Struggling with Scripture

Address to the 2000 Covenant Conference
Pittsburgh, PA
November 3, 2000

William C. Placher
Professor of Religion
Wabash College

I got this Bible when I was a kid, back in Peoria, for graduating from the fourth grade Sunday School class. It has been with me pretty much ever since. From reading the Bible, more than anywhere else, I have come to know Jesus, my Lord and Savior. If I did not know Jesus, I can’t imagine that my life would make much sense, or that I would have had the hope to sustain me in times of darkness. So you need to know that I do not come to you to talk about the Bible as a neutral, objective scholar, but as someone who finds himself on bad days clinging like a drowning person to this book.

Some people would therefore think that I’ve come to the wrong place. If I really wanted to talk to Bible-believing Christians, they would argue, then I should have gone somewhere else–to the Southern Baptists, maybe, or at least the more conservative Presbyterians. In her new book, The Word: Imagining the Gospel in Modern America, Ann Monroe writes, “For conservatives, the Bible is in charge….For [liberals], the Bible is whatever the reader makes of it: not a source of truth, but a taking-off place in the search for truth beyond it.” Frame the issue that way, and I find myself wanting to be a conservative. Yet it’s a common enough view: Rank people along a line with fundamentalists at one end, as the people who take the Bible really, really seriously, and then those who take it really seriously, those who take it seriously, those who accept it most of the time, sometimes, once in a while, not at all–with most of us in this room somewhere near the end of the line.

My problem is that none of the places on that continuum as usually defined feels like home to me. I’m hoping and expecting that many of you don’t find such a classification quite does you justice either. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a fundamentalist, yet I don’t think I’m somehow less committed to the Bible on that account. How can that be? I guess my explanation would be the thesis I want to present to you today, namely, that taking the Bible most seriously means struggling to understand its meaning as well as affirming its truth.

To explain, let’s start with an easy example. Jesus tells how a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was set upon by thieves. A priest and a Levite walked on by, but a Samaritan stopped to help him. We do not check the records of the Jerusalem-Jericho highway patrol to see whether or not this really happened. Even if we had those records, we would not check them. We recognize that Jesus is not reporting historical fact but telling a story that will make a point, a parable. That’s what the story means.

Similarly, a little reflection suggests that when the book of Jonah tells how all the people of Ninevah heard the word of the Lord and repented, any Israelite would have known that something funny was going on. The Assyrians, who had their capital at Ninevah, were among Israel’s great enemies. Even usually nonjudgmental historians admit that they were a militaristic, rather nasty lot. There’s no record of any dramatic change of values in their society, and any Jew would have known it. So, when the author of Jonah tells the story of this prophet who brought all the people of the Assyrian capital to repent, it would have hit Jews like a vegetarian today saying, “Let me tell you the story of the guy who talked McDonalds out of selling hamburgers.” We’d recognize at once that we were in the realm of invented story. Nothing wrong with invented stories. We learn more truth from War and Peace than from People magazine’s latest news about the lives of celebrities. But it’s truth conveyed in a different way–in Jonah, incidentally, once you realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller, in a very funny way. Therefore, if someone insists on the historical truth of the big fish that swallowed Jonah, they are not taking the Bible more seriously than the rest of us–they are misunderstanding it.

I am of course sliding past a great many difficult hermeneutical questions about the relation of the meaning of a text to the intention of its author, or the role and character of its implied audience, or how a particular book in the Bible may have a different meaning in its context as part of the canon. For now, I simply want to make the relatively simple point that the Bible comes to us in a variety of genres. Paul lists people to whom Jesus appeared, including one group of five hundred, and he says that some of them are still alive. In this case, we’re reading a man who wants to persuade his readers about something that recently really happened, and he’s citing his witnesses. In the opening chapters of Genesis, on the other hand, as Karl Barth observed, people live for hundreds of years. Animals talk. We are in a world not clearly connected with historical events. The text gives us a lot of signals that this is something more like fable than modern history, what Barth and Martin Buber before him called “saga,” a poetic rendering of primeval truths about humanity. Or again: Jesus speaks in parables. The book of Jonah offers us something like an extended parable. And so on. All kinds of different genres. The genre of a particular text shapes its meaning. Its meaning determines what it is for it to be true. And therefore I can’t properly affirm its truth without thinking about its genre. If I am to believe in the story of the good Samaritan in the right way, I need to understand that it is a parable and not a crime report.

