Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Two ways to read the Bible? And I, I chose the other way!

It is a curious thing being on social media - predominently X/Twitter, though posts there often take me to mainstream media articles in newspapers, magazines, churchy announcements, and the like. 

On the one hand there are amazing posts about amazing things like stupendously exciting moments in international cricket (two amazing tests last weekend, another this immediate past weekend involving out of this world bowling by Jasprit Bumrah for India). 

On the other hand there are sad posts about sad things like stupendously stupid (ok, that's my very personal opinion) analyses of current events (world and church) or quarrels (world and church) which seem, on the most charitable reading, to be people talking past each other, or, (in the case of the church) tragic misunderstandings of the core of the gospel.

On the third hand, incidentally, I appreciate X/Twitter provides news from around the globe which makes its way slowly into NZ mainstream media (or, not at all). 

Two of the church brouhahas observable in the past week or two - well, especially observable, they are not new brouhahas - have been:

- looking at North America, ongoing debate between (very/ultra/extremist) conservatives and (moderate, middling, nuanced) conservatives over things such as: Christian nationalism, transparency and accountability about sexual abuse by church leaders, whether a Christian might attend a gay relative's wedding, and, of course, whether Trump is God's anointed or a common, garden variety sinner.

- looking at the Church of England: the Living in Love and Faith (LFF) process, designed (in my understanding) to enable and empower the church to live with diversity on approaches to same sex relationships, has been and today intensively is discombobulated (for a variety of reasons I won't go into but links on this page at Thinking Anglicans give insight into the very recent reasons) - all this, of course, founded upon (and now, seemingly, foundering upon) long-standing differences in the CofE in reading Scripture and tradition (e.g. also on the ordination of women).

Reflecting on such matters, trying to understand why such differences and disagreements arise, even within church "tribes" (see here, for example, for a considered essay by a CofE evangelical, Phil Groves, articulating why "orthodoxy" as a rallying cry for evangelicals is not quite what people advancing the rally make it out to be), I wonder if a lot arises from how we read the Bible.

Across reports on X/Twitter (and the links made there), across continents and across more than "That Topic," what I think I am seeing to the fore are (broadly) two ways of reading the Bible.

One is that the Bible is a book of laws/rules. Apart from specific laws (e.g. in Leviticus, the Sermon on the Mount), laws may be drawn from any part of it, or, perhaps, we might say, laws may be drawn up from any part of it, according to our situation in life. 

A current contretemps on X/Twitter goes something like this: the priesthood of the church is for males only (similarly, motherhood is for females only), so any church allowing women to be ordained is letting the fox (of disobedience/heresy) into the henhouse of the church (hence all the problems of the church in the 21st century re enculturation into cultural Marxism). 

Of course, the Bible never specifically sets out priesthood as a "thing" in the life of the church, and it has varying things to say about women in leadership (in Israel, in the church): so the line outlined above is a rule "drawn up" from bits and pieces of Scripture (and tradition) and, in my reflection, because the Bible is this sort of book: a rule book with rules or potential for rules to be drawn up from it, not only are rules drawn up but severe human criticisms are made of those who (allegedly) keep neither the rules of the Bible nor the rules drawn up from the Bible (cf. also controversies in the Baptist world of North America, and generally amongst the Reformed of the world).

I think (if I am reading US politics/Christian engagements correctly), part of the attraction of a Trump presidency is that (irrespective of his own inability to keep any rules at all) he is the man to enforce a rules-of-the-Bible way of life in America.

And, with respect to That Topic, although the Bible offers nothing directly by way of engagement with our situation in life today re same-sex marriage according to civil law, there is an absolute confidence in sections of evangelicalism and Catholicism, in England, in Europe, in North America and in Australasia, that a rule may be drawn up from Scripture which (1) forbids the church participating in prayer and thanksgiving for any such relationship (2) determines that all kinds of threats of schism and/or demands for new "structures" may be consequentially made, and (at least in North America) (3) forbids any Christian from attending any such wedding, even for a loved family member.

All this might be quite plausible if on every other instance of our situation in life today we were similarly clear about rules drawn up from the Bible, but, in fact (and, see again Phil Groves' essay), this is not the case. Even among conservative evangelicals and Catholics there are differences over ... remarriage after divorce, women in leadership/ordination of women, euthanasia/abortion/IVF/surrogacy [at least at the level of whether such things should be legally permissible in a social democratic society], versions of the Bible, correct liturgies (BCP v modern Anglican liturgies; vernacular v Latin Mass.

I suggest the main point here is not that the Bible is not a book of laws/rules but that if it is, it is not a book of laws/rules such that we should be vicious and vitriolic about Christians who demur over what the rules are or over how the rules might be applied to life today.

