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Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Word of God!

Here is the latest in Conversations with Bob!

John,

Interesting response. Let me respond first to Devil’s Advocate.

I think you interpret the Bible in an atomistic manner. By this I mean you take verses and passages out of the literary context, the historical context, and the context of the Bible. I repeat an underlying principle of Reformed exegesis is that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. Let’s take these passages one by one.

The first question we ask of any passage is what does it say? Your translation is correct and there isn’t any direct literary context, (meaning the immediate surrounding verses), that would suggest that you have interpreted it incorrectly. However if you read the passage in the larger context of 1 Corinthians you will read, as I pointed out, that Paul believed women should pray and prophesy in worship albeit with their heads covered. Now how can a woman both be silent and worship and also prophesy? Clearly Paul had a different meaning than 14:33-36 seems to say on the surface.

As to your reasons, I am a bit amazed! Yes the Church interpreted this passage in different ways in the past. But exegesis does change. After all, we went through the Reformation and said the Roman Catholics had it wrong in a variety of places. The underlying question in primary exegesis must always be what did the author intend. As to your comments about the pope, why should Presbyterians care who the pope is or what he says? We don’t have or want bishops! And why should Presbyterians care what Southern Baptists think? If they can’t get it right on baptizing children why should we care what they say about women?

On to slavery. I fail to see what this passage from Titus has to do with Noah. Did the author of Titus mention Noah when he talked about slavery? So if you want to talk about slavery in relation to Noah and Ham you need to exegete Genesis. If you do so I would point out to you that the text says that Canaan will be slaves, not Ham. The whole idea that Africans were to be slaves was based on false exegesis.

If you are an American you don’t really believe that a person cannot change his/her lot in life. We have never had nobility or fixed social classes except in the antebellum South where poor exegesis was used to keep people from Africa enslaved. When people tried to fix social classes by economic power or by manipulating income through law, yes we in the Church disagreed about what to do about this. But I don’t think you will find specific passages in Scripture that speak about tax policy or about monopolies. You will find some rather specific passages in the Torah that speak to laborers being paid a fair wage and even (gasp!) welfare for the poor.

Jews. Here you don’t even do exegesis. You mention Church history as the basis for decisions as to what is and what is not proper behavior. I thought we gave up Church tradition as the basis for making decisions at the time of the Reformation when we said that the Roman Catholics were wrong, that Church tradition was not the equal or the interpreter of Scripture. You seem to be saying that we should all be Roman Catholics. I suspect you do not believe this.

War. Again you don’t point to a specific passage to begin exegesis. You do point to a Biblical theme. Yes, in the Old Testament God is named as a God of war, both in the titles of God, in certain narrative passages and in Psalms. God is YHWH Sabbaoth, the Lord of hosts. The people of Israel believed that God called them forth to war. The Psalmists spoke of God as a God of war who led the people of Israel forth to war. But the Church is not Israel in the sense that the Church is not a nation. Where in the New Testament does it say that the Church should raise armies and kill others for Jesus? We Presbyterians say clearly that we don’t want governmental support for our beliefs. The Book of Order says:

Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others. (G-1.0301b)

Despite our failures in the past the Church now clearly states that the Church does not have armies and that we seek to persuade others to come to faith in Christ through words, loving action, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Again you point to Church tradition. While I do believe that the voices of the past should help us as we interpret Scripture we still have to do the hard work of exegesis ourselves. And we do believe that our ancestors in the faith can and did make mistakes as do we.

Finally I must critique your use of the term “Word of God. You state your opinions and say they are the Word of God. You say that Church tradition is the Word of God. But the Bible is the Word of God! And we are called to the hard work of exegesis always knowing that we do the best we can but we can be wrong. After all, no one becomes a Christian and immediately has all knowledge and wisdom. Christians do not lose their fallibility at baptism. Even when Jesus returns those in the Kingdom of God will still not know all. We will never be the equal of God.

Whew! I have to say I don’t particularly like Devil’s Advocate. He sounds a lot like a traditional Roman Catholic to me. And we Presbyterians really get upset when people say that Church tradition overrules Scripture. And to point to the Bishop of Rome as an example? We Presbyterians got rid of bishops a long time ago. Never had any use for bishops.

My concern with saying some passages are good and other passages are bad, or to put it differently, some passages really are from God and others are not is that one has to have an external measure to judge which passages are good and which are bad. You say that the Bible is about empire/freedom and justice/injustice. How do you make that decision? Isn’t it based on themes within Scripture? If that is the case then you have chosen several particular themes and rejected others. On what basis do you do that?