Data, the robot in one of the Star Trek series, can’t understand jokes. He takes them literally (or at least he did; I think he was catching on, but I stopped following the series). He is or was not a good audience for a comedian, and he would frustrate a comedian if he said, “But I took you more seriously and literally than anyone else did.” His literalism doesn’t mean he is the most faithful audience for a joke; it means he misunderstands.

Sometimes, to be sure, the genre of a biblical text, and the rules that apply to that genre, may remain mysterious to us. The clues within a given culture as to what sort of story we are about to hear can be subtle. For instance, if I had begun my remarks today by saying, “A minister, a priest, and a rabbi went out in a boat…” all of you would have been expecting a joke. If I had begun, “Once upon a time…” you would have expected a fairy tale, or at least an ironic take-off on a fairy tale. Think for a minute about what complicated narrative analyses you would have been performing. Imagine trying to explain to someone from a completely different culture why you knew a joke was coming as soon as I said, “A minister, a priest, and a rabbi…” Cultural sensitivities, some justified, some exaggerated, make us nervous about ethnic humor, so the generation of our grandchildren may not anticipate a joke if they hear those same words. Yet you could read an unabridged dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica (even back when it was still good), Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and any number of other reference books without finding the information, “A minister, a priest, and a rabbi…” means “Joke coming.”

Think then how many signals about genre and meaning in the Bible probably go completely over our heads. We no longer know the cultural clues. Sometimes scholars can help explain them to us. But sometimes even the best scholars are missing things or have to confess their puzzlement. Listen for instance to a few verses from chapter 1 of Revelation:

I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see…” Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man. (Rev. 1:10-11a, 12a)

Now I’m sure there are biblical scholars smarter and more learned than I am–Walter and Brian just for a start–but, goodness, how can any of us recover with confidence what that would have meant to an early second-century Christian community? Would they for instance have thought this was a report of an actual vision, or more a literary form, or what? I’m really just not sure we can know that. There are times when, the Westminster Confession reminds us, we need to turn from less clear passages to more clear ones in our interpretation of the Bible. One of the convictions guiding the Reformed tradition in these matters has always been that those things needful for salvation will be clear enough if we are studying Scripture as a whole. If we study the whole Bible, its central concerns come through clear enough. We learn that we are all sinners, that God loves us any way, and that knowing our salvation rests on grace frees us to live in service of God and neighbor without worrying about how we will be rewarded.

If we’re trying to interpret a particular passage, however, we have to start by asking about its meaning. So far my examples of the meaning of texts have mostly concerned narrative passsages, and a generation or two ago that was where arguments about biblical authority primarily focused. Did this miracle really happen? Was this story true? Those were the issues most debated, for instance, by Bultmann and his critics. Increasingly, however, our most passionate debates about biblical authority focus on the moral injunctions in Scripture. Is this really a sin? Is this claim about how we ought to live our lives really true?

No American theologian, I believe, has thought about these issues more carefully than–I am about to surprise some of you–that stalwart of old Princeton orthodoxy, Charles Hodge. I do not always agree with him, but he was a great thinker, and he still repays rereading. Even in asserting doctrines of biblical infallibility and plenary inspiration, Hodge introduced qualifications. The sacred writers, he says, “were infallible” only “for the special purpose for which they were employed.” “As to all matters of science, philosophy, and history, they stood on the same level as their contemporaries.” So Hodge accepted that Isaiah made false assumptions about astronomy and Paul forgot how many people he had actually converted at Corinth. But these were not the matters they were teaching. (Hodge, Systematic Theology 1:165) “We must distinguish between what the sacred writers themselves thought or believed, and what they teach. They may have believed [for example] that the sun moves round the earth, but they do not so teach.” (170)

Hodge wanted to make sure that theologians didn’t make fools of themselves by trying to defend the indefensible. He remembered earlier battles in which theologians had insisted that the Bible testifies that the sun goes round the earth. No, Hodge insisted–some of the authors of the Bible may have assumed that the earth is at the center of the planetary system, but that wasn’t the point they were trying to make, wasn’t what they were teaching. Hodge, for that matter, had no problem with the idea that the earth had existed for millions of years, coming to the fore in the evolutionary science of his day. (171) The authors of Genesis may have believed in a much shorter time-span of world history, but, Hodge said, they did not teach it. Therefore we need not believe it in order to believe in the truth of the Bible.

