Adrian Thatcher

Adrian Thatcher, on The Bible – AND the Word of God.

We are so used to speaking of the Bible as the Word of God, that we often forget that things are not quite that simple. In his contribution to the opening plenary session of the CSCS “Embodied Ministry” conference at Ripon College, July 2014,  Prof Adrian Thatcher reminded us that there are also other sources of revelation, taking as his title :

“how the Bible might be used to inform better integration of gender, sexuality and spirituality in formational settings”

Adrian Thatcher

My title is very precise, like the number of minutes – 20 – to address it. There are 2 types of
integration that concern participants at this conference: i) of gender, sexuality and spirituality within the lives and ministries of ordinands; and ii) of gender, sexuality and spirituality into the curricula of ‘formational communities’. Since my title does not mention any other theological source than the Bible, I suggest a third integration – iii) the integration of the Bible with other sources of theological learning and Christian maturity.

1. The need to integrate the Bible with other theological sources

God speaks. God has spoken decisively and eternally through the divine Word. The divine Word of God is God’s very self, the personal incarnation and revelation of God in ‘flesh’. Huge difficulties arise when the Bible is accorded the same title, for the very name that the Bible reserves for God incarnate becomes attached to the library of books that witness to the coming of God incarnate. The equivalence of the incarnate Word with the written word, of flesh with text, has led to an over-valuing of the Bible, indeed often to an idolatry of it, which lies at the root of many of our problems in relation to gender, sexuality and spirituality. This is the principal problem that lies at the root of my assigned topic.

When the House of Bishops produced “Some issues in human sexuality” (2003) Anglicans discovered that they held two views about the Bible: the ‘witness view’ that the Bible is ‘the uniquely inspired witness to divine revelation’, with the ‘guidebook view’ that the Bible is the ‘guide to the path of Christian discipleship’ (2003: 38). The bishops hadn’t noticed that the two views are incompatible, and the second view doesn’t work.

Sadly there is a pile of historical evidence to the effect that the guidebook leads to morally reprehensible results. With much diffidence I mention half a dozen of these:

  • Persecution of witches: The Kirk murdered thousands of women in part because of the text ‘Thou shall not suffer a witch to live’ (Ex. 22:18).
  • Black slavery: ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’, quoted the Episcopalians (Gen. 9:25), when they justified black slavery.
  • Anti-Judaism: ‘You are of your father the devil…’ cried Luther (Jn.8:44), as he advocated the burning of synagogues and the sequestration of all Jewish possessions.
  • Illegitimacy: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD,’ cited the churches (Deut. 23:2), when they stigmatized illegitimate children and punished their mothers. ‘I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me’, is, of course, embedded in the third commandment’.
  • Child abuse: ‘Those who spare the rod hate their children’ say the child beaters, justifying their child abuse from Prov. 13:24 and several other texts.
  • Slavery: ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh’ (1 Pet.2:18).

There is a longer list of proof-texting which brings discredit to the whole people of God. These ways of using the Bible have caused misery, suffering and death on a huge scale. Don’t the churches need to repent of their savage hermeneutic and to take care that they never again use the Bible in this way? But what do we find? The same, disgraceful, kind of proof-texting is still used against women in fundamentalist homes and mainline churches, and the hermeneutics that are used to proscribe the expression of same-sex love are very likely more of the same old stuff – improbable, inhumane – telling us more about what interpreters are looking for than what the texts themselves might indicate. Even Appendix 3 of the Pilling Report is not free from a similar criticism. There is an absolute moral imperative to do better with the Bible than to perpetuate this textual savagery.

2. The benefits of integration

The New Testament reliably tells us of the Good News of the coming of Christ and the reception of the Good News among the first believers. The Bible must have primary place in the  church’s use of sources (and even here the problem of selective use must be overcome). But there are other sources too – Tradition, Reason, Experience, Wisdom, Conscience, koinonia.

Tradition. Roman Catholics value Tradition equally with Scripture, whereas Protestants do not. Attention to Tradition might reveal amazing conclusions:

  • that the biblical world did not hold to a modern tradition that there are two sexes (that there are only men, and women are deficient versions of them);
  • that the service of the ‘making of brothers’ was practised in many branches of the church, allowing liturgical provision for friendship between men (and less often, between omen)
  • that the modern language of sexuality from the 1860s to the 1890s was initially opposed by the churches of the Victorian period, when ‘heterosexuality’ meant having sex for the sake of pleasure instead of for the sake of having children.
  • that the biblical world is stranger in the areas of sexuality and gender than we think, and that we may need to de-familiarize ourselves with it in order for it to appear fresh once more.

Reason, given such a bad press by the Puritans and the Neo-orthodox, has always been gladly received by the Tradition. Anglicans call this, together with Scripture and Tradition, the ‘three-legged stool’. The two obvious examples are the influence of Plato on Augustine and the influence of Aristotle on Aquinas. However that influence is viewed, its presence is undeniable. Great theologians listen to great scientists, philosophers and thinkers, and correlate these with what God has shown them of Godself in Christ, in the Church, in Scripture and in Tradition. There is a huge philosophical and analytical literature on sexuality and gender – Foucault, Laqueur and Butler to name but three – which can and should be critically considered as the Church seeks to determine the mind of Christ.

