And how do I know when I am wrong? Evangelical faith and the Bible

The nub of the disagreement which has prevented us from coming closer as a result of our deliberations … turns, as has the church’s ongoing disagreement on questions of sexuality, on the meaning and authority of scripture’. (Pilling report p15) 

Apartheid and the Word

With the death of Nelson Mandela stories of apartheid South Africa have been retold in all their harrowing detail. Less commented on was how uncomfortable this chapter of history remains for Reformed and Evangelical churches who make particular claim to base their life and values on the teaching of scripture. The disturbing fact about apartheid is that it was a doctrine that claimed biblical warrant. Within a predominantly Christian country it was rigorously applied to a whole society and backed up by highly qualified university faculties of theology, hermeneutical studies and ethics. These were churches faithful prayer, self-examination, breaking of bread and the reading of scripture.

Apartheid means ‘the state of being apart’ (not unlike the word ‘Pharisee’). To a significant degree this became a theological as well as social reality in South Africa. Faith and ethics were founded on the hermeneutics of a closed world.

When this happens ‘scripture simply becomes a mirror reflecting the community’s self-deceptions back to itself disguised as the Word of God. The Reformed Church lost the ability to read Scripture over against itself; it lost the ability to hear the critical prophetic voice of scripture.’ It was no longer able ‘to read Scripture in ways that would challenge and correct its character.’ (B400) A self-validating doctrine held scripture captive.

In his acclaimed book, Imitating Jesus - an inclusive approach to New Testament Ethics, Richard Burridge (B) explores how the Reformed and Evangelical Churches and organisations in post-apartheid South Africa faced up to the reality that their reading and interpretation of scripture had led them to participate in a theological and social system they now knew to be evil.  For Burridge their stories stand as a warning ‘to those who wish to use Biblical narratives as a guide for the ethical behaviour today’ (B382) and against searching the Bible for rules or commands to apply to complex contemporary issues. Indeed this ‘may even call this entire approach to the Bible of looking for models for today into question’ (B368).

Now all these churches expressed deep penitence for this. Some also repented of having repressed ‘dissident’ voices within their own ranks during this period.  But these confessions invariably concluded with confident reaffirmations of the centrality of scripture and a renewed resolve to obey and proclaim it more faithfully.  ‘The Bible may have been abused in the past to bolster a man-made ideology, but let's get back to what God intended for his people, and that is peace, joy in the spirit of Christ’. ‘We proclaim fearlessly that what we're doing today, we believe, is in line with the word of God and have no doubt that the future will prove us correct’. (B398-9)

Burridge asks how churches caught out in such error can be so confident that their reading of scripture is now ‘correct’? They thought they were ‘in line’ with the word of God before, didn’t they?

Beyond right and wrong 

In the present debate on human sexuality a great deal of time is being spent stating and defending positions that various parties believe to be right.

I want to turn the discussion round and ask:

How would we know when we have got it wrong?

It seems to me vital that we have some way of approaching this question. After all, the most sustained opposition to Jesus in the gospels was from a religious group steeped in text and verse but of whom Jesus had to say - ‘You are in error because you know neither the scripture nor the power of God’ (Mk 12.24), and ‘you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life … Yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (Jn 5.39).  Then and now there are ways of being scrupulously ‘biblical’ that lead away from Christ.

But straight away I am framing the issue in the dualistic terms that oversimplify and leave us deadlocked – right vs wrong, good vs bad, biblical vs liberal etc.  The question needs framing more carefully. It requires us to take a step back. I need to find a way of watching and listening to myself as I read. Only then can I recognise how I interpreting what I read. This is about becoming aware of the presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions that limit my responses to what I read.

What follows are the personal reflections of someone  on the ‘including’ end of the evangelical spectrum (see Pilling p176), seeking to identify the ways in which this question continues to search me out and know me.

The Emotional Journey

I first encountered the evangelical tradition as a young adult in a glorious re-awakening of faith that remains its gift to me. The life that opened up so wonderfully at that time was built upon the pastoral foundation of socially conservative ethics. I still respect this. But within that world homosexuality drew very particular condemnation. It was the sin of sins: an ‘Abomination’. Biblically its condemnation was particularly attached to Romans 1 and to the story of Sodom where it thus gained a name that became a byword in history for all that is considered most evil, disordered and wilfully Godless. Now the Bible has no such league table of sins. Nor would homosexuality would be at the top if it did – attracting so relatively little attention compared to other moral issues.  But a highly respected evangelical leader and personal mentor at the time would privately speak of homosexuality as ‘one of the great evils facing the church’ (unaware how often he was speaking to good people who were secretly anguishing over their own, unchosen, sexual orientation). When such plainly unbiblical distortions are claimed as scriptural, something else is going on. 

It means that for many in this tradition the subject of same-sex relationships comes charged with powerful emotional responses. At one level this is to be expected. No one comes neutral to this subject. It will always draw us into the stories of our own emotional and sexual development. When a man in his seventies shared on a Christian website the journey he had been on to come to a place where he could begin to accept and relate to gay men and women he was dismissed rather impatiently by some but thanked by others. The deepest challenge for him had not been scripture. It was the struggle with his own gut responses to the whole subject, deeply conditioned through his upbringing within a particular era of social, cultural and religious history.

Revulsion, distress or anxiety are not measures of the rightness of any viewpoint. Still less are signs of biblical fidelity. They may just be telling me I am revolted, anxious and distressed about an issue. And that calls me to attend more carefully to my personal journey into a mature and secure awareness of my own sexual identity and desires. My freedom to read and receive the truth of scripture will depend, in varying measure, on my willingness to make that journey at all.

Pilling and others note the generational feature to this debate. Many of the younger generation of Christians simply don’t understand the fuss at this point (P6). To be sure they face the challenge of a destructively sexualised society. But on this subject I confess to envying their less defended perspective. As a result they may be receptive to understandings and responses previous generations have struggled to be open to.

Note to self: I am part of this journey too. Whatever ‘straight’ means in this context it never means straight-forward!

Self criticism and the Word

‘If the Bible is to be read correctly the first requirement is self-criticism’ (B400). The evangelical tradition has always taken this seriously because it is very serious about sin. It is committed to a continual process of reading, re-examining, repenting, re-interpreting its life according to the Word. Indeed its own understanding of scripture requires it. But the process does not come with guarantees. This was the approach of many South African Christians too.

I must start with self-examination. How defensive or defended am I? How do I cope with criticism? What is my response to being found wrong or making a mistake? How graciously do I receive and take time over viewpoints that challenge my own in ways I cannot simply refute? I will need the help of truthful friends to know the answer to these questions.

Note to self: strength of conviction is no guarantee that I am right. I will live with conviction but hold my ‘certainties’ with respectful suspicion. Others have thought my thoughts before me - and they too knew they were right. 

The Word in community

Hermeneutical and biblical studies in post-apartheid South Africa have been stressing the need to hear the voice of the ‘outsider’ or ‘ordinary reader’. All must have a share in the process of biblical interpretation - especially those on the margins and whose lives are most impacted by what is being taught. The reading and interpreting of scripture requires a hospitable spaciousness. And in such discussions ‘the contribution of the Biblical exegete is not to provide “correct answers” of the “Biblical teaching” but to offer the Christian community some expertise and methods to enable them to grapple with the text themselves, while at the same time listening to their ‘ordinary readings’ (B396). We must no longer presume to talk about. It must be talking with. Only a diverse, inclusive community will guard us against self-serving community readings.

This conviction has significantly changed the way I now seek to teach and explore scripture. Wherever I can I invite discussion and shared reflection so that exegesis and personal story weaves in and out of a variety of approaches to the text. The result is as scary is it is exciting. It has certainly challenged my assumptions as to where the authority of the word is to be found in any group. Having prepared my best, as preacher/teacher, I have to surrender control of text and process and my place at the centre, and trust the ‘ordinary reader’.

It is in this context that I think that the extended ‘facilitated discussions’ recommended by the Pilling report remain essential. We cannot under-estimate the extent to which we are still learning to speak and listen to each other.

Note to self: I am/we are always part of a bigger story. Fellowship must always include those who, while sharing my faith, do not necessarily ‘speak my language’ or share my convictions. I need critical friends.

Ethics and the risk of the future

Christian faith is forward looking. It is future oriented. This should shape how we do ethics  and suggests an important place for risk, adventure and experiment. But while this has been a mark of evangelical approaches to mission its approach to ethics is instinctively conservative. ‘When ethics is understood as the adjudication of tricky cases of conscience by balancing moral principles, the practice is implicitly socially conservative – since it assumes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the status quo, only with its anomalies. In contrast, the Christian community lives within a tradition based on a story which in many respects contradicts the assumptions of the contemporary social status quo. How then does the community faithfully live out its story?’ (Sam Wells. My italics)

Craig Uffman, who is quoting Wells, takes this further. ‘The problem is NOT that folks are making wrong choices with respect to homosexuality. Our task is not to defend tradition or a particular ethical conclusion with regard to a proposed act.’ The focus on right or wrong acts confuses what Christian ethics is for. The real issue is not choice but vision, he says.  If that is so then ‘our strategy ought not be to engage in continuous battle over whether homoeroticism is rightly defended or condemned or in other questions about right acts, but rather to call the Church to the practices through which virtue is formed, wherein we learn to take the right things for granted. The material cause of right actions is a virtuous community, and so our most fruitful approach in ethics is to focus persistently on the formation of that virtuous community, resisting the temptation to respond at the level of [the] acts [themselves].’

Note to self: Christian ethics is not for reducing to right or wrong choices. It is about primarily about what story I wish to be part of. My choices will flow from that.

On waiting for the fruit

One of the things that distorts my judgement more than any other is an unwillingness to wait. Jesus addresses this when he commends a test of discernment that cannot be based on prior convictions about permitted or forbidden acts. This is the test of ‘fruitfulness’. By their fruits you shall recognise them … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit’. (Matt 7.16-18). In my essay for the Pilling report I note that ‘since fruit needs time to grow and reveal its quality this must be a longer term strategy for discernment. And as fruit requires tending and care this process requires a trusting, patient and non-anxious inclusion’.  (P190)

But can I be sure I recognise good fruit when I see it? I readily presume to judge the fruit or otherwise in the lives of others. What is a far harder task is to discern the fruit of my presence and values for others – my own effect. Is my living, teaching and moral vision enabling a fruitful flourishing among those called to gospel faithfulness and obedience? What is our measure of this? How do I know if  I am not simply imposing unsustainable burdens? It has been rightly said that ‘the last thing we discover about ourselves is our effect’.

Pastoral and personal experience makes plain that the evangelical tradition has not been fruitful in communicating the love and life of Christ to LGBT people. All too often the price of welcome has been silence, at a high cost of personal secrecy, concealment and isolation. We have been unable to offer ‘safe places’ from which men and women may explore the issues that shape their deepest desires and relationships. We have required people to bear heavy burdens without offering support. We have silently colluded with the most violent prejudices of the surrounding societies and nations. In this respect we have not been good fruit.

A Christian approach to ethical questions must be centred on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in-breaking future Kingdom. It will always be asking,What kind of community and events were the outcome of his words and deeds?’  The answer is one marked by unexpected welcome, healing and scandalous inclusion.  ‘In seeking to follow Jesus, we are called not merely to obey his ethical ‘strenuous commands’ in the pursuit of holiness but also to imitate his deeds and his words, which call his hearers to merciful and loving acceptance of everyone, including and especially those whom some consider to be sinners, without preconditions.’ (B78)

Note to self: if my faith is to bear fruit, and enable fruitfulness in the lives of others, I need a trusting theology of time and a more biblical commitment to welcome and justice.

Experience and the Word

A tradition that strongly stresses the Bible as the supreme authority for all life and morals will tend to be directive in its style. It therefore looks with suspicion at claims to be guided from experience.  In his book The Word of Life - the use of the Bible in Pastoral Care, William Challis challenges this. He quotes James Poling who strikingly defines the task of pastoral theology as ‘being to prevent theology becoming oppressive, denying the truth of people’s experience.’ (C10)

We need to take it seriously when one of the most familiar results of trying to apply biblical texts to contemporary same-sex relationships is that those being referred to simply do not recognise themselves there at all. This is not that. Indeed the very idea is actually offensive.  We need to listen to this. Indeed it is this conviction that has been quietly leading many evangelicals to re-examine their understanding of what scripture teaches on this issue.

Of course there is a danger in making my subjective experience the sole judge of what is right or true. But a tradition that stresses total reliance on an absolute external authority is usually more in danger of imposing a position onto the lives and contexts of others, presuming to understand what it has not first drawn near and listened to. That is why Pilling heard concerns expressed not over the different ways in which scripture was read but ‘the harm done to people by some ways of reading it’. (P6:30 my italics)

Note to self: my neighbour’s story must be received as I would receive Christ. It is their personal ‘holy scripture’. 

Dead right? – Bible and mission 

One thing the Pilling report and the Evangelical tradition have in common is a concern for mission. And in this context, ‘the Church of England's current teaching and practice is deeply off-putting to those outside the church and therefore a serious impediment to mission’.  (P6)

It is possible to be a stumbling block for the sake of the gospel and a stumbling block in the way of the gospel. Mission itself is part of the question here? Of what use is ‘being right’ if it simply alienates, scandalises and leaves the watching world unable to hear the gospel at all? What does a person gain if they save their soul but lose the world? (cf Rom 9.3)

Is it possible to be dead right?

This would have been of primary concern to Paul and the New Testament writers. They were firm on the call to distinctiveness of life – ‘live up to your calling … do not live as the pagans live’ (Eph 4.1). But they also knew that this radical new community could simply alienate people who had no way of relating to its values at all.  They wanted no unnecessary obstacles placed on people’s paths to faith. This consideration lies behind the otherwise contradictory teachings on relationships between men and women in public worship and households. Where patriarchal headship is (puzzlingly) re-asserted it is best understood as the Christian community working out its calling together in a particular mission context. There is a Godly pragmatism, a missional ethic, about Christian living that remains a priority in the world today. In the early church, ‘for the sake of the Lord’ (a persistent theme in Ephesians) accepted certain constraints on its behaviour so as to sustain an environment of welcome and meeting through which outsiders could draw near to Christ.

The scandal of the first Christian church before the watching world was that it was radically including in its expression of human relationships.  The irony is that today the scandal of the church in the Western world is reversed.  Resistance to the full inclusion of women alongside men in the church leadership, belief in male headship over women and strong opposition  to the acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships is experienced as an excluding sexual ethic. To many in our society it is offensive, actually incomprehensible and experienced as a serious obstruction to the proclamation of the gospel.  ‘For many, we make the good news into bad news!’ (David Gillett).

Note to self: may the only stumbling block I place in the path of others be the one I cannot avoid because I am a follower of Christ.

Trusting the trajectory of the Word.

New Testament is not a systematic document of belief and practice. It is a testament of theology, faith and living in progress. This is the background to my comment in my essay for the Pilling report. ‘Where the Bible does not directly address the context of any contemporary social debate we must seek what may be called the ‘trajectory of scripture’. (P191)

The primary authority of the Bible was a central theme in the Reformation. Sola Scriptura. There are those who can only hear the call for acceptance of same-sex relationships as a final abandoning of this doctrine. It is not. Rather there is a necessary revisiting of how scripture is read for contemporary life and dilemmas. It is a doctrine that needs reforming – which is, after all, a thoroughly biblical idea.

The challenge remains central to the emerging life of the Reformed and Evangelical churches in South Africa. Evangelical theologian and historian Mark Noll also finds it present in earlier history among the conservative Southern Churches after the Civil War. He observes that what made the hermeneutical transition to racial integration so difficult for them was that a whole doctrine of the Bible was at stake – not simply its interpretation for one issue.

Bishop David Gillett, a respected evangelical leader and former principal of Trinity College, Bristol, publically supports same-sex relationships on the basis of scripture. He sees the present challenge as the faithful continuation of a hermeneutical trajectory rather than the dismantling of a doctrine that some fear.  Stressing the continued centrality of scripture in his life and ministry he writes, ‘For me this process of interpretation has led to significant changes in belief and attitude, most clearly in five main areas -

Creation and Evolution
Divorce and remarriage
Other religions
Women in Leadership
Same-sex attraction and partnerships.

For me, as for many others, this process is so closely linked throughout that it is important to look at the last one as part of a continuous hermeneutical development. In each area we have seen significant changes in what Christians and the Church have accepted as “right in God’s eyes”. It is perhaps inevitable that the one through which we are living now (namely the issue of same sex-relationships) is seen to be the greatest change and challenge, but some of the previous ones were as radical in their time, if not more so.’

The issue we face in this discussion is not whether or not we are being biblical, yes or no. It is the way we read the bible in the first place, the questions we need to ask of it today and the hermeneutical process required if are to faithfully found our lives upon it. And in the divisiveness of the present issue there are also important questions as to how we engage in corporate discernment together in this process and what grounds we use for exercising that discernment.

Note to self: Now I see dimly ….  (1Cor12.13)

The joy of being wrong!

In the ancient Easter liturgy of the Church the cantor chants the story of the world.  It begins with creation and moves quickly to the sin of Adam and its tragic consequence. Verse after verse tells of the awfulness of sin and of the darkness of this world and its rebellion. Then, rising steadily in pitch, the liturgy tells of the coming of Christ, the second Adam. What the first Adam lost, the second of Adam wins back. The liturgy builds up to a climax until the sin of Adam is eclipsed by the overwhelming glory of what has been won by Christ and his cross. And now comes the astonishing line, ‘Oh happy fault! - that won for us so great salvation’.

These are very challenging times and complex issues. The wisdom we need for these days will be hard won.  But 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.  In fact it is 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.

In one of the most memorable tributes to Nelson Mandela, Rowan Williams said, ‘Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.’

That seems to me to exactly express the calling of the church and all who minister within it.

There is another story being told. One that is yet to be fully revealed. It is always breaking through. And we can trust it with our lives.

O happy fault!

Jesus is Lord!


William Challis  The Word of Life - the use of the Bible is Pastoral Care  Harper, 1997.

Richard Burridge Imitating Jesus – an inclusive approach to New Testament Ethics Eerdmans, 2007

Mark Noll The Civil War as a theological crisis. 2006 Univ. of N Carolina Press

Report of House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality  CHP 2013. Includes my essay Evangelicals, Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships - an ‘Including Evangelical’ perspective. Appendix 4


David Gillett and from unpublished papers

Craig Uffman  - a response to Ephraim Radner

141 thoughts on “And how do I know when I am wrong? Evangelical faith and the Bible”

  1. Thanks for your nudge, Bowman. I’m happy to comment further, and please get back to the discussion whenever you can find time.

    Regarding your posts of March 14 & 18, I was preoccupied with defending myself from what seemed like attributions of Platonism and apostasy, and passed by the greater part of your comments.

    I thought that some of your remarks were much like things I had said myself earlier. Your “radically different dichotomies” begin by asserting that “The scriptures are a creature.” and “The scriptures we read are a creature on earth.” That is just what I have been contending from the beginning. The scriptures no more stand outside of time and history than we do as their interpreters. The “glosses of its best interpreters” are likewise creatures of time and society in history, as I have been showing throughout our discussions.

    Historicism might mean complete relativism, with never any truth to be found, accepted, believed or lived. But if truth is discovered through a historical process, then as time goes on, we are moved into a deeper understanding of God, the world, our own humanity, and the meaning of love for God and for one another. In the experience of Christians, this understanding is rooted in the activity of the Trinity, just as you have been saying.

    In the Incarnation of the Son, we have the clearest expression of all that God wants us to understand of the aspects of being and living that I listed above. And in the ongoing activity of the Spirit, we have continuing guidance and revealing of God’s will and wisdom for us. From the beginning to the end, it is the experience of God’s presence that leads us, and it is our shared quest to understand and follow that experience under God’s continuing guidance that will “lead us into all truth”.

    “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” [1 John 1:1-4]

  2. Dear Bowman
    I don’t know if you still wish to carry on this discussion, or if you are in a position to do so, but I would like to offer some comments on your last offerings, for yours and other’s consideration.

    I had said, “God is eternal. Doctrine is temporal… Everything else in our debate is commentary on this.” A very brief comment, but I didn’t think that Platonism could be unpacked from it. By this I meant that eternal truth and wisdom reside only in God, in God’s own eternal being. The Bible, the People of God, the whole drama of salvation and renewal – all this occurs in history, in time, and through fallible people and through many changes.