It’s a distinction with intriguing analogies to Bultmann’s later line between the kerygmatic kernel of the Gospel and the mythological husk which we can appropriately cast off from it. Many of us think that Bultmann cast off too much–that for instance it won’t do to say that Jesus rose in the faith of the earliest disciples and dismiss the empty tomb stories as not part of the kerygma. Many of us think that Hodge didn’t go far enough, and accepted too much from the Bible as teaching which we have to believe. But what’s worth noting is that across a pretty wide theological spectrum, everyone agrees that you have to draw a line somewhere between the cultural assumptions in which the message of the Bible is presented and the message which is presented in them. We argue about where to draw the line, and those arguments are important, but all parties in such arguments agree that a line needs to be drawn.

But it’s a tricky distinction, isn’t it? Let’s apply Hodge’s method to a different case, one of great concern to our denomination in his time. In the days of slavery, some Presbyterians as well as non-Presbyterians cited Philemon as teaching that having slaves is OK. After all, Paul does not demand that Philemon free Onesimus. We might say, I think, that Paul was assuming the social reality of slavery in his time, but what he teaches in the letter has at its core his appeal that in Christ a master might be called to be a brother even to his slave. The letter teaches about a transformation of the nature of human relations, not about the acceptability of slavery.

These distinctions don’t come easily, and the danger is always that we will bend over backwards either to rescue Paul or to preserve our own beliefs. It would certainly be embarrassing to us if Paul supported slavery, so are we trying to weasel him out of it? Well, maybe. Yet if making such distinctions is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I think we can, sometimes at least, with appropriate caution and self-criticism, draw lines between the point of the text, what it teaches, and the assumptions the author brought from his time and place to expressing that point. I wouldn’t claim Hodge’s way of putting it as the last or best word in these matters, but I think it’s not a bad starting point.

So let’s take a harder case, and one we are all thinking about these days. In chapter 1 of Romans, Paul is discussing the righteousness of God. Is such righteousness compatible, he asks, with the fact that some people have never heard the good news of God’s revelation in the law and the prophets or in Christ? Yes it is, he answers. “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”

In other words, even the reality of creation, visible to all, should have been enough to indicate to people the existence of some sort of God worthy of worship, and it was because of their sin that they couldn’t see that. So the failure is their fault. Because of that failure, in turn, two things went wrong. First, they fell into worshipping idols. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” They replaced the mystery of God with an image that they could describe and get hold of.

Second, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” “therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” Specifically, “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” Furthermore, “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

I’ve quoted Paul at such length because part of my argument is that we understand texts only in context. Remembering the whole arc of Paul’s argument allows us to raise a question: Is Paul teaching that same-sex intercourse is wrong, or is he teaching something about the relation between human responsibility, the failure to worship the true God, and ethical faults, and in the process assuming, as a Jew moving out into Hellenistic culture in the first century would have, that same-sex intercourse is a good example of sin? Is this last point an example of something taught, or is it an example of a shared assumption of a particular culture, taken for granted in the process of making a point about something else?

I think that’s a good question. I happen to believe that it was merely assumption, not teaching–that Paul’s reference to homosexuality isn’t what he here teaches but an example he draws from the cultural assumptions of his time to illustrate his thesis about the relation of God, sin, and human responsibility. I note in passing that the two best commentaries on Romans I know–those of Martin Luther and Karl Barth–discuss this passage without directly mentioning sex at all. Though their authors certainly thought homosexuality sinful, they seem to assume that the teaching here addresses other topics.

But my primary intent today is not to answer the question about the meaning of this text but to say that it is good to ask what it means, indeed that that is the kind of question we ought as Christians and as Presbyterians to be considering together. It is not, notice, a question about how seriously we take the authority of the Bible–it is a question about what the Bible means.

There are those who would deny that it’s a good question. On one side, some would say that we need not struggle with such complex issues because verse 26 says that same-sex intercourse is an example of impurity, and that settles the matter. But I’ve tried to remind you–with most of this audience, I doubt I needed to persuade you–that we ask complex questions about the meaning and context of individual verses all the time when we are interpreting the Bible. We have to, in order to understand it. There’s no reason to stop our normal practice when we reach this particular passage.

On the other side, some would say–Paul was wrong, we know he was wrong, he was the product of a patriarchal culture, we can disregard him, and who cares what he was teaching and what he was just assuming? Well, I have to say–I care. As I’ve said already, it is through knowing the Christ of whom I learn in the Bible that I make sense of my life and have my hope. So I need to be able to trust it. And it is with the Bible that I try from time to time to challenge myself and my fellow Christians to rethink our comfortable lives in the light of what following Christ might call us to do. I don’t know how to demand that others take the Bible seriously when it challenges their beliefs if I feel I can dismiss the passages that discomfort me.

