Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dear UMC: Please study the nature and function of Scripture

So, the Schaeffer trial is over.

The debate over human sexuality in the UMC is not.

I’ve been watching social media pretty closely during this time. There are lots of hurt feelings and many people who feel a great distance from one another in the denomination. The rhetoric has been wild. The emotions have been strong. I wonder if we will have a chance to regroup, pray, and heal before the next such controversy emerges.

There are numerous issues swirling about in the controversies around Rev. Schaeffer and Bishop Talbert. One issue, of course, has to do with human sexuality. That’s pretty obvious. One issue has to do with the binding force of the Book of Discipline. A third issue has to do with the interpretation of Scripture.

This third issue, spoken of the least in these controversies, is perhaps the most significant. What we have seen recently is that people of vastly different theological and ethical positions can and do use Scripture in support of their arguments. Recently I’ve heard talk of “inerrancy” in the midst of the conversation, a term that really doesn’t have much currency in the UMC. (Insert indignant comments below.) Perhaps it's gaining traction because of the perceived vacuum of authority in the UMC. Perhaps there are other reasons. 

The use of Scripture in theological debate to support opposing positions is nothing new. Consider the Arian controversy of the fourth century. It wasn’t just Athanasius and company who were using Scripture in support of their claims. Arias and his partisans could quote Scripture with the best of them.  The debate could not be settled by simple appeals to Scripture because Scripture lends itself to a variety of interpretations.

Consider the following image. What do you see? Is this an image of the profiles of two faces or a chalice? 

The interpretation of texts, including the text of the Bible, is rather like this. We may see the same set of texts but draw different conclusions from one another. This is not to say that there are not better and worse interpretations. I'm not arguing for some form of relativism here. Imagine a concert pianist playing a well-known concerto. We might say that there is no right way for the pianist to play the concerto, but there are of course many wrong ways. The interpretation of Scripture is rather like that, and that is why we need more common standards of interpretation within our communal life. 

I’ve written before on the contributions of the biblical scholar James Sanders. In particular, his two books Torah and Canon  and Canon and Community are very helpful as we think about the nature and function of Scripture. Sanders talks about “sacred tensions” within the canon, and he describes the scriptural witness as “variegated.” In other words, the Bible expresses a variety of perspectives that have developed as people have prayed and reflected communally on the mysteries of God. In addition to the subjective nature of interpretation, this is another reason that Scripture can be used to support such different theological and ethical positions.

Scripture is complex. The nature and function of Scripture are not self-evident. Nevertheless, we deploy Scripture quite readily in debates regarding complicated and multi-layered issues. This practice leads to increased entrenchment and misunderstanding, as well-intentioned people cannot see why others view things so differently than they do. 

It would be helpful for the UMC to commission a study on the nature and function of Scripture which could be considered for adoption at a General Conference, much like our studies on the sacraments. This should take place prior to any further denominational initiatives regarding human sexuality. If we could draw upon a more commonly held set of assumptions about Scripture, we would have a better chance of engaging in meaningful dialogue with one another on topics related to the Christian faith and life. 

I have to admit, writing this makes me feel a bit vulnerable. The current climate of the UMC is so divisive that to raise questions regarding the authority of Scripture makes one suspect in many quarters. Let me be clear: I have spent the last twenty years working to teach and promote the Nicene-Constantinopolitan faith. My theological commitments are to the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Resurrection, not simply as metaphors, but as ontological realities. If that doesn't make me "orthodox" enough for you, so be it. I'll only note, however, that in the long history of the faith, the use of a doctrine of Scripture as a litmus test for orthodoxy is a rather new development, and, in my opinion, a negative one. 

Denominationally, we need to talk about not just what the pages of Scripture say, but the way in which we interpret Scripture. Of course, we will not all interpret Scripture in lockstep with one another, but we need a common set of principles for scriptural interpretation. We cannot resolve complex debates without a clearer sense of the common ground on which we stand. Right now the most prominent issue is homosexuality, but in the future there will be other pressing issues. Will we be prepared to talk about them? Right now, we most certainly are not. 


  1. A few things.

    1.) You are in hot water now.

    2.) I believe interpretation of Scripture should begin in Tradition but must include Reason along the way. By Reason, I mean, scholarship.

  2. Darn. I generally try to avoid hot water.

    I do agree with your claim that interpretation of Scripture should include both tradition and current scholarship.

  3. I believe that we do have a common method of interpreting scripture. Scripture is studied in light of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. When two are in conflict, we re-examine our interpretation of all four. What is it that you are looking for that would be different than our commonly held quadrilateral?

  4. Jennifer, thank you for your comment and question. Personally, I don't think the Quadrilateral helps us very much, if at all. We may say that we study Scripture in light of tradition, reason, and experience, but unless we know what we mean by these terms, then it will be impossible to attain any kind of common ground for our conversations. The question is not simply the sources we draw on in reflecting on Scripture, but what exactly Scripture is and does.

  5. Thank you David for your insights. What is Scripture is indeed a complex issue. I am feeling adventuresome today so as to take a stab. Ontologically, it may be defined by its use, and in that it is variegated. Within the greater traditions of the church it has most often functioned soteriologically (even in its liturgical and missional aspects). I do not think though that we (UMC) are operating out of the pre-frontal cortex and executive function of the brain sufficiently enough to bypass our instinctive fight, flight, freeze, and protect modes at the base of the brain to have reasoned, theological discussion, calmly considered.

  6. Fair point, Pete. Much of what passes for argument in the UMC is reactionary, rather than reasoned. This does not help us.

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