Disagreement and the Bible


This is a follow-up to my post on ‘Disagreement, conscience, and harm’. I argued there that people on both sides of the Church of England’s debates about same-sex marriage have ‘consciences … shaped by diligent engagement with Scripture’.

This claim can be read on two levels. On the first, it is obviously true. We see people on both sides reading their Bibles, talking about what they read, preaching on it, arguing about it, and writing books about it. These practices are pervasive. What sense would it make to doubt them?

At a second level, the claim is easy to doubt. People on the two sides come to such different conclusions about what the Bible says. How can that be, unless one side is failing to read well? Isn’t it more plausible that one side is allowing its conscience to be shaped by diligent engagement with the text, while the other is disguising by a superficial scriptural gloss a conscience formed in quite other ways?

I believe these doubts to be misplaced. They stem from underestimating how deep the differences in our ways of reading go, and so underestimating the challenges involved in reading the Bible together in the church. We need a better estimate of that depth if we are to find a way forward together.

This post is a revised and shortened version of a paper on ‘Disagreement and the Bible’ that I wrote for the LLF process in 2020. The original paper appears on the ‘LLF learning hub’ website.

1.   Disagreement about the Bible

Christians disagree about the Bible.

It might seem that these disagreements should be avoidable. We might suppose that, if only people would be serious about the Bible and its authority, we would all end up agreeing about much more. 

This underestimates the depth of Christian disagreements about the Bible, however. We don’t simply disagree about the meaning of particular passages, or about how different passages complement and qualify one another. We have different ways of imagining what the Bible is, and different ways of imagining our relationship to it. We have different ingrained habits, which lead us to notice and to respond to different features of the Bible, in different ways. We see different things when we turn to the Bible.

These differing ways of seeing have deep roots. They are much more than intellectual positions, or conclusions to arguments. They are rich imaginative ways of approaching and responding to the Bible. Each involves a web of habits, ideas, and feelings. Each is held in place by patterns of Christian life that have been built around it. Each is reinforced by a thousand different experiences of reading particular passages. Each is supported by a network of theological ideas.

Each is a world that people inhabit.

Most of the time, we are not aware of these supporting ideas, patterns of imagination, and habits. They are like reading glasses: when we read, we look not at them but through them. That can become a problem, however, when we disagree. I point you to the text, sure that if you look carefully you will see what I see. But you don’t see what I see, because you’re not looking through my glasses. You don’t notice the same things, or you don’t make of them what I expect you to.

It is true that, most of the time, when we turn to the text, we see the same words. But what we make of those words is shaped by our reading glasses in more ways than we realise. Those glasses shape the connotations of those words that we register, and the connections we see between them. They shape how we weave those words into our picture of what the Bible more widely says. They shape what we think are the obvious or the natural thing to do with those words.

I point you to the same words that I see, but you see them differently. You may well find what I say about those words – something that seems quite natural and obvious to me – artificial or forced. You might start thinking that I’m not really drawing what I say from those words. You might think that I am imposing on the Bible ideas drawn from elsewhere, or using the Bible as a prop to support my theories or prejudices.

In other words: we disagree about the Bible in ways that go deeper than our explicit arguments. We disagree in ways that involve differing patterns of habit, imagination and feeling in relation to the Bible – but we don’t often notice those patterns. And in such disagreements, we very easily start doubting the seriousness and even the integrity of those with whom we are arguing. Our arguments carry on at the level of claims about particular texts, but that is not the only, perhaps not even the main level at which we differ.

2.   Disagreement within the Bible

Let me illustrate this. I am going to describe one particular way of imagining, experiencing, and relating to the Bible. It is one that puts a particular emphasis on the tensions and disagreements within the Bible. It is one pair of reading glasses worn by some in the Church of England. I wear glasses something like this myself – and they lead me to see the text differently from the way that others in the church see it.

