The researches of many commentators have thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.
Timotheos Roussos’s article in the September 2003 issue of Philament is not on my favourite topic. Human sexuality is too personal an issue for any but the most detached theoretician to take up with much objectivity, and such detachment is not necessarily even desirable. However, Roussos’s article will not go unanswered, since it raises methodological issues which concern every writer and thinker. As Roussos argues, the question of homosexuality in the Bible is one of interpretation, and interpretation is what I would like to examine here. I will not offer much comment upon the results of Roussos’s interpretation, since that cannot be done effectively until the method of interpretation is clarified.
Roussos does “not claim impartiality.”2 I do not ask him to; rather, I admire his honesty, and I do not claim it myself. This does not, however, negate the existence of objective truth, or even the possibility of our knowing it. I am not a trained theologian, or even a linguist, and am without the knowledge of Greek which Roussos brings to his consideration of the subject. I am writing as a Christian and a scholar of English literature. As both, I have had to deal with questions of interpretation for many years.
The Christian community is very diverse, and Roussos has chosen to refute a position that not all Christians, perhaps not even most Christians, would defend. Roussos’ ‘conservative Christians’ are supposed to “make the claim that they do not interpret scripture but merely take it for what it says” (10). Furthermore, according to Roussos, “[t]hey believe that the words in whichever Biblical translation they happen to prefer mean exactly what they mean today” (10).
Frankly, this position is hardly worth refuting. I am a conservative Christian, and I would gladly undertake to refute it myself, and save any other critic the trouble. The Christians one really has to deal with, if one holds a position like Roussos’s, would not talk such nonsense. Of course one must interpret. Of course one needs a detailed study of the Bible in its original languages and of the etymologies and usages of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words. For a Protestant, the notion that one should “take for granted the teachings passed on to them by religious teachers and preachers” (10) is absurd, although in practice this certainly occurs.
The Uniqueness of Biblical Interpretation
The hermeneutic that this article describes places itself within the Protestant tradition, but is more accurately designated “Calvinist.” It is rather more complicated than the position which Roussos outlines. 3 It acknowledges the possibility of conflicting interpretations, and assigns a final “casting vote.” It realises that there are parts of Scripture which are more difficult to interpret than others, and yet does not give way to a clerical monopoly on interpretation. In seventeenth-century England, the doctrines underpinning this hermeneutic were advocated by Puritan writers such as Thomas Watson, whose Body of Divinity I have taken as a representative text.
In this hermeneutic the main principles are those of divine authorship of the Bible and divine authority over the interpretation of it. The Bible is the inspired word of God, ‘God-breathed’, as the New International Version has it (2 Timothy 3:16).4 It has authority in all the matters upon which it speaks. As such, it is its own interpreter. The logic of this is that the Bible, being divinely inspired, cannot be interpreted by anything that is less than divine. The individual Christian has, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit living in them,5 and so is qualified to test interpretations.6Thomas Watson expounded the principle this way:
The scripture is to be its own interpreter, or rather the Spirit speaking in it. Nothing can cut the diamond but the diamond; nothing can interpret Scripture but Scripture.7
This view is opposed to a Roman Catholic or similar view in which church leaders may give authoritative interpretations. Protestant ministers may give interpretations, but they cannot impose them upon people; they do not have that authority. Thomas Watson again is a good exponent of the classic Calvinist position:
We are to receive nothing for truth but what is agreeable to the Word. As God has given to his ministers gifts for interpreting obscure places, so he has given to his people so much of the spirit of discerning that they can tell (at least in things necessary to salvation) what is consonant to Scripture, and what is not.8
Notice a few features of this position. Firstly, human reason is not particularly emphasised. To make human reason the interpreter of Scripture would be to subjugate the divine authority to a fallen human one, thus negating the whole idea of having divine revelation at all.9 Second, the individual Christian has a duty to read and interpret Scripture, applying it to his/her own life. If there is uncertainty on an important matter, a Christian is obliged, or at the very least strongly encouraged, to investigate it. Whether it originates in oppression or laziness, a clerical monopoly on interpretation is not acceptable to the Protestant mind. Third, only those who have the Holy Spirit (that is, all Christians, according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 8:9) are considered qualified to interpret, since for others to do so would again set human authority over the divine. No human, unaided by God, can correctly interpret Scripture. In this sense, Scripture is in a category of its own when it comes to interpretation.
Common Principles of Interpretation
Leaving aside the unique position of Scripture, there are some common-sense standards of interpretation which apply both to the Bible and to texts in general. It is not necessary to offer proof of these standards, since the very fact that we communicate to each other with the expectation of being understood should make them irrefutable.10 Interpretation should avoid pessimism about the possibility of certainty. It should be logical, and avoid drawing conclusions that are not warranted, imposing onto texts meanings that are strained. Interpretation should aim to clarify rather than darken the subject in hand; its language should make the interpreter’s own intentions clear. A belief that on these principles rests the meaningfulness of any academic pursuit is what leads me to challenge parts of Roussos’ article.
