Opinion: Scripture, opinion, experience

Asking what a text meant at the time it was written is key to interpretation

Apr 24, 2017 by

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I read with interest Harold N. Miller’s thoughtful opinion piece, “Scripture Overrules Experience” (March 27). I support his statement that an argument from experience alone on the LGBT issue “is not able to bear the weight of overturning a longstanding teaching of the church.” When striving for unity in the church, we must deal with longstanding teachings, as well as with specific scriptures that condemn certain same-sex sexual practices.

I also agree that “Genesis 1 and 2 present male-female unions as central to God’s creative purposes.” Opposite-sex attraction is innate in most humans, and the female-male union is essential for reproduction. However, there are many ways we humans do not conform to a particular norm. About one in 2,000 babies is born intersex, with genitals not clearly male or female. Some people never marry or bear children. Some women choose careers previously open only to men. The more we learn about biology, psychology and sociology, the more human diversity we must deal with.

I appreciate Miller’s pastoral compassion for those who fall outside of certain norms.

Here are the questions I would raise:

  • When Miller talks about “a longstanding teaching of the church,” is he referring to Scripture or to tradition? Although our biblical texts are authoritative and inspired, our interpretations, no matter how longstanding, are not necessarily so. (Think of early Anabaptists re-interpreting church traditions of baptism and use of the sword.) There are good and bad ways to interpret texts. Interpretations can also change with new information or insight.
  • Biblical texts are themselves an integration of experience, reason, tradition and divine inspiration. The Bible did not drop out of heaven. It was composed and compiled by God-inspired humans in different times and places, then later translated into other languages and recopied many times.
  • When interpreting a text, first we need to ask: What did it mean at the time it was written? What did the author intend to say in that historical context? Only then can we ask what it means today.

Take Miller’s example from Romans. In chapters 1-3, Paul writes to house churches in Rome around A.D. 57, making the case that everyone has sinned before God. He first deals with Gentile sins in 1:18-32. Their core sin is idolatry, worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. So God abandons them to degrading sexual lust.

But first a translation issue. The NIV translates the Greek word chrēsis as (sexual) “relations,” and the NRSV uses the term “intercourse.” However, chrēsis literally means “use” or “usage.” People are using others for sex. This challenges Miller’s statement that “the strongest and most natural reading is that Paul includes consensual same-sex intimacy on his list of sins.” “Using” someone for sex is hardly consensual and has more to do with what Paul calls “lust” than “intimacy.”

What was ‘natural’?

Knowing something about Greco-Roman culture also helps, especially its rigid social stratification and its bisexuality. Paul speaks about “natural” and “unnatural” sex. Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day identified three characteristics of “natural sex”: 1) heterosexual relations within marriage for the sake of procreation; 2) the initiator of sex must always be a male who is socially superior to the person of either gender whom he is using; 3) sex acts must be performed without excess passion.

Here we find that — unlike our Western heterosexual traditions — it was “natural” for Roman men to use socially inferior men, as well as women, for sex. Thus, the mention of women in Rom. 1:26 is not about lesbians. It rather implies that some women were inappropriately taking the initiative in sex acts with a man, even their husbands. This diminished the honor of the male. (In fact, no biblical text addresses lesbians.)

Part of the extreme stratification in Roman culture involved slavery. Without honor or human rights, slaves of both genders were always available for raping. Paul’s words condemning this behavior were read aloud in each house church, of whom possibly half the members were slaves. How liberating this text must have sounded to them!

As a Jew, Paul no doubt disapproved of sex between males, but his point here is that addiction to casual or predatory sex is never satisfied and will result in God giving such people up to the results of their “passions.” (Contemporary parallels are addiction to drugs or pornography, which eventually destroys the pleasure of physical sex.)

Much more can be said about the ancient Roman context, but I hope the point is clear: First figure out what a text originally meant before applying it to our contemporary situation.

Reta Halteman Finger wrote Paul and the Roman House Churches (Herald Press) and a recent series of lessons on biblical interpretation on her blog at eewc.com.

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