As part of its series responding to Living in Love and Faith, Fulcrum is inviting various writers to express their thoughts as a way of nurturing respectful dialogue. Here, Martin Kuhrt writes in response to LLF.
How can Christians who claim to ground their faith on the Bible as God's Word come to such radically different conclusions about matters of identity, sex, sexuality and gender? This is a prominent question in the book produced by the Church of England's Living in Love and Faith Project. Rather than do an in-depth assessment or critique of the whole book and the resources produced alongside it, in this article I would like to give an initial impression of the project but then analyse in more detail one approach it takes to this specific question.
I've viewed the two minute trailer on the website and listened to the thirty-five minute audio recording of the discussion of four members of the working group that produced the resources, and I've read the full text of the book which is downloadable if you don't want to pay for the paperback version or wait for it to be delivered.
There are those who have already decided that the project and the resources it has produced are a further sign of the Church of England's gradual sliding into apostasy, as have various Anglican provinces around the world, or that its intent was to play for time and put off any decisions which need to be made, while giving the appearance of doing something, or that it is yet another disappointment for those who have waited long enough to be affirmed, because it doesn't make specific proposals for change.
Having experienced the 'Shared Conversations' process, I myself was wary of a further 'talking and listening' exercise because I felt that those 'conversations' were weighted towards the listening being one way and that embracing cultural change seemed to be regarded as more important than faithfulness to Scripture. The two minute video introduction would not do much to reassure Christians coming from my perspective. However, the thirty-five minute audio recording gave more of a sense of real mutual listening and respectful engagement across the divide(s).
To fully assess the value of the project it is necessary to read the book and engage with the other resources. Having read the book, I'd like to say that I think it has educational value in providing a summary of the issue as it particularly concerns the Church of England. It does show, I believe, that the Church of England structures and those within it who hold to 'orthodox', 'traditional', 'conservative', or 'biblical' views can listen to 'progressive', 'revisionist', 'inclusive' or 'liberal' views and offer people who identify as gay or trans and vulnerable, a place where they feel respected, loved and heard.
In a world of Twitter sound-bites, identity politics and culture-war sloganeering, the book sketches out in an orderly way the points of disagreement, so that the uninformed can make some sort of sense of the controversy. The 'real life stories' and recorded conversations in the book, in my opinion, evoke the issues and allow the broad range of different perspectives to be heard.
My chief aim in writing this article is to pick up on the question of how to understand the Bible's authority. The book makes use of the church's traditional idea of 'charitable assumption', that when people appear earnest in professing something, then we proceed as if that is the case. So the book is keen to say that the disagreements, at least among those on the project, were more to do with interpreting the Bible and how its authority is to be understood as connecting with our lives today, rather than whether or not it is authoritative for Christians today.
This therefore places the question “What does the Bible really say about marriage, sexuality, gender and identity?” at the forefront. I am glad about this, because I have heard campaigners say in the 'Shared Conversations' that biblical argument is not their priority because the battle will be won by cultural and political pressure and an appeal to 'what the Spirit is saying to the Church now', rather than earnest, Spirit-filled, submissive and relentlessly prayerful biblical engagement.
In chapter 13, as part of the section on 'how we hear God', the book describes a range of approaches to the Bible containing seven broad positions along a chosen spectrum. At one end, there are those who say that Bible is a straightforward, clear and inerrant 'manual for living' given to us by the God who loves us and that when people talk about 'interpretation' this is usually a cover for wanting to disobey its plain teaching. At the opposite end is the view that 'the Bible is a collection of fallible human voices, produced by people who were caught up in movements of God’s Spirit in history – but their words only do uneven and partial justice to what they glimpsed. You can certainly find some important truths in Scripture, sometimes powerfully and beautifully expressed, but they are mixed in with all kinds of other material, some of it horrific.'
The other positions 'in-between' are laid out thoughtfully, and I would say that in that chapter's commentary upon them, there does not seem to be a 'liberal bias'. It's a rather helpful summary of different perspectives on the Bible in the Church of England today.
However, in chapter 11, which is all about the buzzword 'inclusion' there is, in my view, a troubling leaning towards a view of the Bible that is too close to the idea that certain testimonies in the Bible about God's character, commands or actions are untrue because they are mistaken human ideas about God rather than God-inspired truthful revelation written down by human authors.
