The Bible as a wordsearch puzzle book

Wordsearch gridThe debate continues. In my recent post about same-sex relationships I accused Susie Leafe, Director of Reform, of making five errors about the Bible. In the comments at the bottom of the clatworthy edition (it isn’t in the Modern Church one) is a defence of Susie by Philip Almond and an invitation to continued dialogue.

I’m torn. Part of me feels angry that anyone should use such complicated systems to make the Bible mean what they want it to mean. The other part welcomes dialogue as our best hope of the two sides making progress. So I offer a general overview of the two most common ways to interpret the Bible, leaving to the end – as a kind of appendix – my detailed replies to Philip.

Two ways to read the Bible

Philip takes a sentence from a vision by an 8th century BC prophet, notes a reference to it in a first century AD gospel, and by combining the two deduces a conclusion that neither texts says.

Similarly, from Paul’s claim that his ‘gospel’ had been taught him through a revelation from Jesus, Philip deduces that everything Paul taught must have been taught to him by Jesus; so despite the lack of any texts saying so, Jesus did, after all, teach that same-sex partnerships are immoral.

This is what I mean by a ‘wordsearch puzzle book’ reading of the Bible. The deductions are ‘biblical’ if and only if his method of interpretation is the right way to read it.

I’m presenting my responses publicly because it isn’t just Philip. I have no reason to assume that Philip is stupid or uneducated. I am guessing that he has been miseducated, since a great many people have been miseducated in the same way.

Contextual readings

There are two common, but contrasting, traditions of biblical interpretation. Let’s call them a ‘contextual’ approach and a ‘miraculous’ approach. I describe them in much greater detail in my Liberal Faith in a Divided Church .

The contextual approach assumes that each biblical text was originally written for the sort of reason people wrote things down in their time and place. Later they got preserved because people found them valuable, and over time they earned a place as old, venerated scriptures. If nobody had found them inspiring they would not have been preserved.

This does not mean every statement in them is accurate. The point is that each text, as a whole, was judged to be inspired and therefore worth keeping.

Nor does it mean the scriptures provide answers to every relevant question. On the contrary, what makes people value their scriptures is that they are fruitful – that is, that their insights lead to further insights which may not have occurred to the original authors. So just as Euclidian geometry has developed far beyond what Euclid taught, the Christian tradition, by reflecting on the Bible, came to oppose slavery even though the Bible does not explicitly condemn it.

In this contextual tradition, the Bible is a basic resource for Christians, the ‘canon of scripture’, the roots of our tradition out of which the changing face of Christianity has grown.

Miraculous readings

What I am calling the ‘miraculous’ tradition takes little or no interest in the human authors. The assumption is that the texts say what God wanted them to say. In effect God is the real author.

This changes their significance. The texts of Scripture are now quite unlike any other texts. As Reform’s statement of beliefs puts it, ‘God’s word written’ has ‘infallibility and supreme authority’. Three principles follow.

  1. Every statement in it must be true.
  2. It contains answers to all questions on matters of Christian faith. If we do not find the answers easily we must search for them.
  3. The answers are clear. Human historical and literary studies cannot improve on God’s revelation but can mislead.

These principles follow pretty inevitably from the assumption of divine authorship, but they conflict with each other. If every statement in the Bible is true, then every statement must be given not its ‘clear’, most obvious meaning but a meaning that does not contradict any other biblical statement.

Within Christian Protestantism, therefore, the attempt to defend this ‘miraculous’ theory of the Bible has produced five centuries of analysis designed to interpret each text in such a way as to suppress contradictions.

So when Philip claims that disagreements arise ‘because the Bible is not being believed and/or read with sufficient care’, he really means it is not being interpreted in the manner to which he is accustomed.

Exegesis of Philip’s exegesis

I now turn to the details. On my account Susie’s five errors occur in the following statements:

If we follow the teachings of Jesus and we believe that he is God, then what he says is eternal. It’s not something that is fixed in time… And it doesn’t mean that if you’re not married, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, that you can’t have a fulfilled life. Jesus himself was a single celibate man.

1) Jesus as God

Me first time: The Bible never describes Jesus as God just like that.

Philip: John 12: 37-41 is clear that the One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple (Isaiah 6) is Jesus Christ. The One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple is Yahweh of hosts.

Me now: So Isaiah has a vision of the Lord of hosts, and 800 years later John quotes a passage from it. John’s gospel is the one where Jesus often claims to have a specially close relationship with God. In this passage Jesus performs ‘many signs’ but the people do not ‘believe in him’. John remarks that ‘they could not believe, because Isaiah also said…’ and then comes the quotation from Isaiah 6:

He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.

So John quotes this text from Isaiah, quite clearly – Philip is right here – drawing attention to the parallel between the unbelief of Judeans in Isaiah’s day and the unbelief of those who saw Jesus’ ‘many signs’.

But Philip then goes on to claim that ‘the One whom Isaiah saw in the Temple… is Jesus Christ’. Neither text says that. It is not the Bible, but Philip (or perhaps his source) who makes this leap.

2) Jesus on same-sex partnerships

Me first time: There are no known teachings of Jesus about same-sex partnerships, either within the Bible or anywhere else.
Philip responds with a number of biblical quotations. 2a):

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:12-13)

Me now: This is nothing to do with same-sex relationships. Of course there are lots of things worth knowing that Jesus didn’t teach. We might imagine that if he had survived the crucifixion he would have denounced same-sex partnerships, but we’d only be guessing. We might equally imagine that he would have approved of them.

Philip 2b):

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12)

So we have to pay attention to what Paul wrote.

Me now: Philip’s logic here seems to be that because Paul claimed that his gospel was received ‘by revelation’ from Jesus, therefore what Paul taught had previously been revealed by Jesus. Well, neither of us can claim to have a full account of what Jesus ‘revealed’ to Paul. I only claimed that there are no known teachings of Jesus on That Hot Topic. Anyway, when Paul refers to ‘the gospel I preached’, we don’t know what it was. We only have his epistles. Perhaps Paul had some kind of revelation from Jesus telling him to denounce same-sex partnerships, and perhaps he did denounce them, but once again we have absolutely no evidence.

Philip 2c): In Ephesians 5:18-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 Paul teaches that male/female asymmetry is part of the ‘very good’ humanity created by God before the Fall intervened. And in the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1) this asymmetry appears in the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Me now: we’re not debating whether heterosexual marriage is good. Both of us think it is, in general. However there are some people who don’t want it. I’m happy to assume it isn’t good for them. Philip doesn’t say he thinks it should be compulsory for everyone. If he does, this will explain his opposition to same-sex partnerships and I would disagree with him. If he doesn’t, affirming the goodness of heterosexual marriage is irrelevant to the question of same-sex partnerships.

Philip 2d): It is inconceivable that same-sex attraction could have been part of the ‘very good’, asymmetric, pre-Fall human nature described in Genesis 1 and 2.

Me now: Philip doesn’t tell us why it is inconceivable. But I don’t care. I don’t believe in an original state of perfection followed by a primeval Fall. There is no doctrine of a Fall in Genesis. The only places in the Bible where it appears are Romans 5:12-14 and Romans 8:18-23, both passing references while Paul is concentrating on something else. Jews never developed the idea.

3) Eternal teachings of Jesus

Me first time: Nowhere in the Bible are we told that the teachings of Jesus are eternal. We may think some, like the Golden Rule, are indeed eternal, but the Bible makes no such specification.

Philip: This has already been answered by Dennis Richards. But I comment on his post that the ‘wide disagreements’ he mentions arise because the Bible is not being believed and/or read with sufficient care.

Me now: Dennis’ suggestion was Mark 13:31, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. Dennis is not Philip, and it’s Philip I’m responding to here.

In retrospect I should have been more precise. I should have specified that I was denying that all the ethical teachings of Jesus were eternal, since this was Susie’s claim.

Still, Mark’s text is there. What does it mean? It appears in Mark’s chapter about the End of the Age.

In those days… the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven…

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Mark 13:24-31).

That’s where it is! If Jesus had intended it as timeless ethics for the millennia, Mark didn’t exactly find the ideal place to record it, did he?

4) Did Jesus marry?

Me first time: Christians have usually assumed that Jesus never married, but there is no serious evidence either way. The Bible does not tell us.
Philip: Jesus knew that he came to die. It is a reasonable deduction that he did not get married.

Me now: So did I. And Philip. I don’t know about Philip but I did get married. Even though I know I am going to die. I even have children and grandchildren, despite being fully aware that they too will die.

5) Was Jesus celibate?

Me first time: Even if Jesus was single, the Bible does not tell us he was celibate.

Philip: Given that he was single he must have been celibate since he was without sin and the Bible teaches that sex outside heterosexual marriage is a sin.

Me now: Eventually, Philip fails to offer a biblical reference. Paul condemns ‘porneia’, which is often translated ‘fornication’ or some such word. New Testament scholars debate what he meant, but I don’t know any who think the word covers all sex acts outside heterosexual marriage. That may just be my ignorance, but what I am more confident about is that most biblical authors did not make any such claim. There are plenty of biblical passages that condemn sex acts by women outside heterosexual marriage, but not by men. For men, whether married or not, sex with independent prostitutes and slave girls was normal, and plenty of biblical texts accept them as permissible. Here’s one:

For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, to preserve you from the wife of another, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life (Proverbs 6:23-26).


Do not treat the Bible as a wordsearch puzzle book. Do not hunt in it for what you want while ignoring the rest. Hear what it has to say. Listen to the wisdom of the ages.

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12 Responses to The Bible as a wordsearch puzzle book

  1. Jonathan
    Thanks for starting this debate/disagreement. I will try to respond to the general issue of approach to the Bible as a whole before replying (eventually) about the five assertions that Susie made. The general issue is an enormous subject and discussion/disagreement may take some time. As you may (or may not) know, I spent considerable time debating/disagreeing on this subject with Liberals on the former Fulcrum website (posts of which are no longer in the public domain). And recently I have put my point of view and my challenges on Talking Anglicans.
    I always start this debate/disagreement in the same way: among the important assertions that the Bible makes are the assertions that God and Christ said and did certain things. Let’s call these communications and actions. To clarify your view I would like to ask: do you believe some of these communications and actions are facts of history and some of them are not?. (Examples of both classes would be helpful). In which case on what grounds do you make this distinction? Or do you hold the view that you are not sure whether any of them are facts of history, and, you may say, I am making a ‘category mistake’ in asking the question.

    • The latter. We categorise differently. I would be much more restrained about ‘the Bible says’. 30-odd authors are put together because the editors thought they shared a thousand-year tradition. If the authors of Deuteronomy wrote a thing it doesn’t automatically follow that the author of Hebrews would have said it, or agreed with it.
      As for what Christ did, my information comes from the gospels. The strength of my belief is proportionate to the evidence, as it is with anyone who isn’t trying to fool themselves. So if you want me to say whether I think – for example – that Jesus forbade divorce altogether, as in Mark 10, or permitted it in the case of adultery, as in Matthew 19, I read what the New Testament scholars say about it, and if they don’t have a consensus I accept that we don’t know. I refuse to screw myself up into unsupported convictions. I know some people think that’s what Christians have to do, but I think that’s just self-deception.
      On whether the ‘communications and actions’ are ‘facts of history’. I assume by ‘facts of history’ you mean that the events really did take place in the past. Again I would be guided by mainstream biblical scholarship. However I certainly wouldn’t want to adhere to a faith tradition whose criteria were all about believing that certain events took place 2000 years ago. If that was what Christianity was all about, we could leave it to a few archivists.
      I think we may disagree about method. When I was a university chaplain I often noticed that students would approach the Bible using the skills they had learned elsewhere. The Bible is ancient literature, and many of the humanities teach skills relevant to understanding ancient literature. History and foreign languages are obvious examples. Those trained in different disciplines have often learned to treat books in very different ways. For example, if you were an electrician designing a new motor or a computer programmer, it might well make good sense to treat a resource book the way you made your first response to me – take one sentence from page 28 and another from page 570, put them together and you’ve worked out how to adapt your For…Next loop. But the Bible isn’t like that. It’s ancient literature. To understand, for example, why the authors of Chronicles wrote histories very different from Samuel and Kings, or why the Resurrection narratives in the four gospels are so different from each other, or why Matthew and Luke adapted the Parable of the Great Feast in such different ways, there are skills in literary scholarship which some people learn. A wise person knows the limits of their own expertise. Nobody needs to know all the answers, and none of us knows anything with absolute certainty. We are only human.

      • Oh yes, always have done. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother with all this.
        What does it mean to me? That I follow Jesus. Jesus was right. About God, about the Kingdom of God. Every society has ways of asking who we are, how we have come to be like this, what is the purpose of life and how we should live. Jesus got it right about the big questions. Sad to say, getting it right and acting accordingly sometimes means you become a witness for a better way of living so the people in power kill you.

        • Jonathan
          Thanks for your reply. As you most probably realise, your reply prompts further questions as I try to understand your whole view of the Bible.
          Which, if any, of the words of Jesus, recorded in the New Testament, his warnings, promises, commands, statements, and his deeds as recorded in the New Testament, play a part in your ‘following’ of Jesus and in your belief/conviction that Jesus was right about God, about the Kingdom of God, about other ‘big questions’? If none of his recorded words or deeds play any part, on what is your ‘following’ of him based and your stated belief/conviction based that he was right about these things?

          • Philip,
            New Testament scholars spend their lives studying the evidence – from the gospels and any other available information – and try to resolve the different pictures of him and the conflicting statements. I’m not a professional New Testament scholar so I accept the scholarly consensus where there is one. Sometimes I think a scholar is too busy defending the tradition he or she was brought up with. I’m inclined to feel that about Tom Wright, for example. There is nothing unusual or strained about this. If you asked me, or my next door neighbour, what we believed about Julius Caesar, we would give a similar reply.

  2. Jonathan
    Thanks for your reply. My next clarifying question is: do you consider yourself, do you call yourself, a Christian? What does that mean to you?

  3. Jonathan
    Thanks for your reply. Let me repeat my question with an addition:
    Which, if any, of the words of Jesus (sifted and analysed and pronounced upon by the scholarly consensus where there is one), recorded in the New Testament, his warnings, promises, commands, statements (sifted and analysed and pronounced upon by the scholarly consensus where there is one), and his deeds as recorded in the New Testament (sifted and analysed and pronounced upon by the scholarly consensus where there is one), play a part in your ‘following’ of Jesus and in your belief/conviction that Jesus was right about God, about the Kingdom of God, about other ‘big questions’? If none of his recorded words or deeds play any part, on what is your ‘following’ of him based and your stated belief/conviction based that he was right about these things?


    • Philip, are you asking me to list all the statements attributed to Jesus and put a tick or a cross by each one? I’m not a computer program. I’m not even a severely autistic human. I was brought up a Christian and have taken an interest from an early age in the different accounts of him. Some of those accounts left me feeling cold – like for example the theory that his main message was a millennarian one and he was just wrong about the imminent new age. Some left me feeling we may as well forget about him, like the idea that we have so little information about the Jesus of history that all we have is the Christ of faith. What I find attractive is the idea that he preached the practical relevance of monotheism – that God created a good world with enough resources for everybody to have a fulfilled and happy life. So justice means making sure everybody’s needs are met. If he was right – that is, if we really have been made by a god like that for a purpose like that – it’s good news, far better news than the obsessions of people trying to police our sex lives, or the capitalist economic theories that insist the rich need to become richer despite the impoverishment of the poor. But I’m not offering a database of reported speeches by Jesus. Professional New Testament scholars can do that much better than I can.

  4. Jonathan
    Thanks for your reply.
    ‘What I find attractive is the idea that he preached the practical relevance of monotheism – that God created a good world with enough resources for everybody to have a fulfilled and happy life. So justice means making sure everybody’s needs are met. If he was right – that is, if we really have been made by a god like that for a purpose like that – it’s good news’
    I am asking you to give me the statements and deeds of Jesus which convince you about what you posted in the quote above.

    • I’m not working alone. I’m following mainstream biblical scholarship. Take for example Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus or Bernard Brandon Scott’s Hear Then the Parable. I didn’t do the original research myself! Why should I? The idea that everybody has to answer all these questions for themselves by studying the texts for themselves was a product of the terrifying prospect of eternal punishment in Hell for getting it wrong. I don’t believe in punishment in Hell. I don’t believe God is stupid enough to create us with limited minds and then expect us to get everything right.

  5. Jonathan
    You have made certain assertions/convictions about what Jesus was right about. Are you now saying that these are the assertions/convictions of the authors you mention which you are going along with? If so, are you able/willing to tell me on which statements of Jesus they base those assertions/convictions?

    • I suggest you read some New Testament scholars. I have given you a couple of suggestions. You will see from their analyses that it isn’t a simple matter of listing the texts they accept and the texts they reject. Between them they study all the New Testament texts. If you want to establish simple certainties without the effort of serious study, you’re asking for the impossible.

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