    As C.S. Lewis observed, we human beings do not always know what is good for us. We would like eternal truth to be immediately, palpably to hand, written in a book to which we can make unarguable appeal. So we say that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, the only secure basis for faith and doctrine. We believe we can find in the Bible an unassailable position on any question.

    We forget how many times this has happened in the past, and how many positions which could be documented clearly in the Bible have been deliberately reversed or conveniently forgotten, whenever the changing needs or understanding of society have required it. We think that we ourselves are part of the generation which holds to the truth which has always been taught in the Bible. In fact, we are only the current set of protagonists in the series of debates which have always preoccupied Christians in the past, sometimes to the shedding of blood.

    You ask “which God” I mean (or actually, which “god”). I suppose I am biased by having grown up in the West and having been raised in the Episcopal Church in the USA. I feel much more persuaded by a faith which takes time and history seriously as realities, even if they are elusive, more than by any of faiths for which all this is illusion. Also, once we consider the possibility of Mind as the source of all being, to then deny self-awareness, freedom and relationship to this Eternal Mind seems to me to make God into a lesser form of mind than we are ourselves.

    The God of the Jews and Christians is passionately involved with time and history, and demands that we ourselves are just as passionately committed to the real needs of the real people around us. God invites into an eternal relationship, but one which is realized first of all in time, and in the fullness of all reality in all its levels and aspects.

    God does reveal himself through the Bible, but does so by helping us see the history it depicts as well as the history of its own passage through time. We cannot confer inerrancy or infallibility on its pages or words, simply because we want or need it to be so for the sake of building our own unquestioned doctrinal systems. It cannot be other than we find it to be. Again, with C.S. Lewis, we should accept that “this is what God has done, and therefore this is what must be best for us.”

    I doubt if we become either smarter or more virtuous over time. The history of the 20th Century, and the little we have seen so far of the 21st, should disabuse us of any illusions on that score. God does continue to allow us to understand his will in new ways. Otherwise, we could never say whether any change in that understanding represented any sort of moral improvement.

    • Hi Ronald,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed our discussion.

      Have you an objection to my posts of March 14 & 18?

      ‘God : scripture :: eternity : time’ strikes me as an overreaction, swatting a fly on a table with a sledge hammer. To rid oneself of a style of hermeneutics, one sets up several other problems, some worse than the difficulty with which one began. There are other ways.*

      For now, Lent and the election of a new diocesan in a few days is eating my free time.

      However, if the thread shows some life, I may return to it after Pentecost.

      Art, if he is following this thread, may want to comment before then.




      * See, for one, Joseph Ratzinger’s surprisingly T2-ish view of scripture in Scott Hahn, Covenant and Communion–

  3. Thank you, Ron, for your kind message.

    I can’t rejoin the discussion right now, but I won’t have you thinking I classed you with Julian, Constantine’s foul nephew.

    No, of course you are not an apostate, but since all sorts of people besides Christians have believed in eternal divinities and sacred texts, it might be good to specify which god you mean and how this particular ‘bible’ came to be seen as his self-revelation. After all, when the rabbis fearlessly pressed on with a view like your own they came quite close to Andrew’s (and St Matthew’s?) view.

    Put another way, ‘as time passes, people get smarter and more virtuous, and we therefore are the very summit of wisdom’ is not a plausible explanation for new understanding of scripture, and so you may need to account for the way in which the eternal God is related to the new insights that you say improve on the old ones. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, this is impossible, and with the doctrine of the Trinity, it is tricky to use eternity quite as you do.

    Finally, some have argued that the notoriously ‘bad’ readings of scripture– slavery and apartheid– were ideologised with schemes of double election (to heaven and to hell) enacted through divine decrees in eternity. Absent the wrong sort of eternity, the scriptures were read in a far less cruel way. More broadly, an emphasis on divine eternity is commonplace among oppressive regimes (eg pharoahs, slavemasters, czars, etc). In contrast, Jews have looked to the Exodus, and Christians to the Resurrection– history– for liberating events that revealed God.



  4. “God is eternal. Doctrine is temporal… Everything else in our debate is commentary on this.”

    And that is platonism. Julian the Apostate read Homer this way and wished his empire would again do likewise.

    Eternity/time is a tool in the box for understanding scripture, but the scriptures themselves posit two radically different dichotomies as the basis of all things. First–

    “In the beginning, God created…

    The scriptures are a creature. For there is no intermediary between the Creator and creatures. They have no divine attributes of their own.


    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”

    “…your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

    The scriptures we read are a creature on earth. One implication of that is rabbinical Judaism, according to which God’s act of committing the scriptures to earth has bound his justice to the earthly sense which his covenanted people are able to make of it there. For if he is true to his covenant, then he must be true to an intelligible word, and the intelligibility of the word can be none other than the glosses of its best interpreters. Down that road the Jews found the Mishnah, the Talmud, and a millennium and a half of commentaries.

    The Resurrection pointed down another way to live with the creaturely, earthy scriptures.

    The fallen children of Adam and Eve, being mortal, are preoccupied by time, whether they dread it or deny it. How do we know that we are mistaken in reading the Bible? If Christians let their platonic tool use the user, historicism devours all meanings as Baal devoured children. Whether the idol is order everlasting (eg pious slavemasters) or enlightened progress (eg ‘German Christians’ of the Third Reich), blood drips from its mouth. Fearing time as mortal sons of Adam or rushing into it to finish Babel, readers bewitched by it read the scriptures mistakenly. They are mistaken when their bibles are open.

    Christians, believing that “he came down from heaven and was made man,” have seen the Trinity as the logic by which heaven and earth embrace. We enter that covenant relation ourselves by some trinitarian path or we do not enter it at all. In that covenant alone does the canon of writings gathered around the Resurrection make sense.

    The Trinity play in and with their creature time as they wish. The Spirit frees the Father and the Son for the unbounded dance in which they fill time to kairos and empty it to chronos in ways unknown to those who cling to immutable order or flee to ungrounded futurity. Neither Ozymandias nor Steve Jobs could dance like the Three.

    And as the New Adam swallowed death in his death, his children coexist with this strange fellow creature of time in something like God’s freedom when they are faithful. No longer bewitched by the mortal preoccupation with time, they test readings of scripture against the perichoresis of the One who “put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek” in enfleshing Jesus, raising him from the dead, taking him to heaven to reign, and sending the Spirit that moved upon the waters in the beginning. Which Julian found disturbing.

    • Just above is my penultimate post on this worthwhile thread. Thank you to David Runcorn for a fruitful framing of the challenges of reading, and to all who posted for always charitable and often cogent arguments. I do not recall a better Fulcrum thread on scriptural interpretation. To all, a blessed Lent.

      • Dear Bowman
        Wanting to respect your wish to retire from this discussion for Lent (or finally for all time?), but still feeling that I ought to offer some final comment or response to your own remarks, I have replied very briefly.
        A blessed Lent to you as well,

    • Dear Bowman
      I don’t think my comments are either Platonic or Apostate, but are very much in line with what you say later on in your own remarks.
      “The scriptures are a creature on earth.”
      ” [Adam’s] children coexist with this strange fellow creature of time in something like God’s freedom when they are faithful.”
      “The Trinity play in and with their creature time as they wish.”

      Which is why we must read Scripture always with fidelity to the Eternal character of God as we believe he reveals it to us, and not try to make of it an object of worship in its own right. We must submit our understanding to one another in humility, realizing that this dance in time began in the journeys recorded in the Bible, and continues in our own journeys today. Fidelity to revelation is founded at a deeper level than making the Bible into a book of rules (always selective and always changing) or straitjacket for science. The dance of the Trinity is indeed revealed in its pages, but we may find that we trace its movements differently as our understanding deepens and progresses.

      Yours in God’s grace,

  5. We hear– anyway I hear– occasional calls for orderly church discipline. When I press a bit to find the underlying motivation, I usually find that the advocate belongs to one of two grand classes of disciplinarians–

    (a) People in communities wracked with sinful social pathologies who want discipline to make crises manageable and boundaries somewhat defensible. They believe that ‘some authority around here’ would be helpful whether they like it or not. This class has a demonstrable problem and want an adequate solution.

    (b) People who are temperamentally miserable if there is no enforcing going on, and would be no matter what the Bible says. This class is fixated on an idealised solution and are sure that there must be a problem somewhere that will justify using it.

    Strangely, class (b) is more numerous than class (a). Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition– and that really bothers them.

    The Church of Scotland’s retreat from local kirk discipline began in the C18 when it could not rein in the compulsive enforcers among its ruling elders, and unfortunately that does not seem to be a unique experience. I do not say that kirk session discipline can never work– I’ve seen a few successes with it– and I would agree that the point of discipline is not mainly to remedy pathology (cf Jonathan Edwards’s reasoning in Northampton), but I do say that ‘bad actors’ are unhealthily attracted to authority scenarios of all kinds, and if not deflected can do a lot of harm.

    • Reasons for restoring effective church discipline:

      1) For the benefit of the erring sinner or divisive man. – ‘That his spirit might be saved’. (1 Corinthians 5:5). Of course, his immediate reaction upon being disciplined may be to become angry with the church and with God, but I think with the process of time and the prayers of the saints, he is more likely to be brought to repentance when he is brought face to face with his real condition.

      2) To protect the other believers. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

      3) Because the bible says so: ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’. 1 Corinthians 5:13.


      • Abusus non tollit usum, of course, but if there is no solution to the busybody problem then the abuse will recur and discipline will fall even further into disrepute.

        The scriptures require wisdom, not time-travel.

        • In your post of March 8, you posited only two reasons for calls for orderly church discipline, both of which had to do with the character of those calling for it. What about the people in the church who are in gross sin, or heretical, or causing division? Could it not be that we are concerned about the purity of the body and about the individuals themselves and the others who may be affected? One might as well say that people who help the poor do so because a) they lack self-worth, b) they want to look good to other people etc.

          As for abuse, I would be interested to learn more of your experience. For myself, I have never in twenty three years of church life actually seen church discipline done openly. I have seen it done furtively – the leaders discuss an individual and then exclude them from ministry without even telling them they have done so, or giving reasons or justifying their decision, or giving the individual opportunity to respond..


          • Andrew, we may be tripping over semantics. I have seen a fair amount of church discipline in diverse polities, and most of it was handled appropriately, if belatedly. (The depressing question almost always– how long has this been going on?) But the disasters were the cases in which busybodies were agitating beyond their gifts and offices to influence outcomes. So 1 Corinthians 14:33, and as you point out, maturity.

          • Thanks. The disasters are also the falls into temptation and sin. Without holiness no-one will see the Lord.


  6. David, Andrew– How interesting that, in a thread about knowing when we are wrong about scripture, this strand has passed from polygamy to ministry.

    David implies that the notorious local diversity of the Mediterranean world * necessitated quite a lot of adaptation in the beginning, with consensus only being achieved over time. For what is is worth, that is more or less the way most scholars now read what evidence there is on the trajectory by which the early churches evolved toward the ecumenical consensus of the C4. Similar diversity converging over generations can be seen in liturgical rites and in the ‘control case’ of emergent rabbinical Judaism. So our canonical exemplars are not fragments from a lost code of universal canon law, but apart from their apostolic witness, they were presumably also consistent with the consensus that was crystalising in the Church as the canon took shape.

    Visions of the authority of the scriptures invoked in debates in the village have not always been squared with what facts we have about them. If one privileges the diversity of the C1 churches, then one is adopting a vision of authority in which only apostolic proclamation is shaping life ‘on the ground.’ It makes sense that consistent evangelicals would find that vision attractive and consistent catholics unsettling. Conversely, if one privileges the relative uniformity of later centuries, then one is adopting a vision of authority in which local counsels were read later as influential models and then finally as universal canons. And it likewise makes sense that consistent catholics would recognise the Church they know in that evolution, whilst consistent evangelicals would hesitate. But it may make most sense to think about authority in a way that is not so divisive.

    Andrew observes realities about itinerant ministry, the lifespan, gender, and their interrelations that ring true, but are pondered more in some circles than in others. In my limited experience, clerical families from two contexts with little in common theologically but a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit– Greek Orthodoxy and Brazilian Pentecostalism– seem to have the most acute awareness of them. I’m not sure why Andrew himself is so aware of them, but I am always glad to see him speak up here for that less ‘corporate’ (in the bad sense) and more ‘humane’ (in the broad one) sensibility.


    * In the wider Mediterranean world in which the gospel spread, courts everywhere judged cases according to the laws, not of the places where the courts sat, but of the places from which the parties came. So a judge in Ephesus hearing a suit for divorce between a woman from Carthage and a man from Alexandria did not apply Ephesian law; he fashioned a hybrid Carthago-Alexandrian law and applied that. On most matters, laws were tied to citizenship and citizenship to persons, not to territories. The Roman Empire did not tie the whole of its law to the whole of its territory until 212.

    In one way, that order of things helped new Christians to understand the difference implied for their lives in becoming citizens of heaven. But in another way, it meant that the Church was a transnational corporation before anyone quite knew what that was. And the Jewish roots of Christianity were not helpful because it was unthinkable that the Temple should be somehow replicated in Spain, Macedonia, Cappadocia, etc, yet in a sense that is just what each local church was. So the uniformity of practice in earliest Christianity that some arguments assume would have been very hard to achieve, and absent a code of practice hard to believe.

    • ‘I’m not sure why Andrew himself is so aware of them’

      I read Watchman Nee in the 1990s, and also Arthur Wallis who had a primary role in the formation of the so-called house church movement in Britain, the leaders of which also read Nee, if I remember rightly from Andrew Walker’s book about it. As well as releasing itinerant ministries, Nee also restored New Testament order regarding men and women in the church, much to the disapproval of his biographer Angus Kinnear (see Against the Tide). The Little Flock (as the churches which Nee and his co-workers founded became known as ) survived gloriously through the dark days of Maoism, and still flourishes today from what I have read fairly recently, to the glory of God.


  7. Thank you, Phil.

    (1), (2), (3), (4)– Clear.

    (5)– Clearer. However, we differ on some facts, and they make it difficult for me to understand why you differentiate the two levels.

    Magisteria can distinguish between official interpretations of scripture supporting Church doctrine, and personal readings of scripture that edify souls. Such a distinction respects the freedom of the Word to edify the believer in the way that pleases the Holy Spirit. The converse expectations– that Church doctrine will be the concern of every reader of scripture, that ideally each such reader will mechanically read the scriptures in the same univocal way as every other, and that Church doctrine will be the consensus of all such mechanical readings– appears not to respect that divine freedom. For an evangelical case for readings that are more spiritual and less mechanical, see the works of Hans Boersma on the ‘resourcement’ of patristic and medieval modes of reading.

    (6)– Not clear. However, it is possible that you did not realise that I meant ‘perspicuity’ of scripture in its traditional sense. Systematically, it has been hard for ‘foundationalists’ to attribute ‘perspicuity’ to the Holy Spirit rather than to either the intrinsic properties of the naked scriptural text or the intrinsic authority of the Roman magisterium. This neglect of the work of the Holy Spirit in scripture has been criticised as a flaw in foundationalist systems.

    • Bowman
      Thank you for your reply.
      Further to (5): it would be helpful if you could clarify your view on the facts on which we differ. I am not grasping – sorry – your post from ‘Magisteria…to…modes of reading’.
      I will try to explain why I differentiate the two levels. Take this quote from Cardinal Newman to which I referred:
      ‘Since men now-a-days deduce from Scripture, instead of believing a teacher, you may expect to see them waver about; they will feel the force of their own deductions more strongly at one time than at another, they will change their minds about them, or perhaps deny them altogether; whereas this cannot be, while a man has faith, that is, belief that what a preacher says to him comes from God. This is what St. Paul especially insists on, telling us that Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, are given us that “we may all attain to unity of faith”, and, on the contrary, in order “that we be not as children tossed to and fro, and carried about by every gale of doctrine” ‘
      Cardinal Newman, Faith and Private Judgement (1849). A sermon preached to a mixed congregation.
      The source for Newman is the living voice of the living Church, and the process is ‘belief that what a preacher says to him comes from God’. Clearly both the source and the process on this view are essentially different from the source and process in the ‘private judgment rules’ and the resulting knowledge of and about God will also be different. This difference arises not from disagreements about right exegesis between those who agree that the private judgment source is the right source – the Bible – and the private judgment process is the right process – careful exegesis – but it arises because of a disagreement about what is the right source and the right process. If we differ on what are the right source and process we have to debate and challenge one another on that. If we agree on what are the right source and process we have to debate and challenge one another on how the right process is being carried out.
      On (6): yes, I was not fully satisfied with my response to this question. Perhaps before I try to do better you could please define just what you mean by “‘perspicuity’ of scripture in its traditional sense”.
      Phil Almond

      • Thank you, Phil, for a swift reply.

        (5) Clear. Though Newman is a confusing, and was possibly a confused, example.

        (6) Usage of ‘perspicuity’ can vary, but at the heart of all uses that I recall is the inseparability of the meaning of a scriptural text from God’s wider purposes for the Creation. Experience showed quite early that a text in scripture can be taken by a reader in a ‘sense’ that is philologically reasonable, yet in a ‘meaning’ that is contrary to God’s wider purposes. By ‘sense’ I mean simple construal of the words; by ‘meaning’ I mean another judgement, the apprehension of what that sense is ‘saying’ to the reader, to the Church, or to the world.*

        Because those purposes are the telos of the meaning, a reader who is ignorant or mistaken about those purposes can understandably find a meaning that is unobjectionable to, say, the Society for Biblical Literature, but unacceptable to those attuned to God’s will, and presumably to God.

        Not all who do this are heretics, but all heretics necessarily do this. And one could think that the error is hardest to correct in these worst cases because actual heresy often proposes or entails a false divine purpose in the darkness of which still other texts may be read awry, or more often simply forgotten. Which is what we would expect from St Paul’s opening remarks in Colossians and Ephesians.

        Conversely, the most ‘perspicuous’ readings of scripture draw much of the canon into a clearer relation to God’s purposes. Jesus’s meaning of Genesis, apostolic meanings of the prophecies on the Messiah, and Luther’s meaning of St Paul were all perspicuous. All of them were missed by other competent readers.

        Just as we cannot separate a text from God from the purposes of God, so we cannot separate the execution of those purposes from the Holy Spirit. Therefore every understanding of perspicuity offers some account of the dependence of scriptural meaning on the Holy Spirit.

        Obermann et al were not classing communities by the criterion of their respective understandings of perspicuity, but from the characteristic early modern views of the Spirit in the Church, we could infer that Anabaptists (T0) saw the Spirit giving perspicuity to the community of believers, Reformers (T1) saw the Spirit giving perspicuity along with the proclamation of the gospel, and Rome (T2) saw the Spirit enlarging the context of the canon to make God’s purposes more explicit and error more improbable. In each of these, a ‘private’ reading would be deprived of something different that subsisted by God’s grace in the whole Body of Christ. Yet in the C16-17, each of these also had its own distinctive vision of the freedom of the graced individual in the community created by the Spirit in the Son to the glory of the Father.


        * Many arguments that we hear in the village are confused and inconclusive because they do not distinctly and adequately engage both the sense-level and the meaning-level of a text. Sometimes support for a meaning is found elsewhere without deriving it from the local sense. Sometimes it is insisted that if the sense is clear, the meaning is self-evident and only bad faith can fail to see it. Both practises are naive.

  8. Thank you, Phil.

    (1), (2), (3), (4)– Clear.

    (5)– Clearer. However, we differ on some facts, and they make it difficult for me to understand why you differentiate the two levels.

    Magisteria can distinguish between official interpretations of scripture supporting Church doctrine, and personal readings of scripture that edify souls appears. Such a distinction respects the freedom of the Word to edify the believer in the way that pleases the Holy Spirit. The converse expectations– that Church doctrine will be the concern of every reader of scripture, that ideally each said reader will mechanically read the scriptures in the same univocal way as every other, and that Church doctrine will be the consensus of all such mechanical readings– appears not to respect that divine freedom. For an evangelical case for less mechanical reading, see the works of Hans Boersma on the ‘resourcement’ of patristic and medieval modes of reading.

