March 9, 2017
A Texas man was sentenced recently for falsely claiming to be a Navy SEAL wounded in battle. Emblazoned with a Purple Heart ribbon, jump wings, and the SEAL Trident, the impostor criminally accepted credit for pretended accomplishments. Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler remarked on the case: “This man stole a title which has been earned by many through bloodshed.” It was a case of stolen valor.
Military glories are not the only ones subject to theft. I have noticed something similar in theological circles when revisionists take credit for important church reforms. A case in point: When I recently described the Wesleyan Covenant Association as a “coming together of otherwise diverse United Methodists who together read and interpret scripture as it has classically been read and interpreted,” an online colleague objected. That “classic reading” I extolled, he said, is the same that “opposed the ordination of women, kept slaves in chains, and caused the rejection of divorced clergy.” It became clear that he was crediting his low view of scripture with exorcising evils from the church. I would like to examine that claim.
Instead of taking the whole of Scripture as the unique Word of God, some Christians question the authoritative inspiration of certain passages. This questioning is more often subtle than overt. A friend of mine likes to say “Listen FOR the Word of God” before a public reading of scripture instead of “Listen TO the Word of the God.” The implication is that God’s Word might be in there somewhere if we are savvy enough to find it. But we are not to assume the written text and “God’s Word” are the same thing. This interpretive move is what I am referring to as “biblical revisionism.”
Christians have never weighed all scriptures equally in terms of their direct application to the life of faith. For instance, we have always privileged the New Testament as the lens through which to view the Hebrew Scriptures. The revisionists of which I speak go a step further to state that some passages don’t reflect God’s will any longer… or even that they never did. In Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton sorts scriptures into three “buckets”: Those that reflect the will of God for all time, those that reflect God’s will for the time they were written (but not now), and those that never reflected God’s will. All this sorting and sifting in seen as necessary to save us from the oppression that results from associating everything found in scripture with the will of God.
Bringing out a separate bucket for scriptures that never should be confused with God’s Word is tantamount to reopening the biblical canon. This is not a new project. In the Second Century, Marcion whittled the Bible down to eleven books in an effort to eliminate reference to what he saw as a problematic Old Testament Deity. Even Hitler got into the game of biblical revisionism and authorized a 1941 version of the Bible free of “Hallelujah” and other Jewish words. Bishop John Shelby Spong advocated editing the Bible by addition as he argued for reopening the canon to other texts. Through all these challenges, the orthodox approach has stubbornly persisted.
What is the classic reading of Scripture? Being divinely inspired, the entirely of Scripture is authoritative for Christian faith and practice. It is all God’s Word. When challenges present themselves, we consult the plain meaning of relevant passages in light of other passages and the whole. When there are seeming conflicts between scriptures, we harmonize specific passages with what Wesley called “the whole tenor of scripture.”
This is the classic approach. And this is precisely the same approach that defeated slavery in the West, ushered in the ordination of women, and offered grace to the divorced.
The practice of slavery was defeated by those with a high biblical view, not by revisionists. While there were certainly scriptures used to legitimize the practice of slavery, these were individual texts co-opted by entrenched economic interests. Outside those profiting from slavery, the church rejected commerce in humans as a contradiction of the Gospel. William Wilberforce, the champion of abolition in Great Britain, wrote “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of morals.” Years earlier, Wesley denounced slavery as the “sum of all villainies.” Official Methodist positions always opposed slavery, even in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. No revisionism was needed in this process. The more Americans embraced the Gospel, the more likely they were to favor abolition. Evangelical renewal in the Second Great Awakening (with its strident insistence on biblical holiness) was one of the forces that brought the issue to a head in Nineteenth Century America.
WOMEN IN MINISTRY
Likewise, the doors were opened for women in ministry by people with a high, classic view of Scripture. While the United Methodist Church celebrated sixty years of female ordination last year, the Assemblies of God celebrated their 81st anniversary of the same. What won the day was the positive command in Scripture for Christian women to proclaim the Gospel paired with cultural realities that made this possible in a professional capacity. Biblical revisionism had nothing to do with it. Classic biblical interpretative methods did. To be sure, some churches using the tools of classic Christian interpretation continue to exclude women from ordained ministry. But the history of women’s ordination proves that rejecting the authority of certain scriptures is not essential to get there.
MARRIAGE & DIVORCE
Of course, the reason for this whole discussion lately is that some in the church want to match our culture’s acceptance of homosexual practice with same sex weddings in the church. The biblical gymnastics needed for this require steps well beyond weighing scriptures with Scripture. The whole basis for the New Testament sexual ethic would be brought into question in order to allow such an accommodation. Beyond the unanimous prohibitions of homosexual practice, we have the positive vision of human sexuality and marriage described by Jesus in Matthew 19 which same-sex pairings contradict. When Jesus was asked about the technicalities of marriage law, he pointed people back to God’s original design in Genesis 2. The Bible starts with a wedding in Genesis and ends with a wedding in Revelation. Marriage bears tremendous theological weight in Scripture. (For a much more complete treatment of this complex subject, see The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B.Hays.)
Someone will certainly jump up at this point to say, “I have a high view of scripture AND I believe in same sex marriage in the church.” Years of listening to the debate on this subject has led me to believe these two things don’t actually co-exist. Interpreters on the left first move to isolate, spin, or minimize the six passages that speak directly and vividly to homosexual practice. They intentionally ignore the meta-narrative of the purpose of marriage pointed to by Jesus in Matthew 19. When these moves fail to convince, they say something like, “Well, the Bible says lots of things we don’t pay any attention to. Why should this be any different?” Out come the buckets.
But one will legitimately ask: Didn’t we already do revision on a similar scale when we accepted the reality of divorce in the church, including divorced clergy? After all, Jesus himself offered some fairly comprehensive rejections of divorce in the same passage referenced above. If we can do that for divorced people, why can’t we do the same to allow same sex marriage?
In the case of divorce, those of us who allow for remarriage continue to agree with the New Testament witness. Divorce is sin because vows made before God are broken in contradiction to Jesus’ direct command. If churches were asked to perform “divorce blessings,” I imagine that few would. Different ecclesial bodies weigh the scriptural evidence to decide whether divorce, given its universal negative, is something from which one can morally recover. What we don’t do is claim that what Jesus said about divorce no longer reflects God’s will.
I think it is time for biblical revisionists to stop taking credit for glories that they never achieved and return this stolen valor to the classic methods of biblical interpretation to whom it belongs. When we take it upon ourselves to sort the Bible into buckets, we stand over it instead of under it. In the process, we find ourselves becoming disciples of our culture instead of Christ.
The church will forever wrestle with the Bible. As it was for Jacob, this struggle is real and difficult but results in blessing. Conversely, “Did God really say that?” is as old as the forked tongue that whispered in Eden… and leads to exile. I cannot think of a single example of biblical revisionism helpfully reforming the church, blessing a broken world, liberating the oppressed, or redeeming the lost. Can you?