When I read the Bible, I hear a conversation between multiple voices, and the conversation is often unruly and fractious. I read Ezra, and hear a voice calling Israel to keep pure by avoiding intermarriage with foreigners; I turn to Ruth, and hear a voice telling the story of such an intermarriage, and its place in God’s purposes. I read Deuteronomy, and hear a voice insisting that blessing will follow obedience and suffering disobedience; I turn to Job, and hear a voice that breaks that link in pieces. I turn to James, and hear a voice questioning and qualifying the voice of Paul. I turn to the gospels, and find four voices, each later voice supplementing and challenging and rethinking what the earlier ones have said. And so on, and on, and on. The Bible as I read it is full of such tensions, arguments and outright disagreements.

This is not, for me, the conclusion of an argument. It is not a theory I hold on the basis of a list of examples that I could easily itemise. It goes deeper than that. When I look at the Bible, wearing the glasses that I wear, this disputatious collection of voices is simply there. It is obvious. It is hard for me to believe that other people don’t see it when they look where I am looking.

Attempts to harmonize all these voices strike me as forced. I hear other people saying that, somehow, all these voices contribute to one harmonious picture of God’s ways and God’s will, or that such a picture unfolds progressively over time. At quite a visceral level, such claims seem to me to be disrespectful of the text. They come across as attempts to press into a neat shape a text that is simply, and pervasively, more unruly than that. I think I can argue that case in specific instances, but I also know that my reaction is also prior to, and deeper than, such arguments. Given what I see the Bible to be, all such attempts at harmonization strike me as doing violence to it.

I am told, by some of those who see the Bible differently, that I am exaggerating the tensions that mark it. I am told that I am artificially stressing the differences between the voices present in the Bible in order to undermine its authority, or in order to justify ignoring its clear teaching. They respond to me as if focusing on these tensions were something I had chosen to do with the text, or a theory that I was proposing (or imposing). But it is not. It is just what I see when I turn to the text.

I am committed to following the way the words run, to doing justice to what the text actually says, to listening to it with an open mind and heart. And all of these, for me, have to mean attending to the Bible’s internal arguments and disagreements – the way that one voice interrupts, questions, qualifies, subverts, reworks, and contradicts another. To turn away from those things would, for me, mean turning away from the Bible itself.

In my turn, I am tempted to think that those who say they see harmony and coherence when they look at the Bible are the ones who are imposing their own expectations on it, rather than listening to what it says. I am tempted to think that they are the ones whose readings are artificial, and who are ignoring what it really says. It takes a real effort of imagination to put myself in the position of someone who doesn’t see what I see in the text – and I still think they are missing something vital. Even though I know that they think the same of me.

I know that some will think that my focus on the Bible’s internal disagreements is a way to undermine its authority or deny its nature as revelation. And yet, for me, receiving the Bible as God’s gift means learning to recognise, to do justice to, and to live with, its argumentative and complex nature. God has given us a multi-voiced and disputatious text, and our response should be governed by the nature of God’s gift.

Let me give a very brief sketch of how I, wearing the glasses I wear, imagine the process of reading this gift:

  1. It involves making judgments about which voices have priority. I will say more about how we do that in a moment, but for now I simply want to highlight the fact of it. It might, for instance, involve judging that the book of Ruth displays something deeper about God’s ways and purposes than does Ezra’s refusal of intermarriage. It might involve judging that Job shows us something that doesn’t simply qualify but deeply disrupts the picture painted in Deuteronomy – and that this disruption takes us deeper into the purposes of God.

  2. It never means abandoning the other voice in these arguments. We keep on reading Deuteronomy, for instance. We don’t settle into any pattern of reading which effectively cuts it out from the Bible. But that is because we learn, in part, by following how Deuteronomy speaks and then by hearing how its voice is challenged by Job. We learn by following, and dwelling with, the argument between the two, even if we do pick sides in the argument.