I therefore do think that we have to struggle with questions like: What’s the point of this passage? What is it calling us to do? Where is it going? In contrast, where is it just assuming something that people of that time and culture would have assumed, in passing, as it heads toward its real goal? I don’t claim the distinction is an easy one. Hodge’s examples concerned physical science–we have learned things about the solar system that the writers of the Bible didn’t know, and he makes the argument that those writers merely assumed the science of their time–they didn’t mean to teach it. I’m proposing that we might also say that we can also learn new things from the social sciences–about human psychology for instance–and then go back and see that Paul or other biblical authors were sometimes simply assuming the social science of their time on their way to making a point about something else. Some folks will doubt that social science really gives us new truths the way physical science does. Others will argue that the line between truths of social science and faith can’t be drawn the way the line between natural science and faith can. OK, those are issues worth arguing. But, again, they are not arguments that divide serious Bible believers from those who take Scripture less seriously–they are arguments about what the Bible actually teaches.

It seems to me that our denomination and recent public discussion of biblical interpretation in general have too often not been very good at looking at these kinds of argument. Indeed, with respect to our denomination, here I fear I have to be a little harsh, though with deep regret.

Well, let me be a bit facetious first. You may recall that Paul’s list of the sins into which humanity has fallen includes not only same-sex intercourse but also gossiping. According to the Book of Order people engaging unrepentently in same-sex intercourse cannot be ordained Presbyterian elders. But what about unrepentent gossips? I don’t know about your congregation, but in mine back in Indiana, I’m not sure we could get a session together if we enforced a limitation there. Just to make clear that I’m not making fun of other people, let me admit that I wouldn’t be able to serve on the session. Well, I’m sort of joking, but what is there in the text that makes it clear that one of these sins is more serious than the other?

More seriously, Jesus’ assertion in Matthew 5:32 that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” seems to me at least as clear and straightforward as the biblical assertions concerning same-sex intercourse. Yet we as a denomination clearly don’t take it very seriously anymore. It might be said that one can repent of divorce and remarry, but continued same-sex intercourse is obviously unrepentent. But let’s not trivialize repentence. If we never even raise the question whether divorced people might remain celibate for the sake of their children, for instance, are we talking seriously about repentence? That would seem analogous to the demand that gay people lead celibate lives.

I think one can work out a way of interpreting Matthew 5:32 that would accept remarriage after divorce as sometimes the least evil of available options. My point is that I don’t think we as a denomination have worked out any distinction between this case and same-sex intercourse on theological or scriptural grounds. I think we make the distinction because too many powerful and respectable people in our church and society are divorced, whereas in many parts of our society it is still socially acceptable to treat homosexuals with contempt. In other words, the lines we draw flow out of the cultural values and power relations of our society, not any interpretive strategy we consistently apply to the relevant biblical texts.

For that matter, when our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters reaffirms the letter to Titus’ assertion that wives should be submissive to their husbands, we Presbyterians mostly either laugh or burst out in fury. And I’m certainly not saying we should follow them down that road. But why is it that we take Romans 1 more seriously than Titus 2? For that matter, what about Jesus’ judgment that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven? Here again, I concede there are ways of understanding the texts in wider contexts and so on. My puzzle is why we seem to do that with some texts and not with others. And my sad conclusion is that if a given group is powerful enough, then we ignore the passages that criticize them. And that’s our interpretive rule.

Now once it gets put that way, it does seem kind of awful, doesn’t it? I think it would be more intellectually consistent and morally responsible to be either more conservative or more liberal than we currently are, frankly.

If anything, such an interpretive favoritism for the powerful seems the opposite of Jesus’ own practice. He so often forcefully condemned forms of sin that were treated as more or less respectable in his time and place while viewing the sins that generated most contempt in his society rather casually. He lays in to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees far more than the sins of prostitutes or tax-collectors. He is, in other words, apt to be more forgiving of the relatively powerless or outcast.

