Part of Peter Jensen’s “Unpopular Opinions” series.
If you are not up with the Anglican world, you may not have heard the phrase ‘good disagreement’. It arises from the attempt to keep everyone together in the institutional church and not to divide over debates over doctrine or ethics. It’s also one of the tactics used to bypass the Bible without attacking its authority directly.
When the two sides sit together to discuss their differences, the opening gambit is to say, ‘Well, scholars of the Bible disagree on the meaning of the text of scripture on this subject. They know more than we do. It is perfectly right therefore for both sides to appeal to Scripture, but wrong to think that you have the only interpretation possible. Let us then agree not to talk about the Bible, but go straight to human experience and talk about ourselves.’
I was alerted to this many years ago by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali (then Bishop of Rochester in the UK) in the context of the debate about human sexuality. He observed that the question was not formally about the authority of Scripture, but about its clarity. I was enlightened by this at the time and everything that has happened since has confirmed the Bishop’s point.
Of course, formally speaking, there are few liberals who actually directly deny the authority of Scripture. They do not need to do so. All they need do is to deny its capacity to communicate the truth in unambiguous terms.
Old Hostility, New Assault
The dispute over the clarity of Scripture at the time of the Reformation was to do with the belief that the church held the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. It was believed that letting the laity read the Bible in their own language would lead to heresy and anarchy.
The current assault on the clarity of Scripture is the same but different. Now Scholars are the new priests, but it is their reported disagreement—rather than their authoritative unity—which closes the Bible against the ordinary reader. The authority of the Bible is still at stake, but the focus is different.
Indeed, given the clarity of Scripture on sexual sin, the non-expert can only conclude that if this is obscure, everything is. The Bible is thus reduced to a book of spiritual devotional material of uncertain value.
The faithful Christian reader of scripture needs to understand the following:
First, it is the business of scholars to disagree with each other. That is how they secure their reputation and make a living. Disagreement between scholars is not a reason to abandon the Bible or mistrust your own capacity to read it. The main story is perfectly clear.
Second, on this sort of issue, the scholars in fact don’t differ nearly as much as we are led to believe. The problems are not so much exegetical—it is rather hard to argue that the Bible is in favour of same-sex relationships or indeed fornication of any type—as they are philosophical. What are we to make of the biblical teaching in the light of current cultural norms?
Third, differences of opinion often arise from different presuppositions and in this case specifically those concerning the inspiration and hence the unity of Scripture. Denominations which owe their present shape to the Reformation can hardly go back on these fundamental insights in the name of ‘good disagreement.’
Fourth, although tradition cannot dictate our understanding of Scripture, it is a useful to check with tradition when we are tempted to be radical. Tradition delivers to us the accumulated wisdom of those who have read the Scriptures before us. Sometimes, tradition is wrong. But it is not a bad rule to put the onus of proof on the novelty—that is humility.
Alas! As I am listening to many of the leaders of my own denomination speak, there is very little specific appeal to the Bible. It is as if they can no longer trust it to communicate. The only thing that saves them from catastrophic decision—is an appeal to the tradition of the church. But when the Bible is not given its proper place, tradition ceases to function as a theological resource, and the end is in sight.
The clarity of scripture matters!