On not answering the question


Anyone who has marked student essays or exam answers will be familiar with the sinking feeling that sets in when you read through an essay or an answer and realize that the student has failed to answer the question that was set. They may have made a number of points that are good in themselves, but because they have failed to answer the question they will not be able to achieve anything more than a very low grade and kindly advice from their tutor to read the question in future.

I had a similar sinking feeling when I read David Runcorn’s essay ‘And how would I know when I am wrong? Evangelical faith and the Bible’ published in the CEN on 19 June 2015. Runcorn makes a number of perfectly valid points in this essay, alongside some that are more questionable, but at no point does he answer the question which he himself poses, namely how do we know when we are reading the Bible wrongly? In his words ‘How would we know when we have got it wrong?’

He poses this question in response to the history of biblical interpretation in South Africa. At the beginning of this essay he notes correctly that during the Apartheid era ‘the Reformed Church’ (or more correctly perhaps some influential elements in the Dutch Reformed Church – it was by no means true of everybody) ’lost the ability to read Scripture over against itself; it lost the ability to hear the critical prophetic voice of scripture.’ He then further notes that the churches in South Africa are now expressing confidence that their current post-Apartheid reading of Scripture is in line with what the Bible actually teaches.

For Runcorn this latter point raises the issue of how they can be confident about this. Given the previous history in South Africa of reading the Bible wrongly, how can they be sure that their reading is now the right one? Or, to put the same question the other way round, how can they know when they have got it wrong?

As Runcorn sees it, the way to become aware of when we are reading the Bible wrongly is to become more self-conscious about the way in which we read Scripture. As he puts it ‘I need to find a way of watching and listening to myself as I read. Only then can I recognise how I interpret what I read. This is about becoming aware of the presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions that limit my response to what I read.’

In the remainder of his essay he sets out a series of ways in which he finds himself challenged to become more aware of the ways in which he reads Scripture and the factors he needs to take into account in order to read it better. Although he addresses these challenges to himself in the first instance, they are in fact challenges he wants the Evangelical community as a whole to address, particularly in relation to the issue of how to read Scripture in relation to the debate about sexuality. That is why he wrote the essay.

Challenges to our reading of Scripture

Runcorn identifies nine such challenges.

The first challenge, ‘The emotional journey,’ is to be aware of the way in which the emotions generated by our own ‘sexual identity and desires’ can affect the way in which we read Scripture in relation to the topic of homosexuality. We need to acknowledge, he writes, that ‘revulsion, distress or anxiety’ with regard to homosexuality ‘are not measures of the rightness of any viewpoint. Still less are they signs of biblical fidelity.’

The second challenge, ‘Self-criticism and the Word,’ is to be aware of the extent to which we are willing or unwilling to accept criticisms of our current reading of Scripture and to ‘receive and take time over viewpoints that challenge my thinking in ways I cannot simply refute.’

The third challenge, ‘The Word in community,’ is to read Scripture in the context of a diverse and inclusive community in which space is given to the voice of the ‘ordinary reader’ and not just to that of the preacher or teacher.

The fourth challenge, ‘Ethics and the risk of the future,’ is rather confusing, but seems to be suggesting that our reading of Scripture for ethical purposes needs to be focussed not on making right or wrong choices about particular ethical issues, but on creating a ‘virtuous community’ in which people learn how to live rightly in response to the biblical story, a story which challenges the status quo because of its orientation to the future.

The fifth challenge, ‘On waiting for the fruit’, is to ask whether we are willing to allow the time needed to discover whether our ‘living, teaching and moral vision’ is enabling ‘a fruitful flourishing among those called to gospel faithfulness and obedience.’

The sixth challenge, ‘Experience and the Word’ is to take seriously the truth of people’s experience alongside Scripture. In Runcorn’s words ‘my neighbour’s story must be received as I would receive Christ. It is their personal ‘holy scripture.’

The seventh challenge, ‘Dead right – Bible and mission,’ is to realise that there is no use in ‘being right’ in our reading of Scripture ‘if it simply alienates, scandalises and leaves the watching world unable to hear the gospel at all,’ as Runcorn thinks is true of the Church’s traditional teaching about sexuality.

The eighth challenge, ‘Trusting the trajectory of the Word,’ is to accept that there is a theological trajectory in Scripture which enables us to address issues which the Bible itself does not directly consider and that on the basis of this trajectory it can be legitimate to change our view of what the Bible teaches about sexuality in the same way that Christians have changed their minds about creation and evolution, divorce and re-marriage, other religions and women in leadership.

