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The Hermeneutics of Sin

Paul Taylor January 30th, 2013

The blogospheres on both sides of the Atlantic are this week buzzing with the news that Britain’s most well-known and influential Baptist pastor has published a magazine article in support of what he refers to as “monogamous same-sex relationships.”1 The pastor in question, Steve Chalke, has form on the issue of controversial comments, two others of which are mentioned below.

It would be easy for me to use this article to rehearse once again the reasons why the Bible is clearly against homosexual relationships. However, I am not going to do that in detail, because many others are doing so, and I doubt if I could do a better job than Greg Downe’s excellent article published in the same magazine as Chalke’s article.2 Instead, I want to pick up on the issue that Chalke claims is his main reason for his change of position on this subject—hermeneutics. Chalke explains what he means by hermeneutics, thus:

Exegesis and hermeneutics are two essential tools for understanding the Bible. But while exegesis analyses the actual structure and meaning of the text itself and looks at the nuances of the linguistics, hermeneutics digs deeper to unearth what’s behind it, as it explores the cultural and social perceptions of the writer and their hearers.3

It would appear that Chalke is attempting to redefine the purpose of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the methodology of interpreting the Bible, with reference to the style of literature of each book. In a chapter on hermeneutics, Brian H. Edwards suggests that, when interpreting a passage of Scripture, one should ask: “What kind of passage is this?” or more specifically, “is it history?” “is it poetry?” etc.4 Edwards says “Hermeneutics follows exegesis.” Exegesis is interpreting or explaining a passage of Scripture. It is in the act of exegesis, therefore, that principles of hermeneutics are brought into play. For example, Psalm 22:6 states “I am a worm, not a man.” The exegesis will tell us that the writer is referring to those invertebrate soil-eating hermaphroditic creatures, and hermeneutics will tell us that this is a poetic passage, and therefore metaphorical rather than literal. Chalke has reversed the order of these two methods of interpretation, so that what he understands by hermeneutics is really presupposition. In other words, what he refers to as hermeneutics is really his a priori bias, which he brings to his interpretation of the passage. Indeed, at one point in the article, Chalke refers to “my hermeneutical lens.” Hermeneutics is not a lens, which colors everything we read. It is a study of literary style, which is an inevitable property of the text. We therefore obtain the hermeneutics out of the text. We do not read it into the text.

Chalke’s Presuppositions

Steve Chalke has previous form, when it comes to allowing his presuppositions to color his interpretation of Scripture. In 2003, he rejected the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), stating:

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.5

PSA, put simply, means that the Father punished our sins on the cross. In other words, Jesus took the punishment for my sins. Chalke rejects this, seeing the cross simply as an example of love. Yet the whole point of Jesus’ death is that sin has to be punished. I love the song by Graham Kendrick, which contains the words “We worship at His feet, where wrath and mercy meet.”6 This, of course, is what the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 is all about.

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Chalke finds this to be “morally dubious.” The trouble is that, if he rejects God’s remedy for sin, then what standard does he have to measure something as immoral, dubious or otherwise?

It is in this context of applying his own presuppositions to the interpretation of Scripture that Chalke caused controversy in 2007. His charitable trust was intending to apply to the British Government of the day to operate a string of City Academies. As a well-known evangelical Christian, he was inevitably asked the creationist question—would his schools teach creationism as well as evolution. Rather than simply reply in the negative, Chalke felt the need to add more, declaring “Creationism is a load of garbage. Genesis is a poem based on a Babylonian creation myth.”7 This last remark is telling. Creationists have often pointed out the hermeneutics of Genesis prevents it being interpreted as a poem, because its Hebrew grammar, word order and style clearly represent narrative history. Therefore, Chalke’s assertion that Genesis is based on a “Babylonian myth” is a presupposition, not a hermeneutic.

An Evolutionary Presupposition

It is noteworthy that Chalke’s presupposition is evolutionary. Although he has not used the word evolution, his presupposition can be seen in statements such as this: “Marriage … predates both state and Church—it belongs to neither of them.” Yet Jesus placed the origin of marriage firmly into a biblical context of the first two chapters of Genesis being true.

And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4–6)

Incidentally, there are those, Chalke included, who have argued that Jesus had nothing to say on homosexuality. That, by itself, would be irrelevant, as our doctrines are not solely derived from the reported spoken words of Jesus. If they were, then we would not need the rest of the Bible. Yet this passage in Matthew 19 indicates that Jesus explicitly endorses the pattern of Adam and Eve as the only legitimate model for biblical marriage. Given that Jesus frequently made statements that challenged the cultural assumptions of the time, if He had wanted us to believe that homosexual unions were also as legitimate as the heterosexual union of Adam and Eve, then He would have said so.

