Another day, another piece by an “expert” in the Bible who wants to undermine our confidence in the very same Scriptures.
One bishop here in Australia describes it as “a thoughtful piece”. So what thoughts does Percy share with us?
His argument is actually a very simple one, set out in two stages.
First he seeks to undermine the authority of Scripture, arguing that,
Views about the authority of Scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself. The bible has no self-conscious identity. As a collation of books and writings, it came together over a long period of time.
So although the power of God may be pure and absolute at source, God always chooses to mediate that power through less than perfect agents (such as language, people, times and places). And this is because God’s primary interest is in disclosing love in order to draw us into relationships, and not in unequivocal demonstrations of power, which would leave no room for a genuinely free response, and merely obedience in the face of oppression.
From there, it’s the familiar method of arguing against the straw man of fundamentalism …
…blind obedience to all of Scripture is not practised by any group of Christians known to me, or who have ever lived. Few Christians abstain from eating black pudding on scriptural grounds (Acts 15:28-29). Few Christians follow the Levitical texts on dress codes to the letter, if at all. I do know of Christians who object to clapping in worship (it is of the ‘old covenant’; i.e., not mentioned in the New Testament). I know of other Christians who object to most kinds of dancing on the same ticket. Then there is slavery. Whilst not exactly praised to the hilt in Scripture, it is condoned, and never censured – a fact not lost on the Confederate Christians who fought in the American Civil War.
Finally, Percy argues that there are a variety of models of marriage and therefore no one fixed gold standard. Musing on The Handmaid’s Tale (where, in a world of infertility, a small group of fertile women are taken and used as effective slaves to bear children) he notes,
This is a ‘biblical marriage’ pattern, of sorts.
Abraham thought he and Sarah could not have children, and so they turned to Hagar, their Egyptian handmaid (Genesis 16). Is this a biblical pattern of marriage?
Of course, you know where all this is going…
He sums up this way,
On the question of same-sex marriage, we may need reminding of one thing. God did not send us a fax. Instead, God chose to speak through Jesus – the body language of God – to remind us that God is ultimate love, and that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. Sex raises some interesting questions, for sure. But so far as God is concerned, love is always the answer.
So what to make of it all?
Percy’s piece is a classic example of the liberal agenda in arguing broad sweeping claims in order to avoid dealing with the detail where truth is found. We might dissect much of what he writes to great profit but the key to unlocking things lies towards the end.
The bible, as the word of God, and as a single book, is a collection of Scriptures that speak to us in many different ways about God, love and life. It is not one voice, but many; yet though many, one. And that one message is this: that God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4: 16). So the bible itself is a covenant sign. It is a marriage – a union of Scriptures – that can only be understood in the totality of its witness. And that is partly why I am so committed to same-sex marriages. I see no reason why such unions cannot reflect the love of God, and bear testimony to God’s grace, truth and power.
For all the ambiguity that Percy claims there is in the Bible he seems to be surprisingly adamant that there is clarity on one thing – the overarching theme of the Scriptures which he boils down to the unsurprising “God is Love”. Jesus gets a mention but only as a supporting illustration to this wider principle.
Instead, God chose to speak through Jesus – the body language of God – to remind us that God is ultimate love, and that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.
Now this is an important thing to note. For Percy, the incarnation is there to remind us that “God is ultimate love”. It is a vehicle for that, but the main theme of the Bible is love. And thus we see the fatal flaw in Percy’s own argument. For the central theme of the Scriptures is not “love” that Jesus serves to illustrate. The central theme of the Scriptures is Jesus himself.
And then, all of a sudden, we see that what is missing from the entire article is any real engagement with Jesus himself. He appears only twice, once in a passing reference to John 1:5 (in order to try and suggest that there is an insufficiency in Scripture’s revelation whereas the issue in John 1:5 is our unwillingness to accept the light for what it is) and then in the paragraph that we’ve already seen.
But how things would change if Percy allowed the Christ to be at the centre! For one, it would then be a genuinely Christian argument. But more than that, by turning to Jesus we would also see how unfounded Percy’s arguments are and most of this can be seen in one burst from the lips of Jesus,
Matt. 19:4 “Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus is responding to the Pharisees, a group of legalists who want to distort the meaning of Scripture in order to allow for their own reimagining of what it says. In response to their claims about divorce, he shows them what marriage was always intended to be. The way he does this drives a knife into the heart of Percy’s argument.
First (as he does many times in his debates with others) he argues from the Scriptures. Where Percy claims,
Views about the authority of Scripture cannot be directly resourced from the Bible itself. The bible has no self-conscious identity.
We see a direct use of the Bible as authority from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Scripture.
Percy claims that it is a “fundamentalist” view to view the Bible as
…utterly authoritative: [therefore] to question the bible is tantamount to questioning God. So the bible here is more like an instruction manual than a mystery to be unpacked. It teaches plainly, and woe to those who dissent.
And yet when Jesus takes on the Pharisees he appeals to the Scriptures as the authority that should silence them. It is, for him, “the word of God” (e.g. Mark 7:13 – a word that others seek to nullify). Note that he argues that “the Creator made them … and said”. The Creator God that Jesus referenced from Gen. 1:27 is the one who Jesus claims speaks in Gen. 2:24. But Gen. 2:24 is a narrative comment in the text of Genesis. It is not recorded as direct speech from God yet Jesus treats it as though it is. There can be only one conclusion: according to Jesus, Scripture is God speaking whether it is the recorded direct words of God or not.
As Jesus appeals to the authoritative God-spoken Scriptures he does so to set out a distinct framework of what marriage is. The model is transparently clear – one man committed to one woman so that they become “one flesh”, grounded in the way that God has made us as male and female. This in itself ought to be enough to settle the matter but there is more; more that Percy understandably didn’t dream of going to because if you make Jesus the foundation of this argument, rather than just try and recruit him as an isolated buttress, then you have to deal with stuff like this:
Eph. 5:25-33 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Jesus is presented to us in the Bible (here and elsewhere) as the great bridegroom of the church. It is an obviously hetero relationship in that it is the union of two partners who are different to each other. He is the one who sacrifices himself for his bride, not the other way around. The church does not die to save Jesus. Nor does Jesus die to save another Son of God like himself. It is incredibly telling that Percy does not even begin to engage with these core texts on marriage.
At this stage we can return to Percy’s prior argument of “God is love” as the central motif of the Scriptures. In the very same paragraph where the Apostle John makes this great statement, he also says this…
1John 4 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The love of God that Percy appeals to as his meta-narrative is seen in the sending of the Son, Jesus, as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We have already seen how the Scriptures describe that sacrificial death – in the heterosexual language of a husband dying for his wife.
Percy’s piece is one of a series at ViaMedia seeking to challenge previously well-received readings of the Bible. The whole series is titled “Does the Bible Really Say?” If Percy’s attempt to undermine confidence in the Scriptures is anything to go by then the answer to most of these articles is “actually, yes it does say exactly that. You should read it more carefully”.
Right at the start of his piece Percy exercises a little self-indulgence in quoting from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:
Teabing smiled. ‘Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great Canon Dr. Martyn Percy.’
Here at davidould.net we beg to differ. And we think Jesus would too.
image: University of Winchester