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Comments on “A Question of Interpretation”

Susannah Macready

“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.”

—Mark Twain [1]

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.

Which Christian?

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 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.” [13] It 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.

[1] Quoted in D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1996), 57.

[2] Timotheos Roussos, “A Question of Interpretation” in Philament 1. All subsequent references to this article are indicated by page numbers incorporated in the text.

[3] Space allows only the briefest treatment of this subject. For a more detailed and scholarly exposition of this protestant hermeneutic, see Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988)

[4] The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984 [1978]).

[5] See, for example, Romans 8:9: “However, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit is God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” New American Standard Bible (Anaheim, California: Foundation Publications, 1997).

[6] This statement requires significant qualification. Although each individual has the Holy Spirit, authority is still not invested in the individual, but in the apostolic teachings which are, ideally, upheld by the church as a body. Questions about the authority to interpret are difficult and practices do vary from one Protestant church to another. I do not pretend to have said the final word on the subject.

[7] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997rpt), 31.

[8] Watson, A Body of Divinity, 31.

[9] This does not obviate the need for interpreters to use their reason, but that reason is a tool, not an authority.

[10] For a more thorough exposition of this principle, see D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1996), 102–105.

[11] No doubt in some church circles it is necessary to warn against over-simplification, condemnatory behaviour, and self-righteousness, but an academic journal does not seem to be the right place for such warnings, since the audience which needs it most will not be reached. Perhaps, however, Roussos has encountered over-simplification in this matter as a pervasive scholarly fault.

[12] See, for example, the different commands to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22-33, the separate responsibilities of slaves and masters in Colossians 3:22-4:1, and God’s particular concern for the Jewish people implied in Romans 9–11.

[13] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” in Collected Essays (London: Mercury Books, 1961), 340.

Susannah Macready completed her undergraduate degree with 1st 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.