To many observers, the weakening of the contemporary family and marriage, and the confusion over sexuality may be traced to contemporary erosion of biblical values.
Marriage as an institution has persisted in all cultures throughout human history, and since antiquity. But today there is a lot of discussion about the nature and meaning of marriage. This situation is no less true in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The nature of modern confusion surrounding marriage forces us to ask whether marriage is simply a private agreement between two people (male/male, male/female, female/female) promising to have a meaningful relationship together or a religious covenant between a man and a woman. Several particular questions enter this confusion. Among these are those that relate to the very nature of the institution.
The customs and laws that govern marriages are many, and they differ from culture to culture. For Christians, however, the idea of Christian marriage is still relevant. But how does one ground the idea of Christian marriage? To begin, the idea of Christian marriage carries the suggestion that for the Christian, regardless of culture and country, marriage is pre-eminently an institution that should concern the church as the body of Christ. This is not to suggest, on the one hand, that marriage is a “sacrament” or even an “ordinance” of the church. Indeed, the Bible holds individuals personally responsible for their actions and on matters related to their eternal interests (Phil. 2:12). Hence, the ethics of marriage and sexuality should be matters that are first and foremost received and applied personally in the lives of individual believers (1 Cor. 6:9–20). Yet, on the other hand, marriage and issues of sexuality for the Christian are not just the believer’s private arrangement. It belongs to church life because the health of the marriage has implications for the church at large (1 Corinthians 5; 1 Peter 3:1).
For this reason, the church disciples believers to embody scriptural principles in their married lives. But how should a discussion be framed on the relevance of the Bible for contemporary issues on marriage? Although the question is relevant for all Christian denominations, the conclusions here are specifically intended for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Theological Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Marriage Issues
To accord the Bible relevance in any aspect of church life is to concede the point that the Bible is in some way functionally suited to perform that role. If that indeed is the case, the relationship between the Bible and the church requires further comment. The Bible is not simply an instrument external to the church for which it is well-fitted to provide some functions. Neither may the church dispense with the Bible and remain the church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church stands in the tradition of the Reformation in repudiating “as a malicious falsehood the claim that the credibility of Scripture should depend on the judgment of the Church. Rather the Church should be itself rooted in and dependent on Scripture.”1
In view of this fact, the Bible is so functionally integral to the church that the two share a common destiny. The role of the Bible in the life of the church, then, is fundamentally underscored by this intimate relationship it has with the church. Whatever specific role the Bible plays in the church derives from this close relationship between the two.
The Theological Basis of the Bible’s Relevance: the Church and the Bible
In seeking to understand the theological relationship between church life and the Bible, something may be learned from the Christian notion of the Bible as Canon. C. H. Dodd quite accurately makes this point when he notes that “it is a misfortune that in the course of controversy since the Reformation the authority of the Bible has been set over against the authority of the Church, and the Church against the Bible. In reality, the very idea of an authoritative Canon of Scripture is bound up with the idea of the Church.”2
Dodd’s additional comments make it clear that he does not place the Bible and the church on the same level. The Bible plays a normative/directive role over the church’s beliefs and practices. Dodd explores the name given to the 27 writings called the New Testament. Noticing that the word testament is a rendition of the word covenant, Dodd observes that “the Scriptures of the New Testament, or in other words, the documents of the New Covenant, are the authoritative record of that act of God by which He established relations between Himself and the Church; and they are the charter defining the status of the Church as the people of God, the terms upon which that status is granted, and the obligations it entails” (italics supplied).3 The New Testament writings then bear witness to realities in God’s old covenant relationship with His people (with some continuities and discontinuities), while sharing an essential unity with them.
Donn F. Morgan makes a similar case by arguing that “to choose to study the Bible as Canon is to recognize both its contemporary functions and the genesis of its use and shape within ancient Israel and the early Church.”4 So what use and shape did the Bible have in ancient Israel and the early church? The Bible, comprising the Old and New Testaments, is the Canon for the people of God. It is the Canon in the sense that from the beginning, the church intuitively acknowledged the authority of its writings as the Word of God. More significantly, the Bible as Canon for the church means that it is the Bible that defines it in all aspects of its life. This was especially the case in the period following the apostolic age when the church faced the challenge of eccentricities of beliefs and practices. The historical development of the New Testament canon as one response toward the consolidation of the church’s beliefs and practices underscores the defining role the Bible has for the church, as believers who constitute the people of God.
