself as the infallible interpreter of Scripture, but simply in line with the way the church has always understood these things. The idea of ‘agreeing to disagree’ is a modern novelty: Athanasius or Augustine didn’t “agree to disagree” with the Arians, for example. This is why we have the ecumenical creeds. There is actually a kind of false humility in saying “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding” – because it gives the appearance of saying “I might be wrong” while actually putting your own particular belief beyond challenge or criticism. You don’t need to submit your views to scrutiny because you’re not saying other people need to accept that understanding.

If, for example, you claim to believe in the Bible but claim that Jesus is a created being, then I would say that you do need to change your opinion – not because I happen to believe something different, but because I believe the Bible says very differently and the church has always held this as an orthodox Christian belief.

It’s interesting that in this very review you say, “Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world.” When you say “really important”, how important do you mean? Would you say that someone who didn’t take the resurrection account as historical is actually in error, and would you want them to accept your particular view?

There must come a point at which we need to say that some beliefs are wrong. The church has always believed that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary” (to quote the Apostles Creed), and I don’t see how requiring someone to believe what the church has always believed when it comes to the virgin birth (or the rest of the creeds, for that matter) is setting oneself up as an infallible authority.

In particular, I think your statement: “this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted” is completely unfounded.

2. The Bible – clear?

You say: “in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written.” Actually I don’t think DeYoung says the Bible is ‘wholly clear’.  He quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith and says “Some portions of Scripture are clearer than others. Not every passage has a simple or obvious meaning” (which I think would cover your example of 1 Thess. 4:17).

But he does say “That which is necessary for our salvation can be understood even by the uneducated, provided that they make use of the ordinary means of studying and learning.” This is similar to other statements such as the Anglican 39 Articles, which says in Article VI: “HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

So I feel that you have misrepresented what DeYoung says and knocked down a straw man. Although study of culture and language may be beneficial in terms of nuance and background, the fundamentals of the gospel are understandable without them.

3. Quoting

You say: “Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis.”

When you quote 1 Corinthians 13:11 at the end of your review, is that ‘proof texting’?

I think DeYoung does a pretty good job of giving context in the book actually. Can you name any specific examples where he proof texts and takes things out of context?

I agree that DeYoung doesn’t quote from any liberal scholarship – but then, when I read Greg Boyd, I don’t recall him really engaging with any conservative scholarship. I’d say it was acceptable for a book written for a popular (not scholarly) audience not to engage with lots of different views – he’s trying to promote a particular view. Saying that he doesn’t quote from people who disagree is, I think, a little uncharitable. And doesn’t actually engage with any of his arguments.

In terms of the history, I think DeYoung would agree that literary genre is of course important (not sure what his position is on Genesis 1-2 with respect to evolution). But we do have to take seriously Jesus’ view of Scripture, and I think he presents a compelling case that Jesus had a truly high view of Scripture which we must reckon with. If our Lord and God thought certain things were historical, who are we to argue? (Incidentally, if you want an interesting read on historical criticism and evangelicalism have a read of this book.)

4. The fundamental disagreement

The fundamental disagreement I have with you is at the start of your post: “all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.”

I think DeYoung presents good evidence that the writers of the Bible did indeed think it had a single author. I think this is precisely what e.g. 2 Tim 3:16 does claim for the Bible, or the book of Hebrews, or the apostles in Acts 4:25, and so on. The Bible’s words are God’s words. DeYoung is not elevating the Bible to the position of the Trinity, but if Scripture is the Word of God then it flows from Him and reflects His character, will, truth, etc.


Anyway, I’m sorry for writing a short essay in response to your review, but seeing as I suggested the book in the first placeI felt compelled to respond. There’s more that could be said but I think that covers the most important things!

‘Change or Die’: is the church doomed?

A BibleA popular line of argument these days is that the church must either change or die. More specifically, the ‘change’ to happen must include being affirming of same-sex marriage. Vicky Beeching wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

Today many predict that #LGBT inclusion will ‘split the Church of England’. Perhaps it will just follow the same #womenbishops trajectory. (Link)

One thing’s certain: the Church cannot afford to move as slow on #LGBT as it has on #womenbishops. Otherwise there’ll be no under 20’s left.

Young people see Church on the wrong side of moral justice when it’s against #LGBT inclusion. If we want them in the pews, change is needed.

It’s unfathomable to kids my niece & nephew’s age that the Church isn’t fully inclusive of #LGBT Christians. It’s not even a debate to them.

This is a fairly common argument – for example, at the end of 2014 there was an event called “What future for the Church of England?” From reading reports of the event afterwards, it seems like most of the speakers basically said the church needed to stop being so mean to LGBT folk or else it was going to die.

But does this line of argument stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does, for two main reasons.

