Roy Clements - On living with our Falibility

on living with our fallibility

On March 12 2000 the Pope marked the new Millennium by making a public apology for some of the notorious "mistakes" perpetrated during the last thousand years by the Catholic Church. The list of crimes confessed proved controversial. It included the Crusades and the Inquisition. Protestant Christians, especially those who like to designate themselves as "Bible believing", may be tempted into smug self-congratulation by this brave initiative from the Vatican. So it seems an appropriate moment to invite them to engage in a little historically informed self-examination too. For the fact is that Christians of all traditions have repeatedly used the Bible to support doctrinal and ethical positions which they later have had to confess to be mistaken. If to be a Christian is to live with the knowledge of one's sinfulness, it is equally to live with the knowledge of one's fallibility.


"biblical" cosmology
and today....?
... sexism
... homophobia
... is this the end of biblical authority in the Church?

According to James "we all make many mistakes". Nowhere is that propensity toward human error more obvious than in the history of biblical interpretation. For two millennia Christians have read the inspired text convinced that they will discover the certainty and authority of infallible truth within its pages. Yet on a host of issues the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years. As a result those whose opinions were at one time considered heretical have found themselves reinstated among the orthodox, and vice versa. One might have thought that the frequency and seriousness of these misjudgements made by the Christian majority would have engendered a degree of caution and humility. But on the contrary, reckless dogmatism and arrogant intolerance seem as rife as ever, and nowhere more conspicuously than in those sections of the Church which pride themselves on being "biblical".

This article surveys a few of the historical controversies that have resulted in major revisions of theological and ethical belief within the Church during the two millennia of its history. The examples chosen have been selected because in each case the Bible was quoted by both sides of the debate. It goes on to highlight two areas of contemporary debate in which it is possible to identify a similar drift in the consensus of Christian opinion and biblical interpretation. It then asks quite simply whether Christians, who have by their own admission made so many serious mistakes in the past, should not express their diverse views on such issues with a high degree of tolerance and mutual respect, no matter how securely they may feel those views are grounded in Scripture.


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The early centuries of the Christian era produced a classic example of the kind of confusion and error we are talking about. Followers of Arius took the view that Christ, the Logos, was not fully divine. Rather, he was God's primary creation and was employed as his agent in making the world. Having ascended to glory following his incarnation, he had been installed once again in the highest office in the universe. But the power and majesty he possessed had been invested in him by God and did not belong to him eternally.

A number of biblical texts were cited which gave plausible support to this Arian Christology, e.g. Proverbs 8:22, Mark 13:32, Luke 10:22, John 10:30, 14:10, 17:3, Acts 2:36, Philippians 2:9-10, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:4, 3:2. The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) was convened by Emperor Constantine to try to resolve this doctrinal controversy. Though the assembled bishops were far from unanimous it was the rhetoric of Athanasius, a forthright opponent of Arius, which won the day. The Council formulated the famous Nicene Creed with its explicitly anti-Arian affirmations that Christ is "begotten not made" and of the "same substance" as God the Father. However, the debate was far from over. The views of Arius continued to be supported by a number of senior churchmen and for a large part of the 4th. century they held sway within Church councils. Athanasius, the indefatigable champion of the full deity of Christ, was banished no less than three times for his heretical and schismatic views. In fact, the eventual alignment of orthodoxy with the Nicene Christology was in many respects an accident of history which owed more to the meddling interference of imperial fingers in ecclestiastical politics than cogent theological argument. But the scholarly labours of Athanasius undoubtedly did play a role. In a number of lengthy discourses written while he was in exile he sought to refute the Arian interpretation of the key Bible texts. And in the process he identified three important principles of interpretation:

(i) the Bible must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with "the Rule of Faith".
(ii) non-literal modes of speaking must be recognised in the Bible.
(iii) the Bible must be interpreted in a way that is internally self-consistent.

