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How Does the Bible Teach?

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In one discussion I was part of recently people were arguing for gender equality based on what they termed a “trajectory” in the Bible. A trajectory, of course, means that earlier biblical texts are not expressing God’s will for all people for all time. This presents an understanding of inspiration that some Christians are uncomfortable with, disagree with.

I think that if one lines up biblical texts in some sort of chronological order, honesty leads to acknowledgement that understandings are not uniform; they change. We can perceive a trajectory in relation to violence, to slavery, to marriage – just to name three. I think there is much merit in a trajectory hermeneutic. Seeing God’s will (and possibly inspiration) in the trajectory, rather than merely in proof-texting individual verses, leads to another question: does the trajectory cease at the end of the canon (in the New Testament) or can we follow the trajectory beyond where it is at the end of the first Christian century?

What interested me is that those in the gender-equality discussion, who used a trajectory-hermeneutic to support their position, were totally unwilling to use the same method of interpretation for other debatable issues. In fact, after stating that I misunderstood what a trajectory is, and then being unwilling to explain their own understanding of the word “trajectory”, they completely rejected any further discussion – polite though it had been so far.

What is, once again, clear to me is that we approach the scriptures with certain positions and can find there what we seek to have supported. We can even construct a hermeneutical method to support our position when what we want to find there isn’t easily drawn from the texts.

Another conversation fascinatingly examined the lenses we bring to our reading of the texts. This was with an eirenic, theologically-well-informed atheist. He contended that he, as an atheist, could better exegete the scriptures than Christians can. There is some merit in what he says: Christians claiming that their life and beliefs conform to the scriptures will twist understanding of scriptures to fit. He, not needing to live in accordance with the scriptures, can just read what is there without bias. I do not think that I, as a Christian, twist what I read to fit my beliefs and actions. To take another trajectory: I am fine acknowledging that earlier layers of the scriptures present a polytheistic and then henotheistic approach and that there is a trajectory to monotheism.

I think the atheist is stuck in a modern paradigm that there is an “objective” truth. Whatever we think of post-modernism, the insight that we are involved within reality rather than standing outside it, and that where we stand affects what we see, is valid – for atheists and theists. Just one example: an atheist approaches a text with the conviction that supernatural miracles cannot happen – hence such stories cannot be historical. I, as a theist, am open to the miraculous, hence I can approach a miracle story open to the possibility that I may be reading a story that is primarily allegorical, or it might be a simple recounting of an historical event.

A third story. I was recently revising my early church heresies when I cam across a number of sites that used an approach like: Heresy X “is refuted by the many Scriptures which teach…” In some ways this is back to front. The church chose certain texts as scripture and rejected other texts because the former expressed orthodox positions whilst the latter were heretical. It is not so much Docetism, for example, which is rejected because it is unbiblical. It is more: the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Judas, the Acts of John were not included in the canon of scriptures because the are Docetist.

Yes, the Bible teaches. But it does so within the context of the church. Separating the Bible out from that context and treating it as some sort of objective teacher, sola scriptura, is not its purpose. The tens of thousands of Christian denominations and conflicting perspectives and beliefs bear witness that this does not work.

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8 Responses to How Does the Bible Teach?

  1. Thank you for this very helpful post, which resonates very much with my own approach. Out of interest, could you give some examples of the “other debatable issues” for which your friends in the gender-equality discussion were unwilling to apply a trajectory-hermeneutic?

    • Thanks, Steven. The presenting issue was women in church leadership; development in the understanding of marriage (close to the gender equality discussion) was given no room for debate, and the dialogue completely stopped at any variety in the understanding of creation – Genesis 1 & 2 were seen as a single, unified story, and as science and history. Blessings.

  2. In my own hermeneutical work, I too am taken by ‘trajectory hermeneutics’. (My sense of the discussion you were part of is that some might draw the line re trajectory hermeneutics when it comes to (so called) first order issues which impinge on salvation).

    But the key point IMHO about “successful” hermeneutics, and reason why an atheist has limitations as a hermeneut, is the one you draw out at the end: hermeneutics works best when the church reads its Scripture together.

    • Thanks, Peter. Let me extend your second paragraph. I think “love is blind” is wrong. I think in love we can see a person more clearly – not less clearly. The person not in love does not, thereby, see the other more clearly. My being in a loving relationship with the One who inspired the scriptures does not detract from my understanding of the scriptures; it enriches my understanding. Moreover my conviction is that deepening this loving relationship is the very purpose of the scriptures. Blessings.

  3. Colloquially we say in my church that “God isn’t finished with us yet.” Meaning “us” as individuals and as a people.

    This may just come off as a cute saying, but I think it opens the door to the idea that there isn’t some end stasis point in the past development of God’s creation upon which we must all agree or lose salvation.

    I’m okay with the concept that scriptures that are thousands of years old contain some eternal truths and as well as some anachronistic ideas which a modern person might well say are “falsehoods.”

    Isn’t it ironic that the modern western scientific mindset that rejects the possibility of miracles is, in itself, a somewhat miraculous development?

    • and, Jonathan, rejecting the possibility of miracles is, of course Jonathan, not scientifically verifiable, but an act of faith 🙂 Blessings.

    • That’s great, Trevor. Thanks for the encouragement. And I think you know I don’t need people to agree with me – I like a world with difference in it 🙂 I hope you agree with me on that 😉 Blessings.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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