The Bible is recognized by very many people as the most important written text in existence, the “greatest treasure this world affords” as it says in the coronation service for English monarchs. But this does not mean all these people come to the same conclusions from what they read. This is because there is more than one way of understanding how to learn from the Bible. I will describe this in terms of three metaphors, and, as an illustration, apply them to the consideration of same-sex marriage.
The first metaphor is that of the rock; the Bible as secure foundation. Here the Bible functions as the dependable source of promises and encouragements, and the container of information and doctrine. It is judged to contain God’s revealed will on many practical matters, as well as assurances, challenges and comforts.
The second metaphor is that of the launch-pad. Here the Bible is the amazing starting point which has launched us, as a community, into an ever-growing appreciation of what a kingdom of universal forgiveness, love and justice is like. We read of the growing awareness of such ideas in the ancient world, and extend them into every area of life.
The third metaphor is that of loam, that is, a type of soil that is full of nutrients. This combines some of the qualities of a rock, and some of the qualities of a launch-pad. The soil nourishes the roots. We seek to extend the work that was begun in the first century AD, and we definitely want and expect to go further than people managed to do at that time, but we are aware of the danger of losing touch with its spiritual foundations.
An appreciation of these three pictures helps in understanding how and why Christian people come to a range of conclusions about issues such as divorce and remarriage, male and female clergy, abortion, publicly-funded healthcare, and same-sex marriage.
We only need look back a hundred years or so to find extensive debate throughout western societies about whether or not women should have the right to vote in political elections, and in many countries such a right is surprisingly recent. Views on remarriage after divorce have also changed considerably. Until even more recently, it was thought that parents and teachers ought to hit children as a punishment when they misbehaved, and many used implements such as canes to make this extremely painful and humiliating. All this is a reminder that social norms are in a continual process of change, and although some changes are for the worse and need to be undone, many of the changes are right and good.
The issue of same-sex marriage is currently being much thought about. I will use this as an example to show how people who value the Bible can come to differing conclusions about it.
The metaphor of ‘rock’ tends to suggest the more conservative approach, where I mean the use of the word ‘conservative’ in its positive sense of conserving precious truths that have shown their worth in the past. The line of travel in the Old Testament, the wedding at Cana, and Jesus’ words about divorce, connected also with the concept of covenant, build a strong picture of marriage and tend to emphasize its standard form. The verses denouncing sexual activity without the commitment of marriage also fit with this. It is argued that the human body is respected appropriately by accepting the traditional restriction to opposite-gender marriage and all that goes with it.
The metaphor of ‘launch-pad’ tends to suggest the more liberal approach, where I mean the use of the word ‘liberal’ in its positive sense of giving people the appropriate freedom to express themselves in creative ways without unjustified restrictions. The Biblical picture of marriage and covenant is seen as a model in which what is central is the committed, wise and equal consent of the people involved, rather than their gender. The verses about sexual activity outside marriage fit with this, since they condemn sex in the absence of that sort of commitment. The great movement of the Bible towards a deep emancipation of human identity is the fundamental inspiration, which launches us towards the modern more diverse recognition of sexual identity. It is argued that the human body is respected appropriately by recognizing and accepting this diversity as a biological and spiritual fact as genuine as any other.
The metaphor of ‘loam’ tends to suggest sympathy with both the above reactions, and therefore results in a more hesitant position, finding ones way forward gradually and trying to get the right balance. Such hesitation is not feebleness or wooliness, but an attempt to judge what best preserves our commitment to things like love, justice and humility in the whole community, and to give people a fair hearing. Roots in a good loam allow us to draw up nourishment, but the aim is to have not just roots but a tree—something with a reliable trunk, but not fixed in all respects. We seek a living, growing structure which allows beautiful truths to be expressed in a variety of forms.