Saturday, January 1, 1994

Sex, the Bible, and the Bishops

Sex, the Bible, and the Bishops

An Examination of the Use of Scripture in the Proposed Pastoral Teaching of the Episcopal House of Bishops (1994)

By Stephen F. Noll

TWO years ago at the 1992 annual meeting of SEAD (Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine), I read a draft of my paper on "Reading the Bible as the Word of God," which was later submitted to the House of Bishops and then published in The Bible’s Authority in Today’s Church.(1) Much of the discussion that followed at the SEAD meeting centered on my use of the label "literal sense" to describe my position, with many advising that my using such a loaded term would prevent my view from being heard. My argument in response to that criticism followed these lines:

First, there is a real world-view battle in the Church and culture, with hermeneutics as the skirmish line, and thus it is important to have labels to identify particular viewpoints, even if those labels can be caricatured by one’s theological opponents. I asked for alternative labels that would capture the issue at hand and found that none are problem-free. I suggested that if "literal sense" is scandalous to many in the Church, including episcopal fence-sitters, that may be a strong Biblical argument for the label rather than against it. Ponder the following "proof-texts: Ezekiel 3:1-9; Mark 8:38; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5; Revelation 2:12-17.

Second, while the words "literal" and "literalism" carry unfortunate baggage from their attenuated use by rationalists and fundamentalists, they have the advantage of forging an unbreakable link between the words of Scripture (the litterae) and the God who speaks (the Logos). Furthermore, to rehabilitate the idea of a literal sense would have positive pastoral implications in restoring confidence that ordinary believers can read and understand the Bible without undue deference to the historical-critical or the philosophic-hermeneutical guild.

My friendly critics at SEAD were of course correct in one respect. Of the four papers presented to the House of Bishops, mine was the least understood and appreciated. In their desire to be inclusive, they commended my view of "plain sense" without counting the cost that the plain sense causes for the views advocated in the other papers. (See my critique of Charles Price’s "biblical" case in the book for the approval of homosexuality.[2]) On the other hand, it was clear that the bishops felt most comfortable with the "moderate" papers of Charles Price and Richard Norris. From the bishops’ reactions to the papers, one might conclude that in matters hermeneutical, there are three views: fundamentalist (me), radical/liberal, and via media Anglican.

The only two ways

Despite the short-term political advantages of seeing things this way in today’s conflicted Church climate, theologically , as I see it, there are two and only two ways of interpreting the Bible: the classic, or literal, view and the romantic-historicist view.

a) The classic view, whose heritage I traced as a scarlet thread from the pre-canonical authors and editors of Scripture to the present (see The Bible’s Authority, pp. 136-140), is based on the nature and revelation of a transcendent God who speaks, or even more, a God who in his very Person is the Word. This God has formed reality by his Word and man in his own image as hearer of the Word. The oracles spoken to Israel undergo a radical transformation with the coming of Jesus Christ the Logos incarnate. The great hermeneutical challenge to the apostolic writers is to testify to an in-breaking "new" Gospel which is nevertheless in continuity with the word of the Law and Prophets. The Church’s classic approach to Scripture, implicit in its creeds and confessions, is that there is a central verbal message, the Gospel , which participates in the very character of God and is necessary for salvation (Rom 1:16-17). It is because of the correspondence of God the Word, the written word of Scripture, and the reasonable character of the imago dei , that I chose the terms "literal sense" or "verbal inspiration" to characterize this view.

b) The romantic-historicist view is a fundamentally different approach in that it accepts as its starting point the Enlightenment critique of the epistemology of revelation. The proper starting point for human understanding, according to this view, is not a transcendent word of God, but human consciousness: I think, therefore I am. The historical-critical method is the tool by which reason debunks the supernatural claims of revelation and gets back to the merely human origins of the Bible.