Thus, for instance, in dealing with Proverbs 8:22 and its assertion that the divine Wisdom (which the New Testament identifes with Christ) was the first thing God created, Athanasius claims:
"Proverbs are of a figurative nature, and must be interpreted as such. We must interpret them, and in particular this passage, by the Rule of Faith"
And in commenting on "the first-born of all creation" (Colossians 1:15), he insists that the phrase must be understood in a way that is consistent with John's description of Christ as "God only begotten" (John1:14,18):
"But if He is called 'First-born of the creation' this is not as if He were levelled to the creatures, and only first of them in point of time. For how should that be, since He is also 'Only-begotten?' "
Athanasius' application of these principles, however, begs several important questions:

Who defines the "Rule of Faith"? If this is just another way of talking about tradition or the current Christian consensus, surely it can be in error sometimes? Why should the decisions of Nicaea be correct and those reached by later pro-Arian councils be mistaken?

How do we determine which texts are "figurative" as opposed to "literal"? Doesn't this inevitably introduce an element of subjectivity and private judgement into our interpretation?

To what extent must we be prepared to abandon reason and take refuge in "mystery" in order to make the biblical witness internally self-consistent?

This final question was particularly relevant to the Arian controversy. The lofty Christology which Athanasius sought to defend could only be rendered intellectually coherent by the further development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. Both of these doctrines involved ideas which seemed logically self-contradictory, namely that God was "three-in-one" and that Christ was both fully God and fully man. But Athanasius felt that texts like John 1:1 and Philippians 2:6 demanded such a theology of paradox and mystery. It was these passages that ought to be the starting point for Christological reflection. All other texts, including those cited by the Arians, had to be interpreted in their light. As far as Athanasius was concerned it was so obvious that this was the right way to understand the biblical witness to Christ that anyone who didn't see things his way was clearly being deceived by the Devil.
"... these men, as if bedewed with the serpent's poison, not seeing what they ought to see, nor understanding what they read, as if in vomit from the depth of their irreligious heart, have proceeded to disparage our Lord's words, 'I in the Father and the Father in Me' (John 14:10)... "

Those of us who stand in the orthodox trinitarian tradition will not find it difficult to sympathise with Athanasius' robust defence of the deity of Christ. But honesty demands our acknowledgement that Arius supported his case from the Bible too. He was the first, but by no means the last, to argue that the Nicene (and later Chalcedonian) formulae fail to do full justice to the humanity of Christ, employing as they do vocabulary that owes more to Greek philosophy than the Bible. Is it really a heresy worthy of excommunication or death (John Calvin hounded the anti-trinitarian Servetus till he was burnt at the stake) to suggest such a thing? Is it not possible that Athanasius and his allies overstated their case? It is after all not only Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses who have stumbled at this fence. John Milton expressed sympathy for the Arian position on the grounds that it was more biblical. Can we be sure that Arius was completely in error then? If he was, then we have to accept that the Church for a while took his side in the debate. And if he was not, then the Church has condemned not just one innocent man for heresy, but many thousands over the centuries. Either way, a mistake has been made.


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No movement in the history of the Church sought more self-consciously to be "biblical" than the Reformation. It's commitment to sole Scriptura was accompanied by a conviction that huge errors had been made by the medieval Church because tradition had been accorded too much authority and the Bible too little. But mistakes continued to be made nevertheless.

A good example is the debate over the Eucharist. The Catholic interpretation of this prior to the Reformation was that advocated by Thomas Aquinas. He had used Aristotelian philosophical vocabulary to argue that the consecration of bread and wine by the priest during the Mass produced a real change in the inner nature (or substance) of these elements though their physical properties (or accidents) remained the same. Thus the elements did not just represent, but were miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, which the priest went on to offer to God on the altar in a sacred re-enactment of the sacrifice on the cross. Aquinas, however, did not hold a materialistic view of the local presence of Christ. "Substance" was for him a metaphysical category perceived by the intellect, not a physical substrate. The Mass remained a mystery which Aristotle's vocabulary helped him to defend, but not really to explain.

Protestants were unanimous in expressing dissatisfaction with this traditional Catholic view of the Eucharist, but there their agreement ended. Three rival alternative theories emerged, each one claiming biblical support.

