Principles vs. Passages

I’ve made this point before (see especially my article for Religion Dispatches from 2008). But since Jim West has written a blog post suggesting that liberal Christians neglect exegesis when it comes to subjects such as same-sex relationships, I thought I would respond to him here, just as I have in a comment on his blog:

We on the left have seen how a focus on exegesis rather than overarching principles has led to the defense of slavery, the forbidding of ordination to women, and much else that we think with hindsight is contrary to the core principles of our faith. And so we focus on principles, and are happy to follow them even to the extent of disregarding or rejecting specific texts’ views on a matter. We believe that in doing so, we are doing what Paul did, when he overturned the very clear teaching of Genesis that one had to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant with Abraham, based on what he considered to be more fundamental teachings of Scripture.

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  • Hydroxonium

    Agreed. I feel that those on the right simply refuse (or are unable) to acknowledge that written laws must be properly interpreted for the laws to fulfill their true spiritual purpose (just like all other passages of the bible!!). It’s like a physicist clinging on to Newton’s laws, whilst rejecting Einstein’s theories of relativity.

    However, perhaps they’re just afraid to venture too far off the path of literal interpretation, because they fear that they will get lost in the scary dark forest if they stray too far from their bright and easy path.

    Having said that, we on the left who walk the line between the light and dark sides, need to be aware that if we are not careful enough, we run the real risk of falling to the dark side!

    • James F. McGrath

      I don’t entirely agree with that way of putting things. I think there is a dark side in all directions, and a balance which is the healthy place to be. I don’t accept the way conservatives tend to depict things, as though they are staying in the light while others are playing in or near the edge of the darkness. Darkness falls on those who stay put, and there is light to be found through daring to explore.

      • Hydroxonium

        I didn’t entirely agree with my way of putting it either. I may have tried too hard to put things in their perspective. I would say that their “bright and easy path” is an illusion (a self-delusion)!

        Completely agree with your elaboration. In my defense, you do after all refer to Dunn as your Doktorvater lol. (Sounds suspiciously like a reference to Darth Vader.)

  • Virgil T. Morant

    But where do these “overarching principles” come from? The Golden Rule, which you cite as such a principle in at least one of the numerous linked articles above, is in Scripture (which gives this case for principles over exegesis a kind of exegetical flavor, I think). Would you recommend any principles that are not in Scripture as guidance in trying to resolve such controversies as same-sex marriage?

    And what of remarks in Old and New Testament about God making man male and female, and the connection between these remarks and marriage? That too sounds like a principle one could seek guidance from. So then one has to resolve which “overarching principles” one chooses to regard as the more relevant or overarching, and then of course proceed to make a case. Of course something like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be used in a good many troublesome ways as an overarching principle, since it leaves open the inevitability of some divergence of opinion as to what this person or that would have others do unto him.

    Although I am reluctant to side with anyone who repeatedly uses the word exegete as a verb (hardy har–I kid, of course, and no offense to Jim West anyone else who want to use it that way: be my guest!), Mr. West has somewhere in his remarks a fair enough point. Commandments against homosexual behavior are rather explicit in Scripture. It is stated that certain activities are wrong. There is, on the other hand, no explicit commandment, say, to enslave black Africans and their descendants in the New World. Arguing that the United States should have abolished slavery was not contrary to Scripture, and keeping blacks as slaves in America was not commanded by Scripture, and this sets that controversy apart from arguments in favor of homosexual behavior.

    • Mary

      I’ll let James answer the rest of your questions, but I will point out that the OT explicitly says that it is ok to buy foreign slaves. They were property, not indentured servants like many claim. This was part of Mosiac law. So maybe there is no direct commandment for it, but it was heavily condoned. That is also true in the NT as well. Also consider that when battles were fought (another issue: genocide) virgin women were part of the spoils and also became slaves and consorts against their will.
      I think arguing that there was no commandment to own slaves is not a good argument because it still begs the question of how could slavery ever be consistent with God’s will? Especially since there were laws stating that it was ok to brutalize your slaves as long as they survived for three days after.
      Going back to the issue of homosexuality, yes there are commandments against it, however the penalty was very clear: the death penality. That brings problems with a literal point of view right there. Especially since the death penalty applied also to a child talking back to his parents, working on the Sabbath, adultery, and even having the misfortune of being raped.
      At any rate the rational for owning slaves had a good scriptural basis and there is the problem. If you use the bible to justify one atrocity then it is easy to use it to justify other things as well.
      The only rational thing to do is to go by the Golden Rule, because it is obvious that many of the bible teachings are inconsistent and culturally based.
      Anyway I am interested in what James has to say about this topic.

    • James F. McGrath

      The issue for the defenders of slavery was that God would not have endorsed and allowed an institution that was immoral. The issue for opponents of committed same-sex relations is that God would not have condemned it in Biblical times if it were not immoral. In both instances, the conservative stance identifies the morality of ancient human beings with that of God, creating a false problem. And in both instances, I expect that future generations will look back and wonder how their forerunners in the faith could have viewed things as they did.

      The approach to the Bible is largely the same in both instances, and that is the point of comparison – it is not based on a facile equating of the issues of slavery and homosexuality.

      • Virgil T. Morant

        There’s a considerable difference between God allowing and regulating, on the one hand, and explicitly condemning, on the other. The Lord allowed evil to be done to Job. He allowed divorce, even though He hated it (and said a thing or two about that in the New Testament). He imposed a good many regulations of human activity and later rebuked those who were slavishly devoted to the practice of those regulations.