The ninth challenge, ‘The joy of being wrong!’ is to accept that being wrong is actually a good thing. Runcorn quotes the words of the ancient Easter Liturgy which describes the Fall as the ‘happy fault’ that ‘won for us so great salvation’ and links these words to the importance of being wrong in our biblical interpretation. In his words ‘the transforming gift of the gospel is never found in the security of being right. It is actually revealed in the joy of being wrong. It is in fact essential that we are wrong! Our narrow vision, our tribal agendas, our lesser securities, our limited understandings, must be constantly broken open by divine grace.’

What are we to make of these challenges?

Each of these nine points says something that we all need to take seriously.

  • We need to beware of allowing our emotional reactions on the sexuality issue to shape our reading of the biblical text.
  • We need to be open to criticism from others and to take seriously positions other than our own.
  • We need to be open to allowing a wide range of voices to contribute to our understanding of Scripture.
  • We need to accept that the biblical story does constantly challenge the status quo by pointing us to God’s perfect future.
  • We need to ask about what sort of fruit our teaching of the Word is producing.
  • We need to be willing to listen to people’s experiences and think how they relate to what is said in Scripture.
  • We need to avoid presenting the teaching of Scripture in a way that is an unnecessary hindrance to mission.
  • We need to take into account the overall trajectory of Scripture and to acknowledge that the Church’s reading of Scripture has changed over the centuries.
  • Finally, we need to allow God to constantly develop our reading of Scripture and expand our limited understanding of it.

However, there are also a number of points which Runcorn makes that are problematic.

First, in relation to Runcorn’s fourth challenge, it is not clear how one can separate the development of a virtuous community from the question of right or wrong choices on specific issues. Living rightly in response to the biblical story involves making right choices on particular issues and Christian ethics needs to give guidance to people by helping them to think in advance about what it would mean to choose rightly in relation to them. In the case of human sexuality, for instance, this would involve thinking about when it would be right to have sex with someone in the light of what Scripture tells us about what sex is for and therefore when it is and is not appropriate.

Secondly, in relation to Runcorn’s fifth challenge we need to be clear, as he is not, that the test of fruitfulness laid down in Scripture is obedience to Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 7:15-27) and the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24). The fruitfulness of the Church’s teaching about sexuality has to be tested against these criteria.

Thirdly, Runcorn is wrong to suggest in his sixth challenge that someone’s story is their ‘holy Scripture.’ Our stories do not carry the same authority as Scripture. They can only ever provide a limited perspective on things and the way we understand them is always marred by sin. Scripture, by contrast, gives a universal, God’s eye, view of things and because it is God’s inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16) it is necessarily truthful. If we have a choice between someone’s testimony and the testimony of Scripture we therefore have to choose Scripture every time.

Fourthly, while, as Runcorn notes in his seventh challenge, we need to avoid creating unnecessary obstacles in the way of people hearing and responding to the Christian message, we also have to accept that the divine wisdom contained in the Bible (include its teaching about sexuality) will necessarily appear foolish and offensive to unregenerate sinners. This is because it contradicts their ways of thinking and behaving and calls on them to accept God’s authority and die to self. It is the action of God through the Spirit that overcomes this inability to accept the biblical message and enables people to believe (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:13). We therefore do not need to adapt or water down the biblical message and we are not authorised to do so.

Fifthly, although in his eighth challenge Runcorn argues, quoting David Gillett, that the acceptance of same-sex relationships is simply an additional application of the same hermeneutical principles that have led Christians to change their views on other matters this is something that needs to be shown rather than just asserted. It is difficult see how one ‘hermeneutical trajectory,’ one overall way of reading Scripture, covers all five of the issues mentioned by Gillett, given that they are all very different from each other. What single trajectory, for example, covers the interpretation of the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 in relation to the theory of evolution, the teaching of Jesus and St. Paul about divorce and re-marriage in Matthew 19 :1-12 and 1 Corinthians 7 and the relation of Christianity to other religions?

Sixthly, Runcorn’s final challenge confuses the fact that God constantly expands our limited understanding with the idea that that ‘the transforming gift of the gospel is never found in the security of being right.’ There are many things that we learn when we first accept the Christian message, such as that God loves us, that Christ dies for us and rose again and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that continue to be right however much we learn about the Christian faith subsequently and these foundational truths provide us with a secure basis for our Christian lives. It is simply not the case that we are called to view every aspect of our faith as only provisional.