Ironically, though Martin Luther challenged Catholic sacramentalism in a most radical way, he took an arguably higher view of the Eucharist than Aquinas had done. As in his exposition of justification by faith, it was the interpretation of the Bible which was decisive for him. He repudiated any idea that Christ's sacrifice was repeated by the priest during the Mass. Such a view flew in the face the New Testament assertion that Christ had been offered "once and for all" for the sin of the world (Hebrews 9:26). But Jesus had said at the Last Supper "This is my body", and Luther would allow no circumvention of the literal force of those words. He argued for the real presence of the body and blood of Christ on the altar. However, under the influence of the nominalist philosophy associated with William of Ockham he refused to employ the sophistical distinction between substance and accident to rationalise this. "Substance" implied for Luther a physical reality not just an abstract metaphysical concept. His opinion, in fact, comes close to an earlier medieval theory of Eucharist, which Aquinas had rejected, termed consubstantiation. This insisted that the consecrated bread and wine in some mysterious way actually contained the physical flesh and blood of Christ. Lutheran theologians eventually combined three prepositions to define this local presence as "in, with, and under" the elements. As a result, Lutheran priests no less than their Catholic counterparts, venerated the mystery of the bread and wine, holding that the Eucharist involves a miracle as extraordinary as the incarnation itself.

Luther's supernaturalist interpretation of the Eucharist was in marked contrast to the view of Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich. He argued that the only reasonable way to take Christ's words at the Last Supper was in a figurative sense. The twelve disciples could not possibly have understood Jesus to mean that a miraculous change in the nature of the elements had occurred, since Jesus was still physically with them when he spoke. The bread and wine merely represent his body and blood and help believers to reflect on his atoning sacrifice, according to his own command "Do this in remembrance of me". If a piece of bread falls from the Table it can be discarded, therefore, like any other crumb on the floor. This rejection of the element of miracle and mystery was adopted by radicals of the Reformation too, like the Anabaptists. Many of them abandoned words like "priest", "sacrament" and "eucharist" altogether and spoke instead of "the ordinance the Lord's Supper" - a simple memorial meal in which the Church enjoys fellowship and identifies itself as "the body of Christ". For them the real presence is not located on the Table but seated around it.

John Calvin located himself somewhere between the extremes of Luther and Zwingli on this issue and once again it was his interpretation of the Bible which was crucial. The Eucharist had to be more than a mere symbolic memorial, for the New Testament speaks of a communion (Gk. koinonia) in the body and blood of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16). But the crudely materialistic notions associated with consubstantiation failed to reckon on the fact that Christ's humanity was now glorified and ascended. The union with him which was mediated by the Eucharist therefore had to be spiritual rather than physical, heavenly rather than earthly. Neither Christ's atoning sacrifice nor his incarnation were recapitulated in the rite. The mystery rather was that Christians were by faith lifted up to share in the powers of the age to come through the ministry of the Spirit of the risen Christ in their midst.

It is not difficult to identify the principles of biblical interpretation which Athanasius had defined being bandied around once again in this debate. How important were the earlier traditions of the Church? Was "this is my body" a literal or a figurative statement? Should Christians be required to believe that a miraculous change takes place in the consecrated elements which is not discernible to the senses and which seems to fly in the face of reason? Most of all, given that the views held by different branches of the Church are so diverse, ought this to be an issue which Christians fight about? Protestants certainly did fight about it in the sixteenth century. In 1529 Prince Philip of Hesse convened a private conference at Marburg with the goal of ironing out the differences between Luther and Zwingli. It failed lamentably. Though in recent years the ecumenical movement has tried its best to foster inter-communion between the various Christian denominations, suspicion and intolerance persist. A substantial part of the Church has to be in error over its view of the Eucharist. But which part is it? Once again, mistakes must have been made.

"biblical" cosmology

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It was in the early seventeenth century, while the Reformation protest against Roman Catholicism was at its height, that in Italy itself a whole new category of Christian mistake was exposed. The focus of this new controversy was the pioneer scientist Galileo Galilei. His observations using an early telescope had convinced him that the heliocentric model of the universe proposed by Nicholas Copernicus some years earlier was correct. The earth was not the stationary centre of the cosmos, as was commonly believed at that time: it moved round the sun.

