The Bible’s Place in a Debate

I have to hand it to my colleague in ministry, the Rev Daniel Payne. He willingly entered into a debate with another Christian minister, Pastor Paul Warren Morgan, of an English-medium ministry from another church in Korea (Incheon, to be exact), on the topic ‘Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?’[1] It occurred on Saturday, July 25, and was attended by about 30-35 people – pretty good, considering the torrential rain that was falling just before the event! It was conducted in an extremely civil manner, with both debaters adhering to time limits, respectfully submitting questions and counter-points to each other, and speaking generally in a dispassionate (not un-passionate) manner.

At the beginning, the middle, and the end of the debate, people were asked to answer ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘No Answer’ to the question, ‘Does the Bible condemn homosexuality?’ There was very little movement, indicating that most people came in with their minds already made up, but there appeared to be some movement among those who initially answered ‘No Answer’, with some possibly shifting to the ‘No’ side. Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s the ultimate metric by which the debate can or should be judged. The fact that people were willing to come out on a rainy Saturday night & consider this question, and that there is a permanent video record of it that people can refer to, should suffice.

Well, there’s more to it than that – there always is, isn’t there? In the lead-up to the debate, in one of the threads on the Facebook page dedicated to the debate, someone asked, ‘Can you…share some basic principles of Christianity which you both affirm which might not be discussed during this debate because you both agree?’

My colleague Daniel took this up and answered, for the purposes of this debate, we both agree to the following: “The Bible is the authoritative, inspired word of God.”’

Well, as is my wont these days, I decided to plug this phrase into the first answer to everything (yes, Google[2]), and I found that organizations like the following tend to make these types of statements:

  • The Biblical Studies Foundation, a group of evangelical Christians who have published the website org. From their doctrinal statement: ‘We believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings…and the divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life.’[3]
  • Congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church, such as this one: ‘WE BELIEVE The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.’[4]
  • The Campus Crusade for Christ: ‘The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible…We believe that it was uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit…It is the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks.’[5]
  • Groups like the First Stone Movement, seeking to ‘deliver’ people from ‘sexual brokenness’ brought about, as they believe, by influences like homosexuality and lesbianism: We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God; and therefore the supreme authoritative revelation of Truth for all Christian faith and life.’[6]
  • Statements like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: ‘We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…(with) all its parts, down to the very words of the original, given by divine inspiration.’ (from Articles I and VI)[7]

I wonder how these groups cope with people like Bart Ehrman, who reminds us that ‘we don’t even have copies of the copies of the copies of the (original manuscripts)[8] – but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

I’m glad that Daniel was able to agree to that statement with Pastor Warren – I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do so. I identify as a progressive Christian. As such, I would say that my position toward the Scriptures is more – nuanced, shall we say. I come by this stance honestly – it’s not a newfound stance, but one I’ve always held, even before I could articulate it. In my original religious home, the United Church of Canada, the Scriptures are dealt with in Article II of the Articles of Faith in its Basis of Union – On Revelation. It deals with Scripture after dealing with how God is revealed in the world generally, then through people of faith, and ultimately in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It then states: ‘We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s revelations, and as the sure witness to Christ.’[9]

‘So, what’s the big diff?’ you may ask.

Two, as far as I’m concerned:

  • In most of the previous articles on Scripture I quoted, the Bible is addressed first, and then beliefs about God, Jesus, etc. are addressed. However, in the Articles of Faith, the nature of God is addressed first, including (briefly) the revelation in Jesus, followed by the place of the Scriptures (notice the reference to ‘the Scriptures’, not ‘the Bible’).
  • That word ‘containing’. It seems to me that this word (at the very least) suggests the necessity for people to discern carefully what the rule of faith and life is, as found in the Scriptures.