Rather slippery language is used in relation to the idea of a 'tension' between two apparently divergent positions. So the book says that there is a tension in the Old Testament between 'exclusion' and 'inclusion'. On one level this is fairly obvious. There are some passages in which Israel being 'separate' from heathen nations is emphasized and some passages where welcome, hospitality and inclusion are commanded or celebrated. But we need to think really carefully about the nature of things 'held in tension'.
If we imagine an elastic band held between two fixed points so that there is tension, then this is a helpful metaphor for the creative dynamic between two revealed truths which are equally grounded in God, important and valid. The two truths might appear to be inconsistent, and therefore we are tempted to privilege one over the other, but in order for the tension to be maintained, we must hold that both should be firmly maintained. If we allow one to become more determinative, more central, more influential than the other, then this is like moving the other towards it, therefore lessening the tension and eventually removing it altogether. The elastic band droops.
So, for example, if we are trying to hold the two truths of God's elective sovereign power and human freewill / responsibility together in tension, but make one of the two more 'normative' or 'in tune with the thrust of biblical teaching' or 'more faithful to the trajectory which the bible sets us on' then the tension is gradually lost and the paradox reduced to a single polarity. Other paradoxes which would be collapsed would be Jesus full humanity and his full divinity, and the 'now' and 'not yet' of the kingdom.
Chapter 11 in Living in Love and Faith sees not so much a paradox, but a contradiction between passages where there is something exclusionary happening and passages where there is something inclusive going on and suggests that we ought to privilege the inclusive one over the exclusive one. So it gives, as an example, the attitude Israel should have towards the Moabites. The five paragraphs below are quoted verbatim from pages 224-225 of the book.
“This tension between inclusion and exclusion is particularly obvious in Israel’s relationship with their Moabite neighbours. Should the Moabites, or should they not, be allowed to become part of Israel? The issue aroused all kinds of strong feelings, steeped in fear and history. The book of Deuteronomy seems clear: No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord … because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt…. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 23.3-6)
This is hardly ambiguous. Not only are Moabites to be excluded from Israel, but Israel is explicitly under an obligation never to do anything for them. The book of Ruth, on the other hand, is equally clear. Ruth is from the land of Moab, and is regularly called ‘the Moabite’. Yet when she comes with her mother-in-law Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem, the Israelite Boaz not only shows kindness to her but he also eventually marries her. Through their union Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David. She becomes a key figure in Israel’s story. The presence of two such different voices within Israel’s Scriptures suggests that the relationship between Israel and Moab was a divisive issue for some in ancient Israel.
This is a tension linked to intense questions of identity, ethnicity, faith, boundaries – and of inclusion and exclusion. So what do we do with these two texts? Deuteronomy has a strong vision of Israel as the elect and holy covenant people of the Lord, and that vision has shaped both Jewish and Christian faiths. The paragraph about Moabites, however, seems to be about revenge and resentment. It essentially tells Israel to respond to the Moabites in kind: hostility is to be met with hostility. It is a response located in a specific historical context and trauma.
The story of Ruth has a different tenor. Most famous are Ruth’s words to Naomi, when she promises the traumatized older woman that she will always be with her, care for her, and share her people and her faith. This self-giving generosity is the very thing that Boaz notices and commends, and it motivates his own generosity towards Ruth. Ruth thereby comes into the heart of Israel’s story when Boaz marries her. It is a story about the triumph of loving-kindness, a prime characteristic of the Lord himself (Exodus 34.6,7), which should characterize also those who respond truly to him (see Psalms 111 and 112).