It is the responsibility of each generation of the Church to do the best it can at exegesis and then to apply the Scriptures to our particular time and place. We can all point to the past and say that the Church failed in its responsibility. I find that the Church tended to fail at its responsibility when it followed the siren call of culture and abandoned the full message of Scripture. What scares me most are attempts to mold the Scripture to fit culture. While culture prompts us to ask questions of Scripture that we would not have asked if we did not live in the current culture I believe we have to be very careful to not let the culture determine our exegesis. Some Christians claim that they believe capitalism is God’s way to operate an economy. Yet capitalism was not an accepted way of running an economy and was not even practiced until well after the canon of the Bible was closed.

Now, on to the Scripture passages that you asked me to comment upon. I’ll assign you passages when I’m done.

First let me lay out a method of exegesis. We translate. Does the passage say what the translators of my favorite translation says it does? Then we look at the specific context. What does the passage mean in context? Then if it is not already clear we try and determine what kind of literature the passage is. Then we try to discover what place the passage has in the particular piece of literature we are reading: what is its role in the particular book of the Bible? We try to determine the author/editor’s intent. If possible we try to look behind the final edition and see if we can find intentions of the writers of the documents the editors used. Then we try to see if the passage fits in with any particular theme in the Bible. Finally, after we have done our best to determine the meaning of the passage we try to determine what, if anything, the passage has to say to us today.

So, John 14:6. The translation is word for word literal. Might the Greek grammar tell us something about the meaning of the sentence that is not clear in the literal English translation? I confess I have not looked these passages up today in the Greek or Hebrew. I have enough other things to do. Let’s assume for the moment that the translations are correct.

Next step: what is the context? The immediate context in John 14:1-6 is that Jesus was telling the disciples that he was leaving. He said he was going to prepare a place for them and he would return. In the meantime they knew where he was going. Thomas says he doesn’t know where Jesus was going and wanted to know how he could know the way. That is the immediate context of verse 6. So Jesus was talking about his death and beyond his death and the disciples, as usual, didn’t understand. Here we see John repeating one of his continuing themes. Jesus is the bread of life, Jesus is the true shepherd, and Jesus is the logos. Jesus is even the Lamb of God. While the other gospels speak of the Kingdom John focuses more on Jesus himself. Thus we should not be surprised that John has Jesus say that he is the way, the truth and the life. In John one finds life in Jesus. The last line, however, is something bigger. “No one comes to the Father but by me.” While this should not surprise us, given John’s focus on the person of Jesus, it does make an exclusive claim.

The larger context is the long speech Jesus makes in John at table with his disciples. The author wants us to see Jesus about to be arrested both showing and telling the disciples how to act after he has gone. A large part of the larger context is about how the disciples are to love one another and how their mutual love would be a witness to those around them.

A comment on this speech: It is my opinion that, if John actually had sources that stand behind this speech, he has gathered them from various sources and put them together for a purpose. While the purpose is different, Matthew does much the same in the Sermon on the Mount. If John did have sources he has blended them so seamlessly in the speech that it is difficult if not impossible to separate them. Clearly John has a theological purpose in putting this speech together. To understand 14:6 we have to understand it in the context of the speech.

Unfortunately if I were to place this one verse in the context of the whole of John 14-16 (and maybe we should even include the prayer of 17!) I would have to write a commentary. Anyone who wants to read the verse in the larger context I refer to a variety of good commentaries. My personal favorite in Raymond Brown’s in the Anchor Bible Series.

The one question I will answer is this: does the larger context reinforce the exclusivity of 14:6? I think it does. Jesus talks about being one with the Father that one sees the Father when one sees Jesus. John clearly wants the reader to see Jesus as the one way to the Father. Other verses and stories in John make the same point. The story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus does so. Jesus’ speech after the feeding of the 5,000 in John does so. The exclusivity of Jesus as the way to the Father, (to use Pauline terms, to salvation) is a vital theme in John. It is also a vital theme throughout the New Testament. So exegesis says that the verse does fit with the intentions of the various New Testament author/editors.

John do you want me to do hermeneutics? I could stop with the interpretation! But, quickly, I will say that since the verse is part of a vital and continuing theme in the New Testament, a theme that I do not believe is contradicted in the New Testament, I think the exclusive claim of John 14:6 is truth. People come to the Father only through Jesus. People are saved only through Jesus.