The Motivation of Love

Chalke has claimed that his hermeneutic (which, as we have seen, is really a presupposition, not a hermeneutic) is motivated by pastoral care and love. This is how he shares the news that he conducted a form of blessing on a gay couple.

In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage—far from it—but to extend to these people what I would do to others: the love and support of our local church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.

Note the contrast between this attitude, and that of the evangelical Church of England minister, Vaughan Roberts. In his book, Battles Christians Face, Roberts admits that same-sex attraction is a temptation that he himself faces. However, he has chosen to deal with the issue biblically.

The Bible presents only two alternatives: heterosexual marriage or celibacy. Celibacy, whether deliberately chosen as a vocation or reluctantly accepted as a circumstance, is hard. But when tempted to self-pity, I remind myself that that’s true, not just for those attracted to the same sex, but for all who remain single despite longing to be married or those who, for whatever reason, are denied sex in their marriages.8

What Roberts is saying is that rejecting a life of sin—any sin—is not necessarily easy. In his case, he has chosen celibacy. Yet even that painful choice to be obedient to a biblical lifestyle has not been without blessings.

Those who have not married have embraced the Bible’s very positive teaching about singleness as a gift (see 1 Corinthians 7:32–35), whether chosen or not, which, I imagine, alongside loneliness and sexual frustration, has afforded them wonderful opportunities for the loving service of God and others. I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.9

The Real Concern

Downes summarizes the issue like this.

Those who say the Bible does not teach homosexual practice is wrong are simply engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics, in which they embrace a revisionist interpretation which is completely alien to the original meaning of the text. Since the scriptures are crystal clear on the issue, my fear is that any shift to embrace this new interpretation is nothing short of a denial of the authority of the Bible itself.10

The issue is, indeed, that of the authority of Scripture. Chalke claims to be from a tradition that acknowledges that authority, when he says “The whole Bible matters. We disregard it to our great cost. But the vital question is about how to interpret it properly.” In practice, he has put the authority of his own presupposition above that of Scripture, believing that Scripture is not to be its own interpreter, but rather only approached through the lens of a 21st Century post-modern ethic. He dresses this up in the guise of compassion.

Why am I so passionate about this issue? Because people’s lives are at stake.11

Another evangelical Anglican minister, who, like Roberts, has also experienced this particular temptation, and who has overcome it biblically, is Sam Allberry, associate minister of St. Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, Kent.

“I think the Bible is very, very clear on it,” says Sam Allberry, associate minister of St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, who experiences same-sex attraction. “I think people trying to sanction it are going against the grain of many deep issues in scripture. I fear for Christian leaders who are commending any kind of homosexual lifestyle. If my reading of the New Testament is correct, such Christian leaders are leading people into destruction. I have to treat this as a gospel issue.”12

While Chalke frets needlessly about lives being at stake, true gospel preachers are concerned that souls are at stake. Chalke has found a way of interpreting the Bible, to make sin palatable to evangelicals. This is the hermeneutics of sin. If Chalke succeeds in influencing British evangelicalism to his point of view, he will achieve a goal of making some people more comfortable in their skins in this life, while condemning them to a lost eternity.

  1. Chalke, S. (2013), “The Bible and Homosexuality Part One,” (Christianity Magazine), < http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/sexuality/stevechalke.aspx >
  2. Downes, G. (2013), “The Bible and Homosexuality Part Two,” (Christianity Magazine), < http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/sexuality/gregdownes.aspx >
  3. Op. cit.
  4. Edwards, B.H. (3rd edn., 2006), Nothing But the Truth, (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press), pp 318–355
  5. Chalke, S. (2003), The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p 182
  6. Kendrick, G. (1988), Come and See, (Make Way Music)
  7. The Guardian, January 30th 2007, < http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/jan/31/guardiansocietysupplement.publicservices >
  8. “A Battle I Face,” an interview with Vaughan Roberts by Julian Hardyman, Evangelicals Now, October 2012, < http://www.e-n.org.uk/p-6028-A-battle-I-face.htm >
  9. ibid
  10. op. cit.
  11. op. cit.
  12. Dickinson, R., (2013), “The Bible and Homosexuality: Analysis” (Christianity Magazine), < http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/sexuality/analysis.aspx >