1. It ignores God

This is my biggest problem with the argument. If God has created marriage as being between a man and a woman, then it doesn’t matter what society believes: this is God’s world (Ps 24:1 – “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”), and the church must proclaim God’s words rather than whatever happens to be in vogue in society at the time.

I’m sure Vicky Beeching is correct in that there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church is not affirming of same-sex marriage. But then, there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church believes we are all sinners and need to repent and believe in the gospel. There are people who think the idea of God becoming man and dying on a cross is a contemptuous idea. We do not give up on these because society finds them strange, distasteful, or even immoral. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29, NLT).

However, even if this particular teaching of the church is deeply unpopular within society, there is no reason to suppose that the church will die: those who come to the Lord will always find that with Him is “life to the full” (John 10:10). God’s will for our lives is the true vision of human flourishing. God is the one who calls people to Himself, and people will find that a life lived in obedience to Him will always be worth it – whatever the cost. If God has indeed said it, then if the church proclaims it – some will listen.

Now I appreciate that some in the church (including Vicky Beeching) don’t think that God created marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. However, surely the important question is not what society thinks but what God thinks: we shouldn’t base our theology on what society thinks of it, but rather on what God thinks of it! No Christian church should ever do otherwise. Whether society finds a teaching of the church acceptable or not is really irrelevant to the question of whether the church should teach it: all that matters is whether God has said it.

2. It ignores all the evidence

My second problem with the “change or die” line of argument is that it ignores the evidence from a number of places:

Firstly, it ignores the historical evidence. The first-century Roman empire was a pretty diverse place in terms of sexuality. Not so different from today, really. The traditional Christian ethic of marriage would have sounded just as bizarre in that culture as it sounds today. And yet, Christianity grew and grew. Clearly, being out of step with culture wasn’t a problem for them.

Secondly, it ignores the evidence of churches today. If you look round at the church today, most of the churches that are growing are theologically conservative. In my limited experience, the churches I know which preach the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and hold to the traditional teaching on marriage – are generally not dying out. In fact, the ones I’ve been part of often have good numbers of children and young people. If the traditional teaching on marriage really was a barrier, you would expect all of those churches to eventually die out. That is not happening as far as I can see.

Thirdly, it ignores the evidence of other countries. There are other churches in other countries who have approved same-sex marriage. For the purposes of the Church of England, the best comparison is probably the Episcopal Church in the USA. The ECUSA is currently “near collapse“. The church is shrinking (it lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003), and it has been embroiled in about $18m worth of litigation against former Episcopalian churches which have chosen to leave. Of course, the situation of the ECUSA is not the situation of the Church of England – but does what  happened in the USA give us any confidence that something similar won’t happen here?

Given all of this, I think the “change or die” argument is wrong and I hope that it soon disappears. For me, as someone who believe the Bible is clear about marriage, I think actually the reverse is true: if the church does change on marriage, it will be a disaster. The more the church begins to look like society, the less people will want to go: on the other hand, if people are meeting with the living God, nothing will be able to stop it.

Reflections on the same-sex marriage debate within the church

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved with a Facebook group set up to discuss same-sex marriage (SSM) within the church. This has been set up as the CofE undergoes a “shared conversations” process to talk about the issue. This has been the first time I’ve really spent much time actually talking with people within the church who believe in same-sex marriage (or ‘affirming’, as I will use in this post as a convenient shorthand). Although I have had brief conversations with affirming people before, most of them have been pretty fleeting so it’s been good to have the chance to engage with people over an extended period of time.

I thought I’d share one or two observations about the debate as I’ve observed it over the past few weeks. I do think there is a difference in the way the two sides think and approach the question.

Firstly: the debate is all about the Bible. This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Obviously the debate was going to focus on the Bible, it is the heart of the disagreement: does the Bible call same-sex relationships sinful or not? When I joined the group, I was expecting to spend a lot of time discussing the Bible.

Having said this, what I’ve found interesting is that the debate has not really been about the Bible texts themselves. We have spent a little bit of time discussing interpretations of the Bible, but in general the group does not spend much time discussing the various interpretations of Romans 1:18-32 (for example). I wonder whether this reflects the fact that there really is very little scope for interpreting the Bible any differently to the way it has traditionally been interpreted. Diarmaid MacCulloch (who is himself strongly affirming of SSM) has said: “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, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity.”

It seems instead that people would rather talk about almost anything about the Bible other than the Biblical texts themselves. We talk about the Bible’s clarity, interpretation, translation, history of interpretation on slavery and so on… almost anything other than the text of what the Bible actually says.

This leads me onto the second point (where I contradict my first point, but please stick with it…): the debate is not really about the Bible at all. It seems to me that the debate is not actually about what the Bible says. It’s not even really about interpretation, or any of those other issues surrounding how we understand the Bible.

