Chapter 2: A Pattern of Misusing the Bible to Justify Oppression
In Chapter 2, Rogers makes an argument that many bring up in this discussion: the church has a long history of using the Bible to justify oppression. We misused the Bible concerning African-Americans, we misused the Bible concerning women and we are now doing the same thing with the LGBT community. Rogers shares the views of some of our most renowned theologians, and they are, quite frankly, despicable. Speaking about the state of Africans in America, theologian and former professor at Columbia Theological Seminary James Henley Thornwell (1812-62) said:
“As long as that race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists, side by side, with the white, bondage is its normal condition…we cannot but accept it as a gracious Providence that they have been brought in such numbers to our shores, and redeemed from the bondage of barbarism and sin” (21).
Charles Hodge (1797-1878), who served on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary for 58 years and trained over 3000 seminarians, had an extremely low view of women – and used the Bible to support his views:
“If women are to be emancipated from subjection to the law which God has imposed upon them;…if, in studied insult to the authority of God, we are to renounce, in the marriage contract, all claim to obedience, we shall soon have a country over which the genius of Mary Wollstonecraft would delight to preside, but from which all order and virtue would speedily be banished…there is no deformity of human character from which we turn with deeper loathing than from a woman forgetful of her nature and clamorous for the vocations and rights of men” (28).
Certainly, we look on these statements now and can hardly believe that well-meaning, faithful Christians could have held these beliefs. Certainly, 100 years from now (of course, sooner would be better), Christians will look back on some of the writings of our time and say with astonishment, “How could have well-meaning, faithful Christians held those beliefs about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? That seems so preposterous!”
Rogers argues these beliefs were possible because of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the theological system of Swiss scholastic Francis Turretin. It was the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy that was of most interest to me, particularly because it is so intricately tied to Princeton Seminary, my alma mater. I lived in Alexander Hall for my first two years at Princeton, which was named after Archibold Alexander, who was at Princeton from its founding. It was Alexander who established the curriculum at Princeton Seminary, and he recommended Scottish Common Sense Philosophy as the primary method of biblical interpretation.
Scottish Common Sense Philosophy says that people should accept what was common sense of all humankind – we know the reality of the world exactly as it is. Rogers quotes Charles Hodge, who asserted that “the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts” (30). For Common Sense philosophy, the truth is obvious. This lends itself very well to a rationalistic and literalistic understanding of the Scriptures. Rogers writes:
“Common Sense philosophy and Turretin’s theology allowed seemingly good, intelligent, devout people to ignore the basic principles and lessons of Scripture and to brutalize other human beings by enslaving them. The combination of Common Sense and Turretin enabled people to use the Bible to claim divine justification for common cultural prejudices” (32).
In looking at the ways in which people have misused the Bible in the past, he is trying to show a pattern of misuse – a way in which we have dealt with the “Others” in our lives we did not apparently fully understand. He writes:
“In each case, leaders in the church claimed that (1) the Bible records God’s judgment against the sin of people of African descent and women from their first mention in Scripture; (2) People of African descent and women were somehow inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full white male “Christian civilization”; and (3) people of African descent and women were willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening, and deserved punishment for their own acts” (33).
Rogers argues that we are following the same pattern of misuse with the scriptures today. He says that those who opposed homosexuality:
“…claim that (1) the Bible records God’s judgment against the sin of homosexuality…; (2) people who are homosexual are somehow inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full heterosexual “Christian civilization”; and (3) people who are homosexual are willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening, and deserve punishment for their sins” (34).
Rogers argues for moving beyond these rationalistic and literalistic methods for interpreting scripture, as it clearly allowed for the possibility of great wrongs to be committed. He wants to argue for a more Christ-centered approach to reading the Bible, seeing Jesus as its central character and interpreter. Rogers believes that when we look at the whole meaning of scripture, we will find less and less possibilities for the exclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and its ministry.
I really resonate with this approach to thinking about our history and how we interpret the Bible. We absolutely must learn from our history, and history tells us that we have screwed up…a lot. It’s also very important, especially as Presbyterians, to think about how our own history, and our own historical theologians, have helped us arrive at the place we are now. For all the good that Archibold Alexander and James Henley Thornwell did throughout their lives, for all of the good they did to bring about the Gospel to the world, we have to be able to look back at them and their ideas and theology now and say there were some places that they simply did not get it. It’s not so much chronological snobbery – it’s just a realization that we know things today that they simply didn’t. We have different experiences, and different knowledge about the way the world works and the way in which God works in the world.
So, knowing that some of their theology and ideas were simply wrong – it makes sense to assume that their methods of interpretation could also have been seriously flawed. It’s time to reexamine scripture – with an openness to the movement of the Spirit, and with a knowledge of our own encounters and personal experience. It’s not to say one necessarily trumps the other, but I don’t think it makes sense to try and interpret scripture without thinking at all about our life experience and the encounters we have with people of all races and genders and sexual orientations who are all created in the image of God.
I’m going to include, at the end of each of these posts, a link to an article written by Real Live Preacher, on the issue of homosexuality. I’ve always loved his writing, and I hope you will too. In his post, “This is How it Happened,” he shares how he changed his mind on this issue, particularly inspired by a video interview with Lewes Smedes called “There’s a wideness to God’s mercy,” put out by Soulforce. The video is really good, and so is Real Live Preacher’s post.
This post is part of an ongoing review of Jack Rogers’s book “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality.” For more information about the series, you can read the first post here. Individual Chapter Reviews: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. I also share some Final Thoughts about the book here.