In comparing these two texts, we could argue that the book of Ruth stands closer to the overall moral and spiritual heart of the Old Testament, and of the faith rooted in it, than does the paragraph in Deuteronomy 23.3-6. It lines up, for instance, with the prophecy in Isaiah, in which God promises to bring foreign peoples ‘to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56.7). The judgement that Christians should privilege Ruth over the paragraph in Deuteronomy looks to be in line with the priorities of the Old Testament itself, quite apart from that of the New Testament. The question then perhaps arises whether, if the law in Deuteronomy 23 is relativized in the book of Ruth, there might be a similar relativizing or deprivileging of the Levitical prohibition of same-sex intercourse? Or does the absence of any texts commending what Leviticus condemns challenge such relativization? “
So here, I would say, we have a good example of what is claimed initially to be a tension, but is really claimed to be a contradiction and we are invited to choose the position we feel is most in line with what our faith is really all about. The words of Deuteronomy, said in the Bible to be 'God's law,' could really merely demonstrate the resentful and fearful spirit of those who had endured trauma. The message of Ruth, by contrast, is one of kindness, welcome and inclusion, backed up by some other parts of Scripture about God's concern for non-Jews. This appears to provide a way of avoiding potentially challenging texts. However, this opens the door to privileging 'nice' passages over 'nasty' ones whenever the supposed 'tension' (which is really being treated as a contradiction) occurs. Why stop at the Old Testament? There might be similar 'tensions' in the New Testament, either between texts themselves or between certain texts and modern 'understandings' which it is claimed that the Spirit or science has led us into today as we go forward.
This is where I think we have to challenge people who claim to hold the Bible as their authority but who use slippery language and ideas to say, in effect, that the Bible has internal contradictions which render some of it, unhelpful and un-authoritative, even when read in context using sound principles of exegesis, in revealing to us the nature of God and what pleases him or displeases him today.
Was the Deuteronomy passage a command from the God who is good, part of a body of law relayed faithfully by Moses, as the Old Testament and New Testament (including the words of Jesus) testify? Or was it made up by Moses, or some others, because, for historical reasons, they didn't like Moabites very much? The answer that this part of the Living in Love and Faith book suggests, is the latter.
Now of course, for those who believe that the whole Bible faithfully reveals the character of a God who is love and completely good, there will be various problems to wrestle with. (I've written a recently published book seeking to answer the criticisms of the New Atheists who cite passages where God commands or does certain things to claim the biblical God is a very nasty piece of work indeed). There will need to be proper study and exegesis of these 'hard texts' to see what God was really doing or telling the Israelites to do and why, and therefore what, in the light of God's overall plan in Christ, we can learn about God's character and purposes to help us lead holier lives today. But the incentive to do this is reduced if we can dismiss passages like this as indicative of unenlightened, unworthy ideas about what it means to be the people of God. No doubt there were plenty of unworthy ideas about this among the Israelites at various times, but if these ideas managed to creep in and corrupt the construction of the biblical narrative, does this not considerably reduce the Bible's authority as God's true revelation?
I would say that if we look more carefully at Deuteronomy 23v3-6 it does not say that Moabites are to be an exception to the laws about hospitality, not handing over escaped slaves, treating aliens justly, being kind to the poor and vulnerable, of which there are loads. The translation of this passage given in chapter 11 of Living in Love and Faith is not referenced and, while I am not a Hebrew expert, it seems very different from the NIV translation, which says, not that the Israelites must never do anything kind to a Moabite (by way of exception to all the other laws) but that they were not to make a political treaty of friendship with them as a nation. The prohibition of Moabites 'entering the assembly of the Lord' to the tenth generation does not have to be read as a racist edict or an act of petty revenge, but as a God-given didactic intergenerational ban on Moabites having access to certain political and religious rights in Israel. This solemn 'exclusion' was a just and, in the long term, a merciful decree which would have reminded Moab of its sin in wanting to starve the pilgrim Israelites of food and water and hiring Balaam to curse them, with the aim of ultimate repentance, restoration and inclusion in Christ. It does not say that any Moabite found on Israel's soil should be ill-treated or deported or that any Israelite man was forbidden to marry a Moabite woman who embraced the God of Israel as Ruth did. Had Old Testament law forbidden anything Boaz did for Ruth he would not have done it, because the book of Ruth takes pains to show that Boaz scrupulously obeyed the law of Moses in protecting Ruth, allowing her as a vulnerable widow to glean, and going through the lawful procedure for being her kinsman redeemer.
This perhaps is where the point of difference is among those who claim to adhere to the Bible but who differ over how authoritative the whole biblical revelation is for us today. My book God Is Good — Exploring the Character of the Biblical God, challenges the idea that any part of the biblical revelation shows God to be anything less than good. And that includes the full biblical revelation about marriage and sexuality from Genesis to Revelation.
Views in guest articles are not necessarily shared by the Fulcrum Executive.