The relationship between the church and the Bible is that without the Bible the church has no sense of identity, direction, or being. Christ alluded to this point in His response to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection in Matthew 22:29. In His statement, “‘You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God’” (NASB), Jesus hinted at the principle that ignorance of Scripture lies at the root of all error concerning the things of God. We may say generally, then, that the Bible is theologically relevant to the church in all matters as an authority principle—that which directs and measures its life from God’s point of view. In the church, the Bible holds the authority of explaining life and making it meaningful from the Christian perspective. This is what is meant by the Protestant Scripture Principle, which “indicates that the texts of the Christian canon are normative for the speech, thought, and practice of the Church, because these texts mediate God’s self-revelation.”5
Once the formal, theological authority of the Bible in the church is accepted, the nature of the Bible’s authoritative role may be explored in terms of the particular functions it may perform.
From Theological Relevance to Ethical Relevance
To explore ways in which the Bible may provide particular guidance on issues in marriage and sexuality, one finds oneself technically out of the sphere of theology proper and into the realm of ethics. Yet, the theological relevance of the Bible in the church translates itself naturally into ethical relevance. John Frame is correct in his assessment that “all theology is addressed to people to help them think and live to the glory of God. So all theology involves ethics.”6 To the extent that all ethics has to do with human conduct, ethics for the Christian must be Christian ethics, because if the Bible is theologically relevant to the church, then Christian ethics has to relate the conduct of men and women to God’s perspective on things. It would seem that Christian ethics inevitably creates room for some form of “moral theology,” although this conclusion calls for an observation on moral theology. An unwelcome aspect of moral theology, especially in its traditional Roman Catholic expression, was the fact that it sought to impose order on morality not on the basis of Scripture, but by the authoritative guidance of the institutional church. While this situation and other aspects of moral theology are deplorable, there is something to be said for a discipline whose primary task is “to clarify Christian moral concepts, showing how the distinctive Christian ways of posing moral questions (in terms of the command of God . . . love for the neighbor, the freedom of faith, the sanctification of the believer, the forms of created orders, etc.) arise from Scripture.”7
Today, marriage and sexuality, even in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, bring up many critical moral questions that demand clear and definite answers. These questions arise from a new cultural situation that places greater premium on human rights, self-fulfillment, and pragmatic utility. In modern times, many of the limitations that state and society placed on individual actions have eroded. Although states may still prohibit plural marriages or marriage to minors, there are many other respects in which individuals are free to form relationships according to their choosing. The problem is reinforced by a postmodern culture whose most distinguishing feature is the rejection of universal truths in favor of individual ones. What has transpired is a paradigm shift toward an ideology that makes freedom and self-determination supreme and ultimate principles for human relationships.
The situation creates a need for critical assessment of some foundational issues in marriage. A first broad category of issues concerns the purpose of marriage and family. This would include matters such as the nature of marital companionship, love, and sexual fulfillment, as well as issues related to procreation and nurture. Second, we may broadly isolate issues related to the roles of marriage and family members. What are the functions of fathers and mothers in marriage, and what, if any, are the legitimate roles of husbands and wives? We may extend this category of issues to include those concerning relationships within the family structure such as husband/wife and parent/child relationships. Attending to these broad foundational issues will bring into focus concerns that have to do with divorce and sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, gender role, etc. These are all moral issues, but how should they be approached? For the Christian, this is the point at which the Bible becomes ethically relevant, precisely because of the structure of ethical judgments.
