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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  • Daniel Hoopert

    Some responses to “Opinion: Scripture, opinion, experience”

    About the second question: Biblical texts themselves are an integration of experience, reason, tradition and divine inspiration. What is the grounds for this statement? One text in particular would say that the Scriptures are a product of God working in the writers of what he was revealing so that they wrote what He intended: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21, NIV).
    Kenneth Wuest does a good work when he writes about the inspiration of the Scriptures as taught in 1 Corinthians 2. The words that the inspired apostles used to write the Scriptures were taught them by the Holy Spirit. Wuest goes on to say, “This however does not imply mechanical dictation nor the effacement of the write’s own personality. The Holy Spirit took the writes as He found them and used them infallibly” (“Paul’s Doctrine of Verbal Inspiration,” in Untranslatable Riches from the Greek New Testament, 17).
    About the matter of the Scriptures being copied and translated many times: Textual critics are able to establish the original text with a rather high degree of certainty. Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace write about textual criticism in their book, Reinventing Jesus. They have one section in which they write about “an embarrassment of riches.” There is an abundant number of texts that these critics can use to give us a very good idea of what the original manuscripts said. And so far as the number of translations are concerned, we do not need to worry about that for the New Testament. Most of our modern translations use a critical edition of the Greek New Testament.
    About phusikos and chre:sis in Romans 1:26 and 27. There are lexicons and commentaries written by people well acquainted with ancient and koine Greek. These tell us that Paul is writing of what people regard as normal sexual activities (when these two words would be used together). For instance, for phusikos, Louw and Nida provide the sense “pertaining to that which is in accordance with the nature or character of something – ‘natural, naturally, by nature, by instinct’” (58.9). They cite Romans 1.26, “they changed the use which is in accordance with nature to that which is contrary to nature” (ibid). Re. chre:sis, Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich provide the sense “state of intimate involvement w[ith] a pers[on], relations, function, esp[ecially] of sexual intercourse” (sense 3). We must take things in context. In the verse right after v. 26, Paul writes, “And in the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” If there is any question about the possibility that men might have ceased to take the initiative in the act, Paul makes it clear that that is not the sense when he says that men “abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” That means that in v. 26, Paul is writing about “unnatural relations” that involve lesbian relations.
    Collin Kruse has a section in his commentary on Romans “Additional Note: The Nature of the Homosexual Practice Condemned by Paul” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series.)

    Daniel A. Hoopert

  • John Gingrich

    It is interesting to try to parse the meaning of the words from 2 millennium past and what the people reading it in real time understood. In addition to the Roman and Greek linguistic and cultural context it would seem prudent to consider the writings of the early church fathers in the years following Paul. They certainly understood the words and culture and application better than today’s scholars, removed by vastly more years and translations. They are interpreters that should carry more weight than clever agenda-driven modern speculation.

  • Harold Miller

    This is a refreshing piece in many ways. Reta, you obviously value Scripture, working hard to figure out what a text meant at the time it was written. I fully agree that only Scripture overturns experience, not necessarily the traditional interpretations of Scripture.

    You give some exegetical arguments against the church’s longstanding understanding of Romans 1.
    – You point out that the Greek word chresis may not mean “relations” (NIV) or “intercourse” (NRSV) but only “use” or “usage.” And you say that “using” someone for sex is hardly consensual. What about the part of the passage I identified as suggesting consensual intimacy: “for one another.” If persons are “using” each other in a way that they are “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), isn’t something consensual the most natural reading of that phrase?

    – You say that Paul’s mention of women engaging in “unnatural” sex “is not about lesbians. It rather implies that some women were inappropriately taking the initiative in sex acts with a man.” I agree with you that I should not insist that Paul did not have a Greco-Roman idea about sex (e.g., that “the initiator of sex must always be a male”) in his mind in Rom 1. But you likewise should not insist that Paul did not have the creation pattern of men and women created for each other (with male-male and female-female relations being unnatural) in his mind. Especially since there are exegetical indications that Paul had creation in mind: the verses around it contain many allusions to Gen 1; Paul talks of same-sex relations in the immediate context (i.e., in the next verse which begins “and in the same way also”). John Gingrich mentions that it’s “prudent to consider the writings of the early church fathers.” Ones like Chrysostom viewed it as lesbianism, as did earlier church fathers before him (though not Augustine who came a bit later).

    Like you, Reta, may we all care enough about Scripture to work hard at asking what Rom 1 meant at the time it was written.

  • Brad Burkholder

    Reta, thank you for your insights on what Scripture says marriage is not. What Scriptures do you use to define what marriage is?

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