Biblical Inquiry, Moral Discussion, and the Conservative Temptation

British theologian Oliver O’Donovan:

A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a “biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word ” authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief – a refusal to open ourselves to the question, What is God saying to us through his word?

* * *

The interpretation of Scripture is a matter in which we wait upon God – not, of course, as though we had understood nothing of his mind, but simply because we have not understood everything. The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second. I can always read further, study harder, think deeper. To precipitate myself from the pinnacle of the text, and demand that angel wings shall bear my interpretation up, is to cut short the task of waiting and attending; it is to tempt the Lord my God.

Why should we find this so difficult to accept? We are anxious for the church. We are anxious for ourselves. We are anxious about the consequences of admitting any indeterminacy in our understanding of the text, which might give a hostage to fortune. Once we acknowledge hermeneutic distance, we fear, “anything goes.” A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance. They will rush forward to wrest Scripture from its plain sense, pervert it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And, of course, this fear is, in the short run, likely to prove well grounded. The public discourse of theology is, indeed, one where anything has the habit of going. False prophets are, and always will be, quick to rush forward. So we must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward with implausible but brazen claims to be consistent with, or authorized by, Scripture. To this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and to spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more. To our fears, all too well grounded in the short term, we must reply with the question: is the Spirit of the living God an adequate match for human perversity? Is Jesus’s promise about the gates of hell meant seriously enough to be relied on? Are we prepared to encounter false interpretations with the weapons of true interpretation, the weapons that are “not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds . . . [taking] every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5)? Precisely those weapons – hand-to-hand, thought-to-thought, unpicking the web of error strand by strand – cannot be used without discourse, without argument and debate, without proper distance on, and attention to, the text in itself, without the waiting and searching that every true work of interpretation demands.

 – Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion


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