    (6)– Not clear. However, it is possible that you did not realise that I meant ‘perspicuity’ of scripture in its traditional sense. Systematically, it has been hard for ‘foundationalists’ to attribute ‘perspicuity’ to the Holy Spirit rather than to either the naked scriptural text or the Roman magisterium. This blind spot has been crticised as a flaw in foundationalist systems.

  9. David, thank you for the article itself, and for sticking with the thread discussing it.

    And thanks to all villagers posting here for engaging several points of view with appropriate humility and candour. This may be the best thread on scriptural hermeneutics that Fulcrum has ever had.

  10. LOL of course I meant leave out the vinegar, to get a pancake. But leaving out verbal battering with an acid tongue or pen is not such a bad idea either. You can always tell the ones who are acid tongued or acid writers because they ignore you because they cant control it lol

  11. Perhaps, Ronald, you can help me to find something. I recall St Augustine’s comment in his De Doctrina Christiana that seemingly impossible things mentioned in scripture can be understood in a metaphorical or spiritual way so that the meaning of scripture is clear, but I do not recall that he further said that they should be so interpreted so as not to scandalise non-believers (who presumably would not understand esoteric Christian meanings anyway). You are not the only one who says that St Augustine wrote this, of course, but I have been in search of a citation to a text because it seems anachronistic to me. If you could give me a clue for that search, i would be much obliged to your kindness.

    • Bowman Walton – I’ve been sitting things out for awhile, but mean to rejoin the discussion soon. In answer to your question, here is a selection of passages from Augustine. In particular, here is a direct connection to his views on Genesis.

      He did believe in the authority of the whole of Scripture, but said that any passage which proved contradictory, contrary to fact, (or difficult ethically?) should therefore be interpreted allegorically or spiritually. He thought that trying to maintain the authority of literal and factual interpretation as the sole foundation for authority was likely to have a counter-productive effect on skeptics. It would simply confirm their dismissal of religion, Christianity and the Bible as generally false. It would present a barrier to salvation in Christ, not a defense of it.

      His words do sound startlingly modern, as if he were some sort of present day critic of fundamentalism. I can see why the reference would seem anachronistic. Here is a sample from the above website. (The website also gives the Latin original for scholarly reference.)

      “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about [scientific matters], and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”

      Harsh words, and from the 5th century, from one of the foundational theologians of the Church, a champion against early heresies, and a primary source of Calvinist theology. He goes on to say “If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

      What appeal can we make to any Magesterium or to tradition or to literalist inerrancy, with such a strongly worded warning of some 1700 years ago, from someone of the stature of Augustine of Hippo? We are left with intense and serious discussion of how we can apply the deepest values we have learned in Christ to the world as we presently understand it.

      • Yes, Ronald, sitting this out from time to time is not a bad idea, especially during Lent.

        Thank you for the fruits of your search; this is a clue that I can follow.

        One thing that I will be interested to discover, if I can, is what disagreements about what ‘science’ were discrediting gospel witness on the streets of Hippo.

        You and I may– or may not– differ on whether traditionally-oriented reasoning is more or less able to profit from occasional insights from science.

        Debates in Fulcrum often seem to turn on the tacit question– how up-to-date should ‘we’ be about x? From this shore, I find it unintelligible. Change in the human genome is too glacially slow for anything essential to have changed, though the unstable arrangements of societies necessarily change and always have. Continuing to do the same thing over a long time is doing a slightly different thing in every time, and none of those things can be repeated under other conditions. In that way, the past was more diverse and dynamic, and both more and less fallible than most people realise. What God created perdures, and nothing human will ever be altogether fixed. So then why the preoccupation with time? Why not rather an attention to depth? But then Englishmen likewise find many American quarrels just as hard to follow.

        Thank you again for your attention to my query.

        • Bowman – I agree that the real question is one of depth. Amidst all the changes in human life and history, the Bible’s books have also changed over time, as close scholarly examination implies. The ways in which its texts have been understood, interpreted and applied have also changed.

          God is eternal, but his will has been sought, heard and followed in many different ways by Christians over the history of the Church. To seek eternity in all its texts, trying to impose unity over all its passages, is to miss what it really offers – the depth of God’s presence in all the ways in which we have encountered and tried to understand and follow him over thousands of years. We may wish that every word shared explicitly in God’s eternity, but we cannot say that God has given us a universal rule book, consistent in all that it teaches, accepted and acceptable in all ages. As C.S. Lewis says in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, “we cannot, for the life of us, see that he has after all done it.” (page 94)

          I don’t really know what specific issues exercised either Augustine or the other citizens of Hippo. The list I subsumed under the phrase “scientific matters” in the quotation included “the earth, the heavens, other elements of this world, the motion and orbit of the stars, their size and relative positions, eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones”. He seemed to be implying the scientific understanding of the whole of existence. I have read that for awhile he thought that Genesis 1 was not reconcilable with the understanding of his time, but that he later changed his mind, not about science, but about the meaning of the text.

          I’ve always loved science as much as God in Christ for as long as I can remember thinking about either, from childhood on. I try to take in all that I can of both, and to interpret science and the Bible in relation to each other.

          As Oliver said on February 21, the Bible’s inconsistencies drive us closer to God but also (I would add) to the depth of the Bible, in order to find guidance for our own lives and times.

  12. Ahh Oliver your vicar is right about the vinegar in the batter mix the acid of the vinegar mixes with the bicarbonate of soda to make it bubble it then becomes crispy on frying, with a pancake mix you leave out the batter as you do not want them crispy.

  13. Is it perhaps like trying to find the best out of scissors, paper, or stone?
    Or trying to identify the centre of the universe?
    Or which is the most important of the four gospels?

    One thing is sure about arguments over the interpretation of scripture, they spoil the listener, as Paul says. (2Tim2:14, Titus2:9)
    When I’m asked to swear the oath in court, I take the non-bible affirmation, saying to the officer that the bible says not to swear on it.

    This morning the rector described the effect of sin in life as like putting vinegar into a batter mix, yuck!
    Then we had a pancake race.

    • Oliver, your metaphors are never dull.

      The hard disagreements arise among those who have different expectations about what sorts of things the Bible will (not)– indeed, for their peace of mind, must (not)– say. Perversely, it may be easier to maintain faithful receptivity to the Word when one is not so zealous about those expectations that one will accept the silences, lacunae, lost backstories, etc that confront us there as also signs of God’s will,

      Any given person’s ‘expectations’ often seem to be a temperamental choice imperfectly aligned with her belief. Therapy may change that, or life experience processed with God, but mere argument scarcely ever does. Some debates within people are more fierce than the ones among them, and the ‘strongest side’ does not always win.

  14. However it is also a matter of fact, often commented on, that different Christians and different groups of Christians, playing by this set of rules, have come to different conclusions about important, sometimes vital, parts of the knowledge of God. “What is the Biblical doctrine of Justification?”; “What is the purpose and effect of the sacraments?”; “Can a Christian, once justified and having received the Holy Spirit, fall away and be eternally lost?”; “How should we understand and think about predestination to life?”; “Do those who are not saved by Christ suffer the judgement of eternal punishment?”; “What is the relationship of the Christian to the Law of God?”; “What does the Bible have to say, if anything, about how civil society should be ordered and governed?”; “Does God need to be propitiated by the sacrifice of Christ before he can be reconciled to sinners and sinners to him?”; “Does the Bible rule out, or does it not rule out, the generally accepted understanding of the chronology of the fossil record and life on earth?”; “What place, if any, do the race, nation and land of Israel now hold in the purposes of God?”; “Should we expect gifts of tongues, prophecy, exorcism and healing to be given today?”; “How are we to understand 1 Peter 3:19?”; “What is the true doctrine of the end times and Christ’s return?”; “Should women teach men?”; “Is homosexuality a sin like any other sin?”; “How should we understand Deuteronomy 7 and Luke 6:35,36 in the light of each other?” and the rest. These are debates at another level, having agreed the source(s) and processes.

    Of course this diversity of view is used by Catholic theologians to support the case for a different set of rules – faithful submission to the teaching of an authoritative Magisterium as the process with the source, in Roman Catholicism, ‘Tradition and scripture together form a single sacred deposit of the word of God, entrusted to the church’ . A good example is Cardinal Newman’s ‘Sermon to a mixed congregation: “Faith and Private Judgement” (1849)’. Nor are some Protestant pastors and theologians, though they agree with the private judgement source, always enthusiastic about the private judgement process being extended beyond the ordained presbyters to the ordinary Christians. Passages which explicitly or implicitly exhibit this lack of enthusiasm are to be found in Calvin, Warfield, Lloyd-Jones, Packer. Although Warfield, at least, elsewhere shows great awareness of the enormous issue at stake here – the soul’s direct fellowship with God in Christ through his word. Warfield agreed with the view that there were ‘two Augustines’. A case can be made that there were also two Calvins – and even two Warfields. There is unfinished business from the Reformation here.

    But the Christian who wants to debate to the truth at the first level (sources and processes), or who wants, at the second level, to play seriously by the private judgement rules and come (we stress again, humbly, self-critically, ready to have his mind changed and in the fear of God) to his own convictions on vital questions is looking for the exegetical, linguistic, philosophical, historical, and systematic theological strongest views for all sides in the debate and the strengths and weaknesses of possible counter arguments, as he tries to evaluate competing understandings of the right sources and processes or of an area of Christian truth in order to know God truly in the fullest sense of ‘know’.

    Christian debates at both levels have been happening (and are currently happening) since Jesus Christ ascended to heaven: in books; in articles; in journals; in face to face discussion both formally (set-piece) and informally; and, to some extent, latterly, on the internet. Some of these debates are in the public domain, some are not. It is here, in this vast repository of discussion, that the ‘strongest views from all sides’ are to be found.

    To seriously consider these strongest views is perilous. It forces us to understand views we disagree with at their best, and exposes our own convictions to the strongest possible challenges. Our convictions may survive those challenges, or we may, in self-critical honesty, be forced to change them. We all know how traumatic and humbling that is.

    Phil Almond

    • Sorry, Phil, but I am not sure that I follow this post either, although I do thank you for further articulating a reader’s response to the Word. I hope that you will do us the favour of further clarifying them.

      (1) What ‘set of rules’ do you mean in your reply to Ronald? St Augustine’s? Ronald’s own?

      (2) What do you mean by ‘sources,’ ‘processes,’ and ‘private judgement source?’ I am especially not following how you think of ‘private judgement’ as a ‘source’ in this context.

      (3) Are you saying that the Protestant ministry implies the Tridentine ‘single deposit’ (T2)? I doubt that you mean this, but the syntax could suggest it.

      (4) And are you saying that the Protestant ministry endangers “the soul’s direct fellowship with God in Christ through his word?” What do you mean by ‘direct’ in that phrase?

      (5) What do you mean by your two ‘levels?’

      (6) What do you believe about the Holy Spirit’s work in the perspicuity of scripture? Insofar as the multiplicity of opinions about what the scriptures mean, or the intelligibility of them are under discussion, this would be a traditional starting point.

      Although I am not sure what you are trying to say, I can already thank you for pressing the discussion toward clarity.

      • Bowman
        My posts on February 24 8.34 pm 2014 and March 2 9.42 am 2014 are the first two parts of an essay which appeared in Churchman, Spring 2010, Vol.124, No 1.
        (1) The ‘set of rules’ are the ‘Private Judgment Rules’ (Source and Processes) as described in the 24 February post
        (2) By ‘private judgment source’ I mean the source in the ‘private judgment rules’ i.e. the Bible
        (3) No. I am saying that some Protestant pastors and theologians agree with me about the private judgment source (the Bible) but are not always enthusiastic about the private judgment process (as described in the 24 February post) being extended beyond the ordained presbyters to the ordinary Christians (like me). In the Churchman article I give extracts from the writings of Calvin, Warfield, Lloyd-Jones and Packer to support this assertion. The most explicit is ‘…Those instances, then, show us the need of preaching. It is not enough that you have the Word and that you have the Spirit in you, you still need this further help.’ D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Romans Chapter 10:14-17, p268.
        (4) I am saying that the view explicitly or implicitly stated in the extracts I give from Calvin etc. does call into question “the soul’s direct fellowship with God in Christ through his word?” because it does deny that when the ordinary Christian reads and meditates on the Bible, God and Christ are not directly communicating with him or her. By ‘direct’ I mean…. well, ‘direct’. For instance when I read or call to mind ‘And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched’ or ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink’ Jesus Christ is saying that to me ‘right now’. As Andrew Chapman has pointed out, I go out of my way to stress the great importance and value of the teaching of the Church throughout the ages and the great importance and value of the faithful preaching and teaching of those who have been gifted and called to that ministry, and the great need for us all to be humble and self-critical and open to correction as we read and meditate on the Bible, and the great importance of facing fairly and squarely lines of thought that challenge and seek to refute our views. But at the end of the day, I have to submit to my own conscience in the fear of God about what the Bible says and means.
        (5) The first level is the disagreement about what are the sources and processes, such as the example I give of the Catholic view versus the private judgment view. The second level is the disagreement over what is the objective and subjective knowledge of God arising from operating the processes on the sources when the sources and processes have been agreed. For instance, some supporters of the ordination of women do not, unlike other supporters, use arguments about the local application only of Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2 etc, nor do they use ‘trajectory’ arguments, nor do they say that Paul got this bit wrong; they argue that the Bible, correctly understood, agreeing with my view of the Bible and the processes (careful exegesis) to yield its meaning, supports (or at any rate does not rule out) the ordination of women. We agree on the source and processes. We disagree on the meaning the processes yield.
        (6) If anyone is a Christian it is because the Holy Spirit has breathed new life into that person’s dead and sinful soul. We are exhorted to walk in the Spirit in the whole of life, and this must include our study of and trembling before the word of God. Why do all Christians not agree on disputed issues? Because we can fall into sin and error in our exegesis as we can fall into sin and error morally. That is why I want us all to face the strongest arguments from all sides, to challenge and persuade one another ‘until we all arrive at the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, at a complete man, at the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, in order that no more we may be infants, being blown and carried round by every wind of teaching in the sleight of men, in cleverness unto the craftiness of error, but speaking truth in love we may grow into him in all respects, who is the head, Christ, of whom all the body being fitted together and brought together through every band of supply according to the operation in measure of each one part makes the growth of the body for building of itself in love’. And disagreement forums like the Fulcrum one are the best way forward in this. If only recognised pastors and theologians, not only from Fulcrum, but also from e.g. Church Society, Reform, Oak Hill, Fellowship of Word and Spirit etc. etc. would join in, rather than conducting their disagreements solely in books and journals.

        Phil Almond

        • ‘And disagreement forums like the Fulcrum one are the best way forward in this.’ This is going a little too far, I think. God’s method of bringing the body of Christ into maturity and unity, as I understand it from Ephesians 4, starts with the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers to the church, who in turn equip the saints for the work of ministry.

          (Incidentally, but relevant in a way to this discussion, I discovered this week that the KJV, and some other versions, have Ephesians 4:12 as ‘for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:’ – making the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers the ones who do the work of the ministry, rather than the saints. Many of the older commentators read it this way, but the most natural way to read it: πρὸς τὸν καταρτισμὸν τῶν ἁγίων εἰς ἔργον διακονίας, εἰς οἰκοδομὴν τοῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ, – is as the saints doing work of ministry.)

          A priority then, is to pray for God to prepare, train and raise up men of wisdom and understanding and knowledge of the biblical languages to teach His people in the last days before Jesus returns for His holy bride. Only in this way will sound doctrine be restored to the church.


          • Andrew
            But the Pastors, Teachers etc. disagree among themselves. Your ‘model’ is essentially the same as Cardinal Newman’s – see my subsequent post. There is no alternative to Private Judgment as set out.
            Phil Almond

          • Phil,

            I don’t think so. I wasn’t presenting a model at all – I was urging prayer for God to raise up godly well-trained believing and faithful bible teachers. But it seems to me that you would have to agree that Ephesians 4:11 must have a lot to do with the attainment of the unity of the faith of verse 13.

            I think it is important to see it as primarily God’s work to bring about this unity – it has to start with Him – your model of us all getting together to discuss to bring about greater unity seems to me to rather start with us. We need to see what God is doing and cooperate with that.

            I am not sure Newman really believed in the gift of bible teachers to the body – wasn’t he just saying that we should obey the Catholic Church? Of course, I believe we should be as the Bereans and search the scriptures for ourselves to see whether what we are taught is true.


          • Andrew
            ‘Of course, I believe we should be as the Bereans and search the scriptures for ourselves to see whether what we are taught is true.’
            I’m glad you said this. But as I see it that makes my point. The disagreements on Fulcrum forum involve us challenging each other, from the Bible, that what is being taught is either true or not true. On the wrath of God, on justification, on original sin, on same-sex attraction, on the ordination of women, on eternal punishment, on predestination to life. This is not starting with us but starting with God’s word and seeking in self-critical honesty to come to the truth by rightly dividing the word of truth, as we study to show ourselves approved unto God. Just as Paul challenged Peter to his face, because he ‘was to be blamed’. I see this as a legitimate outworking of Ephesians 4, which I quoted in my 5 March post.
            Phil Almond

          • ‘ I see this as a legitimate outworking of Ephesians 4’

            I do too, I was only trying to moderate your ‘the best way forward’ (March 5).


  15. Sorry, Phil. on February 21, 2014 at 9:14 am, you posted this request: “Could I invite Ronald to give his view on my conviction, often stated, that the deeds and words, past and present, attributed by the Bible to God and Christ are true facts, and the future deeds and words will some time in the future be facts.”

    In this discussion, we’ve been concentrating, not on whether any statement in the Bible is factually true, but on whether any moral or ethical principle clearly taught or illustrated in the Bible is true for all time. Jesus indicated in the Sermon on the Mount that some moral teachings in the Bible were simply in accordance with what God allowed as a concession to the hardness of our hearts. In other words, we weren’t ready for all that God would demand of us, nor for all that God could later permit.

    Remember how Jesus abruptly “declared all foods clean”? And how Paul told us that some might not be ready to see idols as empty illusions, and would need to keep clear of meat which had been offered to them? Remember also, as I mentioned earlier, that Jesus said that there were many things that we couldn’t bear to hear, but that the Spirit would lead us into all truth?

    As far as what is factually true, St Augustine of Hippo thought that we ought not to maintain that the Bible taught anything about the world that people knew not to be true. He thought that this would bring the Bible into disrepute, and would discredit it in the eyes of non-believers as a guide to salvation. His solution was to regard anything which might fall into this category as allegory, true in poetic or symbolic terms. His views could have very significant relevance today, in terms of the problems some people have in reconciling belief in science and belief in the Bible.

  16. I’m sorry to have left it so long to reply to some of the comments others have made, but here goes an attempt to catch up.

    To Andrew Chapman (February 16, 2014 at 7:24 pm): “We are so easily deceived.” Yes, and Christians of all persuasions in every age have always been sure that it’s the others who are deceived. Like “backsliding”, “being deceived” is not a very useful distinction to make.

    Regarding usury and slavery, we must be careful not to read back into either the Bible or history states of affairs which we take for granted today. Christians of earlier ages were not so sure then as we may be now regarding these issues. The Church thought for over a thousand years that the Bible did prohibit interest of any kind. Were they deceived, or are we? Conservative preachers of the 19th century were adamant that abolition was a rejection of the authority of scripture. Again, were they deceived? In both cases, the argument for a move beyond what had been taken as the plain and authoritative teaching of Scripture won the day. And we now take it for granted that it was right to make these moves. These were moves from one Christian stance to another Christian stance, and had nothing to do with the NT superseding anything in the OT.

    You later admit that those who read the Bible in ways that we might now reject were wrong, but don’t accept that any of us might therefore be wrong. It doesn’t mean that we never have any idea of what is right, but that we need to consider and share a variety of factors in examining and forming any common understanding of what is right. And we have to accept the historical fact of disagreement and change among Christians over the whole history of the faith. By listening to each other, and not assuming that our own group or view is unassailably right, we are “being faithful to our charge”. Otherwise, we are simply being faithful to our own tradition.

    And regarding your comments on February 19, 2014 at 11:42 am: Are you really saying that the rule of the 1st Century Church regarding any teaching role for women applies in your own fellowship today? And that you regard this as simply obeying God? What makes your position so clearly God’s will for today, when as I have pointed out that Christians in the past have had to move from what the Bible “clearly” taught to what they could now see was more just?

