Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 4. Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture

When it comes to making Christian sense of the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction, much depends on how we read scripture. But, that draws us into a much deeper and broader challenge in the contemporary church. There is a good deal of uncertainty across the church as to how best to engage the scriptures and a loss of confidence in some old assumptions about how to do so. One sign of this is the turn to early centuries of Church tradition for guidance among Evangelicals, something extremely rare until very recently.

Absent a Magisterium , as in the Roman Catholic Church, we are left to make sense of scripture in a context in which there is no straightforward, agreed upon, and authoritative hermeneutic (method of interpretation) for interpreting, understanding, or applying the writings we believe to be inspired by God and authoritative for the Church. The inevitable result is that faithful, pious Christians often come to different conclusions when interpreting the scriptures on a given matter. Even people who basically agree on the authority and inspiration of scripture and how it should be read often come to quite different conclusions on important issues.

We all need to give more attention to the interpretive principles by which we configure scripture such that some themes and passages are given more weight than others. And we all need to practice a good deal more charity and humility toward one another when we disagree.

Before looking at any particular passage of scripture that mentions same-sex sexual relations, it is important to look at what makes for faithful interpretations of scripture in general. I’ve attempted a constructive proposal for engaging scripture elsewhere (see The King or a Fox, a study guide for the Diocese of Fond du Lac in which I propose some criteria for interpreting scripture faithfully). Everything that follows should be understood in the context of that study guide. In this post I want to elaborate on one of the criteria I suggested for interpreting scripture – the Criterion of Love, which is closely related to another, the Criterion of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this criterion by itself, like any one of the others, is insufficient and must be employed in harmony with the others. With those caveats, I do want to suggest that the criterion of love does open space for a rethinking of the meaning of the texts in the Bible that appear to address sex between people of the same gender.

St. Augustine on the double love of God and neighbor

St. Augustine, in his guide to interpreting scripture, argued that the fundamental key to faithful interpretation is Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)

It is to teach us how to do these two things rightly that we were given the scriptures in the first place. Augustine goes so far as to make this rather startling claim:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the author demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and certainly is not a liar. (On Christian Teaching [De Doctrina Christiana], English trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 27)

Though this sounds remarkable, the idea that the building up of the double love of God and neighbor is the key for interpreting scripture is at least as well-founded in scripture as is Luther’s insistence that everything be interpreted through the lens of salvation by faith through grace. In fact, Luther, himself, asserted in his Introduction to the Old Testament that “faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law.” For more on Luther's interesting and nuanced approach to the Bible, see here and here.

Not only does Jesus give us the summary of the law, he applies it himself in a way that was shocking to his contemporaries when he insisted that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27). I submit that this was one of the most radical and unprecedented teachings of our Lord. The Sabbath – and the Law, generally? – is not something humans are meant to be squeezed into at any cost. Rather, it is given to us and for us to lead us into life with God and wholeness.

Paul makes several references to the centrality of Jesus’ summary of the law (cf. Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:13-14, Galatians 6:2). And the apostle seems to apply it as a key to discerning moral questions in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)

Though Paul is reining in an apparent antinomian tendency among some of the congregation in Corinth, it is interesting that he does not do so with an appeal to the Law or some other abstract rule. Rather, he suggests measuring behaviors based on whether they exhibit self-control and the building up of the community.

It does not seem particularly ‘revisionist’ to agree with Augustine that interpretations that “build up this double love of God and neighbor” are to be preferred and that the test for whether or not an interpretation is in the ballpark of faithfulness is whether or not it can be demonstrated to do so. And if, as Jesus says, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; might we entertain that if an interpretation of scripture seems to thwart the flourishing of members of the body of Christ that that interpretation needs to be looked at afresh? And if, as Paul says, the fundamental criteria on moral questions are what is beneficial for Christian freedom and the building up of the body of Christ and individual members of that body, might we ask in the case of Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same sex, “What is beneficial? What enables them to not be ‘dominated’? What builds them up? Would the blessing of Same-sex Unions build up the church? Would such unions inherently get in the way of its being built up?" Article XX of the Articles of Religion enjoins us not to "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." Might we ask of any interpretation of scripture, "Is it repugnant to the double love of God and neighbor?"

A way of self-denial

The double love of God and neighbor is not simple, sentimental, or easy. It requires self-denial.To love God requires us to know God – through the witness of the Bible, through worship and prayer, through the witness of tradition and the saints, and through the witness of creation. That also requires continual self-scrutiny lest we construct an image of God that suits us and then love the image we have formed for ourselves. To love our neighbor also requires that we actually come to know our neighbor. That too requires continual self-scrutiny to examine our own resistance to love and our tendency to project onto others what we already think they are or should be as characters of the story of our own making. The double love of God and neighbor requires taking up the cross and denying ourselves in order to be open to the Other (God) and the other (our neighbor).

A Roman Catholic principle of interpretation

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has a similar principle of scriptural interpretation. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities:

Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture “contrary to evangelical justice and charity,” i.e., that endorse racism, anti-semitism, sexism, etc., they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that this principle makes space for asking whether or not we should be wary of reading biblical texts about homosexuality as referring in a straightforward way to what we are talking about now.

Of course, current official Roman Catholic teaching does not conclude from this that justice and charity rightly understood lead to the ordination of women or the blessing of Same-sex Unions. But, that merely raises the question of how we discern evangelical justice and charity.

What it is and isn't about

The double love of God and neighbor is not about "inclusion" which, in and of itself, is an empty concept. It is not merely a matter of declaring that "God loves everyone. Period." Few Christians would deny that. But it is an insufficiently Christian declaration. God's love is not mere affirmation but transformative  sometimes uncomfortably so. Nor is it simply about "respecting the dignity of every human being." Of course we should live into that part of the Baptismal Covenant. But, respect and love do not mean affirming everything we want affirmed. Sometimes respect and love mean speaking hard truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We must always be on guard for our inclination to rationalize our actions and call indulgence, love.The Christian way of love is not sentimental or indulgent.It is self-sacrificial. Our love needs continually to be purified and transformed.

That said, given the centrality of love and mercy in our Lord's teaching and the rest of the New Testament, we also need to beware that what we call love is recognizably love as opposed to a squeezing of others into abstract modes of being that neither build them up nor the Church. Love is not always nice. But it is always kind. Discerning the difference is one of the tasks of the Church living under the Mercy.

The issue, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed. If so, do they not build up the community?

Next: Part 5. Why I Am Disinclined to Vote for Revising the Marriage Canon

Previous: Part 3. Positive Testimony

1 comment:

  1. Interesting on how the scriptures are twisted to mean what the author wants them to mean. In the end, the author talks about how the end goal is ". . .about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ. . . . ." YET. . . . .the scriptures are very plain when they talk about a man leaving his family and cleaving to his wife to compliment each other. The scriptures are very clear that the purpose of marriage is to procreate. . . . .not recruit. And how did this one get left out.. . . . . (Leviticus 18:22) "Neither shalt thou lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is (an) abomination (to the Lord your God)". That same idea can also be found in the New Testament so it is not a part of the "Old Covenant". . . . .God finds that an abomination to him and anyone who commits those acts. I'm not the judge here but if you are going to argue that Homosexuals can find the Holiness of God and that they will be accepted by God. . . . . .the scriptures point out the flaws in your argument and thus. . . .they call you a liar!

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