THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
Recently, there was discussion on this site about reading the Scriptures “in the grain of itself”. Reference was made to Article 20 of the 39 Articles of Religion: “neither may [the Church] so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”.
The question that immediately springs to mind in reading the discussion is: does the Bible have such a “grain”?
And, not to beat about the bush, my blog-post-size answer is: no.
Let’s leave to one side the particular Reformation context that the 39 Articles were addressing, and the ripping of the expound-repugnantly point out of the particular article’s context.
Let’s also leave to one side the inability of the Bible even to define its own content, and the different Christian listings of what “the Scriptures” refers to.
Of interest to me and others is that an analogous process to that of the evolution of texts into our Bible lies behind the development of our church leadership structures, sacramental, and liturgical life – an area, possibly similarly normative, that this article appears to have in a blind spot. Let’s leave that to the side also.
So, let’s turn to the contention that the Bible has a “grain”.
Even within the New Testament, covering a relatively short period in comparison with the Scriptures as a whole, and within a relatively homogenous community, spend a little time with such works as that of James Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and, if one is honest (as that author is) we find a set of documents with differing viewpoints. The intersection of the New Testament sets (says James Dunn) is small – Jesus.
Go beyond the New Testament, and the Bible, again if one is honest, soon presents greater conflicts and contradictions, and an often-cantankerous and possibly immoral deity (or deities!).
On the issue du jour, “Biblical Marriage”, the Bible itself has some strong commands:
Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. The elders of that town shall take the man and punish him; they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver (which they shall give to the young woman’s father) because he has slandered a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife; he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
Article 20 yourself out of that one!
Rather than contorting the biblical texts to make them fit into some sort of cooked-up homogenous teaching, let us be honest with the complexity of the scriptural texts and their history and cultural context, and rejoice if we can see a trajectory through which God is speaking to us into our day.
Ps. The consoling part of Article 20? If for our salvation we are required to believe all that is clearly taught consistently from end to end of the Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Bible – then that is a very small core indeed. 🙂