The romantic-historicist accepts as his starting point the historical-critical critique but recoils against the reductionism of the enlightened despisers of religion and endeavors to find behind the God-talk of all religions a primitive God-consciousness, what Schleiermacher called the "feeling of absolute dependence" and Rudolf Otto the mysterium tremendum et fascinandum. According to romantic logic, I feel religious, therefore God is. It may seem strange to some that a Rudolf Bultmann could combine a highly skeptical attitude to the historical Jesus with a strong commitment to his version of the kerygma of authentic existence, but this is quite typical of romantic-historicism in full flower. In its Hegelian version, the historicist sees Christianity as the highest and most rational expression of this God-consciousness.

This view held sway through most of the nineteenth century. Twentieth century post-modern historicism retains the historicist doctrine of cultural relativism but has lost confidence that the decisive manifestation of the universal has occurred or can occur, though many earlier assumptions, such as the unquestionable justice of egalitarianism, linger on.

I appreciated the invitation to make my case in The Bible’s Authority in Today’s Church, and I felt that the choice between the classic and the romantic-historical views of the Bible was adequately offered there to those attuned to hermeneutical issues. At the House of Bishops meeting, I urged Bishop Borsch as editor to allow each author to write a pointed critique of the other positions so that readers might sense that there is a real debate going on. In my critiques (see pp. 203-210), I tried to address the authors’ foundational assumptions or key metaphors. Some readers may find my responses combative and uncharitable. If I am wrong about the fundamental seriousness of the theological debate, then I will accept the charge and repent in dust and ashes. But if I am right, then those seeking middle ground would be as unwise as St. John would have been to dialogue in the bath house with Cerinthus rather than fleeing in horror.(3)

The romantic teaching in action

It may be acceptable to pose conflicting views in a study book like The Bible’s Authority in Today’s Church, but such a strategy would be strange indeed in a "pastoral teaching" which is meant to give specific guidance to the flock. My argument in this paper is that the bishops’ recent draft teaching on human sexuality is fully in the romantic-historicist camp in its use of the Bible.

Human Sexuality: Continuing the Dialogue, as it is called, has gone through three drafts. The draft paper is unpublished but widely available in samizdat form, as well it should be. The third draft was not approved at the March 1994 House of Bishops meeting in Atlanta, for which we can breathe a small sigh of relief. It is unclear at this moment whether this report has been tabled permanently for political reasons, or whether it will reappear phoenix-like, also for political reasons.

Currently, there are rumors that a totally new draft by Bishop Parsons and Reginald Fuller has been submitted to the Sexuality Committee. What is clear is that if adopted in anything like its present form, the teaching would make de jure the de facto split within the Church on homosexuality and might well lead to a schism. If the report is adopted, for instance, what would be the legal status of a priest who turned away from Communion a notorious homosexual couple who then brought suit on grounds of discrimination, using the Bishops Pastoral Teaching as a statement of the official position of the Episcopal Church?

Let me summarize briefly the message of the Human Sexuality draft. Although the report reads like the proverbial camel concocted by a committee, its main points are clear enough:

1) It affirms monogamous lifelong marriage as the Church’s norm.2) It acknowledges the "discontinuous" experience of homosexuals.3) It offers pastoral legitimation and support for those homosexuals whose same-sex relationships approximate monogamy.

Superficially, these points may seem incompatible, but this impression hinges on a misunderstanding of their use of the word "norm," which does not seem to mean a rule that cannot be broken or even an ideal to be urged on all, but rather a majority practice , with full rights assured for the minority.(4) While they leave the door open to the possibility that some homosexuals may be unable to refrain from or change their practice, the English bishops declare this only as a concession, not as s discontinuity to the normative biblical teaching.

The bishops turn to biblical material in two sections. The first is labeled "A Traditional Christian Understanding" and is largely the work of John Westerhoff. The second section is an Appendix written by Frederick Borsch. Since there is much duplication in these sections, we might wonder why the appendix was necessary. My best guess is that it is an attempt to undergird the findings of the Bishops’ Sexuality Committee by the conclusions of the Theology Commission on the matter of biblical authority.