Such a proposition was unacceptable to the Christian theologians of that period for two reasons. First, it collided with the Aristotelian view of the universe which, as we have already observed, had dominated the intellectual scene for centuries and as a result had become entangled in much orthodox theology . Second, there were many biblical passages which seemed to indicate that the earth did not move. Two frequently cited texts were:

"Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken."(Psalms 104:5 )

"Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, "Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Aijalon." And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. " (Joshua 10:12-13)

It is not difficult to demonstrate that the biblical authors conceived of the earth as a flat disc suspended on "the waters under the earth" and covered with a hemispherical canopy in which the sun, moon and stars were embedded and traced the seasonal variations in their daily paths (e.g. Psalm 19:4-6, Isaiah 40:22, Psalms 136:6). Hence Joshua did not command the earth to stop turning, but the sun and moon to stop moving. Reinforced by Aristotle, this geocentric cosmology was regarded by the intellectual establishment of Galileo's Italy as a self-evident truth confirmed by common sense and philosophical reasoning as well as biblical revelation.

But Galileo's astronomical observations pointed to a different conclusion. If he had been content to argue that the heliocentric model represented merely an alternative mathematical paradigm for predicting planetary motions,then it is most unlikely he would have encountered Church opposition. The books of Copernicus were not initially regarded as heretical. In fact they were accorded rather more tolerance in Catholic circles than in Protestant. For Galileo, however, it was not enough to treat the heliocentric model as a mathematical abstraction. It was physically true. Up until that moment the definition of truth had been the prerogative of the Church. Now, for the first time, empirical science was challenging that intellectual monopoly.

In defending his theory Galileo dared to offer alternative (and, to be frank, not always persuasive) interpretations of the biblical texts which seemed to support the geocentric model. He argued that God had accommodated himself to human ignorance in the giving of revelation. Thus the Bible described phenomena as they appeared to the human eye, and not with scientific precision. Allowance must be made, especially in poetic texts, for the use of metaphorical language. Most important of all, no Christian conscience should be commanded to accept an interpretation of the Bible that defied experimental evidence or reason.

For centuries the theologians of the Church had read the Bible through the lens of Aristotle's speculative philosophy. Now Galileo, a man trained in mathematics and natural science rather than theology, had the effrontery to insist that this had led the Church into error. A false presuppositional framework had seriously prejudiced its hermeneutics and led it to make serious mistakes about the structure of the cosmos. This was more than the ecclesiarchs of Rome could take. The Inquisition was invoked and Galileo was forced to recant. The records seem to indicate that he was treated rather more gently than popular reconstructions of his trial have sometimes implied. He was not threatened with torture and his condemnation owed much to his own indiscretion and obstinacy. Furthermore, some of Galileo's arguments were as self-evidently specious as those of his opponents.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the Church made a lamentable mistake in trying to silence him, and one it did not quickly amend. Two centuries later a new chapter in the confrontation between science and the Bible would be written, this time with Darwin's biology rather than Galileo's astronomy as the whipping boy of the ecclesiatical establishment. The Inquisition was not invoked this time. Its teeth had long since been drawn by the advance of secularisation. But a public debate between the biologist Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford generated just as much acrimony. And once again it would ultimately be the biblical interpretations of the Church, rather than the theories of the scientists, which would be forced to change.

The evolutionary emergence of the species over millions of years now rests on such a mountain of scientific evidence that the vast majority of Christians accept that the seven-day creation story of Genesis 1 cannot be taken literally any longer. Only the most blinkered of fundamentalists still adhere to a "young-earth" theory. To be fully consistent in their biblical literalism they should really subscribe to a geocentric model of the universe too. In fact some eccentrics in the Bible Belt of the USA still do. One wonders what it would take for such rigid minds to admit that they, like many well-intentioned Christians before them, have made a mistake?


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It is not only on questions of doctrine or science that Christians have blundered. Ethical positions have sometimes needed to be drastically revised too. One of the clearest examples of such moral blindness within Church history has to be the issue of racism. Anti-semitism was widespread in the medieval Church and continued after the Reformation among both Catholics and Protestants. Indeed some of the most vicious anti-semitic statements of the sixteenth century came from the mouth of Martin Luther himself.

"Burn down their synagogues... force them to work and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish; if this does not help, we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all other vices and thus merit God's wrath and be damned with them."