Structure of Ethical Judgments and the Bible’s Ethical Relevance
On each of the issues outlined above, decisions or judgments of an ethical nature need to be made. J. Frame suggests that in general, ethical judgments involve the application of a norm to a situation by a person.8 Thus ethical judgments entail at least three perspectives: normative, situational, and existential. It is out of the normative perspective that we develop our sense of the ethical relevance of the Bible to issues in contemporary marriage and sexuality. The normative requirement speaks to a deontological ethic. A deontological ethical system is one in which right or wrong is determined on the basis of some rule or rules. True, Christian ethics is not entirely deontological in nature. Duty and happiness are not opposed in Scripture, but indeed reinforce one another. So, while the Bible warns against ungodly pleasures, it promises rewards for obedience and thereby provides motivation for pursuing godliness (Deuteronomy 30; Matt. 6:28–33). Yet a deontological ethic is indispensable to Christian ethics. Christian ethics, like all ethical systems, requires norms, and the norms for Christian ethics have their ultimate source in God, who has revealed them in Scripture.
The ethical relevance of the Bible for moral issues stands out more clearly in comparison with secular deontological ethical systems. It should be noted that the search for an ethical norm is really an epistemological matter (i.e., knowledge-based). In other words, when one looks for the basis on which right and wrong are determined, the question is inevitably raised about how one goes about knowing that foundation. It is in this sense that the search for an ethical norm is knowledge-based in nature. Deontologists generally seek norms that are necessary, universal, and obligatory in nature. Yet they have an acute problem in determining the source of this knowledge. If, as they correctly note, norms cannot be found in sense experience or through introspection, then available options quickly run out. And what abstract norms there are to be found fail to provide moral norms on account of their lack of content. J. Frame concludes: “All non-Christian systems involve rationalism and irrationalism: rationalism in the claim that the human mind can determine what to do without God’s help, and irrationalism in claiming that ethics is ultimately based on unknowable chance or fate. . . . This epistemological confusion leads to a proliferation of different viewpoints as to the norms and goals of ethics. . . . The non-Christian approach leads to the abandonment of ethics itself. . . . The main ethical thinkers of the twentieth century (with the exception of existentialism, which is inconsistent in this regard) don’t tell us how to live; rather, they examine the language and reasoning of ethics. In other words, they have given up ethics for metaethics. Their concern is not to defend ethical principles, but rather to show what an ethical principle is. Their message to us is, ‘If you happen to hold any ethical principles, here’s what they are.’”9
The case of Christian deontology is different. For all practical purposes, the Christian Scriptures serve as the norm for Christian ethics. The normative role of the Bible in the church and Christian life is related to the nature of the Bible itself. Nowhere is this connection more clearly made than in 2 Timothy 3:15 to 17. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul tells Timothy to mark the fact that perilous times will come in the last days. After providing a list of vices and the activities of heretics connected with them (vss. 1–10), Paul proceeds to point Timothy to the sources of strength and wisdom available to him as he faces the challenges of the times. First, there is the living example of Paul’s own life (vss. 10–13); second, there is Scripture, which had been available to him as a child in the form of instruction he received, as well as the sacred writings to which he now had access (vss. 14–17). In these passages, we have one of the clearest testimonies to the inspiration of the Bible, but Paul’s point in talking about the Bible’s inspiration is to draw Timothy’s attention to its “usefulness.” And the Bible is declared to be useful because it comes from God. The nature of the Bible as we encounter it here is primarily as a “useful tool.”
This is not to diminish the theological value of the passage with regard to its teaching on the inspiration of Scripture. But it is as a tool in the hands of Timothy for the purposes of ministry in the church that Paul presents the usefulness of Scripture. Benjamin Fiore notes, “The Scriptures serve the . . . ‘man of God’ or ‘God’s servant’ as a tool for his own good work, which encompasses all aspects of his didactic and hortatory activity. They are indispensable for the competence of these Church workers.”10 Thus the passage is particularly relevant to the ethical role of the Bible in the church and Christian life.
