On still not answering the question

In a new article in the Church of England Newspaper David Runcorn has now responded to the criticisms made by Andrew Symes and myself of his original article ‘And how would I know when I am wrong? Evangelical faith and the Bible’ which was published in the CEN on 19 June this year.

In this article I am offering an additional response because I think the points that he makes require refutation in order to help clarify what is really at stake in the current debate in the Church of England about same-sex relationships.

There are seven problems with the argument David puts forward in his new article

1. He has not engaged at all with the main criticism of his original article offered by Andrew Symes. Andrew argued that the analogy which David Runcorn drew between those putting forward a gay-affirming hermeneutic today and those who campaigned against apartheid is misleading. In fact a better analogy is between those espousing a gay-affirming hermeneutic and those who sought to mount a theological defence of apartheid. This is because those theologians who supported apartheid from Scripture had to distort and misapply what Scripture teaches in order to support an Afrikaner nationalist political ideology and in a similar way those who offer a gay-affirming hermeneutic today have to distort or misapply Scripture in order to support the gay rights agenda that has become dominant in our culture and political system. In both cases theologians have gone against the teaching of Scripture in order to cosy up to a ruling elite and a dominant cultural zeitgeist.

David completely fails to address this argument

2.The arguments that David puts forward to support his claim that my analogy between biblical interpretation and assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle so that all the pieces fit together properly is ‘inappropriate’ are unconvincing.

He puts forward three arguments to support his claim. (a) ‘the Bible expresses truth through a rich variety of literary forms,’ (b) ‘there is no one single picture – rather there are many different images’ and (c) ‘we do not have a final picture.’ The first two points are true as far as they go. The Bible does contain many different literary forms and uses many different images to communicate its message. However, neither of these points undermines the jigsaw analogy. They simply tell us that in determining how the overall biblical picture fits together into a coherent whole we have to pay due attention to the various different literary forms and images that the Bible contains.

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle made out of a collage. The pieces of the collage might all contain different sorts of material (just like the different sorts of literary material and different images used in the Bible), but this would not mean it would be impossible to assemble those pieces into a coherent picture or that the puzzle would be done correctly if some pieces were left out.

The third point depends on a misinterpretation on 1 Corinthians 13:12. In that verse St. Paul does indeed affirm that ‘we know in part.’ However when he says this he is not referring to the Bible, but to the totality of our knowledge. The fact that there are things we will not know until we participate in the life of the world to come does not mean that the Bible remains incomplete in terms of giving us a consistent message from God which tells us what he is like and how He wants us to behave in this world. In the words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in his 1547 homily A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture:

‘…in Holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do, and what to eschew; what to believe, what to love, and what to look for at God’s hands at length. In these Books we shall find the Father from whom, the Son by whom, and the Holy Ghost, in whom all things have their being and keeping up, and these three persons to be but one God, and one substance. In these books we may learn to know ourselves, how vile and miserable we be, and also to know God, how good he is of himself, and how he maketh us and all creatures partakers of his goodness. We may learn also in these books to know God’s will and pleasure, as much as (for this present time) is convenient for us to know.’

If this is indeed the nature of the Bible (and down the centuries this has been the orthodox Christian view of the matter) then the jigsaw analogy is appropriate because it reminds is of the need to take the full range of the biblical evidence into account when thinking about God and His will for our lives.

3. What David means when he says that we should take a ‘dialogical’ approach to Scripture is unclear. If what he means by this is simply that we have to listen to the full range of biblical voices on any given topic then I absolutely agree (and this is the point of my jigsaw analogy). However, if I have understood him rightly, then he is saying something different. He is suggesting that we have to use some bits of Scripture to critique others by, for example, using the teaching of Job to critique the teaching of Deuteronomy 28 that obedience will bring the Israelites blessing and disobedience will lead to them being cursed.

The problem with this approach is that it suggests that it is legitimate to interpret some parts of Scripture in a way that means that they clash with other parts of Scripture. This approach to biblical interpretation is ruled out for Anglicans by Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles which declares that the Church may not ‘so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another.’ As Oliver O’Donovan explains in his commentary on the Articles, the reason for this prohibition is a concern for the authority of Scripture:

‘Unless we can think that Scripture is readable as a whole, that it communicates a unified outlook and perspective, we cannot attribute doctrinal authority to it, but only to some part of it at the cost of some other part. The authority of Scripture, then, presupposes the possibility of a harmonious reading: correspondingly, a church which presumes to offer an unharmonious or diversifying reading may be supposed to have in mind an indirect challenge to the authority of Scripture itself.’

4. It is not legitimate to set the ‘trajectory’ of Scripture against its ‘plain meaning’ in the way that David does. The trajectory of Scripture must surely mean the overall direction of biblical teaching, either as a whole, or in relation to any given topic. If this is so, how do we determine the overall direction of biblical teaching? The only hermeneutically responsible way of doing this is to determine the plain sense of all the relevant biblical passages and then work out the overall direction of their teaching. To claim to be able to determine a biblical trajectory that floats free of the ‘plain meaning’ of the biblical text is meaningless

5. There is no evidence to support David’s claim that throughout his previous paper he explores ‘possible answers’ to the question of how we might know that we have got our reading of the Bible wrong is unconvincing. As I said in my previous response:

‘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.’

In his response to my response David writes ‘there is no one answer. There are no guarantees we are getting it right. That is why the question always needs asking.’ My question to him would be ‘If we cannot know whether we are interpreting Scripture correctly what is the point of asking whether we are doing so?’ If we can never know what the right interpretation of Scripture is then what is the purpose of seeking to interpret Scripture rightly? It is only if the answer is discoverable that the question is worth asking.

Furthermore, it is only if we can have confidence that we can interpret Scripture rightly that we can rightly use it as the basis for our theology and our practice. If we cannot be sure what Scripture means then we cannot base our teaching or our lives upon it.

6. I do not think that I have missed the ‘irony’ of Evangelicals following the pattern of biblical interpretation that I propose and still ‘believing and acting in ways we now recognise to be unbiblical and even evil.’ In so far as Evangelicals have acted in ways that are unbiblical or evil it is because they have either failed to interpret Scripture properly or failed to respond properly to the teaching of Scripture in the way they have lived their lives.

Thus those South African theologians who supported apartheid misinterpreted Scripture in terms of what it has to say about the relationship between different races, however good they may have been in other areas of biblical scholarship. As I noted in my previous response:

‘…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.’

7. I do not accept David’s criticism that I am wrong to ‘deny the existence and validity’ of interpretations of Scripture ‘that are plainly gathering support and finding hermeneutical traction among careful biblical-centred Christians.’ In the first place, I do not (and never have) denied the existence of gay-affirming interpretations of Scripture. However, I do deny their validity because I do not find them convincing either in terms of their accounts of specific biblical passages or in terms of their accounts of the teaching of the Bible as a whole (for a detailed explanation of this point see my book Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003, Gilead Books 2015). The fact that growing numbers of people support such interpretations is irrelevant to the question of whether such interpretations are true. You cannot do hermeneutics by head count!

David closes his response by saying that Andrew and I do not answer the question ‘how would I know if I were wrong?’ I have answered that question in my previous paper. However, I still don’t think he has answered it either in his original paper or in his subsequent response.

M B Davie 26.8.15