Experience. Methodists added experience to the three-legged stool, turning it into the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Why? Because people got saved through the preaching of the Gospel. They heard God speaking to them, and they experienced real assurance, in contrast to Calvinistic doubt, that they were saved. The awareness of oneself as loved and redeemed by God is valued in this tradition, and since self-awareness cannot be detached from what everyone now calls ‘sexuality’, it is also a priceless source for theological writing.

Wisdom is a source, personified as female in the Hebrew Bible. It blends reflection on experience with an understanding of scripture, tradition and contemporary life. Wisdom may be the provider of the very series of integrations the conference seeks. Conscience, in Greek and Latin, means ‘a knowing together with’. Whether understood as a private, authoritative, inner voice, or (as I would want to reclaim), the knowledge that comes through the deep sharing of dilemmas with brothers and sisters in Christ, in a context of total honesty, security and prayerful searching, conscience remains a source. Experience of this kind used to be called ‘fellowship’. Perhaps we can borrow the Greek koinònia instead? It is through the integration of all these sources, and not through the elevation of one of them that the Holy Spirit may lead us into the broader truths about who and what we are in Christ.

3. Some suggestions for the formational communities

1. Re-value the other sources God has given us as means of revelation and integrate the Bible with them

My first suggestion is to re-value the other sources God has given us as means of revelation and to integrate the Bible with them. However, I have been surfing the Common Awards in Theology, Ministry and Mission website, and recognize the restrictions of a national curriculum framework, its overcrowding and consequent trivialization of topics, etc.

2. Acknowledge the difficulties associated with all 3 terms

When ‘spirituality’ was coined, it was a collective noun for the clergy! It has now become the antonym of ‘religious’ as growing numbers of people identify themselves against religions of any kind. ‘Sexuality’ is a medical term coined in the 1860s during the ‘culture wars’ of the period when it became obvious there was more to sex than making babies, and that the churches’ monopolization of sexual discourse had to be challenged. ‘Gender’ has been around for longer, but the term was not commonly applied to the relations between men and women, until the 1950s.

We need clarity about what we are doing with these terms. The churches took the view that all they needed to say about sex was enshrined in marriage, and that women were in subjection to men. We were very late entrants into unfamiliar discourses. Clearly if we want to enter into public discussion about these matters, we have to use the language which is available in the public world. It would however, be possible to rely more heavily on the language of marriage, person, relation, desire, neighbour-love, justice (as Margaret Farley advocates) and so on (a language which Christianity bequeathed to the modern world) and be more cautiously circumspect in our adoption of modern terms and the expectation that they have ancient equivalents.

3. Elevate gender, sexuality and spirituality to their proper place in the curriculum

For myself, I use the modern terms but cautiously, knowing that the churches have managed for nearly 1900 years without them. Language about sexuality and spirituality is mixed up with ultimate questions about who and what people conceive themselves to be, and gender pitches us into inevitable discussions about human rights and equality before the law because the secular society understands how we infringe these in our own practices. The next problem is where, in a crowded contested curriculum, these topics are to be placed. They are not optional add-ons within settled forms of knowledge (New Testament, Church History, etc.), but topics of sufficient weight to require the forms of knowledge to re-group around them. Sarah Coakley thinks they are a prolegomenon to the very doctrine of God, for ‘the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it, questions which press on the contemporary Christian churches with such devastating and often destructive force; questions of  sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender, questions of the final theological  significance of sexual desire’ (Coakley 2013: 2). Here is an elevation of our topics into the doctrine of God (they are the key to it!), of the human person, of relation, the divine image, and male and female.

4. Avoid theologies of sexuality!

James Nelson used to compare ‘theologies of sexuality’, finding in them a naïve appeal to apparently relevant biblical texts, with ‘sexual theology’. The latter, he claimed, was grounded in Christian doctrine. He wanted to avoid the ‘What the Bible Says’ genre of courses which assume the the Bible is the guidebook whose right guidance biblical theologians can discover for the rest of us.

5. Make space within the informal curriculum!

Outside the formal curriculum there is the implicit curriculum, or as OFSTED inspectors are
trained to recognize, there is an ‘ethos’ in a school or academy which is expected to embody the school’s values. That very ‘knowing together with’ which lies at the root of ‘conscience’ might be fostered so that safe spaces, unmonitored and unassessed, provide real incentives for difficult conversations to happen. Churches, Karen McClintock charges, are too often ‘places of sexual shame’ (2001), and it is easy for colleges to replicate a shameful ethos where honesty about desires and doubts is discouraged and self-knowledge impeded. But they can also be places of acceptance and healing. Just how this is to be done must be left to the dedicated people who work in them.

(Taken with permission, from it’s own page at Professor Thatcher’s own website, “Applied Theology”, where he notes, “Readers who are interested in how to read the Bible well (instead of learning what’s in it) are invited to consult my book The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible .”)

Professor Adrian Thatcher is Visiting Professor at the University of Exeter. He is ‘retired’ and currently editing The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender. His most recent books are Making Sense of Sex (SPCK, 2012) and God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). He is an Anglican.

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