Is the main story that the Bible tells bigger than human history or smaller than human history? The biblical story is certainly bookended with creation and new creation, but it’s what happens in between that I’m concerned about—the sequence of events from the rise of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), say, to the fall of Babylon the great (Rev. 18).
Does that sequence of events somehow—prophetically, apocalyptically—embrace the whole of human history? Or does it constitute a limited and localised storyline within human history? If the former, then we have basically a deterministic theology that precludes significant change and development—a theology that already, in principle, answers all the questions. If the latter, we have to consider the possibility that events and transformations of biblical proportions will happen after the main biblical narrative has reached its dénouement.
It seems to me that the endorsement of same-sex marriage in the West is a symptom of just such a far-reaching, post-biblical transformation. Unlike other social and ethical developments (opposition to slavery, sexual egalitarianism, for example), it cannot be claimed by the church as a progressive move intrinsically consistent with the biblical witness. Even if we accept that the biblical prohibitions were aimed at something quite different from the modern enlightened notion of faithful, loving, same-sex monogamy, the church can hardly claim credit for the development—and many in the church do not want to claim credit for it. In that respect, it signals perhaps more sharply than other ethical controversies that secularism has forcefully taken control of the moral agenda. Thank you very much, but we’re doing it our way from now on.
How is the church to respond to this? How do we continue to tell the biblical story as a dwindling minority? Do we try to maintain the traditional view that the biblical story is in principle bigger than the world’s story, that it already has all the answers? Or are we going to have to adjust our perspective and acknowledge that the open-ended story of humanity is threatening to swallow up the biblical narrative and spit out the remains?
It seems to me that not only the diminished moral authority of the church but also historical readings of scripture point in the latter direction. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the post-Christendom, post-modern marginalisation of the church puts us in a much better position to grasp the scope and purpose of the historically circumscribed biblical narrative.
The problem is that the modern theological mindset of the church blinds us to the glory of the narrative-historical hermeneutic.
In an essay called “The Bible and Science on Sexuality” the ethicist Christine Gudorf discusses the tension between scripture and natural law in relation to Paul’s argument in Romans 1.[fn]In David L. Balch (ed.), Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (2000), 134-39.[/fn]
She argues that Paul has “at least a basic natural law theology”. He believes, for example, that “natural intercourse” is heterosexual (Rom. 1:26-27), and that Gentiles sometimes “by nature do what the law requires…, even though they do not have the law”, because “the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15). So we can say that, in Paul’s view, “the will of God can be discerned within creation, independent of historical revelation”.
The importance of natural law lies in the fact that it “constitutes the fundamental bridge between the Bible and science as sources for ethics”. So if the Bible says that same-sex sexual behaviour is an abomination and science says that it is perfectly normal for a small percentage of the population, we may look to natural law to help us resolve the contradiction. We have other options than simply to restate of the biblical position.
Gudorf then notes a “profound” historical irony.
Catholicism, despite having fought so hard against the Enlightenment, has “carried over from its medieval theology a concept of natural law which has allowed it… to integrate the findings of science into theology as further revelation of the Creator embedded in the creation”—though not without difficulty in some areas.
Protestantism, on the other hand, despite having “carried the banner of the Enlightenment”, has rejected natural law in favour of the Lutheran doctrine of sola Scriptura, on the grounds that nature has been thoroughly corrupted by sin and can’t be trusted.
Now here’s the interesting observation. Gudorf argues that “the rejection of natural law left Protestant theology with difficulty in dealing with historical transformations in consciousness and culture”.
The result is that Western Protestantism is now struggling to respond constructively to the intense cultural pressure it is under to “refer to science in its ethical deliberations”. (The same is true, incidentally, with regard to its cosmological deliberations.) Liberals have happily taken scientific findings on board, but “often without specifying the theological foundation for doing so”. Conservatives have tended to ignore or resist the scientific perspective, particularly when it appears to contradict scripture. Only Episcopalians and Methodists have retained enough appreciation for natural law to be able to take reason and experience into account in debates over such issues as same-sex marriage.
Gudorf concludes: “The doctrine of creation needs to be taken more seriously by treating science as a method for uncovering divine intention within creation, instead of understanding science as merely describing the temporal situation in which divine intention gets played out.”
So Gudorf sees natural law as the necessary bridge between scripture as fixed revelation and the evolving scientific outlook, from which we can hardly dissociate ourselves without falling into the trap of a narrow, isolationist sectarianism that is no use to anyone.
My argument here has to do with the relation between scripture and history rather than that between scripture and science, but the basic problem is the same: the modern evangelical church does not have a good way to deal with “historical transformations in consciousness and culture”.
I maintain that the formative narrative of scripture, which is a political story about “kingdom”, found its proper fulfilment in the defeat of pagan Roman imperialism and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. That was the limited historical horizon of the New Testament. But the story of the people of God did not stop with the rise of Christendom, and to be true to the biblical witness we have to maintain the prophetic narrative through to the modern era—and beyond. Otherwise we are walking into an extremely challenging future blindfolded.
That is a creative task—telling the story of the people of God across the undulating landscape of history. But the modern evangelical mind has been conditioned to discount historical development in the same way that it has been conditioned to disregard the testimony of science. My fear is that we will grossly underestimate the seriousness of the “eschatological” crisis that we face in the West, and that, when we do wake up to the fact, we will lack the biblical-prophetic resources to respond to it.