Still, I wouldn’t want, as some theologians of liberation have done, to try to develop that into a general principle. I don’t think it works to say, “Always take more seriously the passages that condemn powerful people.” For one thing, you have to decide who is powerful and who is oppressed. My friend Miroslav Volf, out of his experience growing up in the former Yugoslavia, has pointed out that, once you start down that road, there are often many parties that can claim to be oppressed. Remember what you did to us last week. Remember what you did to us last year. But then there’s what you did to us in the sixteenth century. And so it goes. For that matter, in Jesus’ context, should we consider tax-collectors as the objects of general scorn or as part of the power structure? They were probably both. People don’t always divide neatly into oppressed and oppressors, and Jesus resisted making such divisions. But we can say, I think, that interpretations which consistently favor the powerful rather clearly don’t follow Jesus’ practice. Similarly, practices that drive away rather than welcoming, that set strict limits to the grace of God rather than marvelling at its superabundance–such practices are also not in accord with the practices of Jesus.

So I would propose that we recover the classic Reformed practice of interpreting the Bible which begins with the Bible, and not with the powers and prejudices of our culture. Now of course we always bring our questions and our assumptions to the text. But that need not mean that we inevitably close ourselves off from having the text surprise us. The power of masterful biblical interpreters like Walter Brueggemann or Brian Blount, Phyllis Trible or James Cone–or John Calvin–is that they bring us to read the Bible in a way that we had not expected and yet, after we have traveled with them, we go back to the text and see what they have pointed to there, clear as day.

That’s what we need to do–to struggle with these texts in their immediate context and then eventually in the context of the whole of Scripture, connecting them in the richest web we can imagine of all that the Bible offers us, in the way that classical interpreters like Augustine or Calvin did so powerfully. In that context, then, we start to decide what constitutes teaching and what constitutes the cultural assumptions in which given teaching happened to be cast. This is difficult, and no method for doing it is infallible. With respect to one passage, we can be guided by our sense of themes within the Bible as a whole, but, even at that, sometimes we will, if we are honest, simply remain puzzled. Honest uncertainty based on attending to the Bible itself seems to me far better than letting the power structures of our society decide for us what matters and what doesn’t. At any rate, let us look to the Bible for guidance in such matters, and not to the power relations in our society.

With respect to same-sex intercourse, I myself think it falls into the category of what Paul and others assumed from their culture, not what the Bible teaches. Making that case would be a topic for another time, and it’s a case others have already made with more scholarly expertise than I could bring to bear. What I want to insist today is simply that our conclusion on this issue must be reached by methods we consistently apply to other texts too, and that at the moment our denomination doesn’t seem to me to be doing that.

As Christians, we struggle with biblical texts, and our very commitment to the struggle is the sign of our faithfulness to this book. Christians can learn from Jews, I think, how the commitment to wrestle, even angrily, with the texts manifests faithfulness. Even as we keep brooding over particular passages, though, we find that this book which sometimes so frustrates us or angers us or mystifies us is shaping the way we see the world and live our lives and ever again reintroducing us to the God in whom we believe.

In a lifetime of reading the Bible, in trying to understand it, we find that we are enabled to live more fully as Christians.

That’s what it means to take the Bible seriously: to struggle over a lifetime of reading or preaching, to try to see the relation of parts to whole, to admit what we cannot understand, to recognize all the different ways the genres of the Bible can mean and teach. If you’re doing that, don’t let anyone tell you that when they take one passage out of context and insist on its literal meaning, they’re being more faithful to the Bible than you are.

On the other hand, if you’re not living with your Bible, reading it every day, worrying out the passages that anger or mystify you, preaching, if you’re a preacher, on texts that make you deeply uncomfortable, making it clear that your preaching starts with the text and not with what you wanted to say anyway–if you’re not doing these things, then maybe you ought to start.

Part of the function of this gathering is to give the occasion for public and private discussions of political strategy concerning the future of our denomination, and I recognize the need for such strategizing even as I defer to those more expert in it than I. But if that’s all we do, even if we do it with great success, we will not have abandoned the principle that power shapes our interpretations. We will only change the current reality of who has the most power.

So might we, in addition to our political strategizing, commit ourselves to this: that in our preaching and teaching, our lives and our conversations, we mean to be manifestly Bible-believing Christians, yielding priority to no one in our fidelity to this book. We will be so engaged with Scripture that no one else can credibly claim that they are the Presbyterians who take the Bible seriously. We insist, indeed, that in believing what the Bible means and teaches, rather than in misunderstandings of it, we are most faithful to it. We vow to manifest ourselves as the people who take the Bible most seriously, who struggle hardest to be faithful to it, recognizing that faithfulness always does involve struggle and the recognition of complexity even as we find this book shaping our lives and our faith and guiding us to the knowledge and love of God.

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