The Word of God as Interpreted . . .

August 4, 2011

Continuing our consideration of some of the arguments heard during last Friday’s General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission appeal hearing, in the matter of Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery, it’s time to move on to the question of the interpretation of Scripture. The most common claim made by folks willing to accept the ordination of homosexually active individuals is that “there are many interpretations of only a few isolated passages of Scripture, and it is wrong to impose one of those interpretations (yours) on the whole church.” Several comments can be made in response to this assertion:

1. In no way does the fact that there are “only” six passages that explicitly prohibit homosexual activity diminish the force of those passages. They are not countered by a single positive passage affirming homosexuality. They are countered by a consistent biblical understanding of marriage as exclusively between male and female. They proscribe the behavior in the strongest possible terms. There is no evidence of any softening of those prohibitions, retraction of commands by Jesus Christ, or any wiggle room given in the letters.  One mention should be enough, in God’s economy, but we have it at least six times in Scripture: homosexual practice is deeply offensive to God.

2. Interpretation is necessary only when there is some ambiguity in the biblical data.  One of the commissioners said, “It’s not black and white; it’s a lot more complicated than that.” But in fact, on this issue, God’s Word is black and white. There is nothing to “interpret.”

3. Presbyterians believe that our first source for interpretation when the data are ambiguous is our Book of Confessions, which are “authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” Our practice has been to hash out our doctrine through a deliberative process, and by a vote of a supermajority of presbyteries and the affirmation twice of two General Assemblies, we put it in the Book of Confessions. The BOC is not ambiguous  about sexuality in its proper context either.

4. G-6.0106b, the fidelity and chastity requirement, was not the first nor the only interpretation of what God’s Word teaches about sexuality. But it was an accurate summary. Its deletion from the Book of Order, which muddied the waters in today’s climate, nevertheless did not change the biblical and confessional standard upon which it was based.

5. The constitutional provision for freedom of conscience at G-6.0108b[1] states: “[A candidate or officer] chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church . . .” This statement is not to be construed as a claim that the Church’s authority (e.g. in the process of developing the canon) establishes what God’s Word is and what it is not. Rather, the church as a whole is arbiter of the parts when there is controversy over important doctrinal matters. But God’s Word is always the inspired and authoritative self-revelation of God and his direction for humankind. John Calvin was careful on this point: “A most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church” (ICR,I.7.i). “If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation [of the church], this must have had authority before the church began to exist.  . . . It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent” (I,7,ii). The church is not lord of the Word, but subject to it.

Tomorrow: Whether the declaration of Scripture as the authoritative and applicable Word of God is an essential tenet of the Reformed faith.


[1] One of these days I will get my new copy of the Book of Order, with nFOG and its renumbering of such provisions! I’ll let you know when I start using the new location numbers, but in the meantime, keep track with me in the old system.

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3 Responses to “The Word of God as Interpreted . . .”

  1. George McIlrath Says:

    Marvelous & concise exposition. Thank you.

  2. William L. Goff Says:

    It is hard to believe that anyone with a seminary education could make this statement: “But in fact, on this issue, God’s Word is black and white. There is nothing to “interpret.”” Leviticus instructs its readers to stone to death homosexuals. Do you take this literally or is some interpretation required?
    For many years the Bible was understood to support slavery and the subordination of women. Now it is interpreted differently.
    William L. Goff, D.Min., Fuller Seminary, 1970

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you for showing interest in my new blog, Dr. Goff. In the interest of precise language, what is “black and white” is God’s negative view of homosexual practice. As I said in the Q & A at the Appeal Hearing, the question of consequences of proscribed behavior (and the timing of it) merits some interpretation, but the basic moral/sexual issue does not. Your analogies of the slavery and women’s questions are not parallel to the homosexual practice question. Have you come across William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis? I found this very helpful in sorting out the analogies and have come to the conclusion that a consistent hermeneutic does not yield the same result on all three topics.

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