Furthermore, Runcorn seems to have missed the point of the Easter liturgy. The description of the Fall as a ‘happy fault’ is a paradoxical way of expressing our gratitude for the greatness of the salvation that was needed to overcome the Fall. It is not saying that the Fall itself is something to be celebrated. In the same way, the fact that God gives us true knowledge by overcoming error is not a reason for celebrating error. Error is never good or else God would not act to overcome it. Therefore we should not feel joy about being wrong.

The big problem with Runcorn’s essay

However, as I indicated at the beginning of this response, the really big problem with Runcorn’s paper is that he never actually answers the question of how we know when we have got our reading of Scripture wrong. When it comes to a reading of particular biblical passages, such as those relating to sexuality, how do we know when our reading of them is wrong? Runcorn does not tell us. His nine challenges highlight a series of factors that he thinks we need to bear in mind when engaging in biblical interpretation, but they do not give us any specific instructions about what it means to read the Bible rightly and in the light of this how we can recognise when our reading of a biblical text or texts is wrong.

It is not enough to say that we should be aware of our prior emotional commitments, be open to criticism, listen to a wide range of voices and to people’s experiences, be open to changing our understanding of Scripture in the light of its overall trajectory, and note the effect of our teaching on people’s lives and on the Church’s mission. None of this tells us how we can know when we are wrong in our reading of biblical texts.

Reading the Bible rightly and therefore knowing when we are wrong

A better approach is to begin by acknowledging the dual character of Scripture. That is to say, the Bible is a collection of writings written by a number of human authors at specific points in human history reflecting the culture of the age in which they were written and using its language. However, it is also a collection of writings that have a single divine author and present a consistent overall message about God and his relationship to his creation, and to the human race in particular.

This dual character of the Bible means that we have to start with historical work. As with any historical document, we have to try to establish the most reliable text and to discover what the particular words in that text meant in their original languages and cultural settings.

We then have to move on to literary work, seeking to understand the overall message of each of the biblical books and to discern what teaching the original authors or editors were trying to convey through them. Because the Bible is also the work of a single divine author we then have to learn to read the Bible as a literary whole, seeking to understand how all the different messages of the sixty six biblical books fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to give us the big picture of what God is like, what he has done and how we should respond to him.

Reading the Bible rightly thus means engaging in a hermeneutical process in which we have to understand the whole, the overall biblical message, in the light of the parts (the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books) and in which we have to understand the parts in relation to the big biblical picture.

This being the case, deciding between different interpretations of the Bible involves deciding which interpretation offers the greatest explanatory power. Whether one is looking at questions of textual criticism, the meaning of biblical words, the meaning of biblical passages and books or the overall teaching of the Bible, the best reading is one that most enables us to make most sense of all the available data. Conversely we can know that our reading of the Bible is wrong if it does not enable us to make sense of this data. To use the jigsaw analogy again, we know that our reading must be wrong if it does not enable us to fit all the pieces of evidence together.

Thus we can be sure that the reading of the Bible that underlay Apartheid was wrong because its insistence on strict separation between the races failed to do justice to the New Testament teaching that the one big division within humanity is that between Jews and Gentiles (i.e. all non-Jews) and that the fruit of Christ’s redemptive work from Pentecost onwards was the creation of a single new community in which people from different races, both Jews and Gentiles, were brought together into one body in anticipation of the unity of all things in Christ which God will establish at the end of time (see Romans 3:21-4:25, 15:1-13, Galatians 2:11-3:28, Ephesians 1:1-4:16). The reading of the Bible by Apartheid theology focussed on the teaching of Acts 17:25-26 on God’s original creation of separate nations without also taking into account the bigger biblical picture of how God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:3) was fulfilled in Christ so that people from all nations are now and will be forever (Revelation 21:24-25) equal fellow citizens of God’s holy city and therefore need to be treated as such.

In the case of human sexuality, a reading of Scripture that takes account of all the relevant evidence is one that takes account of the fact that God has created human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-28), that he has established marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:18-25) and that all forms of sexual activity outside of the marriage bond are consistently seen as sinful, including all forms of same-sex sexual activity, which is either prohibited or depicted as sinful in a series of biblical passages (Genesis 19:1-14; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Mark 7:21, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10, Jude 7). This being the case any reading of Scripture that suggests that it is possible to find a space in Scripture for the acceptance of same-sex relationships or same-sex ‘marriage’ is based on a wrong reading of Scripture. It has to ignore or deny one or more pieces of the relevant evidence.

M B Davie 15.7.15