The reasons for this hostility were grounded in the New Testament. Jesus may technically have been crucified by the Roman authorities, but it was his own Jewish people who had clamoured for his death. The Gospel of Matthew records the chilling self-imprecatory response of the mob as Pilate washed his hands of the deed:

"Let his blood be upon us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25)

Paul is scarcely less damning:

"... the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men...they always heap up their sins to the limit." (I Thess. 2:15-16)

With such texts to fuel prejudice it is no surprise that Jews living in Christian societies have experienced contempt and discrimination for most of the last two millenia. Two developments have ameliorated that situation in the period since the Reformation. First, the somewhat bizarre eschatological speculations associated with some kinds of millenarianism predict that divine blessings will fall on the Jews in "the last days". Second, in the guilt-ridden aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust, it has been generally acknowledged that the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in Germany and Italy culpably failed to resist the ideological tide that carried Hitler and Mussolini to power in the 1930's. As a result of these two factors sympathy for the Jewish people among post-war European and American Christians has been huge. Ironically, the consequent support of many Christians for Zionism has conspicuously blunted their moral sensitivity to the injustices suffered by the Palestinians. This variety of racism looks to the Bible too for its support. The ancient feud between the half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael is still regularly cited as the basis for a divinely ordained collision between the people of God (Christian/Jew) and Arabs (predominantly Muslim). It will take more than a papal apology for the Crusades to rid the Church of that myth and the prejudice that goes with it.

But it is the way the Bible was used to support Apartheid in South Africa that in many ways is the most glaring recent example of Christian racism. Theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church sought to defend the South African government's policy of separate development for different races. They argued that ever since the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) God had ordained that different ethnic groups should retain their distinctive cultural identities and territorial locations. Paul's assertion to the philosophers of Athen that God had "detemined the exact places" which the various nations of earth should occupy (Acts 17:26) was also frequently quoted in support of this idea. It is arguable that there was no necessary implicationof racial inequality in all this. But there can be no question that this apparently innocuous defence of national and tribal self-determination, at a more popular level, served to reinforce the myth of white supremacy among Afrikaaners. They had a more dubious additional biblical defence for this too:

"Cursed be Canaan. the lowest of slaves will he be to his brother" (Genesis 9:25)

From a late twentieth century liberal perspective it is difficult to understand the tortuous pathway of hermeneutic and anthropological enquiry by which white Christians contrived to arrive at the conclusion that Noah's curse upon the offspring of Ham was to be identified with negroid ancestry. But many of the Europeans who colonised South Africa were convinced of that proposition. Some reinforced these pretensions to racial elitism still further by appealing to British-Israel theory. This held that the English-speaking races were biological descendants of the ten tribes of Israel which had been dispersed and "lost" after the Assyrian conquest eight centuries before Christ. It is not surprising that such white supremacists felt considerable affinity for the pro-Aryan racism of Adolf Hitler in the period before the Second World War.

It was not only in Africa that such exegesis proved influential among colonialists either. Before the American Civil War, plantation owners looked to the same kinds of biblical arguments to rationalise their economic exploitation of blacks. It was by capitalising on such traditions that the Ku Klux Klan later managed to present itself to many as a Christian movement too. But all this, of course, raises the spectre of yet another mistake that the Church has made during most of the last two millenia.


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It is embarrassing to admit that no serious objection to slavery was raised by Christians prior to the eighteenth century. True, the Manicheans in the fourth century had urged slaves to emancipate themselves. But they were heretics and their opinions on this score were contradicted by orthodox churchmen. Augustine, for instance, seems to have regarded slavery as a necessary evil in a fallen world. While not unreservedly endorsing the institution, he nevertheless permitted it by the same kind of pragmatic arguments that were used to defend the "just war". The legitimacy of slavery was thereafter enshrined in canon law. In 1519 Bartholomew De Las Casas, a Dominican monk, dared to challenge it, at least in respect to the enslavement of American Indians. But he was scorned as an eccentric fool. The Papacy itself owned many hundreds of slaves and had done so for centuries. How could the practice possibly be wrong? Only two conditions were laid down to limit the acquisition of slaves. They had to be non-Christian (i.e. pagan or Muslim) and they had to be captured during "just" warfare (i.e. one fought by the armies of a "Christian" nation). In the late seventeenth century the Roman Catholic theologian, Leander, could confidently declare:

"It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery ... is proved from Holy Scripture.... All theologians are unanimous on this."