    And your comments on February 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm are implicitly an acknowledgement that society may change, and so our understanding of what is just or moral may also change. We could not possibly apply the standards regarding marriage or rape which were allowed or commanded in the OT. The African pastor you cite is simply applying today’s Christian standards in a humane and compassionate way. He apparently didn’t refer his approach to any specific teaching in the OT or the NT, but simply worked with his people where they were.

    To Oliver February 18, 2014 at 2:19 am: Despite expressing doubt about the “trajectory of the Bible”, I don’t think that we simply disregard the Bible as a source of moral authority. But we may well recognize principles being acknowledged in some texts, almost in passing, that imply the possibility or even necessity to move beyond more explicit teaching.

    For example, the admission in Leviticus 25:46 that making slaves for life is acceptable for foreign slaves but that “you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly”, is the first hint that slavery itself may need to be questioned. But this questioning never actually occurs in the Bible. When Genesis asserts that male and female together express the image of God, and Paul later says that in Christ there is “neither male nor female”, the seeds are sown for genuine gender equality, but it is not that long ago that women in the Christian West could neither vote nor own property. It is more a case of discerning deeper principles that may help us to deal with questions that arise in our own times, rather than trying to see a trajectory within the Bible itself.

    I am very much in tune with C. S. Lewis’s views, discussed in his book “Reflections On The Psalms”. He said that he envied the certainty of fundamentalists (the word he uses) in believing that God has given us an inerrant and infallible book, but that he classes himself among those who would say that they “cannot for the life of them see that God has done so.” He sets out two syllogisms to contrast two basic approaches. Both begin with the major premise, “God must have done what is best for us.” Then one group says, “and an inerrant book would have been best, therefore that is what God has done.” C. S. Lewis would place himself in his second group, saying, “and this is what God has done [given us a book which has developed and changed over time], therefore this is what is best for us.”

    Oliver [February 21, 2014 at 1:05 pm] might find this view congenial, in line with his comment, in thanking God for the Bible’s inconsistencies, because they throw us back on God and the guidance of his Holy Spirit to discern his will for us.

    My own faith is pretty thoroughly Anglican, after a long period of wandering, and after finding that God was addressing me directly in my confusion. It’s based on Scripture, tradition and reason. Scripture must the basis, and tradition (mainly but not exclusively Anglican) is our guide to interpretation, while reason helps us to apply and perhaps modify our interpretation in the light of our changing understanding of the world and human nature. I also look to the Lambeth Quadrilateral of Scripture, creeds, sacraments, and the episcopacy for the basis of my understanding of the nature of the Church. The Scriptures contain “all things necessary for salvation”, although this not mean that “all things [in Scripture] are equally necessary for salvation”. And the Creeds approved by the earliest councils of the Church express what they believed was the essentials of Christian belief.

    I affirm, with these creeds, that I do believe in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in Christ both fully God and fully human, and finally in salvation through Christ alone through his work on the cross. Again, like C. S. Lewis, I believe that “all find what they truly seek” and that many will discover when they face Christ that he was what they were seeking all along. As Jesus says in John 6:37, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

    • Ronald, I have never said that I am not capable of being deceived, or anything like that. On the contrary, when I wrote ‘we are so easily deceived’, I meant it. That is why I think we must base our doctrine on the scriptures. The law of Moses was given to Israel and not to the church. Doctrine for church practice and for Christian life and practice in general is to be found in the New Testament. Obviously there is much continuity but there is also a sharp discontinuity as we can see from Acts 15, when a council met at Jerusalem to consider whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and keep the law.

      Can we not look at each matter – interest, slavery, women teaching etc. – on its own merits? You don’t seem to have engaged at all with my points above. To repeat and summarise, there is nothing in the New Testament that I am aware of to suggest that the prohibition on interest continues into the new covenant; and there is nothing to say that we should keep slaves, so far as I can see.

      But there is a commandment in the New Testament, or an instruction if you prefer, to prevent women teaching in the church, and so yes, of course, we must adhere to this. Why not?


    • ‘The African pastor you cite is simply applying today’s Christian standards in a humane and compassionate way. He apparently didn’t refer his approach to any specific teaching in the OT or the NT, but simply worked with his people where they were.’

      He kept within the bounds given to us by God for our well-being and benefit. He realised that there is nothing in the New Testament (or Old Testament) to prevent a man keeping his wives – but he would be prevented from serving as an overseer or deacon as the scripture says (1 Timothy 3).


      • Andrew ‘there is nothing in the New Testament (or Old Testament) to prevent a man keeping his wives – but he would be prevented from serving as an overseer or deacon as the scripture says’ (1 Timothy 3).

        Got me pondering here …
        Isn’t the issue in 1Tim 3 a concern with a quality of faithfulness in relationship not numbers of …. (though of course the latter can be a measure of the other)? If a man with several wives is converted and joins the church. He manages his household well under the Lordship of Christ. As you say, he is not obliged by scripture to reduce down to one wife. Why can he not hold office in the church? He is arguably demonstrating the qualities required more, say, than someone who is divorced. If, as you say, scripture does not judge him on having more than one wife why apply this text to him in this way?
        But I also recall some church members in my first ministry post believing I should not be in leadership on the basis of this verse because I was not married at all.

        • David, thank you for the questions which are interesting ones. I have to say first of all that I don’t think we necessarily have to understand the reasons for God’s commandments to abide by them – 1 Corinthians 11:10 comes to mind in this regard. But still it is certainly good to reflect on them and try to understand.

          First of all, I take it literally – he is to be husband of one wife, not more than one. Personally I read that to be husband of one wife now – some argue for husband of one wife ever, but that seems unreasonable to me, especially in the case of a man whose wife has died and he has remarried.

          I think the reason for the limitation to one wife might be that the overseer or deacon is to set an example to the flock, and moreover perhaps one could say that his life and ministry should reflect something of God’s order and plan. Jesus made it clear that the original plan was for one man and one woman, so I think it would be right for those in positions of responsibility to display in their lives that order.

          On a practical note, it seems to me that with more than one wife to care and provide for, he might not have spare capacity for responsibilities in the church.

          On the question of whether an unmarried man can serve as an overseer or deacon, I am inclined to think not. I feel that there are qualities that are drawn out in a man when he marries, and again when he has children, of care and nurture and protection and leadership, that are needed for these roles in the church (see 1 Timothy 3 v 4-5, Titus 1:6) . And single men seem particularly suited for itinerant ministry (whether apostolic or prophetic or teaching or evangelistic) where they can give themselves entirely for the cause of Christ and His wonderful gospel.


          • Interesting one this isn’t it Andrew! Thanks for responding.

            I agree that we are called to trusting obedience where God calls without necc knowing where it leads or why. But I point out that unless we have some understanding of the command we will not know how to obey it will we – hence this discussion.

            But if you think a single person can’t be in leadership what about Paul himself – and doesn’t he state he thinks the single state to be better? 1Cor 7.8. For the record I spent the first 15 years of my ministry in church leadership as a single man. I also observe how easily people can be distracted by marriage and family rather than gaining qualities there needed for ministry. And Jesus doesn’t encourages us to focus on marriage and family does he? – quite the opposite. Life in the Kingdom calls us into a more radically including community that breaks out of such social ties.

          • ‘unless we have some understanding of the command we will not know how to obey it’ – surely the point at issue which you raised in your post (of this morning) of was whether the stipulation specifies the number of wives or whether it should be just be read as a requirement for faithfulness in relationship. You don’t necessarily have to know the reasoning behind it to make a decision that ‘μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα’ – husband of one wife – does specify the number of wives. If he had meant ‘faithful in relationships’ why not say so?

            I carefully didn’t say that a single person couldn’t be in leadership. Paul was an apostle, which is by nature an itinerant ministry not so much a static one. Neither of these types of ministry have precedence over the other – the local church sends out the apostles, and they report back from time to time to the church, but the apostles appoint the elders (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5 – so there is a dynamic interplay between the two in the Spirit. I see Timothy, who somehow seems to be unmarried (I don’t know if that is quite certain) as an apostolic assistant rather than as a pastor/overseer.


          • Andrew, this will be a bit on the hoof but I see an important link here to the wider context of this thread.
            An important question to ask about the list in 1Tim3 is what kind of teaching is this? Is it illustrative or prescriptive? I think it is a bit of both – but it begins as illustrative. That is the context from which we may seek to discern more general principles. If we forget that we will be in danger of drawing conclusions that distort the original meaning of the text.
            The context: Paul is writing to someone with oversight of some local churches to advise him on the appointment of church leaders. That Paul needs a list like this must reflect something of the messy culture and relationship lifestyles from which people were being converted in Ephesus. Paul provides an illustrative list of qualities required. That is what I meant by saying the focus is on ‘faithfulness’. ‘Husband of one wife/married only once’ is one such quality.
            But if we read this text as prescriptive we will conclude that: Leaders are men. Leaders must be married.
            Leaders must have children – and obedient children at that.
            And that
            all this teaching is addressed to men and for men. No instruction is required for women as the man is in authority in the home and in church.

            Logically then single people, women, widowers and childless married men cannot be leaders in the Church of Christ. Is that right? And since the reference to marriage is between a man and a woman this by definition excludes a leader in a same-sex partnership.
            Now if we say ‘no’ to any of these it will be because we have compared this teaching with other teachings and quickly discovered there is more than one approach. And these all need testing within the broader, ‘big picture’ themes of scripture as a whole.

            This reminds us of an important principle for reading scripture.
            When Scripture is affirming something it does not follow that it is excluding or denying something else. The point is we can and do come to the texts with questions that the text is not directly addressing. We make assumptions that the text is addressing our concerns when it is actually making a different point.
            Is this text imply anything at all about singles, widowers, childless couples, women, or heterosexuality in relation to leadership? I don’t think so. Not because Paul doesn’t have a view on these – but the is not addressing it there and we will be seriously misled if we assume he is.
            There is no one pattern of ministry in the NT. Ministry is plainly not universally and exclusively male in the NT. We know from elsewhere that in some (but not all) churches Paul applied a conservative approach to local church leadership. But elsewhere he greets and addresses women alongside men in leadership roles. The local and emerging story needs reading in the context of the whole.

          • Thanks very much, David, for taking the time to explain your way of understanding 1 Timothy 3. I am a bit surprised that you haven’t responded to my point about leaders. First of all, the word leader only appears once in the New Testament, so far as I know, in Hebrews 13:17, and even there it appears as a verb – Πείθεσθε τοῖς ἡγουμένοις ὑμῶν – yield or submit to those leading you. So the current fashion of constant references to Christian leaders and leadership is hardly biblical, so far as I can see. Everybody seems to want to be a leader, but why? I would rather be a follower, if possible. There are fewer perils in the lower positions, I think.

            The restrictions of 1 Timothy 3 apply only to overseers and deacons, not to other ministries. I do not see a conflict with other scriptures. The only potential difficulty that I see is Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is described as a διάκονος of the church. However if you look up διάκονος in BDAG you find that the first meaning of the word is ‘one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction – agent, intermediary, courier’, which seems to fit Phoebe well if she was indeed the carrier of the letter, and in fact Danker considers all three uses of the word in Romans to fit best in this category ( the governmental authority as agent of God, Christ as agent of God for the circumcision [a bit dubious since it says διάκονος περιτομῆς], Phoebe as courier of the church (also Tychicus as courier Colossians 4:7 with some justification.)) I am not personally convinced by that and would rather stick with the general meaning of διάκονος – BDAG: ‘generally one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone’ – which clearly fits Phoebe very well. Since it is used in Romans both of Christ and of the governmental authority, there is little reason to suppose that Paul had in mind a particular office of the church. He was just saying that she was serving the church. I don’t see any other evidence for women serving as overseers or deacons in the New Testament. (For the record, I do believe from 1 Timothy 3:11 and from the evident need that there is a place for qualified women to serve in the capacity known a little later in the early church as that of a deaconess.) Nor do I see any clear evidence for unmarried men in these capacities, nor for childless men as elders (virtually the same position as overseers I think). Saul of Tarsus at Antioch (Acts 13:1) was one of the leaders there, but as a teacher (presumably) not so much as an overseer, I would have thought.

            1 Timothy 3 vv 14b-15: ‘I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.’ – in the church of the living God, the universal church, he says, not in Timothy’s particular situation in Ephesus.


          • Andrew, now let’s savour this moment – I fully agree with you on leadership in the Bible and the current obsession with it today! It is not biblical at all. I am with John Goldingay, ‘Is leadership biblical?’ (Key Questions About Biblical Interpretation: Old Testament Answers 2011), 266-271 when he writes) ‘‘I suggest that leadership as we understand it is a subset of patriarchy and that a biblical theology of leadership is a subset of the biblical doctrine of sin. It is not surprising then that scripture has little positive interest in leadership’

          • What we see clearly in the bible is the essential role of elders in the church. I feel that almost their main role is to watch over the flock (Acts 20:28-31), to guard against heresy and discord and if necessary to discipline or even expel (for a season) those who are living in gross sin (1 Corinthians 5:13) or who are divisive or heretical (Titus 3:10). They are to be examples to the flock and are not to lord it over them (1 Peter 5). And they are to teach sound doctrine. They are to be older men, because they need great wisdom and maturity and experience. I somehow think it is very difficult for younger men to work together in a collegiate way, because younger men are still needing to exert themselves and perhaps prove themselves and even find themselves through endeavour in whatever field of work or ministry that God has called them into. I feel – I may be wrong about this – that younger men need a field of their own to labour in – or alternatively and perhaps better in most cases, work in submission to an older man. Anyway, for whatever reason, God has chosen to govern his church with a body of elders, and we should be aiming for this, even perhaps in non-presbyterian church structures – I don’t know if it is possible to move in this direction in the C of E – eg ordained minister plus church wardens, for example?


      • How is it then, that Christians in the USA reject polygamy? Should it be given legal status? Should the US government never have required Utah to ban the practice? Was it a mistake for missionaries to reject polygamy by in every society in which they found it to be practiced? Again, it seems to be a question of Christian certainties in one age being questioned (apparently in your own comments) by Christians in another age. This African pastor’s policy is simply the application of common humanity to a difficult situation. In that respect, it represents the sort of approach to present day ethical questions which I would like us all to take.

        In citing the Bible as you have, you are confirming my own contention that the Bible does not take a modern stance on every ethical question we now face, nor does it provide us with a clear line of development on which Christians have always agreed in every case. We are still thrown back on sharing our individual judgments as to how to follow Christ in our own times.

        • ‘How is it then, that Christians in the USA reject polygamy? Should it be given legal status? Should the US government never have required Utah to ban the practice?’

          Ronald, surely it is clear from Matthew 19:4-6 etc that God’s plan is for marriage between one man and woman – or for singleness in the gospel. We all agree on that, no doubt. And personally I think it is good to legislate for it in a nation, so that this becomes the accepted order. Whether or not it should be imposed on a people that don’t believe in it raises lots of other questions about freedom – (and the constitution of the United States etc). To put perspective on that question, I don’t think we should impose that order on another nation that doesn’t want it. Whereas I do think we should intervene to stop genocide. Probably we can agree on both these.

          I see that Kenya has recently been considering the introduction of a marriage law that would recognise polygamous marriages. Church leaders are opposed to it, quite rightly in my view. This is a different question to the one I raised as to what to do in the event that a man already in a polygamous marriage becomes a believer. I don’t think at all that the missionaries were wrong to teach the believers (and unbelievers too, for that matter) that marriage should be between one man and one woman. It may be that they erred in forcing men to abandon wives, exposing them to danger and hardship and loneliness. But I fear to comment really, because I don’t know enough about what actually happened – what the general missionary policy was etc. I would be interested to learn if somebody here knows.

          ‘In citing the Bible as you have, you are confirming my own contention that the Bible does not take a modern stance on every ethical question we now face, nor does it provide us with a clear line of development on which Christians have always agreed in every case. We are still thrown back on sharing our individual judgments as to how to follow Christ in our own times.’

          Sure, even if we stay within the confines of scripture there will still be many questions on which we have to form a judgement. This case of polygamy serves to confirm that the New Testament teaching can still be applied today in the form in which we have it – that it has the required flexibility while still maintaining the divine order and standards of righteousness and holiness.


          • I agree that we shouldn’t impose our morality on other nations in all cases, but we have recently done so in some cases, for example where genocide was involved. (Another problem in Biblical morality) But the question I am really posing is what Christians have believed was simply right or wrong on a whole range of issues. Regarding polygamy, Matthew 19:4-6 is not decisive and possibly not even relevant. It is referring to the possibility of divorce, and doesn’t actually prescribe monogamy nor proscribe polygamy.

            By the time of Jesus, society had changed, possibly under Greek or Roman influence, to an assumption that monogamous marriage would be the rule, at least within that cultural or political sphere of influence. But the Bible never expresses a general preference or a specific condemnation of any particular arrangement. Even concubines were allowed in the OT, without a word as to what was God’s best.

            But Christians have assumed that polygamy was not just less than God’s best, but was in fact contrary to God’s will and not moral. Were they correct or mistaken? You seem to be saying both that the question of polygamy is culturally relative, but that it’s right for Christians to oppose its legalization. Do you believe that it is right, wrong, dependent on culture, condemned or allowed in the Bible, permissible in any society which wishes to permit it, or able to be forbidden to others by Christians, if we have the majority to impose our standards?

          • ‘Regarding polygamy, Matthew 19:4-6 is not decisive and possibly not even relevant.’

            I wouldn’t go so far. He confirmed the teaching of Genesis that the two become one flesh. – no longer two (verse 6) – which speaks of a profound unity, and see also Ephesians 5 and the analogy between the relationship of Christ to His church and a man to his wife – Christ doesn’t have two churches.. And from the beginning it was not so (verse 8) points back to the original model does it not, and strongly suggests that this was God’s plan. Or so it seems to me..

            I am not saying the matter of polygamy is culturally relative. I am saying that there is a good case for making a distinction between taking more than one wife, and retaining more than one wife. This distinction can be made in any culture. It’s just that we don’t have polygamous marriages in our culture at the moment (apart from within sub-cultures).

            I would say that it is contrary to God’s will for a Christian (at least) to take more than one wife. And I am saying that it may be God’s will for a man with more than one wife to retain them if he becomes a Christian. (I tend to think that any separations should be with the consent and agreement of the women concerned).


            “The law will confuse citizens. It will cause chaos in families,” Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi told Ecumenical News International on 6 May.

            “It should be rejected.” Nzimbi warned against creating doubts about Christian marriage, where one man is married to one woman. “We should follow the biblical teachings. It is the orderly way.”

            I like that. I think the bible teaches monogamous Christian marriage as the orderly way, without there being an actual prohibition of polygamy.


          • That is just my point, Andrew. You think the bible teaches monogamous Christian marriage as the orderly way, without there being an actual prohibition of polygamy. But other Christians have thought differently. Private judgment cannot be excluded from the application of the Bible to our lives today.

            No one can definitively say that they are “Biblically based” or “Bible believing” as a way of establishing their view as normative for all. You may well have your interpretation of various verses, and your understanding of how to apply them, but others may not share that view. We may say that we follow a Spirit led or Spirit filled leader or teacher, but we still have to say that it is because we believe that they are trustworthy, and be content that this too is our private judgment.

            In all that I have been saying, I have tried to stick closely to what I believe that the Bible actually says, as closely as possible, as literally as I can. Others have offered their own interpretations, just as you have, to overcome possible objections or difficulties. But if that is what we are all doing, trying to interpret and apply in a way that makes sense to us, then we can only try to commend our interpretations to each other in whatever way we can.

            My own approach is to try to see what the Bible teaches as deeply as I can, and apply whatever I believe that I find there to the issues of the day. But I can’t make any prior assumptions about inerrancy, consistency, unity, or timeless authority. When I read the Bible, like C.S. Lewis, I simply don’t find those things there. (see Reflections on the Psalms – pages 94-95)

            Among the sayings of Jesus which guide my own thoughts are his warnings against the harm that we can do through legalism – creating burdens that others cannot bear, holding to traditions that in fact prevent us from acting in a loving way, and refusing mercy to those in need. If the Holy Spirit is to lead us into all truth, including those that the 12 themselves couldn’t yet bear to hear, then we need to listen to the Holy Spirit, to the Bible, and to each other at a very deep level, and always with forbearance and mutual love.

          • ‘You think the bible teaches monogamous Christian marriage as the orderly way, without there being an actual prohibition of polygamy. But other Christians have thought differently. Private judgment cannot be excluded from the application of the Bible to our lives today.