But that (possible) main point leads to a second way of reading the Bible, which seems to fit the responses of a wide range of Christians: moderate conservatives, not-at-all conservatives and so on.

Two, the Bible is a book we should read prayerfully, carefully, creatively, communally and contextually. More simply, the Bible is a book of guidance (with some rules). Just as within the Bible laws/rules seemed to change (or, at least, some did) as contexts changed, so the Bible guides as to conclusions today which may (or may not) differ from conclusions reached in a previous generation. See: when situations for Israel changed (often in relation to whom its contemporary enemies were, what it would take to establish (Moses/Joshua/Judges) or re-establish (Nehemiah/Ezra/various prophets) the nation, and when ecclesial communities differed (compare the four differing gospels, Paul and James, early Pauline epistles and later Pastoral Epistles).

The Bible is a strong guide, not a weak one ("weak" meaning in the sense that we read it and then ignore it and do what is right in our own eyes). A strong guide because courses of action are clearly commended; the church has mandates for mission which carries forward the mission of Jesus; and the gospel is set out as a message needing to be proclaimed in word and in deed.

Yet, as a strong guide, the Bible leaves considerable room for engagement with the situation of our day.

It gives very strong guidance that life is sacred, for example, and we ought not, generally speaking, to kill another person. Left open, however, are questions of whether a Christian might participate as a soldier in military action in which that Christian might kill another person; or whether a pregnant mother's life is more or less valuable thatn the life of the child within her (should a medical intervention to save one of the two lives mean that the other will die); or whether the state might execute people for some categories of criminal offences.

At risk of offending Brethren and Quaker siblings in Christ, the New Testament leaves no doubt that the church ought to have leaders appointed in every place. Not at all clear is whetherthe NT is saying to all future generations of the church that the leaders with the most responsibility should be "bishops" or "presbyters" and, pace above, whether such leadership is exclusively for men only. Hence later differences between, say, Presbyterians and Anglicans, and, within the past century or so, within denominations as decisions have been made to ordain women as deacons, presbyters and bishops, or, for that matter, to reinforce restrictions so that pulpits only ever have men preaching from them.

The first approach to Scripture works well for those wishing to develop a rationalist system of propositions which deal with each and every situation in life, even those never envisaged in Scripture. The second approach is less comforting in that respect. It proposes deep engagement with Scripture while allowing for debate and discussion in the life of the church, along with possibilities for dissent and for difference - noting (as I have often done here) that Scripture's own diversity and differences within support a church of diversity of thought rather than uniformity of conviction.


And, look, if you don't like what I have written, you might find edification in this book review


Mark Murphy said...

This holiday I found a large print copy of the “New English Bible” (that one with the cross, vines, and olive branch engraving of the cover) in the bach where we were staying. I was seduced by its elegant and slightly different rendering of Ecclesiastes – “Emptiness, all is emptiness, says the teacher”, and read on.

I was so impressed with the literary values of this edition – the eventual translation was run past literary experts as much as it was run past Old and New Testament scholars. So I used some Christmas money to buy and explore some other “literary” versions – Robert Alter’s crisp translations of Song of Songs and the Wisdom books (Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs) as Hebrew poetry, E.V. Rieu’s slightly disappointing (in the sense of being quite conventional) translation of the Gospels (I prefer his poems for children), the Revised English Bible (I prefer the un-revised version!), and, most exciting of all, Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels: A New Translation.

Ruden, a Quaker and esteemed Greek translator, makes the Gospels sound strange – staking her translation on being as plain and direct as possible (Quaker values) and being as true to the Greek as possible (she previously translated Virgil, Homer etc). Some of her translations really don’t work for me – “In the Beginning was the Word”, becomes (for well stated reasons) “At the Inauguration was the True Account”. But they made me stop, pause, think again - *open again*. For those of us who are very used to hearing the Bible (or this or that version of it) it is useful to hear it again, as something quite other and strange.

Ruden’s translation of the Spirit as “the life-breath” (and in some place “the holy life-breath”) is a version I have found comforting, challenging, satisfying, and unsatisfying all at once. Ruden has John describes Jesus as being filled with more life-breath than any other human being.

The effect of reading these different translations, and exposing myself to new versions, has been to see “the Bible” as something much *looser* than I have been taught, and certainly not as a singular book or personality (“The Bible says this”, “The Bible offers this”) laying down universal lays (around sex, worship, doctrines of God, formulas for how the church should be structured and led). I’ve come to see Jesus’s words – or the particular English version I have in my head – in a much looser way. To not be as committed to Jesus as ‘the Word’ (and certainly not as ‘the Inauguration’ either!). To not be as committed to Jesus as "Jesus - Ruden uses "Iesous" throughout. To not be as committed to the Spirit as the Spirit, or the Spirit as the life-breath either. This also doesn’t mean giving up these meanings altogether, but holding them more lightly as “the truth”. Isn’t that the paradox of representation at the heart of our faith, at the heart of monotheism?