        An exegetical approach (by a “conservative” or anyone else) cannot honestly argue both the issues of slavery and homosexuality in the same way, because they are not treated the same way in the Bible. The arguments against slavery didn’t need to reject any part of the Bible, and they could be made exegetically. The arguments in favor of homosexual activity are radically different in this regard, as they require the rejection of a moral command. Any defender of slavery who said “God would not have endorsed and allowed an institution that was immoral” is a poor exegete.

        And, again, if you choose to let “overarching principles” trump commandments from Scripture, then how do you choose the principles, and what is the point of resorting or pretending to resort to Scripture at all at the same time? If one is rejecting a commandment in the Bible for some other authority (such as one’s interpretation and application of the Golden Rule), then what should one expect from those who consider Scripture authoritative? And what is one’s own point in regarding Scripture as having anything to do with God, if, every time our modern view of something conflicts with a moral commandment, we just say, “Well, since that commandment conflicts with our current view of things, that must have been an ancient culture, not God, speaking there, and we’re just going to go with the Golden Rule or some other principle that our modern view prefers instead”?

        • James F. McGrath

          If that is poor exegesis, then that is an important warning against those who prioritize laws rather than principles. Those who broke away and formed the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue of slavery thought it was sound conservative exegesis they were offering.

          The Scriptures are only rightly understood as pointers to Jesus and to God. Anyone who adheres rigidly to Scripture, without prioritizing its contents in the way that Jesus taught, cannot claim to be offering a Christian interpretation, no matter how “sound” their exegesis might seem to them. That was the key error of the defenders of slavery. If they had prioritized the Golden Rule as Jesus taught, they would not have been able to defend slavery, no matter what the laws or household codes had to say.

        • Ian

          “Any defender of slavery who said “God would not have endorsed and allowed an institution that was immoral” is a poor exegete.” – How do you determine what is proper exegesis from what is not? Presumably you know that exegesis in favour of slavery is wrong because you know slavery is wrong. (Not all Christians agree, incidentally, I have spoken with several who feel that slavery is still acceptable to God).

          “And, again, if you choose to let “overarching principles” trump commandments from Scripture, then how do you choose the principles” – in exactly the same way the right chooses which principles guide their exegesis. Only you do so knowingly.

          On slavery, women, divorce, wealth, and other topics, the right pick and choose just as much. They just pretend that their whims are indistinguishable from Gods by playing the “that’s not good exegesis” game.

          • Virgil T. Morant

            How do you determine what is proper exegesis from what is not?

            I laid out the standard by pointing out the difference between permission and regulation, on the one hand (slavery), and explicit commandment, on the other (homosexual behavior). I didn’t make reference to an external principle such as the Golden Rule to distinguish the two matters. I pointed out a distinction between how the two subjects are plainly treated in themselves in Scripture. When you say to me, “Presumably you know that exegesis in favour of slavery is wrong because you know slavery is wrong,” I would place particular emphasis on your first word, since you are making an incorrect presumption about how I have arrived at my conclusion.

          • Ian

            But that merely begs the question. How do you know that is the correct basis on which to judge that an exegesis is correct on this issue?

            Why is that particular criteria so important in this case, but other criteria overrule it when it comes to other regulations that you feel free to ignore (on the basis of further exegetical criteria)?

            Give me any interpretation of scripture you like: no matter how insane, and I’ll come up with a detailed post-hoc rationalisation for why it is the correct one. Finding reasons to believe what one already believes is very easy. Human beings are incredibly good at it. Showing those reasons to be objectively correct is rather more difficult.

          • Ian

            Yes, I’m presuming, of course! Which is why we’re having the conversation – because I’m interested in having my presumptions confirmed or denied. Sorry if my tone is a bit strident, but I’m struggling to get to the bottom of your claim.

            So your response is to reiterate. But the question stil stands. How do you know that that is the right exegesis? How do you know that the exegesis of the faithful bible students of the 18th and 19th century was ‘poor’. It is easy to keep saying a variation of ‘because I’m right’, but the question I’m asking is, on what basis do you make that judgement.

            I understand that you’ve set up two criteria: permission and commandment. But the answer surely can’t be just more criteria, because how do you know that those criteria are the right ones for ‘good’ exegesis. At some point you have to break that cycle, surely?

            And presumably [sic] you do that on the basis of seeing the results of the exegesis, and checking if they seem morally reasonable. The alternative seems to be claiming that you arrived initially at the correct exegetical criteria, followed them dispassionately, and happened to come up with a peculiarly late C20 Christian morality.

  • Craig Wright

    I recommend “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” by James V. Brownson as a good exegetical interpretation of Scripture, from a conservative point of view. He comes out showing that the moral logic behind the passages on same sex erotic behavior do not apply to today’s Christian GLBT people seeking a faithful, monogamous relationship.

  • Gary

    The only thing that jumped out at me from the West blog is “When it comes to what the agnostics and atheists and Buddhists and all the rest think about the subject, I, frankly, just don’t care”. That sounds like the elitism in Num 25, about not marrying a foreign woman. I can even tie in a bit about slavery, obscure, but interesting. Moses’ wife, a Medianite, may have been black. I wonder if they used that argument in 1860 against inter-racial marriages? I personally do not want to live in a world directed by rules from 1860, or from 200 AD, for that matter.