Pessimism about the possibility of certainty pervades Roussos’ article. Surely if anything is unnecessary in the current intellectual climate, it is a demonstration of ‘the complexities of using the Bible to condemn or justify one’s beliefs and behaviours.’ (10) If the last few decades of Theory have proved nothing else, they have at least made it clear that the relationship of texts to social conditions and expectations is anything but simple, and that interpretation is a serious undertaking, requiring, at the least, great care and skill.11 Roussos’ method in one place is to introduce two possible readings of the text, and then to conclude that ‘[t]he meaning and the intent of the passage are both unclear and highly contested.’ (6) It is true, obviously, that they are “highly contested”, but, one could probably argue, that is also true of the notion that the Earth is roughly spherical. One cannot prove that the passage is unclear until one has actually weighed the evidence, which Roussos has not done in this paragraph, other than saying that the second reading ‘seems both reasonable and plausible’ (6). The conflict, per se, proves almost nothing. If Roussos had led his readers through an intricate and detailed maze of commentary to any actual conclusions about the matter in hand, it would have been better. As it is, however, his chief method seems to have been to introduce opposing views on both sides and draw from this the conclusion that the issue is complex.
In some readings, Roussos seems to stretch the meaning of the verses. This passage is worth quoting at length:
But in the light of the Galatians verse, the vision [Peter’s vision in Acts 10] becomes even more significant and inclusive. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) This seems the most convincing argument. Jesus has broken down ethnic, socio-economic, and sexual/gender barriers. If one believes and follows Christ there is no condemnation. Gay people have the same access to God’s grace, salvation and eternal life as anyone else. Jesus said, “I you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31b-32) (9)
The rest of the New Testament, with all its varied instructions to different types of people (slaves, masters, husbands, wives, etc.) should be enough to demonstrate that Galatians 3:28 does not mean that every distinction is now obsolete.12 Even so, the distinctions mentioned are not ones of sexuality, and it is only by blending “sexual” with “gender” that Roussos introduces the impression that this distinction is somehow included in the list. No one can deny that “Gay people have the same access to God’s grace . . . ” (9) but that access is on the condition of faith in God and repentance from sin. The question to be established is whether homosexual practice is a sin, not whether God is willing to accept repentant people. His willingness to forgive is axiomatic. Our willingness to repent is highly questionable.
At one point in particular, Roussos’ otherwise relatively balanced assessment does not give a fair hearing to the classic Christian view. This is in his discussion of the Levitical injunctions against homosexual practice (5). It may be helpful to point out that there is a long-standing and very supportable reason for Christians not following some of the laws in the Old Testament. The distinction is between the ceremonial and moral laws. Those laws which have a basis in creation (including laws about acceptable sexual practices) are summarised in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and are considered as lasting for as long as the human race lasts. They have to do with the way we are made. They constitute the moral law. The ceremonial laws, on the other hand—sacrifices, food laws, etc.—were there to foreshadow Christ’s coming, when all of that elaborate system will be fulfilled by his sacrificial, atoning, cleansing death. Thus the moral law (including laws about sexual practice) is binding, whereas now that the fulfilment has come, the ceremonial law is not.
Although I admire Roussos’s style, he is the perpetrator of a few fuzzy expressions which imply more than (I hope) he means. He begins, “The Bible has been used to dictate behaviour and social/cultural practice in a wide variety of areas from piety to diet to sexuality” (1). This opening sentence, while quite true, seems to imply that the Bible is nothing more than a political tool, wielded by the powerful or irresponsible for the purpose of oppressing those less educated or able. This thrusts into the background the question of what the Bible actually says. Undoubtedly the Bible has “been used to dictate behaviour” (1), but the real question is whether it can bear the interpretations thus demanded of it. My contention is that the Bible itself is what does the dictating.
The word “ideology” is a kind of academic catch-all that is rapidly losing value. In George Orwell’s formulation, it is “dying.”13It may be my own mental density, but I fail to understand what Roussos means when he writes that the Bible “has been used for ideological ends” (1). Does he mean to imply, as is usual with the word, that the given “ideology” is a relative position, not capable of proof, argument, or rational discussion? Or does he mean “political ends”? This statement either means “people have used the Bible to bolster opinions which have no demonstrable basis in fact” or “people have used the Bible to gain political power.” Either is probably true, but both are red herrings – the use of any text cannot change its meaning or even disprove its authority. That is something that needs to be established from the text itself, the intent (I use that word deliberately) of its author(s), and the extent to which its claims are commensurate with reality as we know it.
Thoughts in Conclusion
There are some points on which Roussos and I agree. For example, we agree that the solutions offered by Lot (Genesis 19) and by the Levite (Judges 19) are obviously immoral, violent, and sickening – not solutions at all. We would also agree that Jesus’ promises in the gospel apply to all people, without exception. So do the conditions of those promises – faith and repentance – but that is a discussion for another article.
This article is not without its faults. To be a really effective response, it would need to deal in much greater detail with all of the arguments that Roussos puts forward about specific Biblical passages. Neither space nor my limited expertise will allow this. My exposition of the Puritan/Calvinist hermeneutic is also inadequate. What this article does advocate is a standard of interpretation and scholarship which must be the basis of any debate. However, academe is one of the few places left where contradiction is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly write with that principle in mind.
About the Author
Susannah Macready completed her undergraduate degree with first-class honours in English Literature at the University of Sydney, where she is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and its engagement with seventeenth-century American Puritan Theology. She holds a Graduate Diploma in Education from The University of New England and balances her undergraduate teaching with occasional visits to the high-school classroom.