Now, the Leviticus passage. Again, let’s assume that the passage has been translated correctly. What is the immediate context? Most of Chapter 18 deals with sexual issues, particularly who one should and should not have sex with. Curiously the verse right before 18:22 talks about sacrificing children to Molech, a step away from laws about sex. Then verse 23 deals with sex with animals. If we put the verse about Molech aside, and I’m not sure that we should, we find a chapter about sexual relations, who one should not have sex with. The literal translation of most of the preceding laws says that you shall not have sex with so and so because then you uncover the nakedness of some close male relative. The most interesting thing about all these laws is that they are all stated from a male point of view. There don’t seem to be laws here for women! And this isn’t just in verse 22; it is through most of the chapter. The one place where a law suggests that a woman might take the initiative in having sex is with an animal! Most of the laws are about a man not having sex with his relatives. All but the verse about Molech and the verse about bestiality are about male sexual behavior. This might tell us something about verse 22. However, as Phyllis Bird points out vv. 17 and 18 deal particularly with marriage and vv 19-24 deal with more cultic issues.

The second important thing to note in v. 22 is the word abomination. How else is the word used in Leviticus? What else is an abomination? Let me quote Phyllis Bird.

The term [abomination] is concentrated in exilic texts (forty-three times in Ezekiel) and cultic contexts, where it serves to characterize practices as incompatible with Yahwistic practice, or taboo. It is lacking in the old legal collections, as well as the older narrative traditions . . .In Leviticus it occurs only in the duplicate prohibitions of homosexual acts and the epilogue of chapter 18 (four times). It is not an ethical term, but a term of boundary marking. In its basic sense of taboo it describes a feeling of abhorrence or revulsion that requires or admits no rational explanation . . . It belongs to the language of separation and distinctiveness from the nations that came to expression during the exile and was applied retroactively to earlier stages of Israelite history.

Some have suggested that the verse talks about male prostitutes in pagan temples. While there are such references in Deuteronomy it doesn’t seem to apply in this particular passage because of the context of other forms of sexual sin. The reference to Molech might change this interpretation but I don’t find evidence of male prostitutes used in the worship of Molech.

Finally, do we find references to Lev. 18:22 in other places in the Bible? We sure see such a reference in Lev. 20:13. There it says that men who lie together as a man lies with a woman are to be put to death. The context says that many of the sexual behaviors listed in chapter 18 are also to be punished by death. Then again so is cursing one’s parents.

The only other references that may relate to this passage are in 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Timothy 1. In 1 Cor. Paul seems to have made up or used a word that joins two words from the LXX version of Lev 18:22 together. Taken literally the word translates as man liers, men who lie with or have sex with other men.

Clearly the passage says that men who have sex together sin. Because the context speaks only to male behavior, suggesting that text of Lev. 18 has a patriarchal orientation, I am unwilling to apply the passage to life today without other Biblical support.

Most of this exegesis I have borrowed from Phyllis Bird’s article in Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense of Scripture.

Let’s go on to the Romans passage.

When we read the Romans passage let’s all admit that it is a very difficult passage to interpret. The context of Romans 1 makes it difficult. So does the broader context of Romans 1-3. We aren’t quite sure at first how to interpret the words, “God gave them up” and we have to deal with what is natural and what is unnatural. And after all that we have to talk about sex between people of the same sex in Greco/Roman society and whether there was any concept of sexual orientation back then. This means I would have to write a book on the subject to properly interpret it. This response is already too long. So let me make statements that are conclusions rather than going step by step through the process.

  1. There were those in Greco/Roman society that believed that one could have a sexual orientation that caused one to have sexual desires for someone of the same sex.
  2. Romans 1-3 deals primarily with the question of whether only gentiles sin and are thus condemned or whether Jews are similarly condemned. Paul’s conclusion is that all sin and fall short of the glory of God.
  3. Romans 1:18-32 is not primarily about sexual acts between people of the same sex. Paul was leading up to chapters 2 and 3 to say that all have sinned.
  4. In vv 26-27 Paul does talk about sexual acts between men and sexual acts between women. He calls such acts unnatural. Unnatural here seems to mean that God did not intend humans to do such things. It does not have anything to do with whether some people are born with a particular sexual orientation or not. It also is not about what animals do.

The real question here is: what are we to do with such passages? We can do like you suggest, John and just say that they are bad passages. We can do as some others do, including my friend Jack Rogers, and say that the passages do not mean what the Church has said they mean down throughout history. We can say, hey, these are a limited number of passages. Why get all upset? We can say as some do that the ancients including Paul did not really understand that homosexuality is an orientation so that these passages do not deal with reality.