The scriptural support to which Leander and others referred was two-fold. First, Moses in the Old Testament law made provision for slavery as an institution within Israel. Second, neither Jesus nor the apostles raised any moral objection to slavery within the Roman empire. In fact both Paul and Peter advise Christian slaves to accept their servitude with meekness, obedience and dignity (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, I Peter 2:18-21).

Richard Baxter, the Anglican puritan, was one of the few mainstream Protestants prior to 1700 to argue that slavery was wrong. Most of those who supported his view came from the radical wing of the Reformation ( Anabaptists, Quakers, Unitarians). They were joined in the early eighteenth century by Wesleyan Methodists to form a increasingly outspoken abolitionist lobby both in Britain and America. But it was not they, but the supporters of slavery, who quoted biblical texts most extensively. A good example is the treatise of Rev. Dr. Richard Furmer, received approvingly by the Governor of South Carolina in 1823, and expressing the convictions of the Baptist Convention.

"Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles ... would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church ... they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required, that the master should liberate his slave.... But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties.... In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions ... The holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is therefore consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct."

The eventual victory of the abolitionist cause in America was military rather than theological. And in England, though the rhetoric of William Wilberforce was indisputably fired by a passionate evangelical Christian faith, he rarely expounded specific Bible texts to prove his point. The success of his reforming zeal owed as much to the influence of secular-rationalist ideas about human liberty as it did to Jesus' golden rule.

Apart from a handful of reconstructionists who advocate the re-introduction of the law of Moses, all Christians today accept that slavery is morally wrong. If they wish to retain a high view of biblical inspiration, however, they must somehow explain the Bible's embarrassing failure to condemn slavery and the consequent moral blindness of the Church to the issue for eighteen centuries. The way this has been achieved is by the addition of a fourth principle of interpretation to those used long ago by Athanasius of special relevance to the discussion of biblical ethics:

(iv) allowance must be for the way the Bible accommodates itself to its original cultural setting

Thus, most conservative theologians would argue now that Moses and the apostles were simply regulating slavery as an existing social institution. This must not be taken to imply that the practice was morally unobjectionable or that the Bible endorses it universally. For instance, Moses permitted divorce, while Jesus prohibited it (except perhaps on the grounds of adultery). Jesus doesn't say that Moses was wrong, but rather that he was making a necessary concession to "the hardness of men's hearts" in the ancient social context in which he was placed (see. Matthew 19:3-9). Paul seems to have allowed divorce in cases of desertion, no doubt for similarly pragmatic reasons (I Corinthians 7:15). This is not necessarily to deny the existence of absolute moral values, nor does it require a total surrender to the subjectivist fluidity of situation ethics. But it does mean that extreme caution must be exercised when extrapolating the application of moral rules and social institutions from the Bible to societies in the present day. A literalist enforcement of ancient texts may well generate errors in the area of ethics, just as it has done in the area of cosmology. Even such an unquestionably compelling statute as "thou shalt not kill" can give rise to a dangerous moral fanaticism if it is applied mindlessly to some of the tricky moral questions raised by modern medical science and biological research. Athanasius noted the importance of maintaining the coherence of the whole of the Bible in the interpretation of individual texts. When it comes to ethics this surely means that texts must be understood and applied in a way that is consistent with the biblical doctrine of the dignity of humankind and the priority of love which Jesus himself defined as the hermeneutic key to the moral law.

Acknowledging that cultural relativism must play a role in the way the Bible is interpreted, however, inevitably invites a question:

Are there other mistaken ethical judgements for which Christians claim biblical warrant but which will seem as embarrassingly inappropriate and anachronistic to later generations as the Church's former support for slavery does to us now?

and today...?

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There are at least two issues which have generated particular controversy in the last half-century and are well on the way to being generally acknowledged as mistakes of this kind.


The Church's position on the role of women has been radically revised. Sociological changes in the wake of the feminist movement have forced a re-examination of the Pauline passages dealing with the ministry of women (I Corinthians 14:33-35, I Timothy 2:11-15) in those churches which have traditionally ordained only men. Once again there is a vocal rearguard of conservatives who cling to a sexist interpretation of the texts, but the outcome of the debate is not in serious doubt. As in the case of slavery, a recognition that social and ethical instruction in the Bible is inevitably set in an alien cultural context has provided space for interpretations to be offered which are more in keeping with contemporary ideas of sexual equality.

