Review: ‘Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003’ by Martin Davie

Davie book

This was the book commissioned by the CEEC in preparation for the Shared Conversations in the CofE, and reflection on which was intended to form the basis of their consultation in February 2015. Dr Martin Davie, the author, is the CEEC’s academic consultant. He has taught at Oak Hill and Wycliffe, and served as theological consultant for the House of Bishops and Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission.

The report is both impressively broad and open and depressingly narrow. Its openness comes from its insistence on considering every significant piece of writing on the 6 core biblical passages published in the last 10 years, and presenting them as objectively and fairly as possible, often through extensive quotation, allowing the writers to speak for themselves. This has been critiqued by Colin Coward as still containing an implicit filtering in that Davie chose what texts to present and what quotations to use, which is doubtless true (true objectivity is always impossible), but I’ve never seen a document by either ‘side’ in this debate take such pains to present a broad spread of texts with so little evaluation offered in the presentation. The narrowness, however, was evident in the above description (and in fairness to Davie, this was simply the brief he was given in preparing the report): this was a review of writings in the last 10 years, and only writings addressing the bible passages already identified as the ‘core’ texts. Earlier writings were not considered, neither were any writings addressing wider matters than biblical interpretation, nor any passages beyond the 6 ‘core passages’.

The purpose of the report, clearly set out in the introduction, was very sharply defined. ‘Some Issues’ in 2004 had suggested that the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation of these passages was accepted by most biblical scholars. The ‘Piling Report’ in 2014 suggested that there was no scholarly consensus on the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation. The report set itself the task of determining if anything had actually changed in the last 10 years that would warrant a change of this kind in the CofE’s understanding. The underlying assumption was that if no new research had been produced, then the evaluation given in ‘Some Issues’ could still be valid, and ‘Piling’ could be shown to be mistaken in its evaluation. In other words, the report started by assuming that ‘Some Issues’ could be trusted, and questioned whether ‘Piling’ could. It set out to test ‘Piling’’s evaluation, but made no attempt to similarly test the evaluation of ‘Some Issues’, which was assumed throughout to be trustworthy. (I should stress here that what is being disputed is not a ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the passages in itself, but whether or not a scholarly consensus can be said to exist in their interpretation – the report is not just arguing for a particular position, it is arguing that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree with that position).

Given that the existence of dispute over the issue of same sex relationships cannot be denied, the report suggested three possible ways of understanding this dispute: that scripture is inherently unclear, that scholarly debate remains inconclusive, or that neither of these is the case and one side of the debate is simply wrong. Essentially, the final argument of the report is that by establishing that there is scholarly consensus on the traditionalist understanding of the passages (which the report considers itself to have done) it can be shown that scripture is clear, that scholars agree, and therefore that there is only disagreement because one side is wrong.

There are some obvious problems with this, but the most dangerous is the unquestioned assumption that the evaluation offered by Davie of the various scholars who are reviewed in the report represents in itself the balance of scholarly opinion. Davie presents evaluations of the various revisionist scholars that essentially all boil down to ‘this is not a good enough argument to warrant moving from a traditionalist understanding’. Personally I find some of his evaluations more convincing than others, but that isn’t the point I want to make. Davie has every right to argue for his own position, to make his own judgements about the worth of the arguments of others, and is to be commended for seeking to defend his position against the fair and robust presentation of others’ positions. What he doesn’t have the right to do is to argue that his judgement *is* the supposed scholarly consensus. Davie’s argument for his evaluation that scholarly debate cannot be judged inconclusive is that “Although writers about the issue continue to disagree the traditionalist position has not been successfully called into question.” But the measure of ‘successfully called into question’ used in the report is whether Davie finds the argument convincing.

Logically, by separating out the question of scripture itself being unclear (ie no clear position is possible) from the question of the current state of scholarly debate being unclear (ie a clear position may be possible but at present we can’t be sure what it is), Davie should be assessing not only whether the bible is itself unclear, but also whether scholars at present have the level of consensus required to establish a clear position. Despite the avowed intention of the report, he shows no real interest in exploring the second of these. His underlying assumption is that if scripture is clear, then there is no room for scholarly dispute. Having carefully separated out two legitimate reasons for continued conflict, he implicitly ignores the separate existence of the second. There is a hidden assumption that the clarity of scripture can be assessed independently of disputes amongst scholars, because Davie, unlike these other scholars, is capable of truly objective judgement (so even though it is clear that different scholars see different things in scripture, an objective observer (Davie) can tell at a glance that scripture is clear and some scholars are simply not reading it accurately). There is likewise a hidden assumption that if scripture is clear then there is no legitimate dispute. There can be no legitimate dispute over how the clear words of scripture should be applied to today’s vastly different context. In fact the clarity of scripture is assumed throughout. Davie’s evaluation of biblical scholars proceeds on the assumption not that their discerning different meanings might indicate a lack of clarity in scripture, or that different hermeneutical approaches might legitimately suggest different applications of clear passages, but that the clarity of scripture necessitates that only one applied meaning can be correct.

Indeed in his evaluation of the revisionist writings Davie gives no indication of offering two levels of evaluation: whether an interpretation of scripture is strong enough to convince him or whether it is strong enough to suggest a viable attempt to faithfully interpret scripture. The second is never treated as a serious possibility. What seems strangest about this is that, of course, anglican evangelicals have accepted that precisely this differentiation is possible in regard to women’s ministry: evangelicals accept that other evangelicals who take a different view from their own are faithfully interpreting scripture, even if they do not find their position personally convincing. The official position of Reform is now that women’s ministry is a second-order issue. This suggests that this sort of distinction has been recognised as genuine and significant in regard to a similarly divisive issue. It is interesting to consider why it is not even considered as a possibility here.