DOES THE BIBLE HAVE A PLOT? (3/6)

The Quest for “a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality

In a previous post (“How the Study Committee on Human Sexuality Handled the Texts”), I looked at how a new report on human sexuality, commissioned by Synod 2016 of the Christian Reformed Church, handles Matthew 19, a scripture central to the study committee’s case. In that post, I suggest in the report writers are not really listening to the text, ignoring much that is key to understanding it, in order to pursue an argument about human sexuality. In the opinion of the study committee Jesus in his discussion on divorce in Matthew 19 establishes that human beings were created sexually binary, thereby ruling out the idea that human sexuality is on a spectrum, and that marriage is properly between a man and woman, no same-sex marriage allowed. At the end of the previous post, I raised questions about whether these conclusions are in fact drawn from the text or whether the text serves as a convenient way to certify what the committee already believed before it came to the text.. It’s to those questions that I turn in this post.

Does the Bible have a plot? The writers of the recent synodical study committee report (https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf) believe it does. They open their discussion of a “biblical theology of human sexuality” (page 15 of the report) with this claim: “Reformed theology reminds us that a good biblical theology follows the outline of the great moments of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption, consummation” (p. 15)—a plotline in four movements. The report operates out of this framework. In the pages that follow, they walk through their analysis of the biblical material on human sexuality in terms of this framework: creation (pp. 16-19), fall (19-20), and redemption (in two parts, Old Testament, 20-23, and New Testament, 23-37), leaving off consummation (about which more in a future post).

This framework is, as the report writers say, a fairly standard approach to “biblical theology” in conservative Reformed circles. It’s what’s taught in Reformed schools. But is it biblical? Not really. It’s not that the Bible does not speak of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It does, in various ways. It also speaks of much else that cannot easily be shoehorned into these four motifs. And the notion that the Bible can be said to follow a single plotline is surely false. The framework is a simplification—an over-simplification, I would judge—and imposing it on the text risks falsifying what the Bible has to say. Or not listening to it at all.

So where does this framework come from? And why does the committee follow it? To get some perspective, let me back up a bit and look a bit more closely at what’s going on here. As it happens—this is, of course, no accident—a co-chair of the study committee, Albert M. Wolters, has written a book that illuminates this approach to the Bible. The book, Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview (2nd edition, with a postscript authored by Michael W. Goheen, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), is admirably clear and concise. The thought in it forms the deep background for the study committee report.

Wolters’ book begins with the idea of “worldview,” borrowing the concept from the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (Kuyper was many other things besides a being theologian, including a stint as Prime Minister of the Netherlands),. “Worldview” is a coherent set of beliefs about, perspectives on, life, culture, and everything else. Wolters says that a worldview is “a guide to life” (p. 5).  One might question whether human beings, in fact, operate on the basis of a worldview, as opposed to a variety of situational perspectives, and whether having a single coherent worldview would be a good thing or a bad thing, but this is not place for those sorts of speculations. What’s important for our purposes here is that Wolters signals at the beginning of the book that what he is looking for is a single coherent internally-consistent point of view—a “worldview.”

Where does he hope to find such a worldview? He tells us in the book: “Worldview must be shaped and tested by Scripture” (p. 7). For this to be true, scripture must in some sense contain the materials for a worldview, a single coherent internally-consistent point of view. Keep in mind that it’s not apparent that this is the case. The Bible is a big and various book. I’ll get to this in more detail in the next post in this series, but for now it’s enough to say that Ecclesiastes and, say, Leviticus seem deeply different from each other. So where do we find this biblically-shaped worldview? Wolters answers that question in terms of the plotline sketched out above: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, but focusing on and privileging especially the first movement of the plot, creation.

The basic plot is that God created the cosmos, the cosmos fell into disarray, and God restores the cosmos. The ending matches the beginning. In talking about the beginning, Wolters makes a move that might surprise people who are not familiar with this strain of Reformed theology. He says that when God spoke creation into existence, Genesis 1, God not only shaped what we would regard as created reality, including the “laws of nature,” but God also spoke into existence a set of norms for what we would call “culture.” These norms, too, are, in Wolters terms, “laws,” laws of creation. Institutions that many would regard as historical developments, the shape of the family, say, or of educational institutions, or of government are subject to these creational norms or laws. The family may historically take different shapes but underlying all of those different shapes is a basic, divinely authorized rule for how the family should be structured. In the measure that a family deviates from the creation norm for families, it will become dysfunctional. And the same for schools, industry, government, and everything else in human society. There are creation norms for family life, schools, businesses, and governments. These institutions ignore these norms at their peril.

But, if that’s the case, how do we know what the norms are? How do we know what that underlying normative structure is for, say, a family? There are two parts to the answer. One is that the family as it occurs in history and society must be analyzed, thought about. The normative natures of these cultural institutions will reveal themselves. But, in Wolters’s way of thinking about this, you also need the Bible.  

Wolters uses a curious metaphor. He says that if nature—including now human culture under “nature”—has a blueprint, the Bible is not the blueprint but a set of notes from the architect about the blueprint. For us to fully grasp the blueprint, we need the architect’s notes.

We are almost there in terms of the basic argument, which amounts to something like this: When God created the world, he laid down a set of laws that govern both matter (physical laws) and culture (laws that structure human society). These laws or structural principles can be discerned by human beings if we look for them. For this task, the Bible constitutes a set of notes that help in the task of discernment, a guide for inquiry. So much is clear, but does it work?