... homophobia?

The Christian attitude toward homosexuality has been transformed too from one of unconditional condemnation to qualified acceptance. This change remains extremely controversial but the parallels with earlier debates in which the Christian community was eventually forced to acknowledge they had erred is conspicuous. It is quite possible that within the next couple of decades those texts which are still widely quoted to prove the moral repugnance of homosexual relationships will be reinterpreted by the majority of Christians, just as texts have been reinterpreted in the case of slavery and the ordination of women.

is this the end of biblical authority in the Church?

It is possible, of course, to be so intellectually demoralised by the admission of our human fallibility that we succumb to a nihilistic scepticism. This is precisely the direction in which postmodernist biblical criticism is heading. According to some there can be no "correct" understanding of a text, only a multiplicity of equally valid perspectives. But this would be to throw the hermeneutic baby out with the bath water. To admit our human fallibility is not to say that the Bible provides no access to divine truth whatsoever. Indeed the recognition of a "mistake" presupposes the accessibility of such truth. Theological and ethical debate about the meaning of texts can only proceed if the protagonists are confident that their discussions may eventually end in the Church arriving at a new and better understanding of those texts. Our responsibility to "contend for the faith" (Jude 3) must not be shirked, then, because of pusillanimous fears that "we might have got it wrong". It is encouraging to note that the debates we have discussed, with the possible exception of the two most recent ones, have all been resolved. The vast majority of Christians now accept that mistakes were made which have now been corrected - hence the Pope's "apology".

What we must abandon, however, is the delusion that our understanding of the Bible is already correct in every detail. Church history demonstrates unambiguously the implausibility of such a claim. Christian discipleship demands that we yield obedience to the authority of the Word of God as we understand it now. But it does not require us to affirm the immutability of that present understanding. One recalls the wise words of the Pilgrim Father, John Robinson, who declared, "The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word". The closed mind is rightly disparaged, for its vilified victims have often been later adjudged to be martyrs. Is it not significant that many of the prophets and Jesus himself were persecuted by members of the religious establishment for heresy? Toleration, by contrast, allows room for legitimate doubt. It is not to be without personal convictions, but it is to hold those convictions with a due sense of Christian humility.

John Locke is a splendid example of this kind of open-minded piety. A devout Christian himself, he yet opposed dogmatism in many areas of theological and ethical controversy. Wisdom often dictated an attitude, rather, which was tentative or even agnostic. In a letter to Philipp van Limborch, he wrote,

"May others forgive my mistakes! I declare war on no one on account of difference of opinions, myself an ignorant and fallible manikin. I am an evangelical Christian, not a papist."

By "papist" he means not Catholic but all those, from whatever denomination, who behave like infallible "popes", and "arrogate to themselves dominion over the consciences of others". Evangelicals, on the other hand, are "those who, seeking truth alone, desire themselves and others to be convinced of it only by proofs and reasons; they are gentle to the errors of others, being not unmindful of their own weakness; forgiving human frailty and ignorance, and seeking forgiveness in turn".

The purpose of this paper is to plead for similar humility among evangelicals today. The future will undoubtedly reveal that we have made mistakes and must revise our interpretation of the Bible as a result. We do not need to feel embarrassed by that admission. Indeed, the Church has suffered enormous public humiliation over the centuries precisely because Christians have been so reluctant to make it. Those who are currently digging in their heels to resist the ordination of women or the baptism of homosexuals believe they are defending a "biblical" position. Maybe the verdict of history will judge them right about this. But at this point in time they must reflect on the fact that Arius thought his position biblical too when he opposed the Nicene creed. So did the learned professors of Padua who refused to look down Galileo's telescope. So did Luther when he scrawled "This is my body" on the conference table at Marburg. And so did the Confederate President , Jefferson Davis, when he insisted:

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."

They were all convinced that they had the Bible on their side and that their understanding of the Bible was self-evidently correct. They all had substantial support too from many other like-minded Christians. But most of us now think they were interpreting the Bible wrongly and making serious mistakes as a result - mistakes which led to fanaticism, persecution and even war. Perhaps then, the warning of Jesus about the perils of trying to conduct eye-surgery when you are unwittingly the victim of poor vision yourself is a salutary one to remember whenever we claim biblical support for our opinions?

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