The debate is actually about the presuppositions we bring to the table. As we’ve been discussing, what I’ve come to believe is that most affirming people see SSM as a matter of basic justice. When asked for a Bible text to justify SSM, a lot of people come out with “love your neighbour as yourself.” Now unless I’m missing something, Jesus doesn’t here mention marriage – rather, the idea is that the most loving thing to do for our neighbour is to allow them to enter into a SSM if they want to. So SSM is argued for on Biblical principles rather than on the text of the Bible itself.

I find this interesting because although equality, justice etc. are all Biblical principles – you can’t just extract them from the Bible and use them in isolation from the Biblical context. Especially when those principles are being used to argue against other things the Bible does actually say. So, for example, although I think ‘equality’ is a Biblical principle, it doesn’t stand on its own – it only exists within the larger framework of other things the Bible says about what it means to be human. Similarly, ‘inclusion’ is a Biblical principle – Jesus ate with sinners such as Zacchaeus – but we must also read it in tandem with its radical exclusivityJesus’ demand is to repent and believe in the good news. So, in this example we can’t just take ‘inclusion’ as a Biblical principle and apply it in isolation – that would be doing a big disservice to everything else that the Bible says.

My sense is that most people on the affirming side of the SSM debate come to the table believing that SSM is an inalienable right – that no-one should be denied the right to marriage because of their sexual orientation. In our society this is a hugely powerful idea which draws on a lot of things our culture believes about identity, humanity and romance. Given this foundational belief, when coming to Scripture one essentially has to presuppose the conclusion one wants to draw: because if the Bible did actually call same-sex relationships sinful, that would be wrong. So the answer is already decided before the Bible is even opened.

Recently someone made the perceptive comment that a theology of SSM is actually highly elusive: although many affirming groups criticise the traditional interpretations of Scripture, there are very few people who actually attempt to go through the Bible and build up a theology of SSM. A few have tried but their efforts haven’t achieved anything like a consensus. Most people seem content to simply point the finger at a range of interpretations, no matter how good or bad those interpretations are – just their very existence validates the fact that at least one of them must be correct (see my third point on this post).

But I think it serves to highlight the differences in our approaches. Although many affirming folk would claim the Bible as their authority, I think in reality the Bible’s authority is relativised and set aside. Our current cultural narratives about equality, justice, romance etc are taken as axiomatic and take precedence when interpreting the Bible – without any real theological reflection about the nature of equality etc.

In sum, I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to discuss this issue with people – it’s always good to try to understand other people’s views better, and it has helped me to clarify my own thinking. But it has made me realise even more that there is a huge and unbridgeable chasm between our two perspectives – and I think to affirm both within one church would be absolutely unworkable.

Just what is a Priest anyway?

PriestOn Sunday afternoon I was ordained Priest in the Church of England. Up until a few years ago, I would never have used the word ‘priest’ to describe myself. What changed? And what is a priest anyway?

A few years ago, whenever I heard the word ‘priest’ the main vision I had was of a figure from the Old Testament (such as Aaron), someone who served in the temple and made sacrifices for sin and so on. Now, all of that – the sacrificial system – was done away with in Jesus. He is the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice which all the other sacrifices foreshadowed. So, to my mind, ‘priest’ was something of an anachronism: although Christians are described as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) – I believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as they said at the reformation – I don’t think there are priests today like Aaron.

So why does the Church of England use the word ‘priest’? I think this is where we may have to do a little bit of digging for the etymology of the word. According to the online dictionary:

Old English preost probably shortened from the older Germanic form represented by Old Saxon and Old High German prestar, Old Frisian prestere, all from Vulgar Latin *prester “priest,” from Late Latin presbyter “presbyter, elder,” from Greek presbyteros

Now this is where we get in a bit of a muddle. The word translated ‘priest’ in the Bible is kohen (Hebrew) or hiereus (Greek). But the English word ‘priest’ apparently derives from the Greek word presbyter – which is used in the New Testament, and is translated ‘elder’. For example, Paul writes to Titus: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” The New Testament elder is somewhat different to the Old Testament priest: the New Testament (and the early church) never described ministers as priests in the Old Testament sense. So, which one is the Church of England actually referring to when it talks about ‘priests’?

The answer is in the title to the ordination service liturgy: “The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters“. If you read the liturgy itself, ‘presbyter’ is also used several times just to make it crystal clear. So the CofE makes explicit that it sees the ministry of a priest as being that described in the New Testament of a ‘presbyteros’ – an elder.