Here is what I do. First, I believe that if homosexual sexual behavior is sinful it is not more sinful than any other sin. To be honest I am much more concerned about economic sin in America because it is a form of idolatry that denies the sovereignty of God and the human responsibility to care for God’s good creation. Furthermore I am much more concerned about heterosexual sin because there is a whole lot more of that going around than homosexual sin. After all, depending on whose statistics you use homosexuals constitute between 10% and 2.5% of the population. I find myself dealing with the tragedies of heterosexual sin much more often than any homosexual sin. I think I have used the word homosexual 2 times in sermons over almost 30 years and in both instances I said I was much more concerned about heterosexual sin. Have I had homosexuals come to me for counseling? Yes I have.

Second I admit that I don’t know how sexual orientation happens. I’ve read a bunch of studies and I find that all of them are inconclusive. The honest scientists who work on the issue admit that they find tendencies but they cannot say for sure that there is one cause: genetic, hormonal, intrauterine or some experience in upbringing. I think anyone who claims they know the answer at this point in history chooses to ignore other evidence. What I am sure about is that the homosexuals I know have no idea why they feel the way they feel. The one group that I think is different is the group that has homosexual desires because they were sexually abused. I would say that these persons do not have a homosexual orientation. Their abuse, one way or another, messed up their desires. I have no idea what percentage of homosexuals fit into this later category. I suspect that this group is rather small compared to the other homosexuals. I suspect that this group through hard work with a therapist is more likely to be able to change their orientation than other homosexuals.

Is there a Biblical theme that might tell us something about the issue at hand? I think there is. Beginning with Genesis 1 and flowing throughout the Bible there is a theme that God created humans male and female and for each other. I believe the binary character of the human race is somehow vital to what it means to be human. Seeing the image of God in people who are males like me and also in females tells me something about God’s intentions for humanity. One of those intentions is to see the image of God in people who are humans like me but also unlike me because they are female. As I watch women in ministry I find that many of them do ministry in some ways that are different from the way most men do ministry. I find this difference helpful to the Church.

I also find this theme used as an analogy to talk about the relationship between God and Israel and God and the Church. Nowhere in the Bible do I find any statements or images that suggest that God approves of homosexual sexual behavior. The theme is always about love between men and women and marriage between men and women. There is even a whole book of the Bible dedicated to the joys of love between a man and a woman. And no, I don’t think the Song of Songs is about the relationship between Israel or the Church and God.

Therefore I conclude that homosexual sexual behavior is not God’s intention for humanity. Homosexual sexual behavior is sin. It is not more sinful or less sinful than any other sin. And because we humans are fallen we have all kinds of types of orientation to sins. Further some of us, including me, have biological problems that contribute or urge us to sin.

I have bipolar disorder. If my meds are balanced I do pretty well. If they lose their effectiveness, which does happen, my mood goes out of wack and my behavior follows. If I go into a low level mania, (I have type 2 bipolar disorder which means my manic episodes are not as bad as the people who have type 1), I have a tendency to say whatever comes to my mind, talk rapidly, not pay attention when I’m driving, to drink excessively, and to spend money like there is no tomorrow. When I go the other way, into a depression, I get angry at people, I think I am worth nothing, I think that all the people around me think I am a terrible person, I have a real desire to commit suicide and I don’t want to get up in the morning.

Sometimes when I go into a manic or depressive episode I sin. I cannot excuse my sinful behavior by saying that the disease causes the behavior. I can still chose to behave in ways that are not sinful but it is more difficult for me to do so. And yes, I experience prejudice because of my illness. Who wants to have a minister with bipolar disorder? The cultural prejudice about those of us with bipolar disorder says that we are likely to go out and get a gun and commit mass murder. This is a myth. Oh, and no one knows what causes one person to have bipolar disorder and another to not have it. We do know that it is a brain chemistry disorder but that events in our lives can push us into manic or depressive episodes. Environment and brain chemistry interact.

I use this as an analogy. I’m not saying that homosexual orientation is an illness. I am saying that we humans are for the most part not controlled by our orientations or our illnesses. (I think at least some schizophrenics ARE controlled by their illness, particularly when the medicines don’t work) Most of us can choose whether to operate on our impulses or not.

I believe the Bible teaches that homosexual sexual behavior is wrong. I also think the Church should welcome homosexuals and love them as fellow believers in Christ, fellow sinners who seek to stop sinning just like the rest of us.

Of course you, John, disagree with me about this. Personally I don’t want to fight this battle in the Church. But I can’t get away from it. The partisans on both sides will not let it go. And I am responsible to say what I believe the Bible says.

Now some passages for you to interpret:

1. 1 Cor 15:1-20

2. Psalm 90

3. Isaiah 11:1-9

4. Mark 5:1-20

Please do state your method of interpretation as I did, tell me whether you think these are bad passages or not and how you made that determination. And please tell me if they should be applied today and if so how.

Grace and Peace

Bob

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