            No one can definitively say that they are “Biblically based” or “Bible believing” as a way of establishing their view as normative for all. You may well have your interpretation of various verses, and your understanding of how to apply them, but others may not share that view.’

            Why did they think differently? Do you mean that they believed that there is a prohibition on polygamy? Where is it?


        • Ronald, I could better follow your central argument through this example if I knew–

          (a) what change in polygamy you believe might prompt Christians to rethink their view of it. On the face of it, polygamy in C19 Utah, for example, differed little in the essentials from the polygamy of “our own times” in, say, the Arizona Strip–

          (b) why you believe the NT statements on marriage cannot anchor whatever rethinking we do. St Thomas Aquinas faced this question quite a while ago and concluded that polygamous marriages were real marriages according to scripture, just not as good as monogamous ones, also according to scripture.

          In fact, it is not easy for me to distinguish your view from Andrew’s, except that you emphasize the passage of time, and Andrew emphasizes the practical feasibility of treating law-like statements in the Bible as laws. St Thomas might be said to have agreed with both of you.

          What is this really about?

          • Bowman – I’m not sure that your questions speak to the point I wanted to make. It isn’t about whether Christians should or should not rethink their attitude to polygamy, but about how we seek to anchor our beliefs in the Bible, whether about polygamy or anything else.

            I don’t think we can try to make of the Bible a source book of rules which tell us explicitly, or sometimes even implicitly, what to think about all the moral issues of our own time. In considering the various examples we have been raising, I am trying to say that the Bible in its literal text doesn’t always give us simple clear rules or principles on every topic, and even when it does, the Church has sometimes set them aside in favor of the needs and values of the time.

            This is the history of Christian understanding of the Bible, and like the Bible itself, we might wish it to be otherwise – consistent, stable, and eternal, but I can’t see that it is, and we must make the best of it we can, under God’s guidance. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.” (Reflections on the Psalms, pages 94-95)

          • Ronald: ‘..I am trying to say that the Bible in its literal text doesn’t always give us simple clear rules or principles on every topic, and even when it does, the Church has sometimes set them aside in favor of the needs and values of the time.’

            I would be interested to know what examples you are thinking of when you speak of the Church setting aside the rules or principles of the bible, and specifically of the New Testament.


          • ‘Andrew emphasizes the practical feasibility of treating law-like statements in the Bible as laws.’

            I think it would be helpful to refer to the instructions, guidelines and commandments of the New Testament, especially those to the churches in the epistles, as the apostolic traditions (the παραδόσεις of 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6) and teaching (which was to be held fast and passed on – 2 Timothy 2:2 etc) – rather than as ‘laws’. My reason is simply that they are not referred to in this way in the New Testament. Is there a difference in fact? I am not quite sure. It feels different. For me, it is primarily a matter of love and faithfulness to the Master who died for me – ‘if you love Me, keep My commandments’ – and I trust Him to have chosen wisely when He called and appointed Paul to be my teacher (‘a teacher to the Gentiles in faith and truth’).


          • “We may wish that every word shared explicitly in God’s eternity, but we cannot say that God has given us a universal rule book, consistent in all that it teaches, accepted and acceptable in all ages.”

            Ronald, there are other ways of constructing such belief in a sacred text (eg what if God is temporally infinite and the words are already eternal in their participation in his redemptive time?), but back to ‘depth’– we need not abandon Andrew’s confidence that the scriptures illumine right action in the creation to adopt your view that this illumination is improved by the elimination of error. In fact, if we have some belief such as the one that you dismiss as a ‘wish,’ then when we do eliminate an error, we may well attribute that to the text as part of the hermeneutic that it uniquely invites. Belief in the goodness and fruitfulness of the best interpretation of the Bible is precisely what enables the Church to discover and remove error.

            And some sort of general progress of humanity cannot be counted on to do the job because of, well, ‘backsliding.’ The tenderheartedness of humanity toward the poor and powerless has not greatly improved over the millennia. A bit less than five centuries after Calvin demonstrated the bad fruit of a received view of the OT usury laws, we now have the ABC battling payday lenders for the original evil of exploiting the poor. For such reasons, among others, we call it ‘the hermeneutical circle,’ and not the hermeneutical line.

            Your arrows seem to me to be hitting, indeed splitting, another target– the refusal to consider whether an application of the rules is in fact bearing good fruit, so that the Church (or some social order entangled with it) is rendered beyond reform no matter what harm its applications are doing relative to God’s own character and purposes. You’re a good shot, Ronald, but I don’t see that particular apple resting on Andrew’s head.

          • “I think it would be helpful to refer to the instructions, guidelines and commandments of the New Testament, especially those to the churches in the epistles, as the apostolic traditions (the παραδόσεις of 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6) and teaching (which was to be held fast and passed on – 2 Timothy 2:2 etc) – rather than as ‘laws’.”

            Andrew, you have to be right about this. There is a huge difference between the apostolic customary and a modern ‘corpus juris civilis.’ St Paul talks about norms in relation to the created order, on one hand (cf Proverbs 8), and schemes of vices and virtues for persons being transformed in Christ, on the other. As you say, the relationship to Christ energising all of this makes them far more personal than a law.

            Above, I used the word ‘law’ in a philosophical way as a term for a general norm.

          • Andrew – I began this discussion with the topics of slavery and usury. For various reasons, the Church set aside the view of Biblical teaching on these topics that it had held for centuries. It may be that we think of our modern stance on these, and other topics, as being clear and plainly Biblical, but that may be due only to the changed position being so familiar to us that we are inclined to forget that Christians in other ages were just as certain that their views rested on the clear meaning of the Word of God.

            Whether OT or NT shouldn’t matter, if there is no explicit change taught in the NT. Regarding the two topics above, the NT does not reject, revoke or revise anything in the OT.

            But if you would like some NT examples, how many different forms of church governance do we have today over the whole of the Christian world, some formed in direct rejection of the validity of others? How many different views have we had regarding the gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues? What about views on divorce? How many churches teach that anyone in their congregations who are remarried divorcees (ex-spouses still alive) are living in adulterous relationships?

            Many churches today would dispute the relevance of the verses that you cite regarding the ordination of women (19th February), saying that they reflect the society of the time, and not a prescription for all time. Your own view is expressed in your final question, “Are we going to obey God or not?” My basic point in all the discussion we have all had on David Runcorn’s topic is that it can never be just “as simple as that.”

          • Bowman – regarding apples, and what I may be aiming at (and thanks for the compliment on my archery skills.): The reasons for any change, or the thinking behind present day teaching in any church or by any individual, are not the point. I give examples only to show in what respect these changes or differences in teaching have occurred. I’m not arguing for or against any particular view, except where I come down in favor of some particular modern interpretation.

            I am saying basically two things:
            First, the Bible in all its parts, is a product of history. Many of its books show signs of editing. We know something of the processes which resulted in the selection(s) that various churches have made over the centuries. In every part, it reflects the times in which it was written and the processes through which it has been transmitted.
            Second, Christians in every age have based their teachings on what they genuinely believed that the Bible taught, commanded, or implied. Along the way, churches, theologians, preachers and congregations have differed or changed again and again on precisely what the clear teaching of the Bible actually is.

            So for the purposes of my argument, it doesn’t matter which position anyone in the discussion takes on any particular issue, or how they view the positions taken in the past or by any other Christians today. The facts of change and difference remain, and are well illustrated by arguments about specific issues.

            You refer briefly to “ways of constructing … belief in a sacred text”. I’m not sure what you mean by the phrase “temporally infinite” – existing in time, but without temporal beginning or end? And the words of the text are “already eternal”? What could that mean?

            The conclusions that I draw from my two basic arguments are these: God is eternal, as are God’s will and purposes, but they are worked out in time, which is also his creation. Our views, our understanding, even our certainties, are worked out entirely in time, as we are his creatures and bound up with his creation.

            When we look at the Bible, the Church(es), our teachers, throughout history we see the evidence of this process of change. So when we challenge each other’s beliefs or teachings, we can’t simply say that we are in accord with the Bible and others are plainly not. We have to consider whether we can retain our own beliefs in the face of objections or problems which may never have occurred to our forbears.

            God is eternal. Doctrine is temporal. When God speaks to us through the Bible, God is using a temporal product to guide us on a temporal journey, to fulfill his eternal purposes. That fulfillment may differ in many ways over time, and we need to discuss that fulfillment in full acceptance of the finitude and temporality of our own understanding. Everything else in our debate is commentary on this.

          • ‘Whether OT or NT shouldn’t matter, if there is no explicit change taught in the NT.’ I don’t agree with this. The law of Moses was given to Israel specifically. Much of it seemed to have the purpose of creating a distinction between Israel and the nations, so how could it apply to the nations? In Acts 15, an explicit decision was made that Gentile believers are not obliged to keep this law. There is a new covenant, built in many ways upon the old, but far more glorious and wonderful.

            Sure, there are differences in opinion about church governance, for example. But I don’t think these stem from setting aside the teaching of the bible (your post of March 11) ‘in favor of the needs and values of the time’. I think presbyterians and episcopalians alike have tried to justify their position from the scriptures. I tend to think that the slide to one man hierarchical leadership stemmed from a loss of the power of the Spirit and from the difficulty men have in working together cooperatively. I see this as a negative thing, not a positive adjustment to changing conditions.

            Likewise, I can’t see how the matter of praying in tongues has anything to do with the surrounding culture. ‘Do not forbid speaking in tongues’ the bible says, and we should not forbid it.

            Likewise with divorce, I don’t see why the mores of the culture should affect how Christians conduct ourselves. We are called out of the world to be a holy people, much as Israel were in their covenant.


          • Andrew – There have in fact been very serious divisions in church governance over the centuries. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches are still deeply divided over this matter after nearly a thousand years. Within Protestantism, we have the catholic orders of the Anglican church over against elective structures, based either on denominational authority or on congregational autonomy. All think that their form of ministry and governance are more truly Biblical.

            As for the Jerusalem Council, they were dealing with matters of circumcision and ritual purity. It’s clear that the Church explicitly decided that matters of identity and membership would not depend on these things. Also the laws that were simply matters of civil order could change over time, for example, cities of refuge so that those guilty of accidental killing could find sanctuary against revenge attacks.

            But the moral principles embodied in the OT are a deeper and more difficult matter. And it is a matter of history that Christians have defended these principles on the basis of their being clearly taught in the Bible, whatever we may now believe or teach. Slavery was in fact defended by Christian leaders in America, both North and South, not as obligatory, but as acceptable and therefore not to be abolished by those who arrogantly set themselves “above the Word of God”. Capital punishment is sometimes defended, not as just or unjust in principle or in practice, but just as something the Bible allows and which is therefore justified today. Genocide was justified by the Puritans of Massachusetts on the basis of what Joshua did to the Canaanites.

            When the beliefs and practices of the Pentecostal Churches began to spread to other Protestant congregations, many leaders of those churches denounced it as “satanic”. There was resistance for decades to any acknowledgement that the gifts of the Spirit listed in Romans might be for today. This again is a matter of history.

            In short, Andrew, you may feel content with the interpretations and beliefs that you or your congregation or denomination have come to accept as based on what the Bible teaches in your view. However, division and disagreement have divided the Church(es) many times over the centuries, and continue to divide us on a multitude of issues.

            My point is always, not that this or that interpretation is more Biblical or more rational, but that we Christians have changed and differed on what is in fact most truly Biblical or Christian. So if we are to engage each other on any issue, we cannot say that we ourselves, our own group, are the only ones who are actually obeying God. We have to recognize that the Bible does not lend itself to easy unity or even clarity, given the level, frequency and intensity of differences.

          • ‘All think that their form of ministry and governance are more truly Biblical.’ That was my point, that they were not setting aside the rules or principles of the bible. You said on March 11:

            ‘the Bible in its literal text doesn’t always give us simple clear rules or principles on every topic, and even when it does, the Church has sometimes set them aside in favor of the needs and values of the time.’

            and I had asked (March 11) for examples of this ‘setting aside’ of the bible. But in fact, as you rightly point out, they were trying to preserve the bible’s teaching, or at least claimed to be doing so.

            ‘Slavery was in fact defended by Christian leaders in America, both North and South, not as obligatory, but as acceptable and therefore not to be abolished by those who arrogantly set themselves “above the Word of God”.’

            Thanks for this clarification. Yes, I can see that they could make a case for allowing the status quo to continue. Likewise, the abolitionists for abolition. What matters most I tend to think are the conditions of life. Wage slavery can be just as bad as ownership slavery, I think.

            ‘Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity. For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. In the same way, the one who was called as a free person is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men.’

            This is as true now as then.


          • Andrew – I don’t assert that anyone consciously and deliberately sets aside Scripture. What they do is try to devise interpretations and/or prioritisations of the text that will save them from having to disavow it. But Christians of earlier periods or persuasions, whose certainties were the opposite of theirs would and did say that they were doing exactly that.

            Those who opposed the abolition of slavery, as I said sometime back, condemned abolitionists for putting human wisdom above the Word of God. You may well share interpretations of the text that would allow you to support the abolition of slavery, but some prominent American Christians of the 1800’s would have accused you of overruling the plain meaning of God’s word and putting your own values above those upheld in the Bible.

            That is the point to which I keep returning – Christians in age after age disagree about the teaching of Scripture, and each always maintains that their teachings represent the true meaning of the text, and that their opponents are abandoning the true meaning. The original question posed in this discussion was “And how do I know when I am wrong?” The answer must be – only with difficulty, especially if we are inclined to say that we have the truth, and others must be disregarding the Word of God. Then, of course, we can never know if we are wrong.

          • Andrew – please bear with me. I would also like to comment on other points you made in your last post. First, what matters most to those whose forbears were slaves is to know whether Christians now acknowledge unreservedly that slavery was wrong. It may have taken centuries to come to this conclusion, but that conclusion must be held to be certain, not just our current view.

            Those who opposed abolition – who actually condemned abolitionists as “unbiblical” – must now be seen as sincere but misguided. The will of God must now be seen as bringing us to the truth of this matter, even if we cannot find explicit warrant for it in the Bible itself. It is most distressing to those who know about the reality of slavery to read that slaves must obey their masters but see no command to masters to free all their slaves.

            The words you quote from I Corinthians 7 urge us not to be concerned with our social status but with our status in Christ. In a time when the abolition of slavery could not be considered, Paul does not counsel slave owners to release all their slaves, only to be kind to them. Slaves are counseled to seek their freedom, but not told that they should demand it as their right in Christ.

            Could we possibly say that Paul’s advice to owners and slaves could still be taken simply as written, now that we accept that slavery had to be abolished and must now be stamped out wherever it still occurs? And if we cannot, why must we still hold to Paul’s advice on, for example, women speaking or teaching in church? How do you know whether you might be wrong on this issue? And yet, regarding this matter, you feel confident in writing, “It’s as simple as that. Are we going to obey God or not?”

          • Ronald, contemporary systematicians who are either evangelical or are read by their evangelical peers have been actively rethinking the relation between God and the scriptures since Karl Barth first returned to the practise of those Reformation confessions that grounded knowledge of God in the self-revealing Trinity and knowledge of the scriptures in the work of the Holy Spirit. In the last generation, some of the most interesting proposals have concerned the relation of the scriptures to time. Pre-Enlightenment readers (eg St Augustine in the Confessions, St Maximus the Confessor in the Ambigua) seem to have had a much more sophisticated sense of the relation between time and sacred reading. Some of us see the loss of an earlier sophistication as a cause of the failure of much modern reading of scripture.

            One such proposal, picked only because it was simpler than most to describe on the fly, is Robert Jenson’s proposal that God is better understood as ‘temporally infinite’ than as ‘eternal.’ I’ll let David Bentley Hart introduce it–


          • ‘Could we possibly say that Paul’s advice to owners and slaves could still be taken simply as written’

            Yes, I think so. According to Wayne Grudem, ‘slaves [under Roman law in the 1st century] .. had a higher social status and better economic situation than free day laborers who had to search for employment each day’. Also many sold themselves into slavery as a means of social advancement: ‘For many, self-sale into slavery with anticipation of manumission was regarded as the most direct means to be integrated into Greek and Roman society. As such, in stark contrast to New World slavery in the 17th–19th cents., Greco-Roman slavery functioned as a process rather than a permanent condition.’ [Bartchy, ‘Slavery’, 543-44] Both from Grudem ‘Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth’ pp 343-44.

            So I see no reason to doubt that Paul’s instructions were inspired by the Holy Spirit.


          • Ronald, with regard to women teaching and leading in the church, the reasons Paul gives for not allowing these are from creation and the circumstances of the Fall, so obviously they apply now as they did then.

            I am not saying that the instructions regarding bond-servants and slave-trading (prohibited then as now) do not apply now. It’s just that we may not be comparing like with like, as I explained in my previous post.


          • Please forgive me, but briefly, Andrew, as I have to work on other things this week. Both issues are clear advice to Christians given by Paul in his letters, which should apply to Christians in the same way. I can’t see that there is any essential difference in the status of the various passages. Neither did conservative Christians of 19th century America see any difference. We may have moved on from their views on slavery, and maybe it’s time to move on again.

  17. Phil, you may like Timothy Ward’s Words of Life. I’ve linked to the introduction below. His account of three views of the relation of scripture to tradition seems useful–

    T0– The Anabaptists. “The gates of hell prevailed against the Church until I was born and opened the Bible.” Unfettered individual interpretation.

    T1– The Reformers. “The scriptures are the only source of doctrine in the Church, but tradition guides our interpretation.” The individual stands under creeds, confessions, and consensus patrum which have less authority than the Bible.

    T2– The Council of Trent. “Scripture and tradition are the two sources of doctrine in the Church.”

    –because it distinguishes T1 from T0 and T2.

    For that matter, you may also like Carl Trueman on creeds and confessions–

    • Bowman

      Here is my view of this vital matter:

      ‘In seeking to know God and know about him, we can think in terms of the
      sources of the knowledge of God, the processes that should act on those
      sources, and the resulting subjective and objective knowledge. To safeguard
      against an over-intellectual misunderstanding we have to define ‘knowledge’
      somewhat widely, to include, for instance, obedience.

      It is a matter of fact that among those who wish to say that Christianity is in
      some sense true and who wish to be known as Christians there is a debate and
      disagreement about what are the sources and what should be the processes that
      yield true knowledge of God. This debate and disagreement has become more
      intense as the ascendancy and success of the analytical and investigative
      approach to natural reality has become more marked. And as supernatural
      reality has been increasingly discounted or declared non-existent because it is
      beyond the competence of that approach. This is the debate at one level—we
      have to agree on the sources and processes ‘rules’ before we can meaningfully
      debate what is the knowledge those sources and processes yield.

      One particular set of rules is the set that starts with the conviction that to know
      God and be known by him we are utterly dependent on the showing-mercy
      God taking a unilateral, supernatural and irresistible subjective action in our
      own dead sinful souls, breathing new life into them. Building on this
      conviction this set of rules regards the canonical writings of the Bible, the being
      of God and God’s acts of creation, judgement, providence and redemption and
      God’s covenant signs, which those writings truly describe and explain, as the
      sole source of the knowledge of God for sinners, being God’s faithful and
      coherent, but not exhaustive, self-disclosure, by which he speaks to us ‘right
      now’ (as J.I. Packer once put it), of himself, his purposes and plans, the
      condition of man, his promises and judgements, his provision for, and offer of,
      man’s salvation in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, what he has done and
      said and still says, what he will do in the future. It regards the processes which
      should operate on that source to yield subjective and objective knowledge of
      God as the devout study of, and Spirit-enlightened, prayerful and self-abasing
      meditation on, submission to and faithful embracing of that source by all
      Christians, and the submission to and faithful embracing of the saving Christ
      whom that source faithfully sets before us.

      With the obligation of each Christian to self-critically weigh, alongside his own
      convictions about what the Bible means, the purpose and effect of the
      sacraments and the person and work of that saving Christ, with an openness
      to being proved wrong, that immense witness, the consensus fidelii, especially
      the teaching of those with the gift of teaching, but with the ultimate obligation,
      for those who feel they must play by these rules, to submit himself to his own
      conscience in the fear of God as to what the Bible says and means, how the
      sacraments work for knowing God and for faith and life, and who is that
      Christ and what is involved in faithfully submitting to him. Call these the
      ‘Private Judgement’ rules. (‘I have more insight than all my teachers, for I
      meditate on your statutes’).’