Immediately two problems crop up. The first is that in practice the search for the so-called creation norms tend to reveal more about those who hold to them than about the creation itself. When, for example, white people in the American South held slaves, they claimed that God had created black people to be their inferiors. When men, in the recent history of evangelical Christianity, rule on whether women should hold authority in the church, they claimed—some still claim—that God created women so that they cannot truly flourish in church leadership roles. If there are creation norms and they can be discerned by study, why is that the creation norms that are discovered seem always to favor those who are in power?

Secondly, if the Bible is the guide to the architecture of the universe, why is it that people tend to find in it whatever supports the conclusions that they favor? For the white slave owners, the various biblical texts about slavery and the story of Ham in Genesis supported their view that black people were made to be slaves. For evangelical church men, wanting to exclude women from official power in the church, a handful of texts from Paul in the context of ancient society became proof that women are so constituted that for them to hold power in the church is unbecoming. The Bible keeps being read in a way that reinforces the prejudices of the age.

Wolters goes on in the book to look other movements in the plotline, fall and redemption. For this reading, Genesis 1-3 takes on an inordinate importance, and Genesis 3, in particular, must be read as a fall story, something it manifestly is not (more on this in the next post). From a literary point of view, all of Genesis is a preface to the main action, which begins with the book of Exodus, the story of God’s formation of his people. The preface comes in two parts: the stories of the ancestors, Genesis 12-50, and the stories of the formation of the cosmos, Genesis 1-11. They seem to have been assembled in something like that order, the stories of the ancestors added to the story of the exodus, and the stories (plural; more than one story is being told in Genesis 1-11) of the cosmos added, belatedly, to the story of the ancestors. But in Wolters’ and the study committee’s readings, it’s this preface (and within the preface, only the first few chapters) which suddenly are elevated to crucial importance.

The whole of this reading depends on these few chapters of Genesis. What is interesting is that these chapters, are not mentioned at all in the rest of the Old Testament. It’s only with the rereading of the Bible in the books of Enoch (based on Genesis 6:1-4) and Jubilees in the 3rd BCE century and later that these chapters take on the importance they now have. One should be cautious in building a biblical theology that is based mostly a very small sample of the text.

With that all too brief sketch in mind, return with me to the study committee report and to the passages that I reviewed in the previous post, Matthew 19 and the two texts cited in Matthew 19, Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. For the writers of the report, including, of course, Wolters, these materials are not just about marriage but a guide to creation norms for human sexuality—laws about how humans are constituted sexually that are built into the universe. That’s why they are so important to the authors of the report. And, voila, as it turns out in the report, the pattern for a “foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” is the modern Western family: monogamous marriage between a man and woman. No other applicants need apply. When Jesus references the creation story in responding to a question marriage, he is signaling, so the authors of the report have it, that the sexes are binary and that marriage must be between a man and woman. The writers of the report are not primarily interested in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, who asked question about divorce, but in the way that Jesus’ response in their view establishes a creation norm.

In fact, as the report writers acknowledge, the treatment of family life in the Bible is complicated, to say the least. The patriarchs of Genesis and others like David and Solomon are polygamists. The marriages addressed in the Paul tradition in passages like Ephesians 5 were structured by a complex of cultural forces including, in various places, traditional Jewish, Greek, and Roman ways of doing family. The issues that arose in these marriages are not at all identical to the issues that arise in modern Western marriages. Perhaps the most significant movement in the structure of marriage in recent times is the steady divorce of marriage from economic structures. Ours is marriage for the sake of love. At least, so we would like to think. In the past, marriage had deep ties to clan structures, to economic structures, and to class structures. Now, we have, people marrying (or not marrying and living together) purely because they are fond of each other. Even in the British royal family, Harry, a royal, marries Meghan, an American, and the two decide to resign royal life. Marriage for 21st century Western families means something different than it did for 1st century families in the cities of the Roman empire or for 8th century BCE life in an Israelite village.

Here’s the point: if you go looking for a creation norm for human sexuality, you are likely to find it, not in the Bible, but in your own cultural assumptions. And once you’ve found it, you may, if you are a conservative Christian, go looking for biblical evidence for your position. And you will find it. You will find it because the Bible is a big, sprawling book covering many centuries and many cultures. The study committee did find it; they found it not because there is in the Bible as “a foundation-laying” theology of human sexuality, but because they went looking for it. In looking for it, they imposed on the text a plotline that comes not from the Bible itself but from the history of Protestant and, especially, Reformed theology.

But the synod in 2016 already knew all this. In appointing the study committee, they decided to impose an unusual requirement on its members. The members had to be in full agreement with the previous stances the denomination had taken on homosexuality. In other words, the synod was not looking to find a theology of human sexuality in the Bible as much as to find a way to justify on the basis of the Bible what they—the synod—already knew. At this point, one might begin to question the whole Protestant project, the perspective caught in the slogan, sola scriptura, “only by the Bible.” Perhaps there is something wrong with how questions like the questions of human sexuality are asked in the church and answered. Perhaps, we need to rethink how we use the Bible.

All of which raises a question: what kind of book is the Bible? It’s to that question that I turn in the next of these posts.

Clay Libolt

Published by Clay Libolt

On me, see the front page of the website.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: