What was that about the Bible?

radio studioThe BBC’s Today programme this morning interviewed Simon Sarmiento and Susie Leafe on the Church of England House of Bishops’ recent report on same-sex partnerships. If you want to listen to it it’s here , 1:21:45 in.

Simon was very polite about the bishops, much more than I would have been, but this post is about Susie’s contribution. Susie is the Director of Reform. I apologise in advance for the bitchy nature of my critique, but I strongly believe people who misrepresent the Bible while claiming to be its most fervent supporters should not be allowed to get away with it.

Reform has a statement of beliefs on its website. Among other things it claims to believe in

  • the infallibility and supreme authority of ‘God’s Word written’ and its clarity and sufficiency for the resolving of disputes about Christian faith and life,

  • the divine order of male headship, and

  • the rightness of sexual intercourse in heterosexual marriage, and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms.

No doubt there is a reason why the head of the organisation promoting male headship is a woman, but head or not, by arguing her case Susie is disobeying 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which forbids women to teach. The good news is that this was a radio interview so we cannot check that she was wearing a veil as instructed by 1 Corinthians 11:5-13.

Is it reasonable to assume that the Director of Reform believes in its position as described on its website? If so, we can expect her to believe the Bible is clear and sufficient for the resolving of disputes. Which might have helped her in that radio interview.

I’ve typed out verbatim her main points.

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.

When the interviewer referred to ‘The Susie Leafe view of things’ she corrected him: her view was ‘the Jesus Christ view of things’.

We might expect someone so committed to the Bible to know what it says. However,

  • There are no known teachings of Jesus about same-sex partnerships, either within the Bible or anywhere else.
  • The Bible never describes Jesus as God just like that. Son of God, yes, and Bauckham and Hurtado have produced substantial evidence that the early Christians worshipped Jesus as divine; but Susie will search Scripture in vain for the simple identification she proposes. For the writers of the New Testament, it would have implied an insoluble problem: if God was on earth for 30 years, who was governing heaven?
  • 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.
  • Christians have usually assumed that Jesus never married, but there is no serious evidence either way. The Bible does not tell us.
  • Even if Jesus was single, the Bible does not tell us he was celibate. Christians have usually assumed he was, and maybe some Christians would take offence at the idea that he wasn’t; but my point is that the Bible does not give us the information. If Susie believes it, she believes it for reasons that are not based on the Bible.

That’s five errors about what the Bible says, in just four sentences. Coming from someone whose qualification to speak is her commitment to the Bible, it hardly inspires confidence.

I am drawing attention to these errors not because I have an axe to grind about Susie herself but because religious discourse is full of this kind of misinformation.

What Susie has done is a kind of collage. She has taken some biblical ideas, cut them out of their contexts, and sewn them together to create something new. Today there are many such collages masquerading as what the Bible teaches.

Characteristically, liberal Christians are content to belong to a church where opinions differ. We do not have that driving urge to stamp out heresy that so infects dogmatists. All too often, therefore, we allow them to dominate the air waves, presenting their theories as though they were mainstream Christianity. With misinformation like this presented on the BBC as though it was mainstream Christianity, it is hardly surprising that churches are losing members.

Despite our quieter voices, liberals still attract people who value an enquiring approach to Christianity, a willingness to reject what is not of value and an openness to new insights when they come along. We are more worth listening to.

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13 Responses to What was that about the Bible?

  1. Betsy Everett says:

    Jonathan I love your style and your arguments. But I despair because surely the point about the Susie Leafes is that they are deaf to logical argument. They just don’t get it and they never will. It’s a bit like Donald Trump. Most of what he says is lies or rubbish or both. But it doesn’t stop people listening to him and worshipping him and following him. I’m more and more convinced that people don’t want truth they want certainty, however misguided. They want somebody to take a strong stand because for some reason it makes them feel safe. That’s my Reader’s Digest psychology anyway. But there is another point and it is this: the guy who gave the opposing, liberal, view was not succinct enough or maybe not properly prepared for what was probably a three minute interview. He needed to have a few salient points to make and it seemed to me that he didn’t. Yes, maybe liberals do need to do more to communicate clearly and concisely. The so-called silence, or quietness, you refer to can so easily be construed as uncertainty, or a lack of any real conviction. I remember Richard Holloway’s comment that people who are sure of their arguments – in this case liberals who are sure debate is a good thing – make “indolent disputants.” But I still think the liberal voice does need to be heard. I also think there is no point whatsoever in trying to keep the hardline evangelicals sweet for the sake of unity. But what do I know? I have all but given up on the church. But I still read the pieces you write and enjoy them enormously so thank you for that.

  2. Mark Pickles says:

    This is excellent and necessary, Jonathan. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it is: we, the Church of England, seem to me to have become the Church of Stupid, and in Justin Welby we have the leader we deserve.

    I followed your linked to the “Reform” website. It says that they also adhere to “39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”.

    This is the thing about idolatry of written words. The more words the better, even though the adherents only pick out the words that back up what they presuppose.

    As I’ve said often, I have never met a CofE clergyman, from any wing, who has read the whole of the 66 books of his Bible. I don’t mind that, because I have read the whole of the Bible, and can assure everyone that half of it is rubbish.