      Phil Almond

      • Phil, your ‘Private Judgement’ rules sound to me like T0. My usual starting point is T1. Through qualifications to those starting points, however, we do seem to converge in the space between them.

        • Bowman
          ‘T1– The Reformers. “The scriptures are the only source of doctrine in the Church, but tradition guides our interpretation.” The individual stands under creeds, confessions, and consensus patrum which have less authority than the Bible’.
          If you start with T1, how do you choose which tradition to be guided by, for example: the Augustinian or the non-Augustinian?
          Phil Almond

          • I start, Phil, with the Apostles’ Creed. Rufinus tells us that it conserves the pattern of teaching of the apostles.* SS Augustine of Hippo and Cyril of Jerusalem agree that it is in accord with scripture, as many have since verified. And it is, after all, a baptismal canon long recited as a daily renewal of baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. So for the individual Christian soul this is a safe base for any other discovery that a life may require. What you post above describes that discovery quite well.

            Two implications of that are that the Trinity, represented in the creed’s three articles, is the initial context for such discovery, and that any illumination received is personal. As it happens, that works well with both St Augustine’s Confessions and the most seminal works of the eastern fathers, so a creedal theology will not often drive one to make a grand choice of traditions.

            And even if one does find oneself quite rooted in one rather than another, its points of contact with other traditions can be very useful for understanding it. From handbooks one would never have guessed that Luther, Calvin, and Edwards would turn out to have so many points of agreement with, respectively, SS Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Maximus, but the creedal Christian finds them. Of course there are notable differences in the way affiliated churches have come to understand themselves through the centuries, but souls can go hungry trying to nourish themselves on polemics. Anglicans prefer the scriptures, especially the psalms.

            The Philokalia does have a caution for readers of the scriptures. The man who stares into the sun too fixedly can be blinded for a time. The writings of the fathers are less brilliant than the Word, but that is why we need them.

            And not only Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, but also SS Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Maximus would say, in their different ways, that the ‘pattern of teaching’ implies a teacher. There are limits to self-guidance, no matter how good one’s theology. Those who pastor themselves have fools for parishioners. But I think that so long as fools are looking for a “godly and discreet priest,” the Lord sends his angels to defend them.


            * This is an earlier, a different, and a more sophisticated claim than the obviously false medieval legend that each of the Twelve contributed an article to the Creed.

          • Anglican doctrine teaches that original sin has corrupted but not destroyed every aspect of human nature. Human reason then is able to some degree to respond to what Kant referred to as the starry skies above and the moral law within. It is on this basis that the pagan is without excuse. Jesus comes at the end of a long line of prophets. The church passes on an unchanged message as did the apostles. We use reason to judge between Pelagius and Augustine, Athanasius and Marcion. We have the advantage of a history of discussion of their theologies which we do well to heed.

            Private interpretation will lead us astray. A few weeks ago I heard a stirring sermon on Christians as Ambassadors for Christ. Reading 2Cor 5, I was convinced that Paul was using ambassador to mean much the same thing as apostle and applying the second person to himself and probably Timothy. So I checked several study bibles and commentaries. I concluded that the basic meaning of the text was as I thought and so using this passage to support the view that every Christian is an evangelist would require an argument which was not provided. Our reading of the Bible relies on translations, dictionaries and commentaries one way or an other.

            I am sure that the Spirit can act in an irresistible manner but I do not think that is his normal mode of operation. If the Holy Spirit irresistibly lead us into all truth here would be a lot less disagreement amongst Christians.

        • Phil presented his ‘Private Judgement’ rules as ‘the ultimate obligation’. Before that came the ‘consensus fidelii’ and God-appointed bible teachers. So I wouldn’t describe that as your T0 -‘unfettered individual interpretation’. We must all stand before the judgement seat of Christ, and give an account to the Lord Himself, and I don’t think it will be sufficient to say to Him on that day ‘Well, so-and-so taught me such-and-such’. For what if He says ‘Yes, but My holy word says this, and you know it well.’


          • Phil’s comment was not altogether clear to me, and I may indeed have misread it, but if he is not T0 and challenges T1, is he then swimming the Tiber to T2?

          • Timothy Ward’s typology above is the TI and TII described by Heiko Obermann, supplemented by the T0 described by Keith Mathison and Alister McGrath. Behind all three is the question– how did churches validate teaching from scripture?

            Perhaps counterintuitively, the ‘Anabaptist’ T0 position was historically that of utter dependence on the living and local congregation for certitude about teachings, and two degrees of excommunication (“to the darkness with Satan and his angels”) for disobedience from them. Yes, individuals have an unfettered freedom to interpret the Word, but the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of believing witnesses of a given time and place is the proximate authority to what the scriptures mean then and there. Various groups of ‘Plain People’ teach and practise T0 in the United States and elsewhere today, and I know some of them well. They are exacting and conservative.

            None of the three types answer the question how an uncertain ‘individual’ alienated from all ecclesial guidance outside of the self could achieve certainty before the Last Judgement, for none of these traditions believed that this was possible. Representative Anabaptists, Reformers, and Roman Catholics of early modernity would all have agreed that dissociation from the Church and its guidance, however conceived, was intrinsically sinful, contrary to the leading of the Holy Spirit in graced believers, and forfeiture of the believer’s ordinary hope of salvation. Obviously, they understood the mechanism of that in different ways, but the consensus was that an unchurched believer had a problem more grave than any interpretive quandary.

          • ‘but if he is not T0 and challenges T1, is he then swimming the Tiber to T2?’ Hardly, he seems to me to base his doctrine mainly on scripture, but acknowledges (for one thing) also the role of bible teachers, who are given by Jesus Himself to His church for our edification, as we know from Ephesians 4:11-16. These may well include Christian men of God who taught in an earlier era, and it seems to me that we gain in confidence and faith in what we believe if it coincides with what they taught, especially when we can see evidence of blessing and godliness and fruit in their lives and ministries.


          • The difficulty, Andrew, is that, whether T0, T1, or T2, Christians of all persuasions are influenced by good teachers, so being taught cannot be, and historically was not held to be, their differentiating criterion. (Although, maybe, teachers teach in ways characteristic of their respective kinds of community. That’s worth further discussion.)

            And anyway, Phil seems to be elaborating a process with two ‘levels’ that reflects ‘high modern’ rather than ‘early modern’ thinking about the individual, scripture, and community in Christ. I’ve read all of Phil’s posts on Fulcrum, and am pleased that he finally has an occasion to spell this out for us.

  18. My critical friends do not seem immature to me, Dave, but for all their energy they* are often failing to complete their arguments by telling us how, exactly, the touchstones for scriptural argument that they cite are related to the lived quadrilateral of bible, cross, conversion, and action that informs evangelical identity. There is nothing wrong with citing documents like the CEEC Basis (or over here the CSBI**) to clarify one’s position, but among evangelicals it is only helpful to do so if one then relates documents like that to the common experiential ground and engages the other views on that ground. That engagement may not be personal, but it is necessarily ‘subjective,’ or better yet ‘spiritual.’ It would be a strange evangelicalism that preferred human authorities to what the Puritans called ‘experimental religion.’

    As you say, these debates often do sound like the old clashes between adherents of the normative and regulative principles, but again seeking the experiential driver of those clashes and these, I wonder how far the two principles correlate to perspectives on chilasm.

    * In fairness to Phil, Angela, and Roger, I note with gratitude their candid remarks in the past. On now-archived threads, Phil and Angela have spoken about their experience of bible, cross, conversion, and action in ways that have helped me to re-examine my own experience and make better sense of their arguments. Roger’s recent book has been helpful in those same ways, among several others.

    ** The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy.

  19. “…and we also have to accept that the Spirit of God works progressively in us, individually and corporately, to discern his will more clearly as we move along… Jesus told his disciples that there were many things that they could not yet bear to hear, but that the Spirit would lead them into all truth. That journey in Christ by the Spirit to the glory of the Father is the only sure trajectory that the Bible provides, and it is all we need, but we must always seek to discern it together, in prayerful fellowship and in the awareness that any of us could be wrong.”

    Phil, I know that you are eager to defend the Bible as God’s propositional speech, but I hope that you will also comment on the connection, asserted by Ronald above and suggested in my own post of February 19, between the shape that we expect history to have and the way we read the Bible and interpret its contents.

  20. OlOliver
    But try replacing “The Bible” with “Christ” and you’ll get something very different, and full of hope.

    That is the most sensible sentence in all of this debate which I have read. In fact I would say it is the most sensible sentence I have read on Fulcrum. I think it is very difficult for people to balance “evangelical” with Christ. The old testament of course was before Christ and so for so many stepping away from old testament law and values is difficult. The fact that the New testament is part of the same Bible blurs the edges for some. So the question is is Christianity and evangelisms about Christ and Christianity or is it about the Bible. “The Word” comprises of both. So then the question is whose “words” are we following the words of “the bible” or the words recorded in the bible said by Christ. The blurring comes in the trinity father son and holy spirit where God the father and Christ the son become one , The Old and New become one. Yet Christ was and is and is to come the promise of “hope” We are still left with the question do we promote God or Christ but the answer is in the New testament as Christians we promote “Christ” who was God in the flesh on earth for the time he was here. The bible is the redaction of all the Godly people and Gods instructions to us on how we should approach life when dealing with faith and each other. Christ was the embodiment of that instruction. Christ made it clear that the old testament had been misinterpreted and misapplied, God recognised that the human (flesh) approach was needed hense he sent Christ as promised in Isaiah. Christ indeed was very different from the book that people were familiar with. The excitement that most feel when they are worshipping and together making sure we have kept an eye on those who cannot keep up is what “evangelising is about” its not about intellectual supremacy. The Bible is a mixture of Old and New our reaction to the bible is indicative of our reactions to life and if it is not then that is what makes us hypocrites. For if we really believe the bible then we take it all into account and learn from it. Evangelical is not about trapping people into a corner and saying I am right and you are wrong, its not even about right and wrong sometimes its about Jesus being the saviour who invites us to accept the New testament, the New way of living and even though it is what is best for us not everyone wants that because they are entrenched in old ways and old values and they do not want to give them up. because they cannot see beyond the loss. There is in human terms no hope in Loss .We need to be walking in the light to see the way forward, sometimes we settle for a torch instead of the sun/son. Christ gives hope in the darkness in a way that a torch never can. The torch is like the word it leads us to Christ.

    • “That is the most sensible sentence in all of this debate which I have read. In fact I would say it is the most sensible sentence I have read on Fulcrum.”

      Actually, no, Angela: your sentences above are the most sensible etc.

      We have taken our turns saying things like “try replacing ‘The Bible’ with ‘Christ’ and you’ll get something very different, and full of hope,” for rather a while– nicely put, Oliver, and thank you for taking your turn with us– but we tend to be ignored when we do. Which is odd.

      The breakthrough in sensibility is paying attention to the idea, and that one seems to be yours. Brava, Angela!

  21. ‘Some passages [of the Bible] .. could not possibly be accepted.’ Let’s take the first two of these for starters:

    1) Polygamy. If polygamy were prohibited in the New Testament, then men with more than one wife would have to send them away if they [the men] became Christians, leaving them bereft and very likely without proper means of support. I remember speaking to a godly East African pastor who said that their present day practice was to allow the man to keep his wives – but no doubt not to serve as an overseer or deacon. Jesus, of course, pointed back to God’s original plan of one man and one woman, so (needless to say) I don’t think a Christian man should take more than one wife even where it is legal to do so.

    2a) ‘Rape may be punished by death in some circumstances, but result in indissoluble marriage in others.’ Deuteronomy 22:25-29. If the woman is betrothed, the man only is put to death. She has done nothing wrong (verse 26). Perhaps it is that the man she was married to would still marry her. In the case of the virgin who is not betrothed, the man who commits rape is forced to marry her, is not permitted to divorce her, and has to pay a fine. In this case, if he were put to death, the victim would probably be unable to marry, having lost her virginity, and it may be that she would be worse off than she would be marrying the man.

    2b) ‘The victim may be put to death as well, if raped in the city, and did not cry for help.’ I don’t think this is true. You must be referring to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, which reads: ‘If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’ It doesn’t say that he rapes her, only that he lies with her. The contrast with verse 25 makes it obvious that the woman was consenting: ‘But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.’


    • Andrew – thank you for helpfully clarifying these texts and their context. This is important – though there remains a whole ancient social and cultural background to this law making we do not have access to.
      But in the context of the discussion on this thread we now have to ask: so what? That is, what are we to conclude from this teaching? In faithful evangelical terms – what is the Word of the Lord to us today in these verses and commands? How do they apply to us and what does it mean, in practice, for us to live in obedience to them as God’s Word for us?

      • David, my purpose was to defend the truth of the scriptures as written and preserved for us. According to the bible, the law of Moses was given to him directly by God by revelation. Therefore, if there were anything wrong or unjust in it, that would call into question the accuracy of the record. Presumably even the most ardent inerrantist would sooner question the accuracy of the bible than the goodness and justice of God Himself. So my purpose was not so much to give an explanation but to try to show that it is quite credible that a good explanation does exist, whether or not it is precisely along the lines that I suggested.

        I do not think of a ‘social and cultural background’ to this law making, as you put it. This was a people whom God had set apart as His own special people and treasured possession. He gave them a law to sanctify them and set them apart. It seems to me that if one speak about a culture for the people of Israel, then it resulted from the law rather than the other way around.

        As for application today, the basic starting point as I see it is a) we believers in Jesus Christ are no longer under the law given to Israel. This was established definitively at the meeting described in Acts 15. b) the law remains as a schoolmaster for us. It serves to teach us right from wrong. c) We may look to the New Testament to show us what aspects of the law given to Israel still are in force for the church, and in what way.


        • Her mother!
          And the one who told my grandmother was my great grandmother. I have a picture of my great great great grandmother; her hair and dress are a bit severe and Victorian, but her eyes are kind, and she has the hint of a smile. She and my great great great grandfather were Huguenots.

          • How, apart from the Bible, did the Huguenots know what Jesus commanded and taught his followers to believe and do?
            Phil Almond

          • For me the bible is very much a secondary resource,
            and though I first heard of Jesus from my mum, it was not until I met him that I really understood.
            This is also true for all the other converts I know, the bible confirms what they’ve been taught by God, but itself is not the real source, but only a record. It’s a bit like discussing a symphony with people who’ve read all about it, and with people who’ve heard it performed.
            The bible is a great treasure to me, it is genuinely my favourite book, but I often downplay it because I’ve met so many people for whom the bible, or rather what other people say about it, has become a very big stumbling block.

  22. ‘The Bible [is] the ultimate rule for Christian faith and conduct, and the supreme authority by which the Church must ever reform itself and judge its traditions.’ 

    But try replacing “The Bible” with “Christ” and you’ll get something very different, and full of hope.

    It really is Good News that God is real and is with us, that he can and does love, care for, and guide us. He has not written a book and then abandoned us to our own interpretation of it, but he is alive and well and with us. We do not need to read the book if we know the author.

    Viz. John 1:1, 17; 3:8, 31; 5:39-40; 8:31-32; 14:1, 6-7, 15-17, 26; 17:2;  1 John 2:27; Deuteronomy 30:14; Proverbs 3:5-6.

    I love the bible, and read it every day, but I first began reading it looking for inconsistencies and believe me, I found many. Whoever thinks the bible is not inconsistent hasn’t read the whole thing yet!
    But thanks be to God the bible is inconsistent for now we turn to him and not to the pages of a book.

  23. I want to reply at some length to the vital matters that Ronald Partridge raises. It is a pity that the ‘fulcrum archives’ are not now (as far as I know) in the public domain since this prevents me from referring to them.
    For starters, if the moderators are happy for me to go over old ground, could I invite Ronald to give his view on my conviction, often stated, that the deeds and words, past and present, attributed by the Bible to God and Christ are true facts, and the future deeds and words will some time in the future be facts.
    Phil Almond

  24. We can assert that truth is eternal, which seems self-evident. We want our beliefs to be true, and therefore also true eternally. We want to assert the authority of the Bible as the foundation and source of our beliefs, so there must not be any problems in asserting its eternal truth, since all truth, and only truth, is eternal. Whatever passes from being regarded as truth, to being set aside as error, cannot have been true in the first place.

    The difficulty is this: the Bible, as a collection of writings, has a history. Each book within it shows signs of having its own individual history of formation and transmission. But history involves change, and things thought to be true in one era can come to be rejected in another. When the process of formation finally comes to an end, and reaches stability, the final result is then held always to have been true, regardless of any signs of change within it, because we require the foundation of our faith to be eternally true.

    This contradiction between historical process and unchanging truth is a source of unending difficulties for those who feel bound always to find the latter in a collection of writings created through the former. I can sympathise with the concern raised by Andrew Chapman on 19/02/14: ‘How can [the Bible] function as such a rule and authority if key passages which concern conduct and traditions are deemed to be either out of date, or hard to understand?’ Indeed. But how can we read the Bible and not see that it has all passed from times in which some passages were once deemed truth, to later times when what is says could not possibly be accepted?

    The Bible never condemns polygamy or concubinage, and even in New Testament times, monogamy is assumed, but not commanded (except for bishops!), and still no figure in the Old Testament is criticized for having multiple partners. Rape may be punished by death in some circumstances, but result in indissoluble marriage in others. The victim may be put to death as well, if raped in the city, and did not cry for help. Were these things right in one period of history, eternally justified, yet simply abandoned in a later period, and now held to be immoral or mistaken in our own time? It is considered justifiable to slaughter every last human being of either sex and any age in conquest in Old Testament times, but in our own time it is considered a ‘crime against humanity’.

    While it is true that slave-trading is condemned by Paul, and slaves (except foreigners) could indeed seek their freedom under various conditions, nowhere is the institution itself condemned, and nowhere are masters simply told to free all their slaves forthwith. That moral imperative was left to be discovered by the Quakers in America in the 18th century. If the Bible is the foundation of all Christian belief and ethics, then the wrongness of slavery becomes, not an eternal truth, but only a modern convention. A society which bans slavery has no right, on Biblical grounds, for condemning a society which practices it.

    Wholesale massacre is seen as a great evil today, but, as late as 1630, the Puritans of Massachusetts felt perfectly justified on Biblical grounds for employing that practice in dealing with a troublesome local tribe, the Pequots. They did their best to annihilate them, down to every last woman and child, selling the few remaining stragglers – into slavery! The sight and stench of the burning bodies was seen as “a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise to God.” (The American Indian Frontier – William Christie Macleod, page 216) The account of the slaughter on page 215 is horrendous, and exceeds anything found in the Book of Joshua.

    I may have seemed too skeptical to Bowman (16/02/14), and Andrew Chapman may think that I am a dangerous source of backsliding (29/01/14), but I simply don’t want to make the Bible say things that it doesn’t really say, or make of it a uniformly and universally applicable document, eternally true in every page and every passage. We may sometimes see a sort of trajectory over the course of the eras of history in which Biblical faith developed and was lived, but there has also been a great deal of movement beyond anything stated or implied in the Bible, especially in the last century. This is despite modern times also having seen the most enormous barbarity.

    Of course, we may sometimes draw our inspiration from principles implicit in the Bible. In fact, the Quakers began freeing their slaves when one man realized that he couldn’t consider a man his brother inside the meeting house and his property outside it. Onesimus may or may not have returned to Philemon as a free brother or as a repentant slave, and we may well generalize this into a complete abandonment of slavery, but this was not a teaching of Paul’s, and it was many centuries before it occurred to anyone.

    The Bible, the people of the Bible, and ourselves as their heirs and successors, are all part of a long journey undertaken in God and led by God. They and we have all come a long way, and may have yet a longer way to go. They and we are all marked by the ways we have come, the places we have been, the things we have done – and much that we have been and done we have left behind. We have to recognize that we cannot have what we are sure that we need – an eternal and infallible written guide, and we also have to accept that the Spirit of God works progressively in us, individually and corporately, to discern his will more clearly as we move along.

    Not everything is relative, and not everything may be taken up or abandoned as we please, but at the same time, we cannot simply assume that what was once seen as right or true must necessarily be seen so for all time. Jesus told his disciples that there were many things that they could not yet bear to hear, but that the Spirit would lead them into all truth. That journey in Christ by the Spirit to the glory of the Father is the only sure trajectory that the Bible provides, and it is all we need, but we must always seek to discern it together, in prayerful fellowship and in the awareness that any of us could be wrong.