I believe the second difference has huge implications for dealing with any passage of Scripture, especially those which have been traditionally used to condemn homosexuality – the ‘clobber passages’, as they are also known. For one, the necessity of discerning the word from God found within a passage of Scripture allows for the possibility that we may find out something about the context within which such passages were produced, meaning that our understanding of such passages may change. Indeed, it’s possible that multiple layers of meaning can be found within the Scriptures[10].

For another, the meaning of the Scriptures must be interpreted in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus. J D Crossan[11] and Marcus Borg[12] have made very convincing arguments (as I have read and listened to them) that Jesus, as best as we can discover about him, is the standard by which all Scripture is to be interpreted. As this relates to the ‘clobber passages’, we see that none of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels address sexual orientation / gender identity – he speaks more about divorce! This, I know, is in stark contrast to those who would hold up the Bible as it is to be the ultimate authority. However, it seems to me that, if one wishes to hold the Bible (or certain passages therein) as above the authority of the example of Jesus, or equal to it, one has to conclude that Jesus is speaking just as much through the First Testament[13] (or such preferred passages) as through the New Testament.

As I remember, my colleague has since admitted that this is not his true stance toward the Scriptures; in fact, he did this for two reasons:

  • to help the debate happen; and
  • to acknowledge the fact that there were gay and lesbian Christians in the audience who had such a view of Scripture.

He wanted to demonstrate to evangelicals who have such a ‘high view’ of Scripture that it is possible to hold this view and conclude that ‘the Bible does not condemn homosexuality’. This is an entirely honorable intention, but I have to ask: ‘Is it really possible to do this?’

Statements which push things like ‘the authoritative, inspired Word of God’ are very loaded. From my experience, the groups which hold to and promote these statements push a lot of corollaries and related positions, such as:

  • young-earth creationism;
  • the regular intervention of the Divine into daily events, even violating and rendering obsolete the normal operation of natural principles as we understand them;
  • the uncritical acceptance that the Scriptural books, as they now exist and in the order they have been placed in the Bible, are ‘the original forms’, and that looking for earlier layers of tradition is unnecessary, or even offensive, to religious certitude;
  • the books of the Scriptures, on account of their inspired / authoritative status, have been written with the modern world, as we now have and understand it, in mind; and
  • human sexuality must be principally understood as, and reduced to, specific sex acts – more specifically, what one may or may not do with one’s sexual organs, including where they can be inserted, or what can be inserted in them, or how they can / should be stimulated (Strange! That statement could describe the porn industry!).

If what you are about to read sounds too radical, not gracious enough, or too judgmental, I’m willing to risk your disapproval (if indeed I haven’t earned it already). I’ve come to the conclusion that the so-called ‘high view’ of Scripture embodied in phrases like ‘the authoritative, inspired Word of God’ will not serve the church well in the age to come, for three reasons:

  • In order to be Christians these days, ‘we gotta know stuff’ about the Scriptures, or listen to those who do know. There has been so much scholarship done on the Scriptures as literature, and so much discovery of, and debate about, the various layers of tradition which make up the Scriptures as we now have them; this scholarship and these debates must be brought into the regular conversations of faith communities.
  • There are other voices we need to hear. There has been a lot of study on the historical circumstances through which the Scriptures as we now know them have come together. This includes alternative voices within the sources which are not part of the multiple versions (because there are multiple versions representing multiple communities) of the Scriptures. These other voices are being listened to, and they cannot be silenced anymore; we must allow these voices, at the very least, to inform our understanding of the canon we hold.
  • We cannot ignore modern science anymore. The physical and social sciences will not and should not take a back seat to the formulations of ancient texts, no matter how inspired we believe they are. Christians must accept that the creation stories in Genesis (stories, yes! – there are two of ‘em) are NOT scientific proposals. If archaeological study casts doubt on whether there was a forty-year period ‘in the wilderness’, or that the city of Jericho was besieged, we must not assume that the archaeologists are wrong. If we find that modern psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and biology undermine what we think the traditional outlook of the Scriptures is on sexual orientation / gender identity, then we need to take another look at that outlook. We’ve had to do this concerning slavery, racism, and the place of women – we have to do the same here.

