Understanding and Using the Bible
Another source of authority Christians have used in working out what they should believe or how they should act is that of conscience. The Quakers believe that conscience is the voice of God speaking within us and this idea has found favour with more liberal Christians who balance a particular Biblical passage or idea, the view of the wider Church on that idea and their own conscience. This is a contentious idea in contemporary Roman Catholic theology as more and more Catholics follow their own conscience on issues like birth control or divorce and, in doing so, ignore or reject the official teaching of their church.
Other Christians have introduced yet another source of authority into this complex area – that of human reason. We can use our God-given reason as we look at what the sciences and our own logic teach. This is seen most often in the debate around homosexuality. If (and it’s a big if) science shows that human sexuality is probably innate and not a choice then the traditional teaching of the church that homoerotic behaviour is as much of a choice as is lying is called into question.
Contemporary Christians, it seems to me, need to balance these four sources of authority when we think about ethics and theology – the Bible, the Church, our own Conscience and human Reason. We also need to be wary of them all! Human reason can be faulty – after all our greatest scientists have designed nuclear weapons and ever more creative ways to pollute our planet. Human conscience can be trained to approve of evil. The Church has repressed and persecuted people in its history and many parts of the Bible have been used to oppress women, defend slavery, support apartheid and excuse war. This isn’t to say that we can’t use the Bible, or any other source, reliably but it reflects that it’s difficult and the debates are very rarely as clear cut as conservative Christians would have us believe.
To say the Bible condemns lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, and that such condemnation should be followed today, is to oversimplify a complex issue. Parts of the Bible do seem to condemn us but, when compared with other, equally problematic and often sexist passages, it is clear that the phrase, "the Bible says" is not a sufficient argument for anything. We do need to be aware, however, about how certain texts and ideas have been used to condemn minorities. Some theologians call this a “hermeneutic of suspicion”.
Read on to "Word of God".