  25. Thanks, John. All the epistles were written in a particular context and time. Which others do you think do not apply today? Many instructions were given in the first person. How do we decide which ones pertain today? This is why I mention the CEEC Statement of Faith. I don’t see how the bible can be our rule for faith and conduct, if the commandments are no longer in force.

    The reasons Paul gives are from creation and the circumstances of the fall. Why would these not apply today?


  26. Hi David, this doesn’t make any sense to me:

    1) The bible is our rule for faith and conduct and tradition – therefore including church practice.

    2) The only New Testament teaching which directly addresses the matter of a woman teaching (for example) has the apostle (appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself) saying ‘I do not permit a woman to teach’, giving his reasons from creation and the circumstances of the fall. And ‘I write these things .. so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God..’.

    3) There is no restriction on a woman teaching in the church.


    • Just a quick reply to Andrew on point 2 – I think the personal pronoun is vital here – what is Paul actually saying – Does God not permit? or “I do not permit” – be careful in reading Paul’s words and views for a particular context and time and then assuming they are God’s own for ever and a day!! You come very close to adopting pontifical legislature!!

    • Andrew
      You and I have participated with others in long and lively discussions on Fulcrum around the issue of women and men and the NT church. I can summarise pretty accurately (and I hope respectfully) what your views will be when this issue comes up and the biblical basis from which you are argue. It is a courtesy I seek to extend to anyone I am in debate with. What disappoints me is that you apparently cannot do the same for me or any of those you disagree with here. It’s as if the discussion has never happened.
      Well if you don’t mind I would prefer not to start all over again. It is all in the Fulcrum archives.

      • David, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that I should be able to summarise your views and understand them, and that this is a courtesy I should extend to you. Actually, I don’t know what your views are on 1 Timothy 2:12. Of course I realise that you are an egalitarian, but there are a variety of different egalitarian approaches to that scripture – in fact a bewildering variety, and I don’t know what your approach is. I don’t think we have engaged in conversation before, my friend, so I don’t know why you think I am being discourteous now. I am trying to persuade you to change your view, because I believe it is wrong and dangerous for the church and the nation. If you don’t want to engage in debate that is of course absolutely fine from the point of view of courteous relationships.


      • Regarding the archives, I have the impression that the articles are still on the web-site but not the discussion. I would be interested to read through some of the relevant threads if they still exist.


  27. David, I don’t yet see how the multiplicity of languages on the Day of Pentecost could justify racial segregation. After all, the hearers were all together on the day, weren’t they, so it would seem to point in the opposite direction. God spoke to them in their own language so that they could understand it, presumably. And even if it does point to segregation in some way (which I can’t yet see), it would be by language – and it is fairly common, and I think acceptable at least for a season, to have separate congregations for different language groups in one place, again to enable the gathered saints to understand what is being said and taught.

    Obviously, there is no scripture saying anything like ‘I do not permit a black man to worship with a white man’, far from it. But there is a scripture, to take one point touched on in David Gillett’s list of areas in which he has changed his mind, which says ‘I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over a man’, and several others which are in accord with this. This is clear and there is nothing which contradicts it. In Acts 18:26 we can see that a woman and her husband on one occasion and privately explained at least one point – which was rather basic – to another believer. This is not at all difficult to harmonise with a prohibition on women serving as teachers in the church. In Titus 2:3-4, the older women are to be teachers of good things, that they might admonish or train the young women – as Origen said ‘ἵνα σωφρονίζωσι τὰς νέας, οὐχ ἁπλῶς ἵνα διδάσκωσιν’ – ‘that they might train/admonish the young women, clearly not that they might teach’.

    This is what the bible says. Fulcrum adheres to the CEEC Statement of Faith which says that ‘The Bible [is] the ultimate rule for Christian faith and conduct, and the supreme authority by which the Church must ever reform itself and judge its traditions.’ How can it function as such a rule and authority if key passages which concern conduct and traditions are deemed to be either out of date, or hard to understand? With regard to the latter point about the obscurity or otherwise of certain passages, allow me to quote from p.95-6 of Wayne Grudem’s excellent book ‘Evangelical Feminism: A path to liberalism?’, which partly informed my original point about backsliding:

    ‘God’s Word: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” [when Christians assemble to worship and to hear the Bible taught, as the context indicates].

    Evangelical Feminists: “We’re sorry, God, we can’t understand what you mean. Incidentally, we have women teaching and exercising authority over men in our services. That is because we can’t understand what you mean when you say not to have a woman teach or exercise authority over a man.”

    Complementarians: “Okay, God, we won’t have a woman teaching or exercising authority over men when we assemble as a group of Christians for worship and bible teaching.” ‘

    It’s as simple as that. Are we going to obey God or not?


    • Andrew I think I can understand their reading of Acts 2, though like you a profoundly disagreed with it. It comes from a view of what OT teachings you regard as ‘controlling’ creation ordinances for all time. You then expect all other biblical texts to conform to this and reflect this ordering. So if you regard racial separation as a foundational ordering in creation you will not be surprised when the Spirit addresses people in their own racial groups on the day of Pentecost. No other interpretation can be right and (crucially) you will expect no other to be there. This is the hermeneutic of a closed world.
      In fact this issue surfaces in the debate about men and women too.
      But though you would never know it from your comments here, this topic has been debated seriously and at great length on these threads and you and others (like me) sharing the same commitment to scripture have explored different understandings of these texts. But Andrew I notice that none of those who disagree with your opinion in these discussions ever assume that because you disagree with them, your understanding of the evangelical doctrine of scripture must be at fault and that you need reminding of the CEEC basis of faith. Why do you?

  28. Anyone interested in the relationship between the interpretation of scripture and apartheid,  will find much of interest in ‘Redeeming the Past’ by Fr. Michael Lapsley SSM, the Anglican monk who was maimed by a letter-bomb from the South African security services and went on to found the Institute for the Healing of Memories. 

  29. I take Ronald’s point, but I don’t think the Church has ever held the bible ethically insufficient, but rather its own understanding of scripture is what’s deficient; “The task of exegetes is to work towards a better understanding of scripture, so that through this preliminary study the judgement of the Church may mature.” ( dogmatic constitution on revelation; Dei Verbum, 1965)

    Regarding lending at interest in the new testament, we have the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain (viz. Luke 6:32-35). As he often did, he suggested the old law was ultimately insufficient; it’s not enough just to lend without interest, his followers must lend without expecting to get anything at all back, let alone more than we initially lent. No recipe for those who would be wealthy, that’s for sure! 
    Perhaps more penetrating is the Lords Prayer, both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of which say “as we forgive our debtors”.

    And for David’s question, how do we know when we’re right? We don’t. Or wrong? We don’t! Hence “trust in the Lord with your whole heart and lean not on your own understanding” and “the righteous shall live by faith”.  There are a few tests, eg “this is how we know… whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did”. We’ve also got “faith without works is dead”; so we can look at how we live our lives, what actions we take, especially how we treat others, and this gives us some indication of how well we’ve interpreted the scriptures. For example, if we treat someone unkindly, condemn someone, or desire to be in charge of other people, then we’ve got it wrong as that’s not how Jesus walked. If we pardon sinners, heal the sick, and love our enemies, then perhaps we’ve got it right since that’s how Jesus walked, but we can’t be certain since most of what Jesus did is not recorded. Perhaps the biggest test is “the truth shall make you free.”
    Anyway, the mathematicians among us will appreciate that it’s logically inconsistent to believe that we have correctly interpreted the scriptures since they contain the injunction to “lean not on your own understanding”. It’s reminiscent of the old conundrum “this sentence is false”, to which I might add a variation: “this sentence might not mean what you think it does.” 🙂

    Ah, the joy of mystery. There’s an old book called “The Cloud of Unknowing” which is quite salient. 
    But also, ah, the joy of bible study, which is an excellent pursuit, so long as it’s done with an open mind. If done with the purpose of listening to God, then enlightenment can follow, but if it’s done with the purpose of understanding God or ordering other people’s lives, then the book just reflects your own thoughts back at you and your ignorance increases, perhaps such that you don’t even know that you are ignorant any more and build a mental prison taller than the one you started in. 

    The motto of SSM is “ad gloriam Dei in ejus voluntate”.  Someone asked HHK once how we know what is the will of God and he replied, “we don’t, that’s the giddy joke.”

    We can’t really know for sure whether we’ve got our interpretation of scripture right or not, and that is how it’s meant to be; what we need is faith, not certainty. If it were possible to be certain about the meaning of scripture then who needs faith if we’ve got scripture? But as it is, we have scripture but cannot be certain what it means, and must rely on God instead. 

    Fairly often at morning or evening prayer we have a short discussion as to the meaning of a passage in one of the daily readings. As often as not, none of us understands it. The important thing was that we were together, you see. 

    For me personally, the best thing about scripture is that it demonstrates to me that whilst my faith seems like madness to me, it is a madness shared by others who are well respected, and it allows me to make the same demonstration to others.

    • You’re right, Oliver, that the Church has normally, at official level, taken the position that nothing in the Bible has ever been ethically deficient, but that any difficult passage simply needed the correct interpretation. But this is in fact simply another aspect of my basic contention. The Church (or churches) as well as individual Christians, interpret their way out of difficulties and disagreements.

      It is not that the Bible is deficient, as that it is historically conditioned, and matters that were once thought, with perfect certainty, to be either allowed or forbidden, came to be reconsidered in later periods, and moved from one side of the ledger to the other.

      Each Church and each Christian, content with their own interpretations, comes to think that there can be no problem with variant teachings in other ages or in other Churches which don’t form part of their direct experience. But due to this ongoing revision and disagreement throughout history and up to the present time, appealing to the Bible as a simple, clear and necessary basis for authority isn’t sufficient in itself.

      We have to establish why we think that this or that passage applies today, and defend our position, not simply on the basis of the text or any interpretation that we can derive from it, but on the basis of changes in society and in our understanding and knowledge of the world around us, conserving whatever we can show are the deepest levels of revelation.

  30. Dear David, regarding your article, I think you mislead by using the example of apartheid. There is no New Testament case for racial separation, and so it is obvious they were wrong, at least so far as the church goes. Your argument seems to be these people thought they were right, and in fact they were wrong, so now no-one can be sure of anything. But we can be sure, if we trust in God and in His holy word. The scriptures are given to us for our good, and they are for all time. The commandments given to the churches are to be kept until Jesus returns. We are told over and over to keep the traditions, guard the traditions, guard the deposit, pass on to faithful men, who will in turn pass on to others. (1 Corinthians 11:3, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6, 2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2) Will we be faithful to our charge or will we abandon it?


    • Andrew, It was not at all obvious to biblical segregationists who were just as serious about the bile as you and me. They would challenge you on the New Testament actually. They found no contradiction between apartheid and NT teaching. One place they found direct support for their views was on the Day of Pentecost when all heard the good news ‘in their own language’. They found here a continuation of what they believed was laid down as creation ordering in the OT – the Lord does not change his mind as you recently pointed out. I presume you don”t agree with their exegesis here – nor do I – so no need to lock horns on this one. But they were utterly serious about bible and what it taught. That is my point. How do we know when we are wrong?

      Your claim that we can simply trust the scriptures is exactly what God fearing bible believing apartheid supporters were saying and believing. But they were terribly wrong. How do you know you are right then? Forgive me if I am wrong but, unlike Phil Almond here, you seem to feel no need to test your own reading of scripture against something other than your own judgment at this point –
      And please note I do NOT say, at any point, that we cannot be sure of anything. I am questioning the basis on which we come to our convictions of such rightness and the right living that follows. This needs something much more just trusting the Lord and his Word. Richard Burridge’s whole book, that my short article is indebted to, is an extended reflection ‘how we know’ in truth.

      • Thank you, Andrew and David, for a worthwhile discussion.

        If either of you have mentioned your respective views on chiliasm, I do not recall them, but from this side of the pond and further inland, Andrew sounds rather ‘pre-mil,’ whilst David sounds rather ‘post-mil.’ That in itself could account for your different evaluations of the usefulness of questioning received views on Those and Other Topics. (Personally, I do not think that the received views are in every particular like Andrew’s views, but for now, just see it his way.)

        To American ears– well, ‘bible belt’ American ears– Andrew sounds characteristically ‘pre-millenial’ with the usual pessimism– society is in decay, only rules about acts are noetically robust guides, and exact obedience to them is obedience to God, which is an end in itself of course. In that mindset, even Phil’s broadminded collision of arguments will result in more confusion and temptation than usable insight. Pragmatically, one is wisest to defend tradition as received without undue curiosity, and to wait in hope for the Lord to break through the siege. (Over here. one should vote Republican and empathise often with Charles Carson, butler at Downton Abbey.) Andrew will correct what he wishes, of course 😉

        To the same ears, David sounds rather ‘post-millennial’ with the usual optimism that God is already making all things better, his influence on souls conduces to insight and virtue, and his truest friends rejoice to see his will announce itself with greater clarity over time. From that perspective, doubts about old views and fascination with new ones not only do not seem dangerous but actually seem rather prudent, not to mention pleasurable. (And why not vote for Democrats? As Isobel Crawley might have done.) David’s heart is greater than this caricature, of course, but I think he might agree with the tenor of it.

        Two visions of time between the Resurrection and the Parousia– corruption and progress. Their dialectic is perennial, and not only in our civilization. Even if one is a convinced ‘post-mil’ Christian, it is obvious that many babies are born to the cautious temper to which the ‘pre-mil’ outlook seems intuitively persuasive. And ‘pre-mil’ pessimism can never quite understand how those adventurous ‘post-mils’ flirt with disaster and yet come out of things as well as they do. Either can disagree with the other– how can they avoid it?– yet it seems that each will have to make some intelligent accommodation to other. And vice versa, of course.

        • Yes, Bowman, I am pre-millenial as Revelation 20 can hardly be read differently, so far as I can see. Things will assuredly get worse in the last days (2 Timothy 3 etc) but yet we can and must pray for a great revival and a wonderful harvest of souls before the Lord returns (James 5:7-8). But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? (Malachi 3)


  31. David
    Andrew will no doubt make his own reply to your question ‘So can I ask you what makes you sure you are right in what we are discussing here?’ My answer is that we have to confront the strongest arguments from all sides on a disputed point of doctrine or practice, including the exegetical arguments, and come to our conclusions searching our hearts with painful honesty before God and seeking to persuade each other of what we are convinced is the truth. As I see it that is what we have been doing for several years on the Fulcrum forum.
    Phil Almond

  32. With regard to backsliding, I think it is worth noting that this is the normal trajectory of God’s people, both corporately and individually (see Psalm 78 etc etc with regard to the nation of Israel, the whole history of revivals in the church, and I think all of us if we allow our prayer life, bible study and attendance at church to dwindle, and our love for Jesus to grow cold.) Thank God for His keeping power and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to waken us when we begin to slumber. We are so easily deceived, and can believe we are going forwards when in fact we are in reverse.

    Concerning interest, there is nothing in the New Testament that I am aware of that tells us that the prohibition given to Israel remains in force. On the contrary, the parable of the talents suggests that perhaps it is not. Admittedly, it’s not the same, somebody with money lending to a bank or business and receiving interest, as opposed to lending to a poor man who likely then becomes further indebted with all the misery and enslavement that debt brings, but still the principle of interest is at work there. I don’t know if perhaps a distinction could be made between the two – very difficult in practice, I would have thought. Anyway, there is no transgression, since we are not under the law of Israel. (Although if we are wise, we will choose to learn from that law and apply principles to our own lives as Christians in the nations.)

    Regarding slavery, is there anything in the bible to say that one should practice slavery? If not, then we are free to abolish it. I don’t think it is true to say that there is ‘no suggestion that slaves should seek their freedom.’ 1 Corinthians 7:21 -: ‘Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.’ Also in Philemon 16: ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother’ I think we can detect a gladness that Onesimus has become a free man. That said, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is not of this world and spiritual freedom is available to all in Him, whether we are slave or free – I think this is the message that comes across in Ephesians 6:5-9, plus the equality before God with regards to reward (verse 8).

    Neither of these examples give any warrant for disobeying the commandments of the New Testament, which remain in force for the church.


    • Andrew ‘With regard to backsliding …. We are so easily deceived, and can believe we are going forwards when in fact we are in reverse.’
      So can I ask you what makes you sure you are right in what we are discussing here? What safeguards do you have in place when you read scripture that you are not in fact, whatever your most faithful intentions, reading ‘in reverse’? It is presumably not enough to think you are are right, or to feel the Spirit is guiding you or that any number of others agree with you? As you say, this is a corporate problem as well as an individual one. So I am curious to know how you respond to this part of my article.

  33. Oliver – no equation was involved. These are simply two striking cases of when the Church collectively decided to depart from what had previously seemed plain Biblical morality. The fact that the two moves were in opposite directions simply shows that the Church was willing to hold the Bible ethically insufficient both in what it prohibited and in what it allowed.

    Calvin may have been perfectly reasonable in considering interest to be a form of rent, but the Biblical writers certainly didn’t see it that way. You have to be willing to make a case for setting human reason above the plain teaching of the Bible to make the sort of move that Calvin and the Church in general made on this issue.

    In the case of slavery, prominent Evangelical leaders of the time were quite sure that attempting to abolish and prohibit what the Bible clearly allowed was doing just that – putting human reason above the plain teaching of the Bible. Again, in this case, human reason prevailed.

    The reason for going into these two symmetrical moves at such length is to show that appealing to “the plain teaching of the Bible” on an issue is not by itself an ironclad argument, and It really never has been.

  34. I think it’s spurious to equate allowing what was prohibited with prohibiting what was allowed…

    To understand what interest is really about, try lending someone an acre of land and demanding two acres at the end of the lease… 
    Many folk desire to have their cake and eat it, and there are two ways you really can do that: charging rent and charging interest (Calvin reckoned them equivalent).
    God hates charging interest because it makes men into robbers, which he doesn’t like. 
    Interest is not vital to the economy, it’s fatal. A child can see that a world which embraces both poverty and unemployment at the same time is foolish, so why can’t all the grown ups? Victims of our own cleverness, no doubt. 

    • “I think it’s spurious to equate allowing what was prohibited with prohibiting what was allowed…”

      Oliver, your posts are a pleasure, but this sentence puzzles me. What did you have in mind there?

      And as an alternative to either rent for a fixed amount, or interest paid with the principal, what about sharecropping? The owner chooses a farmer to till the surplus acres and they divide the crop by an agreed proportion. Rent and interest enable the rentier to profit by a known amount no matter what the hazards and luck of the enterprise. However, in sharecropping, as described, both rentier and tenant participate in the risk and the reward of the enterprise. God might prefer that community of interests.

      Obviously, the same arrangement could be used– indeed was used– for more complex enterprises. For example, shipowners could contract with captains and merchants to move goods across seas, so that all shared the risk of shipwreck and the opportunities of a tight market on the farther shore. At some point, it is easier to denominate the shares, not as proportions of goods, but as proportions of gross profit. That resulted in the medieval practises that survive today as ‘Islamic finance.’

      But to your main point– yes, it is plainly accursed to bid the poor work for their necessities whilst managing an economy to promote unemployment.

  35. Understandably, we might want to guard against relativizing the Bible, against ‘going with the tide’ of society, against adapting our understanding of Gospel for the sake of convenience or to ease our position in secular surroundings. Accusations of ‘compromising’, ‘backsliding’, and ‘cherry-picking’ can be raised against anyone who seems to weaken the exclusive foundational authority of the Bible for doctrine. On the other hand, those who still feel that ‘moving on’ is necessary may try to look for ‘deeper intentions’, more basic underlying principles, or the ‘trajectory’ of the Bible. However, these approaches will not always provide the desired resources for justifying change, while retaining the primary authority of the Bible in every case.

    These latter ways of ‘moving on’ haven’t always helped in the past, even at times when Christians felt that it was vital in regard to central questions of their day. Each time we can find the familiar tension arising between reformers and conservers of Biblical teaching, but we may be surprised, unless we are already familiar with the history, to find who was on which side at various times.