Ruden is well aware that even though she is committed to being true to the Greek language of the Gospels as much as possible, those Greek words are still another translation of the original Aramaic (probably).

I find myself somewhat freed from the obsessive endevour I (and no doubt others) get involved in – to work out the precise meaning of an (English, Greek, Aramaic) word, as if that is the path to “knowing” God. And yet I feel strangely renewed, too, in an enduring sense that there is an underlying reality – a stream of creative, life-giving sound, a mysterious “book” in which all of our names are written – that all these authors, gospel writers, and translators are attempting to describe, or at least describe their experience of. It hasn’t stopped speaking, and if it did, the world would probably cease to exist.


Liz C. said...

I like the title of the post! Good one.

In the The South (US), "orthodoxy" held the view that scripture/theology supported slavery - and the Civil War's been described by some as a theological war. I was a bit shocked when I first read about it.. the orthodox Christian Confederate states. It impacted how I feel about the word.

Enjoyed reading your thoughts about trying other translations, Mark!

~Liz (aka MsLiz)

Mark Murphy said...

Incidentally, the vast majority of Quakers are now from the "Evangelical" stream (as opposed to the Conservative stream and Liberal stream), live in Kenya, and do have formally appointed, set-aside ministers. (NZ Quakers are all in the Liberal tradition).

George Fox did not begin hostile to the priesthood - in fact, he visited as many he could (Anglicans, Baptists etc), but found them unable to speak to his spiritual depression. One vicar told him to sing more Psalms and smoke tobacco to calm his spirits. Another was more promising but flew into a rage when Fox accidentally stepped into his flower bed.

This enabled Fox to discover Christ directly, and within - he famously heard a voice saying "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition" - thus setting the Quaker pattern.

Early Quakers believed that the joyous, guiding, liberating presence of Christ that they directly experienced was the second coming - a coming of Christ within - and that this did away or interiorized the outward trappings of the old, "meantime" church (including sacraments and priests). They believed they were experiencing the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 - of a people with a law written in their hearts (or "inward parts"), and with no need of formal teachers or intermediaries.

Evangelical Quakers are a later growth, and adopt many aspects of evangelical Protestantism, including (for some) water baptism, creedal statements, hymns, ministers or pastors, and, the primacy of scripture over experience and corporate discernment.

Peter, you maybe ineterested to observe that, in world Quakerism, the Conservatives stand in between the Evangelicals on one side and the Liberals on the other. In other words, they have a via media quality to them.

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Mark and Liz for comments of great interest - translations do vary (a bit)!

Anonymous said...

David Bentley Hart - on reading the Bible

(or "the folly of treating the literal level as the place where the Holy Spirit comes to meet us...")

Liz C. said...

This post is very timely for me, thank you +Peter. Also, I enjoyed Phil Groves' essay. Following a link from one of his footnotes, I found myself at Inclusive Anglicans. There I came across 'Recovering the evangelical heart' by David Runcorn (08 Dec 23)*. What he shared about John Stott really helps me, and it was also a welcome surprise to find he'd referenced your response as Bishop of Christchurch as a worthy example.. so then I read your article of Jun/Oct '23 at the same website, and found that very helpful too.

It's not the specific issue so much as how to find a way through when one's views don't fit neatly with the laws/rules 'way' or with more liberal/progressive views. I'd become kind of paralysed, not knowing how to move forward but now after reading these essays I can imagine it's not impossible! Thanks ~Liz *

Peter Carrell said...

Interesting Liz!

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that some Christians reject the more nasty or indefensible verses or dogmas while still holding onto some core belief. Many will boldly describe themselves as reasonable based on how little of their religion they still embrace versus how much they really reject. I think it's ironic when people realise the less you believe the more reasonable you are, but they stop before they reach the logical conclusion.

Shalom, Gus

Liz C. said...

+Peter, re ...

"Scripture's own diversity and differences within support a church of diversity of thought rather than uniformity of conviction".

Awesome! And now ... I've recently finished reading Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. In similar vein:

While we may wish for a clear, perspicuous text, that's not what God gave us. Instead God gave us a cacophony of voices and perspectives, all in conversation with one another, representing the breadth and depth of the human experience in all its complexities and contradictions. [p.103]


The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center. [p.157]

It's worked well I've been reading RHE's book in the same time period of your post!