Westerhoff and Borsch on the Bible

As a contributor to the Theology Commission dialogue, I was interested to see which of the four viewpoints would be included and excluded in the pastoral teaching. In the words of liberation theology, I found myself to be a "voiceless one," whose position is to be found only in the lacunas and caricatures of the document.

For instance, Westerhoff states that "We [Anglicans] are not literalists or legalists, nor do we encourage the use of single passages as proof-texts for theological or ethical teachings. Rather, we understand the Scriptures to be a literary historical document. Each and every statement is historically conditioned and contextually specific. Therefore, each statement is in need of interpretation and reinterpretation so that it might speak to our concerns." (pp. 24-25, ll. 70-74) Since I went to great length to give a nuanced apologetic for the "literal sense," for the proper use of proof-texts, and for a subtle interweaving of literary, historical and truth dimensions of Scripture, I must conclude either that he had not read my contribution or still judged it to be simplistic and fundamentalistic.

Bishop Borsch’s appendix offers a somewhat more balanced appreciation, though again I find the classic view described in terms of the motives of its proponents rather than its own inherent logic. He writes: "For some Christians, the biblical verses cited above remain decisive against all homosexual practice. . . . They are concerned that the authority of the Bible, as they understand it, be upheld against interpretations based on in [ sic ] contemporary mores and understandings. But for others, these verses are heard in the context of the larger Christian teaching about the primacy of agape love and the radical, inclusive character of the Christian community." (pp. 72 2D73, ll. 216-22)

With its "yes, but. . ." construction, I interpret Borsch’s comments as a concession to the weak consciences of traditionalists but not an acknowledgement that their position has its own theological integrity. Careful exegesis and application of 1 Corinthians 8 might suggest that today’s liberationists like William Countryman are not standing in the place of St. Paul but in the place of those Corinthians who took an abstract principle such as "an idol has no existence" and turned it into opportunity for the flesh to parade as spirituality. (In passing, I might comment that the unexamined use of the word "sexuality" and its association with spirituality is an interesting example of the bishops dressing the Bible up in Freudian garb.)

Turning now to the actual use of the Bible in these two sections, let me pass swiftly over Westerhoff’s "traditional teaching" which is a collection of cliches (e.g. "tradition is alive and, therefore, always changing" p. 26, l. 108)(5), dubious etymologies (e.g., "procreate" implies continual creation), and dependence on oddball critical theories (e.g., that the Song of Solomon had its origins in Canaanite fertility cults)(6). I sometimes wish our theologians would do their homework by consulting some of the thorough commentaries produced by those liberals and evangelicals who are committed to literal exegesis.

Bishop Borsch’s appendix has several exegetical sleights of hand as well. He describes the sin of Sodom as attempted gang rape of angels, "another order of beings" (pp.71-72, ll.├║182-94). He is technically correct in this observation, but he misses the irony implicit in the text that the Sodomites are clamoring after the "men" who visited Lot. Far from being irrelevant, this passage reveals that to the Hebrews homosexual relations involve an offense against heaven, an unspeakable breach of cosmic order.(7) On the key Pauline prohibitions of homosexual practice, he correctly argues that for Paul "false worship leads to wrongful behavior" without correlating it to Paul’s other statement that practitioners of immorality cannot be genuine worshipers, i.e., enter the Kingdom of God.

The strained exegesis of particular texts is characteristic of contemporary readings that seek to salvage literal texts in support of ideological causes. But exegetical revisionism is, as I see it, mainly a backup tactic in romantic-historicist hermeneutics. More characteristic of "post-modern" readings is the argument that texts, or the Bible as a whole, do not have an original, coherent meaning and are thus vessels for new meaning. In my position paper, I labeled this the grab-bag approach; the interpreter reaches into the rich treasure of Scripture and chooses themes and metaphors for present use. Along the same line, Walter Brueggemann, in Texts under Negotiation, refers to the Bible as the "compost pile that provides material for new life."(8)

Countryman’s reconstruction

Just as Bultmann used the shock of demythologizing to gain a hearing for his reconstruction of biblical theology, so revisionists begin by asserting the radical diversity of particular authors and texts in the Bible. This is the basic method used by William Countryman in his Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? Scripture and the Christian Pilgrimage.(9) In refuting fundamentalists who think the Bible is perfectly clear, Countryman claims that "no one theological system can adequately represent the Scriptures" because "what God has given us, instead, is a word that prompts more questions than it answers" (p. 2).

Thus, according to Bishop Borsch, "it is a mistake to think of the Bible as presenting only one religion" (p. 69, l.80). Similarly, pastoral guideline #4 reads: "While there is no single biblical sexual ethic, the ideal found in the Holy Scriptures of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union." The bishops seem to be making a distinction between an ethical commands, which are radically diverse, and moral ideals which are non-binding universally. In supporting his claim that the Bible does not present one religion, he states: "Religious practices and even many beliefs vary and change from the time of a wandering desert tribe to the era of temple worship, through exile and return, with emphases on kingship, prophecy, priesthood and wisdom teaching." For the New Testament, he then contrasts the gospels of John and Matthew, and the epistles to the Corinthians and Hebrews. Similarly, pastoral guideline #2 asserts that "there is no single biblical sexual ethic" (p. 64, l.52).

Having shaken the believer’s confidence in the "plain sense" or the unified message of Scripture, the grab-bag interpreter then proposes a new synthesis which will reclaim the newly lost faith of the believer in the Bible. This new synthesis can take an authoritarian or a communitarian form:

a) The Biblical theologian can assign a ranking of biblical themes, e.g., the love commandment over the purity rules, or he can select a key metaphor or trajectory with particular contemporary relevance; or

b) The Bible-reading community can determine inductively how the text speaks to them in their particular context.

Borsch sees these approaches to authority as complementary. Having debunked traditionalist synthetic readings, he offers a "larger teaching" that one can find in Scripture: worship of the one and only God (p. 69, ll. 87-92) and inclusive agape love (p. 73, ll. 221). This contemporary rule of faith would be precisely what a properly inclusive Bible-reading community, "open to a diversity of voices, women and men, different races and ethnicities, ages, orientations, well-to-do and poor," would discover. There is a circular argument here, undergirded by the romantic-historicist assumption that ethnicities, genders, and cultures carry their own peculiar consciousness. In fact, Borsch’s "diverse" community of Bible readers would have to be united beforehand in their theological assumptions if they were to come up with anything other than a cacophony of interpretations. One might fantasize, for instance on how a genuinely diverse Bible study group including Camille Paglia, Rush Limbaugh, Louis Farrakhan, Madonna, and Mother Theresa, might read the texts on sex.

I find that revisionists like Bishop Borsch usually exaggerate the diversity within the biblical witnesses and then offer an overly simple "religious" common core. For all its post-modern tone, Borsch’s larger teaching on monolatry and agape sounds suspiciously like Harnack’s simple religion of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, appropriately degendered. In contrast to this approach, I would commend the immense critical research and theological wrestling in the writings of Brevard Childs, especially in his crowning work, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments.(10) Like Barth’s dogmatics at mid-century, Childs provides a current example of the classic tradition of faith seeking understanding in the post-higher critical age. Childs has been so bold as to tread in the territory of both Old and New Testament specialists and now systematic theologians.

Brevard Childs’ hermeneutics

The final area I would hope to see him develop is hermeneutics, where his essay on "the literal sense of Scripture" is suggestive but need of further elaboration.(11) Childs, following the classic Reformation principle of the intrinsic clarity and authority of Scripture, argues that the existence of the canon implies that "the authoritative norm lies in the literature itself as it has been treasured, transmitted and transformed — of course in constant relation to the object to which it bears witness — and not in ‘objectively’ reconstructed stages of the process" (p. 71).