Those of an evangelical persuasion provide admirable examples in their commitment to following in the way of Jesus, and in their willingness to encourage others to do the same. We need more of them in all branches of the church. However, if someone isn’t willing to struggle with serious study of the Scriptures – not just faith-based Bible study, but also literary, historical, and other scholarly analysis – or isn’t willing to consider the conclusions of those who have done this work, I don’t think they should be let anywhere near the Scriptures. If people seek acceptance as LGBT+ Christians, or wish to affirm others who are LGBT+, I don’t see how they can do it and still say that the universe is no more than 6000 years old, or that Moses wrote the Pentateuch in its entirety, or that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, just told from four different recollections. I don’t see how the so-called ‘high view’ of Scripture can help one to find peace as an LGBT+ or LGBT+ affirming Christian.

There is an alternative – one which takes a lot more work, and opens up more questions and doubts than it gives answers or certitudes. It is, though, in my humble opinion, a more satisfying, more exciting, and more reasonable approach. It’s in places like http://progressivechristianity.org, the ‘Progressive Christian’ channel of the Patheos portal (http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian), and the ‘Religion’ section of The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/religion). Yale University also has open courses available on the New Testament (http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152) and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) (http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145). These are only some suggestions on where to start searching. The important thing is to start searching!

[1] A video of the debate is available at (2015) Gay Christianity Debate: Daniel Payne vs. Paul Warren. Posted by Onsege English Ministry 1 August 2015 [online]. Acessed 5 August 2015 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2hmfOKSZkk.

[2] For future reference, the second answer to everything is Wikipedia, and the third is YouTube.

[3] (2005, July 30). Doctrinal Statement. In Bible.org (Richardson: Biblical Studies Foundation) [online]. Accessed 7 August 2015 at https://bible.org/article/doctrinal-statement/.

[4] (n.d.) WE BELIEVE…. In Deerbrook Covenant Church [online]. Accessed 1 August 2015 at https://myhueintherainbow.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/a56b4-we_believe.pdf.

[5] (1994-2015). Statement of Faith. In cru (Orlando, FL: Campus Crusade for Christ) [online]. Accessed 7 August 2015 at http://www.cru.org/about/statement-of-faith.html.

[6] (2015) The Bible – What We Believe and Why It Matters. In fsm (Oklahoma City, OK: First Stone Ministries) [online]. Accessed 8 August 2015 at http://firststone.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4&Itemid=102.

[7]International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary Archives) [online]. Accessed 8 August 2015 at http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf.

[8] For example, see Ehrman, B (2006). Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine, 1st edition (Oxford: OUP), Ch 7, ‘Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Marriage’.

[9]The United Church of Canada. Doctrine: Article II – Of Revelation, In Subscription to the Basis of Union by the Members of the First General Council of the United Church of Canada [online]. Accessed 8 August 2015 at http://www.united-church.ca/files/history/overview/basisofunion.pdf.

[10] For an interesting discussion on this, listen to ‘The Issue: John Dominic Crossan on the Historical Jesus (Episode 3)’, Sunday Nights, ABC Radio National (Sydney: ABC Radio, 13 January 2013) [online] Accessed 6 January 2015 at http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s3683087.htm.

[11] For example, (2012, 22 March) Interview: John Dominc Crossan on Power of Parable. In Read the Spirit [online]. Accessed 9 August 2015 at http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/interview-john-dominic-crossan-on-power-of-parable/.

[12] Borg, M (2013, 17 March) Why Jesus Matters (The All Saints’ Rector’s Forum). Posted by All Saints’ Church Pasadena on 18 March 2013. Accessed 10 February 2015 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt0g5UzTZz4.

[13] My preferred label for the Old Testament, now called the Hebrew Scriptures by many.

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