So we end up in the slightly confusing situation where I am ordained ‘priest’, and yet not in the Old Testament sense. I am a priest in the general sense of all Christians (‘the priesthood of all believers’), but I am also a priest in the specific sense of being ordained presbyter. Unfortunately the English language has managed to get itself into this situation and I’m not sure there’s an easy way out. But I hope this post manages to shed a little light…

On God “Herself”

Gender“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

On Twitter today, something of a kerfuffle has broken out about whether it’s right to call God using feminine pronouns – ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc. John Bingham wrote about it in the Telegraph yesterday; today Rev Kate Bottley (the Gogglebox vicar) has written about it today in the Guardian. The debate itself has been going for some time now, for example there’s an article in the Christian Today magazine from last year: “Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?”

As I understand it, the arguments for referring to God as female boil down to these:

  • Referring to God exclusively using masculine pronouns devalues women. According to the Telegraph piece above, a spokesperson from WATCH (“Women at the Church”, who campaigned for Women Bishops) said: “to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now”. Using exclusively masculine language for God reflects a patriarchal time and there is no reason for it any more.
  • Biblically, male and female are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In other words, because men and women are both created in the image of God, God therefore embodies both male and female characteristics. God transcends our language of gender.
  • Following on from the point above, God is described at various points in the Bible as having feminine characteristics. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” So Jesus uses a femine metaphor to describe himself.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented these arguments or left anything major out – the articles I linked to above have some fuller discussion. However, I remain strongly convinced that the church should not change its liturgy on this matter, and continue to refer to God using masculine pronouns. Once again (like the question of sexuality), I think this issue really boils down to a question of the Bible, its authority and its interpretation.

The most important question for me is the one introduced by the quote I started out with from John’s Gospel. How do any of us know God? John answers that question, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, has made God – the Father – known to us. And, as such, if we are Christian we have to say that the revelation that Jesus gave us of God was a true revelation.

This was significant in the church’s debates around Arianism (around 3rd-5th centuries): for example, when Jesus instructed his disciples to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), were those names simply terms of convenience or did they actually represent something important about God? The Arians wanted to make Jesus a created being, and in a sense actually deny that Jesus was a true Son. However, the early church ecumenical councils decided that those names did actually mean something beyond labels of convenience: the Father is a real Father; the Son is a real Son – not in the human sense, but in an eternal sense. Although it is of course true that human language lacks the capacity to describe the infinite, we are nonetheless able to apprehend something of the truth by the terms “Father” and “Son”. So Jesus’ revelation of God is a true revelation, and it reveals that God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit.

I think you can see something of the difference in approaches here by looking at Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about this issue last year (she was accused of heresy for describing God as ‘she’). Rachel says, “while God is often referred to as Father [my emphasis]”. ‘Referred to’? I think rather the traditional orthodox position would be revealed as. If you think that Jesus simply referred to God as ‘Father’ out of convenience rather than out of meaning something significant, that is moving away from a traditional understanding of the Trinity.

Following on from that, was Jesus simply using the words “Father” and “Son” due to the society being patriarchal? Could he, in another society, been born as a woman and called God “mother”? In a nutshell, would it ever be right to call God “Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”? I’m always a little suspicious of the patriarchy argument: it seems to be a lazy way of glossing over what the Biblical text actually says, reading back into the text modern notions of patriarchy and assuming that if the Biblical authors had been as enlightened as we are they would have written something different. Whatever you think of these texts, you have to wrestle with Genesis 2:18, 22; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and so on. What Kate Bottley does in her article is emphasise the human aspect of the BIble in saying that it was written into a patriarchal context, while seemingly downplaying the divine aspect of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, although it was written by men it is nonetheless the Word of God. So I think to talk about ‘patriarchy’ is to downplay the fact that God might actually have something to say to us on gender in our society: it overrides anything the Bible might say with our own society’s conceptions of gender (which are not based on the Bible).

It is of course true that there are times when the Bible uses feminine metaphors to talk about God. However, a feminine metaphor is not defining. For example, I know men who have some stereotypically feminine characteristics – does that make them female? No! I simply can’t get past the fact that Scripture always calls God by masculine pronouns – even by Jesus who, as we have already seen, is the only one who ever walked this earth to be in a position to really know!

Incidentally, I do find it interesting that those who advocate for calling God by feminine names (e.g. WATCH, who campaigned vigorously for women bishops) do so on the basis of the differences between men and women. It seems like much of the campaign for women bishops rested on minimising if not erasing differences between men and women (such as the constant misuse of Galatians 3:28). Although I am aware that many did not campaign in this way, the idea that there could be any actual God-ordained differences between men and women was often downplayed. So I think there is a tension there, although I won’t go into that now.

Anyway, in summary, I don’t think changing our liturgy to include God ‘herself’ would be a good thing!

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “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.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).