While Childs unashamedly theologizes from the canon of "the Christian Bible," he also argues that "at the heart of the problem of Biblical Theology lies the issue of doing full justice to the subtle canonical relationship of the two testaments within the one Christian Bible" (p. 78). While it is true that many classic readers have been insensitive to the integrity of the Old Testament, it is even more the case, in my opinion, that contemporary libertines, from Bultmann to Countryman, treat the Old Testament doctrine of creation and commandment as an inferior and even sinful example of patriarchal oppression, to be overcome not fulfilled. I often find myself much more sympathetic with Jewish exegetes when it comes to the moral implications of the Bible.

I mentioned in my position paper the view of Meir Sternberg that "Biblical narrative is virtually impossible to counter-read. The essentials are made transparent to call comers: the story line, the world order, the value system."(12)


In conclusion, I have tried to sketch the outline of the great hermeneutical divide that faces the Church as illustrated in the bishops’ recent draft of their pastoral letter on human sexuality. Not only are the implications of this divide immense in terms of Bible study and doctrine, but the pastoral implications are equally important. The bishops say that "physical acts in and of themselves do not constitute a salvation issue" (p. 64, ll. 46-47). The literal words of Scripture point in just the opposite direction: "Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10).

So if you are counseling a person struggling with sexual temptation, which authority do you accept? You can salve your conscience with the bishops’ pastoral teaching, but will that stand up to the sword of God’s word of judgment which leads to true forgiveness? This is not to deny that the actual pastoral application of biblical principles must be done wisely and mercifully.(13)

If I sound extreme, even hysterical, in raising "the salvation issue" involved in hermeneutics, this may be a sign of how far we have come in our Church from the days when the bishop at his ordination was asked: "Are you persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain all Doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? Are you determined out of the same Holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge; and to teach or maintain nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which may be concluded and proved by the same?"

Can the bishops of the Church conclude and prove that sexual practices in direct contradiction of specific biblical injunctions are "not a salvation issue"? I don’t think they can, and the recent draft on human sexuality is woefully inadequate by classic standards of interpretation and application. My hope is that theological criticism and not merely political expediency will lead them to reject the present direction of their counsel. My fear is that the bishops’ minds are hermeneutically sealed. We shall see.


(1) Edited by Frederick H. Borsch (Trinity Press International, 1993) pp. 133-67.

(2) Ibid., pp. 203-205.

(3) See Irenaeus, Adversus omnes Haereses. 3.3.4.

(4) Cf. Issues in Sexuality : A Statement of the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, issued in December 1991 (Morehouse, 1991).

(5) Cf. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1986) p. 92, on the moral tradition: "To learn radically new moral truth is to change the shape of the whole outlook. One cannot add moral truth to moral truth; one can only repent false perceptions of the moral order and turn to truer ones."

(6) Cf. Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs (Doubleday, 1977), but cf. Roland H. Murphy, The Song of Songs (Fortress Press/Hermeneia, 1990).

(7) See Susan Niditch, "The ‘Sodomite’ Theme in Judges 19-20: Family, Community and Social Disintegration," CBQ 44 (1982) pp. 368-369.

(8) Texts under negotiation: The Bible and the Postmodern Imagination (Fortress Press, 1993) p. 61.

(9) Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? Scripture and the Christian Pilgrimage (Trinity Press International, rev. ed. 1993).

(10) Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress Press, 1993).

(11) See "The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem," in Beitr├┐auge zur Alttestamentlichen Theologie (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1977) pp. 74-79.

(12) The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Indiana University Press, 1985) pp. 50-51. For a contemporary appraisal of the normative character of the Jewish understanding of homosexuality, see Dennis Praeger, "Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality," Crisis (September, 1993) pp. 29-36. On the other hand Jacob Milgrom, "Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality," Biblical Review (Dec. 1993) p. 11, takes the nominalist view that the levitical laws apply only to Jewish males.

(13) See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Spiritual Care (Fortress Press, 1985) pp. 30-44, of the mission of spiritual care in leading from advice to proclamation.

I wrote this in response to a report to the 1994 General Convention. I raised issues that continue to be relevant ten years later. Copyright 1999 Stephen F. Noll.

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