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Posted by on Sep 1, 2014 | 11 comments

Vicky Beeching, Evangelical Identity, and the Clarity of Scripture

Evangelical identity, which has always relied on the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, is being threatened by the growing rift in opinions about same-sex marriage. This may force evangelicals to discover something about hermeneutics which their brothers and sisters in other denominations have known for quite some time: that what seems ‘clear’ in the Bible is dependent on the perspective we have absorbed from our culture.

The nearest lamp-post always looks biggest.

The nearest lamp-post always looks biggest.

Vicky Beeching’s recent decision to come out has provoked a storm of opinion in the evangelical scene. The violence of the rhetoric is troubling from the point of view of Christian witness, as Ryan Cook has aptly observed. But such reactions are not surprising when we realise that, for many evangelicals, their very identity is being challenged.

Traditionally, evangelicalism has defined itself exclusively by means of the Bible. You can identify an evangelical as someone who believes what the Bible says, plain and simple. This kind of boundary-drawing relies heavily on the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of Scripture, the belief that the Bible is clear to the ordinary reader – at least, clear in the essentials.

So what are the “essentials” of evangelical faith? By definition, they are the things the Bible is clear on. So if anything in the Bible can be interpreted more than one way, it automatically becomes non-essential. Disagreement on an issue thus becomes its own basis for relegating it to secondary importance. As Vicky’s recent interview demonstrated, this logic forces traditionalists to continually reassert the clarity of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, and liberals to continually reassert the reality of multiple perspectives.

Both of these assertions dramatically miss the point.

First, contra traditionalists, to assert the clarity of Scripture is to assume that everyone who disagrees with your interpretation must be blind, stupid, or evil. It is like saying that the lamp-post nearest you is “clearly” bigger than all the others down the street. Anyone holding this doctrine may themselves be humble, but the doctrine itself implies a position of arrogance which is profoundly unChristian. It is also no way to have an argument with someone to say that your opinion is ‘clearly’ the right one.

Second, contra liberals, it is not enough to say that there are multiple perspectives on the Bible. Throughout the history of the Church there have always been multiple perspectives, and not all of them were considered legitimately Christian. The fourth-century debate about the divinity of Christ was not an argument about whether to believe Scripture, but about which interpretation was most Christian. Both sides quoted Scripture with equal enthusiasm. Even today, there are plenty of Christians who deny Christ’s divinity on purely biblical terms, which is a position more logically consistent with evangelicalism than we might be comfortable with.

Both sides need to face the reality that our cultural perspective has a bigger impact on our biblical interpretation than any of us would like to think. The lens through which we read Scripture is thicker than we imagined it was. To admit this requires humility, courage and honesty, as we turn inwards and face our own motivations for believing what we believe.

We are finite creatures with a limited viewpoint, and recognising this is the first step towards growing a more mature viewpoint. But fortunately, we are not alone. I believe that studying interpretations of Scripture in different cultures and ages throughout the history of the Church may expose some of the parochial assumptions in our hermeneutic. This is a fancy way of saying that the Christian tradition – considered prayerfully and humbly – may contain wisdom which is essential to help us interpret the Bible well.

Further Reading

My favourite evaluation of recent events is the already mentioned article by Ryan Cook.

There is some general wisdom and insight on sexuality in this powerful essay by Rowan Williams.

Wesley Hill has recently written an excellent analysis of some current trends in opinion.

Vicky Beeching has a list of resources (mainly for liberals) in her recent blog.

The patient, careful work of Matthew Anderson is a must read.

Finally, this blog has already discussed issues of sexuality – one by myself and one by Kevin.

 

 

 

 

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Barney

Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Ben W

    I enjoyed reading your article, Barney. I think you’ve got a good handle on the issues at hand, and I wish more evangelicals were as thoughtful. I have one question though. Would you say believing in a rigorous application of the traditional historical-critical method to exegete texts is essentially a reliance on the clarity of Scripture and thus a position of arrogance?

    • LA Green

      traditional historical-critical method? Would you mind further explanation of that ideas sense it’s one of the newest methods used to interpret scripture?

    • Robyn Boeré

      I think that you are misunderstanding what Barney means by the “clarity of scripture.” The doctrine of perspicuity holds that the Bible is clear to the reader as it is written, without need for contextual study, linguistic analysis, or an interpretive framework. The historical-critical method seeks to understand the text’s historical context, and its literal meaning within that context. Applied to scripture, this goes against the belief of clarity, because the doctrine of perspicuity holds that such study is unnecessary. The idea of ‘clarity’ should not be confused with the idea that the Bible contains truth, or that the Bible conveys particular information.

      • Thanks for this excellent and important question, Ben. I have several thoughts on this but they’re not fully organised so I’m just going to splurge.

        Robyn is right that the way evangelicals understand perspicuity now is in such a way that precludes prolonged “specialist” study because such would militate against the very purpose of the doctrine. I have heard one leader of an evangelical network in Europe put it this way: “historical criticism takes the Bible away from the common people once again, and the biblical scholars become the new high priests mediating truth.” (personally I think this statement confuses the idea of democracy with the idea that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.”)

        However, when Luther originally set forth the doctrine of perspicuity, he didn’t preclude historical criticism. In fact, Luther’s doctrine was meant to safeguard the Bible’s accessibility to “ordinary historical methods” without any special pleading of sacred mystery unique to the Bible OR the mediating powers of priests.