    One such issue is usury – the practice of making money out of lending money. There is really no warrant in the Old Testament for saying that it only referred to ‘excessive’ interest. In Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-36, and Deuteronomy 23:19, we are simply told to charge no interest. In Nehemiah 5:9-11, among those rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the better off are condemned for charging their less fortunate brothers interest, and they are ordered to stop immediately, even if they were charging only 1%. In Ezekiel 18, we find an extended description of righteous and sinful sons. Among the sins which the former avoids and the latter commits is charging interest, and there is no mention of any acceptable rate to charge. It is simply a sin.

    The Church followed this teaching for centuries, banning the charging of interest on all loans. The need for the immediate supply of finance meant that Jewish people were constrained to provide loans at interest, since Christians were forbidden to do so. However, as we come into the Reformation period, pressure began to build to open up money markets to increase the supply (and possibly to share in the profits).

    Accordingly, Christian churches decided that they would move from strict Biblical ethics and morality on this issue, and allow the charging of interest. No Biblical warrant was readily available for this relaxation. Yet no less a personage than John Calvin argued that we should permit a moderate and proportionate usury at least for rich borrowers. He argued that what the Bible permitted under some circumstances (for foreigners) could be justly permitted under others. For a full quotation of his letter on usury, see this link:

    Another issue is slavery. We never see the taking or holding of slaves condemned In the Bible. Paul condemns only trading in slaves. Slave owners are just enjoined to be kind to their slaves, and are never urged to free them. Slaves are told only to obey their masters, with no suggestion that slaves should seek their freedom. Slaves might have been accepted in Christian fellowship and regarding salvation, but they remained slaves socially and legally. Again, as with usury, there was provision in the Old Testament for freeing Israelite slaves, but it was acceptable to make permanent slaves of foreigners, regardless of their desires or circumstances.

    No one in the Church seemed to question this institution until the 1500’s. One early opponent of slavery in the 1600’s was Franciscus van den Enden, a former Jesuit, renowned as a teacher of Baruch de Spinoza. However, his contemporaries didn’t seem to share his convictions, and Spinoza himself didn’t so much as mention the question of economic slavery in his Ethics. In the 1700’s, American Quakers were convicted of the wrongness of slavery, but it was decades before this conviction had the force of law throughout the British Empire and the United States of America.

    In the Spring 2007 issue of The Bible In Transmission, Carl Sanders writes that strong opposition to the abolition of slavery in the United States came from conservative Christians on strictly Biblical grounds. One writer, John Henry Hopkins, argued that ‘The Bible’s defense of slavery is very plain … and who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God?’ Another prominent minister, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, wrote in even stronger terms, that ‘The history of interpretation furnishes no examples of more willful and violent perversions of the sacred text than are to be found in the writings of the abolitionists. They seem to regard themselves as above the Scriptures … ‘ Faced with such stern and authoritative opposition, founded on the authority of the Bible, the abolitionist movement was seriously hampered in appealing to the consciences of Evangelical Christians. But of course, this ‘willful and violent perversion of the text’ has now prevailed, and is accepted without question.

    So historically, Christians have sometimes set aside the plain, consistent and literal meaning of Biblical texts, prompted by the issues of their day. In one case, the Churches decided that what had been forbidden should now be allowed, and in the other case, they decided that what had been allowed should now be forbidden. Neither case is trivial or in some way exceptional. Both are vital aspects of the modern world, which is based so much on banking and on the free movement of labour. And these two issues are not the only matters where we might have problems with the plain sense of the Bible – we might also consider genocide, polygamy, capital punishment (especially for filial impiety), and a double standard of ethics, which allows us to treat foreigners (except perhaps those who live among us) in ways that we are forbidden to treat our own people.

    In our own time, we are faced with the questions David Runcorn lists: creation and evolution, divorce and remarriage, other religions, women in leadership, and same-sex attraction and partnerships. In each case, secular evidence and arguments are offered alongside Biblical teaching. But in the past, clear Biblical teaching has not always carried the weight that we might imagine or wish. There is no easy way, maybe there is not even any careful or subtle way, to insist on the eternal supremacy of the Bible in all things. Perhaps we can only finally accept the assurance of our call to live in, through and for the salvation to be found in Christ. Sometimes, in other things, we may need to reflect and move on.

    • “On the other hand, those who still feel that ‘moving on’ is necessary may try to look for ‘deeper intentions’, more basic underlying principles, or the ‘trajectory’ of the Bible. However, these approaches will not always provide the desired resources for justifying change, while retaining the primary authority of the Bible in every case.”

      Ronald, my chief quarrel with your excellent comment is that you did not send it to the editors for publication as an essay. The argument deserves wider attention than it will get here.

      That said, I am sceptical of your scepticism about ‘deeper intentions’ and ‘trajectories.’ Calvin had no difficulty making a Biblical case for limited usury after studying actual money markets, and my Virginia ancestors had no difficulty making a Biblical case both against slavery before ‘the War’ and for racial equality after it, but then neither he nor they saw the Bible as a registry for received taboos. They believed in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit and read the Bible accordingly. Not all do.

      We might all have the problem you describe if the canon were meant to be read, as some ‘gnostic’ texts seem to have been, with an infinite suspicion of the creation and an infinite credulity toward ‘lettrism.’ Jointly and severally, those beliefs induce an alienated individualism in the act of reading that is inevitably as stubbornly static as a threatened ego always is.

      But because we are Christians, we do not believe any of that. The scriptural witness to the Father shows that his love for creatures is transformative; its witness to the Logos invites an investigation that relates the text to the created world; its witness to the Holy Spirit proposes a ‘virtue-based’ ethos that is necessarily teleological in Him. And happily the Church has been fed by the Word of God minute after minute for two millennia without knowing for certain whether the OT is in Greek or Hebrew, whether we have the ending of St Mark or not, which text type is authoritative, etc. We confess a triune Creator; a messy Bible gives us light; our ‘standing-under’ of what it shows us gets better over time.

      If readings of scripture are so poorly correlated to the Creation as to be practically useless, it is not because of the Bible, or because of our regard for it, but because of unbelief– they were not situated in the reader’s relationship to the triune Creator, apart from whom the Bible is meaningless anyway. Today as always, praying readers with their creed alongside the canon find plenty in the Bible to do without ‘moving on.’

    • Not to nit-pick, Ronald, but where in the Bible is there a universal warrant for genocide?

      Were you thinking of the Amalekites here?

      There have been cycles of debate here about Clare’s anxiety that anyone should think that God would command such a thing, and about Phil’s anxiety that anyone should doubt that God would command such a thing, but in the real world not even Jews to my knowledge have argued that to fully obey the scriptures is to look about the earth for surviving genetic descendents of Amalek and kill them.

      • Not nit-picking of course, but I would ask two questions: (1) Why must a universal warrant for genocide be involved, if this now so-called “crime against humanity” is allowed, approved or even commanded in any case whatever? (2) Why cite the Amalekites, who were not an isolated exception, when they were in fact subject to a specific and rigidly enforced command?

        In the Book of Joshua, genocide is commanded as a general policy towards all the cities and peoples of Canaan. Not just Jericho, not just Ai, but everywhere. It is commanded as the means whereby God’s people were to take the territory for themselves. After Jericho and Ai, there were Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir. (Joshua 10:28-39).

        “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. Joshua subdued them from Kadesh Barnea to Gaza and from the whole region of Goshen to Gibeon. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the LORD, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” (Joshua 10:40-43)

        So did God command crimes against humanity? Was it then, but somehow not now, acceptable to slaughter, not just warriors, but all the women, all the elderly, all the children and babes in arms as well?

        Were the Puritans, in their war of extermination against the Pequots in the 1630’s, simply being consistent in their application of Biblical morality? Although it’s not a case here of genocide being commanded, it’s clearly a case of believing that it is permissible, morally and spiritually acceptable, and justifiable as a policy, to wage a war of extermination against another people. Would any Christian justify such a policy today, under any circumstances?

        • Personally, Ronald, i always and in every case start with the Resurrection and work out from its significance to principles and situations. That is Christianity. Not everyone takes that view, but an advantage of it is that a great number of bad ideas wither for lack of any relationship to the centre of Christian faith. Genocide is one of those ideas.But any Christian should be able to see that you cannot preach the gospel to all nations or participate in the mystery of Pentecost if you are exterminating nations. The Puritans who slaughtered Pequots on the evidence of their rivals were not only vengeful fools, but in that act bad Christians as other Puritans of the time told them.

        • ‘Was it then, but somehow not now, acceptable to slaughter, not just warriors, but all the women, all the elderly, all the children and babes in arms as well?’

          As I understand it, this was a judgement against the Canaanites, who were manifestly wicked and deserving of it (as indeed we all were). God used Israel as an instrument of His punishment of them. That is His prerogative – He made us and gave us life and a hope if we trust in Jesus who died in our place.

          Regarding innocent children, I believe they were saved for eternity. If they had lived, many or most of them would have been lost. So it was all mercy and goodness from the Lord, who bears lovingly and patiently with us all. Still, we must learn to fear Him and tremble at His word.


          • Slaughter regarded as mercy and goodness? The Lord has the right to take away life, but then do we have the right to regard ourselves as his instruments, and kill all those whom we believe God would kill – including all the helpless and vulnerable? There is a lot of corporate punishment in the OT, but most of it is performed by God directly – the Egyptian firstborn, Korah and his family.

            Could God direct us today to do something like this? If you don’t think so, you may not know that as recently as the 1630’s the dedicated Christians of Puritan Massachusetts thought that it was completely Biblical to try to annihilate the Pequot tribe. With genocide, as with other issues, we try to interpret the Bible in ways that will support our present day views, forgetting that Christians in earlier times held very different views, equally sure that they were following clear Biblical teaching.

  36. This morning’s polling data reminded me of both David’s argument about the Bible in society and John’s quotation from Anthony Thistelton. Villagers on the eastern shore of the pond need not care much about them, but they may find a new and more timely example of the hazards of a ‘storage tank’ view of scriptural meaning helpful in thinking about David’s and John’s articles.

    Sufficient unto the land are the travails thereof, but the worldly-wise villager will understand that the US has millions of residents who entered the country illegally at great danger and cost, and will never go back to the lands of their birth. Most Americans– 54-81%, depending on how questions are worded– see that these immigrants must have some regular legal status. But not 47% of the party that controls the lower house of Congress. Pollsters classify these voters as Evangelicals, and yesterday, it was clear that they and their Tea Party allies had forced the Congress to give up on trying to pass a bill for illegal immigrants this year.

    What caught my eye were comments like these from the Evangelicals —

    “Don’t come here and make me speak your language. Don’t fly your flag. You’re on American soil. You’re American.”

    “You come to our country, you need to learn our language.”

    “Why should I put—press 1 if I want to speak in English? You know, everything—every politically correct machine out there says, “Press 1 for English. Press 2 for Spanish.”

    Yes, people live underground lives in fear of deportation because God-fearing folk are mad that they have to press 1 when they call through an automated switchboard. No, these fearful words do not reflect the hospitable values of Deuteronomy 10:19. Maybe, they instead recall Thistelton’s warning not to so read the scriptures that they–

    ‘become primarily institutional mechanisms to ensure continuity of corporate belief and identity…’ affirming ‘…the community identity and life-style [the readers] already enjoy.’

    There is danger to others but also to the church-going folk who said these things in a region that so insists on ‘standing firm’ that every social value must be scriptural, and every scriptural value must be held inflexibly at a ‘line in the sand’ to be sincerely held at all.

    The harm to others is not hard to see. Evangelical feelings of entitlement to a changeless society that even Israel was never granted is perhaps the largest single cause of my country’s continuing crisis of governance. These are the voters who support the debt-ceiling brinkmanship that frightens the financial markets, the 40 or so futile votes to repeal a reform of health insurance, and the cutting of food aid to the poor and financial aid to those long unemployed. When pundits observe that many Republican voters have difficulty accepting the legitimacy of a Democratic president, let alone a black one, they mean, not moderate Republicans, nor the Tea Party, but the Evangelicals. The American blogosphere has a new word, ‘derpism,’ signifying the practise of ‘derps’ who just repeat their prior positions over and over in the face of new evidence or changing circumstance because they deem other positions too illegitimate to engage seriously. Evangelical Republicans are quintessential derps.

    But my concern here is mainly for them. Tom Wright, who has addressed enough of them to know, has often commented on their curiously dark id. Why, he wonders, do they obsess about Hell? Why oppose health care for their fellow citizens? Why oppose even mild gun control after so many tragic shootings in schools? Why embrace the false belief that Christ will destroy this world and take true believers to a new one elsewhere? And, tongue in cheek, ‘post-mill’ Doug Wilson has likewise asked what makes an American Evangelical deep in his electric easy chair watch the evening news on the plasma screen in his climate-controlled house and get so depressed that he retreats to the kitchen, thinking dark ‘pre-mill’ thoughts about the persecution of Christians and the coming Rapture as he fills his glass from an electric ice dispenser for a drink. Something in the notion of the Bible as a ‘storage tank’ for petrified social values has led to a strange lack of resilience that reminds me of what clinical psychologist Martin Seligman called ‘learned helplessness.’ This is not the heroic joy of the saints, and ways of reading the scriptures that give a kind of certainly at the cost of alienation and despair need to be supplanted by some understanding that is not so dysangelical. And that is what David and John and others hereabouts are up to.

  37. Would you say that the problem with sola scriptura is to do with the coincidence of its rise with the European Enlightenment? A reactive setting of Faith against Reason? People saw champions of reason opposing champions of faith, and erroneously took reason to be opposed to faith?

    • Oliver, David could well count himself among those who advocate ‘sola scriptura,’ since he implies that, were the scriptures heard over against an inauthentic local tradition, the scriptures would rightly correct our witness to the LGBT community. His difficulty is that some on the other side sincerely believe in ‘nuda scriptura,’ and so are unwilling to consider that their readings are embedded in any tradition at all. Until each side can acknowledge the force of tradition for good and sometimes for ill, it will be difficult to have a truly engaged dialogue. Meanwhile, it is premature to write any of them off.

  38. hi David, the…age…old…question.



  39. ‘this process of interpretation has led to significant changes in belief and attitude, most clearly in five main areas –

    Creation and Evolution
    Divorce and remarriage
    Other religions
    Women in Leadership
    Same-sex attraction and partnerships.

    For me, as for many others, this process is so closely linked throughout that it is important to look at the last one as part of a continuous hermeneutical development.’

    Commonly known among Christians as the trajectory of backsliding..


      • Honestly, John, though I am sympathetic to both David’s essay and Andrew’s comment, neither seems very close to the useful, engaged dialogue envisioned by the Pilling Report. Those who find the community-in-difference of the sexes to be central to the Bible’s understanding of sexuality have nothing of interest in common with apologists for South African apartheid, and it is not clear how suggesting that they do actually meets the arguments made by, say, the Report’s dissenting opinion. Likewise, one can usefully oppose following a given hermeneutic’s lead, not by rejecting its particular results a priori, but by offering a critique of the hermeneutic itself. Ian Paul has nicely framed Pilling-inspired dialogue here–

        From Ian’s post, and from the Report itself, I think we can see that the ‘derpism’ of the past– repeating one’s own prior views over and over without seriously engaging other positions and new arguments– does not advance the dialogue we need. Just because I do see insight on both main sides, i wish that those on both of them would engage.other positions with more respect and responsiveness.

  40. Thank you, Roger, for taking up my question about ‘sanctified reason’ on the other thread. Though I have not heard it in the village before now, it seems to be near the heart of all those issues that concern biology and society in some way unknown in scripture. SSM is only the first of many that we will face in the C21, for the central problem is that we often see only mechanisms and advantages to be gained by taking advantage of them where St Paul saw a once-whole creation groaning for the manifestation of the children of God and the restoration of its lost integrity.

    The Creator God made a unified world that fell into disorder but is being restored. Following Wisdom, St Paul often seems to be appealing to an idea of ‘One God, One Creation’ to argue for what I have called ‘sanctified reason’– we can know what restores that lost order by acquiring the mind of Christ so that we see clearly the wholeness and integrity that are hidden from minds confused by desires of the flesh. In argument, St Paul appeals to teleology as Aristotle did before him and as biologists (with embarrassment sometimes) still do, and this teleology informs a moral vision in which a few hard boundaries coexist with rather more attention to the gifts and virtues that arise organically in union with Christ.

    Homosexuality seemed to St Paul to oppose the bodily and social teleology on which the whole vision depends, and so it is not at all surprising that he implacably opposes the cultivated homosexuality of the pagan world. St Paul probably knew that Socrates and Alcibiades had a deep and committed relationship, but if so then he also knew that Socrates had a wife. The kingdom was not compatible with that order of things, and St Paul firmly opposed it.

    Yet if there is no reason why his recognition of cosmic disorder should not be applied to the biological basis for sexuality as to the rest of the creation, then there is at least the possibility of an attraction to the same sex that is exclusive and involuntary, though he does not explicitly recognise it, and with that possibility we come to the contemporary presentation of homosexuality– not the stimulated desire of pagan antiquity creating a world of affections for men that rivals their bonds to wives and children, but the involuntary desire of a body unnaturally estranged from women and so from marriage and children altogether. This ‘poster’ oversimplifies reality, but it is still true often enough to have enabled the thought, astonishing in antiquity, that ‘monogamous’ homosexuality might be fit for both marriage and family. Can sanctified reason as St Paul describes it recognise SSM with children as a partial remedy for an unbidden disorder of the affections?

    There is a large complication in the way of an answer– St Paul favoured celibacy for all, except where the danger of unchastity was so great that the only safety was marriage. For a man not to have any desire for women would have seemed to him, on the face of it, not a problem but a solution. For St Paul, say in Romans 8, sees us as taking on the burden of the creation’s disorder as the ones whose purified vision enables us to do so. Celibacy, free from the cares for another, is a great help to this life.

    Indeed, making ‘provision for the flesh’ would probably have struck him as an absurd remedy for disorder. We can imagine him asking sarcastically, “Your house is on fire, so to save it you lit your neighbour’s house on fire too? Now the fire is hotter, and the whole street is in danger. What did that help?” And what might he have made of the idea that one simply must ‘make provision for the flesh’ to have a complete, healthy life as so many believe today? Some reasoning from considerations of compassion and equity, fine as far as they go, seem not to acknowledge how far from St Paul’s suppositions the ‘normal’ starting point now is.

    I am posing these thoughts, not as arguments but as the sites of discernments that are actually quite difficult for persons to make in the light of ‘sanctified reason.’ And again, we happen to be yet again discussing That Topic, but similar questions arise in other moral choices outside of the unified teleology about which St Paul writes. Some advanced reproductive technologies or end of life decisions pose similar challenges. So do some decisions about the macro-scale governance of economies.

    It occurs to me that you and David might offer some insight into how we are to squarely acknowledge those sites and support persons making those discernments in Christ.

  41. David writes:
    ‘These are very challenging times and complex issues. The wisdom we need for these days will be hard won. But 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. In fact it is 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’.
    Wrong about what? Everything? But if so ‘it is essential that we are wrong’ about ‘divine grace’ and about ‘the gospel’. We have to be right about something. It’s the exegesis, friends.

    Phil Almond

  42. “How would we know when we have got it wrong?”

    Very scientific of you, David. At the frontier of our understanding, we can often falsify more surely than we can verify.

    Though I like and sometimes use your distinction between ‘conserving’ and ‘including’ evangelicals, I think that your question here leads more directly to a different one between those falsifying readings that distort the meaning of the text and those falsifying readings that are erroneous predictions about life.

    Some know that a reading has got the scriptures wrong when the text makes less sense with it than without it. For example, some use Ephesians 5 to oppose the ordination of women by stretching texts manifestly about couples into texts about classes. By framing a man and wife as representatives of sexual classes rather than as sexually interrelated individuals, this stretch changes meanings some take to be obvious, which shows them that the anti-OW reading is false to the text.

    Others know that a reading has got the scriptures wrong when it necessarily implies things about the world that are not found to be the case. For example, some reason that if Romans 1 mentions the homosexuality we see today, then gay bars should feature worship of pagan idols. When this turns out not to be true, then they conclude that reading Romans 1 as speaking about the homosexuality of our time is false to life.

    Because evangelicals expect an inspired text to be both meaningful and applicable, either sort of falsity, if found in a reading, could understandably dissuade one from it. But some of us, even if neutral on the topic itself, are strongly biased to acknowledge one sort of falsification but not the other. If we are both predisposed on the topic, and also biased against either mode of falsification, then we may be less open to the best readings of scripture than we should be.

Leave a comment