With particular reference to marriage and sexuality, the biblical creation account, for example, provides truths about humankind that are helpful in determining Christian ethical principles in this area. Hence, “the account of the woman’s creation (Gen. 2:18–24) is made the basis for the New Testament’s insistence on the ideal of an exclusive, permanent relationship as the only ethically correct context for sexual union (Matt. 19:3–6; cf. Eph. 5:28–3i).”11 A key foundational truth is the claim that man and woman were both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
Stanley Grenz observes, “Godly relationships between men and women emerge as we direct our life together toward the highest human task—namely, reflecting the divine character and thereby being the image of God.”12 Here we find a statement with implications for the value of human life that are critical in forming Christian responses to issues such as abortion, gender, and homosexuality. Reflecting on the implication of the Trinitarian image of God for human friendship, fellowship, and sexuality, Grenz quotes J. Varnier approvingly, noting, “It implies that each one, man or woman, in his or her sexual being, must learn to love others, entering into relationships of communion . . . tenderness and service, using their genitals only in that particular covenant which is blessed by God.”13
Most Christians will grant the formal relevance of the Bible to contemporary issues on marriage and sexuality. But the nature of the debates over issues such as transgenderism and homosexuality show that a mere formal affirmation of the authority principle of the Bible is not enough to give clear ethical directions on those issues. The question of biblical interpretation is integral and critical to the authority of the Bible and its contemporary relevance.
Biblical Interpretation and the Relevance of Church Authority
Although, as a matter of principle, the central role of the Bible in the life of the church must be acknowledged, it needs to be pointed out that the value of the Bible in the church is as good as the quality of its interpretation. The Bible is not merely an encyclopedia to be referenced, but a document that requires thoughtful interpretation. The issues that are relevant to the quality of biblical interpretation in the church are fundamentally issues of biblical authority. From the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant interpreters adopted a principle of biblical interpretation called the “analogy of faith.” The principle was a boundary-defining principle for acceptable and non-acceptable biblical interpretation. At its heart, the analogy of faith embraces at least three assumptions concerning Scripture and the doctrine of God: (1) God cannot lie and is not self-contradictory; (2) Scripture has a divine origin and is, therefore, self-consistent; and (3) core Christian doctrines can be faithfully derived from Scripture.14 A corollary of the analogy of faith is the analogy of Scripture, which holds that the truest meaning of a text in Scripture is sought by seeking its interpretation within the rest of the Bible itself. This is the Protestant principle that the Bible interprets itself. Together with the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the interpreter, the principles of analogy and Scripture framed biblical interpretation in the church and thereby held the role of reason in check.
Modernity dealt a blow to these principles of traditional biblical interpretation by locating meaning away from the words of Scripture, to a meaning that was supposed to be found behind the biblical text, and in the historical situations presented by the biblical writers. On its part, postmodernism, by calling into question modernity’s confidence in objective truth, has created a situation in which the claim that a single, stable meaning may be found in a text is deemed inconceivable. Ultimate authority and meaning have been further removed from the written scriptural form and relocated in its reader.
The nature of the present state of biblical interpretation in the church for its life cannot be overstated. Henry M. Knapp has correctly summarized the point: “Without a coherent, well-developed understanding of the origin and authority of Scripture, the conclusions reached by exegetes will likely become more and more diverse and possess little of value beyond the individual interpreter. On the other hand, reclaiming precritical assumptions concerning the authority of the biblical text, combined with the increasing technical proficiency in applying exegetical tools, will allow Protestant biblical interpreters to explore the meaning of Scripture in decisive and useful ways, for the good of the entire church.”15
At stake with the issue of biblical interpretation in the church is the decisiveness and usefulness of the Bible in the performance of its normative ethical role. The passage from 2 Timothy 3 referred to earlier continues to be relevant to this discussion. Here the apostle Paul spells out a fourfold usefulness of the Bible that is clearly connected to its ethical relevance. “All Scripture,” the apostle writes, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (vs. 16, NASB).
First, teaching technically relates to doctrinal formulation of Scripture elsewhere in the pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 1:10; 4:13, Titus 1:9; 2:10), and it may refer either to the definite content that is taught or to the activity of teaching.
