When Presumptions of Men Obscure the Truth of Scripture

According to the book of James, we all make many mistakes. Perhaps nowhere is that propensity toward human error more obvious than in the history of biblical interpretation.

One of the more interesting cases is that of John Calvin and Martin Luther, who were unanimous with the Catholic Church — and later the Protestant church — in condemning the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) as a heretic. What was Copernicus’ crime? He asserted that the earth rotates around the sun. However, godly people and the Church believed that the Bible taught otherwise. The proposition that the earth rotates around the sun was unacceptable to the Christian theologians of that period because there were many biblical passages which seemed to indicate that the earth did not move. Among the texts most frequently cited were the following:

— He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Psalms 104:5)

— On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still and the moon stopped till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. (Joshua 10:12-13)

— Generations come and generations go but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises. (Ecclesiastes. 1:4-5)

— The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. (Psalm 93:1)

As far as they were concerned the Bible’s words used to describe the sun rising and setting and moving across the sky could be interpreted to mean nothing other than that the sun, and not the earth, is the one that moves.

Martin Luther, referring to Joshua 10:13, in his series of “Table Talks” in 1539, said the following:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon… This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Luther’s disciple, Melanchthon, in emphasizing Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 said:

The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun revolves… Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.”

And John Calvin, citing Psalm 93:1 in his Commentary on Genesis said:

“Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit? … the world also is established that it cannot be moved.”

Calvin, Luther and all believers with them took their stand on what they believed to be the clear teaching of Scripture and went to their graves condemning Copernicus as a heretic. It was many, many years before the church recognized that the descriptions of the sun’s movement were what today any first-year Bible student calls “phenomenological” or merely descriptive. Allowance must be made, they discovered, especially in poetic texts, for the use of metaphorical language. Copernicus is only one such case in which the consensus of opinion about how the Bible should be understood has changed over the years. There are scores of others.

While the Bible does not change, our understanding of how the biblical text should be interpreted has changed considerably.  Throughout 2,000 years of church history, Christians of all traditions have used the Bible to support scores of doctrinal positions they believed to be as clear as mineral water but that they later had to confess to be mistaken.  Over the years Christians have found biblical “proof” that slavery is God-ordained, that women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, that interracial marriage is wrong, that women should not be allowed to preach, teach or wear jewelry, that anti-Semitism is biblically supported, and on and on. As with the case of Copernicus, a number of biblical texts were cited to give support to each of these and of course the Bible verses that once footnoted these notions are all still in the Bible.

As we look back over our 2,000 years of history, we find that oppression of one sort or another against people who are “different” — whether by means of race, color, gender, class, sexual orientation, or as in the case of Copernicus, in the face of scientific or archeological discovery — has always been endemic. And to our great shame, the oppression and injustices are always carried out in the name of someone’s Christianity. One of the lessons we learn from these experiences is that reading and interpreting Scripture is not quite as simple as some would like to believe. A text does not simply “say what it says” despite the rational and good intentions of some readers. For reading Scripture is not only a matter of what is written there, but also what we expect to find there, what we bring to the text, and what we take away from it. Reading Scripture then is by no means a clinical or a neutral affair.

The doctrine of those who read their anti-gay presuppositions into the biblical texts is believed to be only the most recent doctrinal position well on the way to being generally acknowledged as a mistake of this kind. What would it take for those who still cling to their anti-gay doctrine to admit that they, like many well-intentioned Christians before them, have made a mistake? We’d do well to remember that while it may seem evident to us that others did terrible things in the past, it isn’t always so easy to see that we ourselves may be doing terrible things today.

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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4 Responses to When Presumptions of Men Obscure the Truth of Scripture

  1. pseudos101 says:

    Great article Alex! I was just thinking how I’m about to finish what I believe to be a Christian children’s novel that would get me burned at the stake in the 15th century. It sort of fills in the theoretical “blanks” in the Creationist theory with science. Yes, now you know. I’m a Christian who believes in gay marriage and science. Get choppin’ on that wood! 🙂

  2. anon says:

    Bottom line, you are likening those who oppose gay marriage to those who persecuted Galileo and supported slavery. And I am feeling a strong emotional charge in your choice of words (“cling to their antigay doctrine”, “doing terrible things today”).

    Though I am gay and “pro gay” theologically, I have been feeling increasingly convicted by the words of one Antoine Dodson of all people (!), who recently said gays have gone from being bullied to becoming bullies. We are ostracizing people who disagree with us, threatening private companies (eg denying chikfila permits to punish the speech of its owner), suing wedding photographers who won’t photograph our weddings, etc.

    Trapped in our analogies to slavery and the like, we can lose perspective on the actual issue, which is often little more than a purely semantic debate about what something shall be called in a statute book. See Prop 8. Calling it DP instead of marriage is not equivalent to slavery. In the scheme of things we must endure in this mortal coil, is a semantic injury like that really so “terrible”?

    I think part of the problem for me, is I have gotten to know so many people on the other side of this question, that I have grown uncomfortable seeing them likened to those who supported slavery.

  3. Alex Haiken says:

    Anon, for what it may be worth, I don’t ostracize people who disagree with me, threaten private companies, sue those who don’t hold my views, or any of the other charges cited in your comment above. Moreover, I don’t believe that challenging people to think about what they believe and why they believe it, or pointing out parallels between the church’s former stand on slavery and its traditional stand on homosexuality, constitutes “bullying”.

    I think one of the clearest examples of moral blindness within Church history would be the issue of slavery. It’s embarrassing to admit that no serious objection to slavery was raised by Christians prior to the 18th century. The scriptural support to which Christians and others referred was two-fold. First, Moses in the OT law made provision for slavery as an institution within Israel. Second, neither Jesus nor the apostles raised any moral objection to slavery within the Roman Empire. In fact, both Paul and Peter advise Christian slaves to accept their servitude with meekness, obedience and dignity (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, I Peter 2:18-21).

    It was actually the supporters of slavery who quoted biblical texts most extensively. A good example might be the treatise of Rev. Dr. Richard Furmer, received approvingly by the Governor of South Carolina in 1823, and expressing the convictions of the Baptist Convention.

    Furmer said: “Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles … would have tolerated it for a moment in the Christian Church … they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required that the master should liberate his slave…. But instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties…. In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions … The holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is therefore consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct.”

    The eventual victory of the abolitionist cause in America was military rather than theological. And though the rhetoric of William Wilberforce in England was indisputably fired by a passionate evangelical Christian faith, he rarely expounded specific Bible texts to prove his point. The success of his reforming zeal owed as much to the influence of secular-rationalist ideas about human liberty as it did to Jesus’ golden rule.

    Today virtually all Christians accept that slavery is morally wrong. It is certainly within your right to choose not to see parallels between this and the current debate over homosexuality. But I would object to your inferring that those who do point out the parallels are “bullying.”

  4. This is a fabulous post and I am reblogging on my own site. I will also enjoy following your blog. Was directed to it as I explored more of Copernicus via Google! Wonderful the ways in which we find each other!

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