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The Word was made of flesh and blood, not ink

13 May 2009

Christians should obey God, not the Bible, argues Adrian Thatcher

THE question “How can people obey the scriptures?” was raised by Oliver O’Donovan (Comment, 1 May), but the deeper question that he leaves untouched is whether our relation to the scriptures should be one of obedience at all.

Professor O’Donovan helpfully engages with the GAFCON constitu­ency and with the part of the Jerusalem Declaration which de­clares that the Bible is to be “taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense”. He reminds this group that obedience to the Bible requires us to think about what the Bible says, and to act upon it.

This is practical reasoning. It can­not be done by the text: clearly it has to be done by us. As we prepare for acts of various kinds, we find that “scripture has a great deal of norm­ative weight to tell us. We shall be obedient to scripture to the extent that we have learned and acted upon what scripture has said of them” ­­­­[i.e. the acts]. We owe obedience to “the norms the text communicates”. Our acts and our works “are measured by a norm, which is the works and words of Jesus, the perfected law that lies at the heart of scripture”.

The solution that Professor O’Donovan offers will interest all Anglicans — not just GAFCON sup­porters — who want to find a basis for a conversation about how the Bible is read. But the advice he gives, although helpful, is unlikely to be heeded, and the question he takes up may be the wrong one.

The advice will not be heeded be­cause those who most need to heed it will see that, in the end, Professor O’Donovan advocates something else. He rightly sees that the Bible cannot be obeyed in a literal sense, so he changes obedience to the Bible into something else.

We are not really to obey the Bible. There are “norms” to be found in the text of the Bible. These norms help us to act faith­fully and obediently in the present, through our exercise of practical reason. However much this is portrayed as obeying scrip­ture, it is doing something else. It is the discernment (by whatever means) of norms (whatever they are), and then applying them (to “the material conditions we find our­selves in”).

What these norms are is puzzling. The problem is not just the obvious one that a norm has to be identified and presumably agreed on. If the norm is “the works and words of Jesus”, it is hard to see how the entire canon of scripture can also deliver norms through obedient reading. Why should we need them?

THERE are several reasons for think­ing that it is unhelpful to ask the question of how people can obey the scriptures.

First, there is real doubt whether our relation to the Bible is to be one of obedience at all. Obedience re­quires passivity (which Professor O’Donovan rightly rejects).

We have learned, at least since the Nuremberg trials, that all kinds of atrocities are justified in the name of obedience. Obedience works best in the military, or when legal codes re­quire it. The Christian faith offers something better — abundant grace and freedom from law.

Yet perhaps I am wrong about this. You cannot be a Christian without exercising obedience. But the question remains: obedience to what? Now the difficulty becomes severe. For, second, in Christianity it is God and God alone who must be obeyed. But obeying God, or obeying Christ, is a different matter from obeying the Bible. The Word of God made flesh becomes confused or conflated with the written words of the scriptures.

The honorary title regularly given to the Bible (the “Word of God”) drains away the primacy that belongs to Christ alone. “You diligently study the scriptures,” said Jesus, “because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me” (John 5.39).

Third, the precedents for obeying the Bible (should we be disposed to try) can be dire. That is what the Kirk thought it was doing as it ar­rested thousands of women for alleged witchcraft. It cited “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22.18, AV). Slave-owners and white racists thought their iniquities were justified by Noah’s saying: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Genesis 9.25).

Women, disabled people, Jews, many other groups, and of course, at the root of the current disquiet, homo­sexuals, all know what it is to find Christians against them who claim to be obeying the scriptures.

Fourth, obeying the Bible involves one in the personalistic fallacy. This is the fallacy of supposing that the Bible is a person with whom we have a personal relationship. If this sounds bizarre, you only have to say: “Scripture says,” or “The Bible teaches,” and the fallacy looms large.

Hundreds of theologians have convinced themselves that when they read the Bible, it speaks to them. They “listen” and, of course, “obey”. But the Bible does not “say” any­thing. That is a locutionary meta­phor. It is not a person. It lets itself be read. And to discern it, readers need the Spirit, who guides them into all the truth (John 16.13).

The challenge to GAFCON is sharp, but the framework of that possible conversation is too con­straining to provide a way forward. Prof­essor O’Donovan is right to say: “Christians need to be ruled by the words and works of Jesus.” But that is a different matter from obeying the plain sense of scripture, however it gets recast. It is Christ to whom the scriptures point who must be obeyed. Any conflation be­tween the Word made flesh and words is dangerous, and risks idolatry.

Dr Adrian Thatcher is Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Exeter. His most recent book, The Savage Text (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), de­velops these arguments.

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