Second, reproof has the basic meaning of conviction, the realization that one is wrong. In 1 Timothy 5:20, the use of its related verb has to do with the conviction of sin but in the context of 2 Timothy 3, the conviction may be doctrinal. In either case, the Bible has the function of creating an awareness of waywardness either with regard to sin or doctrine.
Third, correction has the basic idea of restoring, raising, or lifting up again. Hence it is argued, “if between the conviction of the sinner and his instruction in righteousness there is a reference to epanorthósis [conviction], this can only mean that the convicted sinner receives the restoration, i.e., the amendment in conversion . . . (to salvation; 2 Tim 3:15), which only God can give.”16 The usefulness of the Bible in correction, then, means that the Bible is endowed with the power to restore a convicted sinner.
Finally, training, the broad term for “education,” includes the corrective sense of discipline. Timothy Johnson has noted that when the original word for “education” is taken in its full Greco-Roman sense, the passage “is equivalent to saying that Scripture draws its readers into the culture of divine and human righteousness.”17
The clear implication of a passage such as 2 Timothy 3:15 to 17 is that the Bible intends to give clear, concrete, and definitive answers to questions and issues. In this sense, biblical meanings are not essentially multivariant. Thus, it bears pointing out that any hermeneutic or approach to biblical interpretation that does not help interpreters to explore the meaning of Scripture in decisive and determinate ways, negates the ethical relevance of the Bible and biblical passages such as 2 Timothy 3:15 to 17. Here, the contrast between traditional biblical hermeneutics and contemporary hermeneutics must be noted. Traditionally, hermeneutics was closely identified with the discipline of exegesis, which applies the rules of interpretation to passages of Scripture in an attempt “to look into the mind of the author in order to determine what he meant when he made certain statements to certain people.”18 The hermeneutical task in this framework is to discover and deliver as clearly as possible the literal sense of the text.
In contrast, the goal of contemporary hermeneutics is to challenge the “reconstructionist” view of traditional hermeneutics, namely, the view that the main task of interpretation is to discover the historical, literal sense of the biblical text. And this challenge has come about because of a growing awareness among many biblical scholars that both the biblical text and the interpreter are historically conditioned. The result is an indeterminism in meaning, for it is noted: “Openness for the indeterminate horizons of meanings of any present moment, is the aim of hermeneutics. In such openness one is free to be conducted by objects of interest, to be raised out of one’s particular place by the integrity and difference of what is addressed and questioned. Whatever the text, readiness for experience opens into conversation, flowing and not rigidly pre-ordained, with that text. One hears because he inquires, but he hears the originality of the text in the situation of the question, and that is always more than he can provide for himself.”19
Today, issues in marriage and sexuality such as divorce, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism are increasingly being decided on the basis of contemporary open-ended hermeneutics; and the moral debates continue even among Christian scholars. But it seems reasonably clear that if the Bible would become relevant in a meaningful way to contemporary issues in marriage and sexuality, its formal authority in the life of the church should be matched by a return to methods of interpretation that are consistent with sola scriptura and the Protestant Scripture principle. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has long been guided by this insight when it comes to methods of biblical interpretation. In 1986, the church adopted a statement on methods of biblical interpretation, which stated in its preamble, “Adventists are committed to the acceptance of biblical truth and are willing to follow it, using all methods of interpretation consistent with what Scripture says of itself.”20
To many observers, the weakening of the contemporary family and marriage, and the confusion over sexuality may be traced to contemporary erosion of biblical values. While secularists may ignore this viewpoint, the Christian Church cannot lightly dismiss it. Perhaps more than ever, the issues demand the Christian church to come to terms with the nature of its sense of direction. Will the church be guided by contemporary cultural and scientific ideas, or will the church live by strong theological convictions? If the latter, then the church must commit anew to the Bible as its Canon, and subsequently develop ethical positions that are grounded in its theological viewpoints. Such an approach will require not just a formal acknowledgment of the Bible’s authority, but an approach to its interpretation that is consistent with the biblical worldview that is by and large discredited by the historical-critical method and other critical approaches.
Kwabena Donkor, PhD, is Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES