7 December 2022

Our differences of interpretation reveal a deeper gulf

Our interpretations can differ in our readings of the Bible. Picture: iStock

By Andrew Judd 

15 September 2022

Professor Dorothy Lee argues that disagreements in the Anglican church are simply about our interpretation of the Bible, and not about whether we accept the authority of the Bible. She concludes:  

“… as Anglicans we accept the authority of Scripture in its prophetic and apostolic witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Where we differ is in the ways in which we interpret the text.” 

Read more: We all accept the authority of Scripture, where we differ is its interpretation 

I find this an attractive idea, because it suggests that little is at stake in these painful and divisive discussions we find ourselves in. If it’s just a matter of interpretation, on a subject secondary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the Bible is a bit vague about anyway, then we need not lose too much sleep. It’s all a matter of interpretation.       

Like many attractive ideas, however, this one papers over an awkward gulf. In 2019 the General Synod Doctrine Commission collated a series of essays addressing the question of same sex marriage. The argument in favour same-sex marriage was offered by Matthew Anstey, a member of the Doctrine Commission: 

“… we are now able to address the elephant in the room: the seven or so Scriptural texts on homosexuality, all of which depict it as sinful. It is difficult in my view to read them otherwise.” 

Hang on! If Anstey agrees that the Bible is clear on this issue, then how can he come to the opposite view and affirm same-sex marriage?  

We need to ask two follow-up questions to determine where our disagreements really are. 

What’s our authority 

First, is the Bible our ultimate authority, or just one among many? 

As Anglicans it is not enough to say that the Bible is one authoritative-ish dish on the interpretive buffet – for us it is “the word of God” (by which the Thirty-nine Articles mean ‘the Bible’).  

Professor Lee rightly points us to the Thirty-nine Articles. She notes that they commit us 
“to an intelligent understanding and wholehearted following of the Bible”. Indeed what is distinctive about that reformation document is not just that the Bible is recognised as some authority: it is that the Bible is the authority over every other source of authority. Article 34, for example, makes clear that human traditions cannot stand if they are “ordained against God’s word”. The Bible is consistently presented as the authority to be obeyed above all authorities (see Articles 17, 21, 22 etc).  

Read more: Matthew 19 speaks into divorce, not same-sex marriage

Yet, as Professor Lee also rightly observes, there are various alternative weightings that Christians might give to the Bible, particularly in how it scores against tradition, reason and experience.  

I can think of many Christians from different traditions who would not assent to the Articles and the priority given to Scripture there: 

  • My friend who is a Dominican Nun takes tradition as an equal authority to Scripture. When we discuss purgatory and papal infallibility she will concede that the Bible does not teach either doctrine, yet she holds to them firmly based on tradition.  
  • I’ve spent a lot of time reading 20th century German liberal theologians whose commitment to reason as the final arbiter over Scripture led them to reject the accounts of Jesus’ miracles and the Trinity, which offended their philosophical beliefs. 
  • And plenty of Christian-ish cults formed in North America in the nineteenth century based on the sincere religious experiences of charismatic individuals.   

Returning to Anstey’s essay, then, the disagreement starts to make sense. It has nothing to do with biblical interpretation. He can agree with the majority of the Doctrine Commission that the Bible forbids same-sex intercourse, but still affirm same-sex marriage, because he considers the Bible one authority to be considered amongst many: “we seek to make our case for the doctrinal position we are arguing in dialogue with both Scripture and lived human experience”. 

At heart, then, this is more serious than a difference of interpretation. It is a fundamental parting of the ways. Anglicans love reason, experience and tradition (oh yes, especially that one). But they also insist that the word of God can overrule any and all of them. Councils err, despite what tradition says. The spirits mislead, despite what experience says. Miracles happen, despite what reason says. The word of God never fails – despite what anyone says.  

It is our commitment to this first principle that has held Anglicanism together. We may not all see things the same way all the time, but if we can at least agree that the Bible is the word of God, and hence our primary authority in matters of faith and conduct, then we can have meaningful discussions. We might even hope to persuade each other. Abandon this principle and we will go around in circles forever. 

The goal of interpretation 

Second, is the goal of “interpretation” to understand, or to improve the Bible?   

Interpretation is a slippery word. In my previous career I knew some very clever lawyers who, for the right hourly rate, could give you exactly the “interpretation” of the tax code you were looking for. (At least one I know has subsequently fled the country on the run from the tax office.)  

Many of the interpretations offered by modern Bible scholars would have startled Jesus and the apostles. This is deliberate. In the wake of postmodernism, much interpretation explicitly aims at arriving at an understanding of the text that goes “against the grain” of the text.  

Read more: Love your neighbour (terms and conditions apply): On tolerance

Bible scholars sometimes deliberately set out to subvert sections of Scripture they find objectionable. In Five Uneasy Pieces, a collection published in 2012, Richard Treloar explains how he interprets the prohibitions against male-male penetrative sex in Leviticus: 

“Reading Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as Anglicans means taking these verses, and the whole witness of Scripture, fully seriously. Sometimes this means exercising a ‘hermeneutic of resistance’, or … ‘improving upon some portion of Scripture’…” 

If indeed “interpretation” means “resisting” or “improving on” what the Bible says, then our disagreements are much more significant than might first seem. “Resistance” is a strange way of recognising any authority, let alone the living and active word of God.  

Our disagreements, then, are at heart about what the Bible is and what role it should play in our lives and communities. For me, the Bible is more than a record of some human thoughts about God, it is the word of God. As the word of God, it is both authoritative and relevant. I must assume it is the way the Holy Spirit wants it – I dare offer no improvements or resistance.  

Reverend Dr Andrew Judd lectures in hermeneutics and Old Testament at Ridley College. 

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