        It seems to me that historical criticism is an essential-but-not-enough-by-itself part of biblical interpretation (“necessary but not sufficient” is I think the analytic phrase). It deal with “one end of the problem” (citing Thistelton, Two Horizons, chapter 1) but not the other.

        Historical criticism can become arrogant in one of 3 ways:

        1. By assuming a “scientific progress” narrative, whereby everyone in the pre-critical era was ignorant, their interpretations have been superseded and are now obsolete. We now understand better than ever the “right” way to interpret Scripture, and need pay no attention to any previous interpretations.

        2. By forgetting the “other end of the problem” (i.e. contemporary application) and thinking that all we need to do to understand the text is put it in its historical context. This leads to a long list of things the Bible DOESN’T mean about how we should live today, without any insight into what it DOES mean. Have you noticed that trend in much evangelical biblical scholarship? It’s better at deconstructing false applications than producing its own, and even the ones it does produce are often overturned five years later by another biblical scholar’s “rigorous exegesis.”

        3. By making biblical scholarship a matter of individual achievement, rather than an academic community. This is such an easy mistake to fall into, because each bible scholar wins her spurs by focusing on a tiny fragment of the biblical text, which ends up being the main thing they focus on AND something they know more about than most other biblical scholars. The whole gospel is then forced through the narrow lens of that one bible passage, and the insights from other scholars are unintentionally forgotten in the process. It leads to the impression that this particlular bible passage is the centre of the gospel, the only really important part of it. Every controversial issue is evaluated by what this bible passage offers, and strong opinions on every subject abound.

        To relate these things back to the topic at hand, I think that historical criticism needs to be the servant, not the master, of the church. If historical criticism is practiced within ecclesial bounds (as Richard Hays says in his forthcoming book) then this does much to prevent the above three problems. In short, like everything else, it needs to know its rightful place in the counsel of God and not try to exceed that place.

  • Barney, I am afraid that your conclusion—”the Christian tradition . . . may contain wisdom”—is all wax and no wick.

    First, I am not sure how resourcing the tradition follows on from your stated position on the clarity of scripture, i.e. Christian texts are open to interpretation, yet the legitimacy of such interpretations is not a given. It is no doubt a possible conclusion, but It seems to me that it is just as possible to endeavor the Christian life with as much “humility, courage and honesty” without dusting off participatory ontology et al.

    Secondly, I surmise that this post was not written with as much of the aforementioned courage and honesty as it could have been. “The Christian tradition *may contain” wisdom”? Come now, Barney, I think the world would be better served if you moved out from this modal equivocation and nailed your colors to the mast.

    • Ryan Cook

      This made me laugh out loud, for real.

      • Robyn Boeré

        I was just about to write the same thing; I also laughed out loud. Ryan Kelley: calling it like it is!

      • Ryan Cook

        Ryan Kelly is a regular comedian!

    • Ryan, thank you for this push out of my comfort zone! You have a reliable dissatisfaction with inconclusive conclusions 🙂

      The point I was attempting to make was a simple one to do with expanding our cultural horizons. We learn more about a text by finding out other ways people have read it in the past. Not only that, but we learn about the assumptions we’ve been making all along about how to read it that we weren’t aware of. Theoretically, future interpretations would serve the same purpose as well as traditional ones would, except we don’t have access to them.

      It is certainly possible to begin endeavouring the Christian life with humility, courage, and honesty. But sooner or later you will bump into someone else who is also endeavouring the Christian life, and in a way that is different from yourself. It seems to me that if your endeavour really is marked with those virtues, then they will compel you to take seriously any conflict between the two interpretations of “living the Christian life.” This always has the potential to lead to revisions in your way of doing it. The tradition, from this perspective, is just a handy repository of other ways of living the Christian life that are worth listening to.

      As for nailing my colors to the mast – I hope that it is not due to a lack of courage. Probably the time will come to do so soon. In the meantime, I think it is legitimate to make use of a particular contemporary controversy to make a point about evangelical controversy in general – and if that is my aim, then stating my own opinion about the particular controversy would only distract from my central point.

      • Matthew J Thomas

        And then, we will have a new Ryan Cook mini-series: “The Trial of Barnabas Aspray”!

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  • lj517

    Yep – great article! So refreshing to read as someone who identifies as a gay evangelical Christian.

    I can be just as conservative theologically and in my ethics (waiting till marriage, opinions about pornography, monogamy, marrying a Christian) as any straight evangelical Christian. I love Jesus, I love the church, I love the study of scripture and I love sharing Jesus with others and want to build Gods kingdom on earth.

    But when talking even with more progressive evangelicals, they tend to label you as immediately “liberal” for being ok with same sex relationships. Because “the bible is clear” even if you use the same historical-critical method. Even if its very reasoned biblically and your decision is based in devotion and love for God, they still immediately cast you off as liberal. Cornelius’ story in the bible is my encouragement for moments like that.

    And the dilemma exists everyday as a gay evangelical, because no I don’t want to give up personal holiness as a goal and live by a cheap grace. Jesus demands something of us and there is truth. We are to be disciples and there is a cost. Yes the cost of discipleship for gay christians is penis and often hot men who will distract. But often you are exiled and forced to believe that your only option as a Christian is to be a liberal.

    I believe in there being an answer on things biblically. And the answer for me on being gay is that same sex relationships are not sinful as a thing. But how I act within my relationships is.