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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

God's Word, Not God's Last Word

God's Word, Not God's Last Word:
A Short Essay Against Bibliolatry

By James G. Carson, PhD

Many arguments against the full inclusion of sexually different people in the life of the Church rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on the concept of the Bible as "God's word written." So it's important to think as carefully and clearly as possible about the proper role of the Bible in the life of the Church in general and in discussions of sexuality in particular.

A parable: A certain man was hurrying northward along Michigan Avenue at about 10:50 one morning, on his way to an eleven o'clock appointment at the John Hancock Building. Presently his eyes fell upon a scrap of paper on the sidewalk. Picking it up, he read these words: "Meet me at the Sears Tower at 11:00." So the man immediately hailed a cab and barely made it to the Sears Tower by 11:00. But no one was waiting there for him. And, of course, he had missed his previous appointment at the John Hancock Building.

Didn't this man behave rather foolishly? Shouldn't he have stopped to ask himself a few questions? "When was this note written? By whom? To whom? Why? How did it get here? Is it really meant for me?"

Of course these are all perfectly reasonable questions to ask in such circumstances. But it's exactly these kinds of questions that some Christians seem to think we should *not* ask about the Bible. According to this viewpoint, any Biblical verse or passage that is cast in the form of a commandment or imperative is automatically to be construed as binding on modern Christian readers. But Anglicanism places *reason* on an equal footing with Scripture and tradition in guiding the corporate life of the Church and our individual Christian lives. Reason itself is a precious gift from God, just as the Bible is. So we have a solemn duty to approach the Bible with our brains at least as fully engaged as we would a scrap of paper on a sidewalk. To do any less is to treat the Bible, not with respect, but with contempt. That includes drawing on all available intellectual resources to illuminate those passages that appear, on the surface, to condemn homosexual relationships.

The Bible is in fact quite clear about the principal locus of God's Word for Christians. "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." (John 1:14). For us the pre-eminent revelation and manifestation of the Word of God is the person of Jesus Christ--not any piece of writing, no matter how venerable. The Bible also testifies to its own shortcomings and incompleteness. The writer of the Second Epistle of Peter tells his readers that Paul's epistles contain passages that are hard to understand and easily mis-interpreted (II Peter 3:16). At the end of John's Gospel we read that "there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25)

The Bible also bears witness that God is constantly revealing His Word in new ways that sometimes puzzle, surprise, and even scandalize people who think they already know how He does and does not work. Contrast the elaborate instructions for ritual sacrifices in Leviticus with the Psalmist's view of God who "takes no delight in burnt offerings" but graciously accepts the "sacrifice of a troubled Spirit" (Psalm 51:16-17). Remember that the people of Nazareth were mystified by the source and authority of the message proclaimed to them by the man they knew only as the carpenter's son (Matthew 13:54-56). Consider Jesus' own teaching on the law as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: "You have heard that it was said....but I say to you...." (Matthew 5:21-48). Remember Peter's vision of a menagerie of "unclean" animals just before his meeting with Cornelius the centurion; in response to Peter's declaration that "I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean," he is admonished, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." (Acts 10:14-15)

Of course the Bible also tells us that "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (II Timothy 3:16). I believe that wholeheartedly. I believe that the Holy Spirit actively inspired both the original authors of the books we know today as the Bible, and those responsible for selecting the canon, i.e. the list of books to be included--a process that was not finalized until the early 300s A.D. But all those propositions taken together still do not add up to the conclusion that every command found in the Bible is automatically to be construed as a binding imperative for contemporary readers.

It is useful for us to know that some of the Bible writers were puzzled, or even repulsed, by homosexuality, and to ask ourselves why. But Paul tells us that "The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Romans 13:9). He also tells us that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).

Whenever any creature is accorded the honor due only to its Creator, the result is idolatry. The worthier the creature, the greater the danger. Few if any creatures are worthier than the Bible; and the Bible may well stand second only to Mammon as the most-worshipped idol in contemporary America. The Bible has a unique, honorable, indispensable place in the life of God's Church. But evil lurks close at hand whenever the words of the written Word are allowed to overshadow the redeeming work and example of the Incarnate Word.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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