  3. We don’t make such judgments simply by picking the voice that we prefer. We make those judgments as people following Jesus, and joining in with the creative re-reading of the Bible that took place in his life and ministry. If we choose, say, Ruth over Ezra, it will be because Jesus helps us make sense of Ruth’s subversion of Ezra. Jesus helps us see it as grounded in the same reckless, boundary-crossing divine love that Jesus embodies. And it will be because Ruth’s subversion of Ezra helps us make sense of the story of Jesus. It helps us to see his willingness to cross the boundary between pure and impure, insider and outsider, as an echo of her story.

  4. Following Jesus does not, however, make all of those judgments obvious. Being disciples doesn’t allow us to settle down with one coherent reading of the Bible. Learning to follow Jesus itself means joining an ongoing and unresolved conversation about what discipleship demands. The New Testament already displays such an ongoing and unresolved conversation between many voices, and we are invited to join the argument.

3.   Disagreement about disagreement

I can imagine that, to some, the whole description that I have just offered will seem unnecessarily complicated and quite artificial. It will seem to rely on an exaggerated view of the Bible’s internal diversity, and to involve the reader in unconvincing mental gymnastics. It will seem to yield far too little stability. To me, however – someone who inhabits this way of imagining and experiencing the Bible – this approach flows naturally from what I see when I turn to the text. I find it compelling. I can’t help but think – can’t help but feel – that those who don’t read this way are missing something deep about the text that God has given us.

This is simply one illustration of the kinds of difference that shape our reading. It illustrates why argument about the Bible in the church so often feels frustrating. I can’t help but think that if others looked more attentively at the text, they would see what I see. Others can’t help but think that if I looked more attentively, I would see what they see.

We pursue our arguments by disputing the interpretation of particular texts, or by discussing particular claims that the Bible makes about itself – but those arguments don’t really get down to the deep level at which our disagreement lives. It lives in our guts as much as in our brains.

There is no neutral way of responding to this situation. People who inhabit different ways of relating to the Bible may well describe, assess, and respond to this situation of disagreement differently. Yet for someone who inhabits the kind of approach to the Bible set out in the previous section, the following approach makes sense.

  1. Acknowledge that these different approaches exist. Any approach that has proved habitable for large numbers of people over a long period of time, engaging intensely with the text of Scripture, is unlikely to be overcome by any knock-down argument. You may think there are obvious reasons why another approach should give way to yours, but your reasons are unlikely to be obvious to those who don’t share your patterns of imagination, feeling, and habit.

  2. Don’t settle for an easy pluralism, in which inhabitants of different approaches simply stop talking to one another. We should keep questioning one another, challenging one another, and holding one another to account – because we need to keep on learning. And even those with whom we disagree sharply, and whom we continue to think seriously mistaken, may have seen something in the text that we have missed, or be capable of interrupting, questioning and challenging us in ways that are fruitful. (Note, though, that this paragraph should be read in the light of the cautions expressed in my previous post about pressing people into harmful engagement.)

  3. Above all, keep Jesus at the centre of the conversation. Keep on coming back to the question of the pattern of reading that makes most sense for followers of Jesus – for people who are baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and who celebrate his death and resurrection week by week in the eucharist. That determination is not going to provide any simple resolution to the disagreements between us, but it is what holds us together in a shared journey of learning. And if I have one suggestion for what might keep our ways of reading – deeply different though they are – recognisable to one another, it will be if we can see in them some form of this determination to read in Jesus’ company.

One Thought on “Disagreement and the Bible

  1. Adam on July 3, 2023 at 7:13 am said:

    Hi Mike, thank you so much for this profoundly helpful article. I remember when I *saw* for the first time that Scripture speaks with multiple voices. This was transformative of the way I came to think about what the Bible was and how to read it. I was wondering if you had written anywhere about how to handle disagreement where Scripture does seem to speak with one voice, as conservatives often say regarding same sex relationships. Thanks again for a very helpful article.

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