    “No, we focus on the lectionary”. The last vicar I asked, the Reverend Chris Painter (who has recently moved from Cheshire to Devon), an Evangelical, told me this. I only mention his name in case you think I’m making it up, and because I dislike the guy (and this is mutual) and his Biblicism.

    By the way, my counter report to the Arcbishop’s Council’s Report is coming on well. It’s going to be 27 pages, to match that it runs against. You are mentioned in dispatches, and the Modern Church. I hope you approve when you read it.

    • Mark, I’m glad to hear you’re doing a counter-report to the Archbishops’ Report on ‘setting God’s people free'(!) How are you going to publicise it? What we did with ours was to introduce it with a short summary to maximise the chances of people reading about it. The trouble is, it’s a bit like the House of Commons passing bills on a Friday afternoon. Everybody is going to be so steamed up about the same-sex marriage document that this one is likely to be nodded through without a fuss.

  3. Dennis Richards says:

    I’m not a clergyman but I have read all 66 books of the bible. Perhaps Susie Leafe was referring to Mark 13:31 and parallels (“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”, NIV) when she said Jesus’s teaching was eternal. Not that Jesus said a single word about homosexuality and what he did say about marriage is open to interpretation.

    “The infallibility and supreme authority of ‘God’s Word written’ and its clarity and sufficiency for the resolving of disputes about Christian faith and life” is clearly nonsense, given the wide disagreements on christian ethics across all branches of the church.

  4. Contra the criticisms of Susie Leafe:
    ‘The Bible never describes Jesus as God just like that’

    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.

    ‘There are no known teachings of Jesus about same-sex partnerships, either within the Bible or anywhere else’.
    “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)
    “ 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. 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. 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.

    “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.”

    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.

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

    “Even if Jesus was single, the Bible does not tell us he was celibate”

    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.

    Phil Almond

    • Thank you Philip. I guess this is just about the best anyone can do in defence of Susie, and I’m well aware that these kinds of things are being said in many circles. They make so many jumps in the reasoning that I don’t think they will convince anyone who hasn’t been trained to interpret the Bible in that kind of way.

      • It’s as though you are treating the Bible like a computer help file. You take a sentence from one page, another sentence from a different page, put them together and deduce something that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say. Of course I know that in some circles there are 5 centuries of interpreting the Bible like this, but the Bible doesn’t say this is the way to treat it, and if you tried it out on more than just a handful of favourite texts you could deduce any number of conclusions.

  5. Jonathan
    These posts just make general assertions. I invite you to give specific examples and I will try to respond.
    Phil Almond

    • Okay Phil if you want to pursue it I’ll provide further details. I think it will be best done as a separate blog post, and it may take a couple of days as I have to do other things now. These kinds of dialogue need to take place, as so much gets written that we are all tempted to read only what we agree with.

  6. Jonathan
    Ok. Thanks

  7. Andy Crow says:

    I certainly haven’t read all 66 books of the bible. And in common with the rest of humanity alive today I haven’t read any of the books (scrolls) from the same periods which have been lost or destroyed. Much of what I have read I struggle to understand, and little or none of it rewards the reader who has turned off her critical faculties.

    I have often wondered what sort of religion might stem from the works of Shakespeare if in some distant future, after a period of dark ages they were collected and revered. Bearing in mind that many of his works are heavily derivative of source material (like Holinshead which purported to be factual history, and other myths and stories which were then current) they have a historical veracity as real and simultaneously as flawed as many of the biblical accounts that have come down to us. Historical records always come with bias attached – the victors write the histories to reflect and glorify their successes – compare and contrast accounts of the Thatcher years as described from the viewpoints of political left and right and it is clear to anyone who lived through that recent period that there is only modest consensus on how events unfolded.

    What depresses me most about the sort of nonsense (I apologise for being rude or dismissive about her, but it is nonsense that Ms Leafe is promoting) is the tone of scriptural fundamentalism that has echoes of what little I know of extremist Islamic thinking. Words can be twisted and distorted as well as statistics where there is a political will.

    This doesn’t make the bible useless or to be dismissed as rubbish. Humanity has not changed radically since even the earliest books of the bible were written. We are the same creatures, we haven’t evolved into a new species. Like us the writers were doing their best to account for themselves and the world around them. These writers were both insightful and blinkered. If we are to gain anything from their writings we need to consider carefully what they might have been trying to say and as far as possible weigh that in the context of their time.

    “In those days there were giants in the land” it says somewhere. Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt were the giants in our recent past. Think of these people when you read the stories of heroes and villains of Hebrew history and it may yield some inkling of what is being described. If you would understand King David study the life of Saddam Hussain. History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.

    Moving to the New Testament from the old the distance in time is not so great, but there are as far as we know no contemporary verbatim records of the words of Jesus. The nearest we have, I suspect, is the writings of St Paul which have come down to us. And this is why in truth we have no Christian church we have a Pauline church. And Paul was a zealot with half a story to tell and a political axe to grind. Without historical context the epistles of St Paul are the ravings of a misogynistic fanatic with a fiery vision. Very much a man of his time.

    Backtracking to Shakespeare – “If music be the food of love…” I’ll take that rather than the sour, cold gruel on offer from Susie Leafe and the tent maker of Tarsus for all his protestations. Who after all can claim to love God whom he has not seen when he does not love his fellow man whom he has. (Or woman; dependant on human nature we really don’t understand though perhaps we should continue to try.)

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