Interpreting the Bible
With great skill, biblical scholars have forged a set of strong and supple tools to bring forth enlightened, often profound, interpretations of Scripture. They know that the Bible is inspired, but also that it did not drop down straight from heaven. So they work out meaning by placing texts in their human settings.
What is the situation in life, the historical context, that produced this passage? What issue is being addressed? What do the words mean in the original language? What is the literary genre (for one does not interpret poetry the same way as narrative or law)? Is the text unique or similar to other passages? What is its relation to the main streams of biblical teaching, which deal with how to live in relation to a gracious and merciful God, whom the New Testament succinctly identifies in one word: “love” (1 Jn. 4:8)?
Especially when studying Scripture to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading the church, scholars using such tools have shed helpful light on difficult texts such as ones that have been used to support slavery, promote the subordination of women, clobber LGBTQ persons or ignite anti-Semitism.
There is a great line in “Dei Verbum,” the Second Vatican Council’s document on revelation, that underscores the value of this work. “It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature” (12).
In other words, the church’s capacity to grasp the Gospel can grow and good biblical interpretation can help make it happen. In the process, compassion and commitment to justice, which give life to the gospel commandments of love, also grow in the church both as an official institution and as a graced community of disciples following Jesus Christ.
Interpreting church teaching
It flies beneath the radar, perhaps, but theologians today are using similar kinds of tools to interpret the wide body of church teaching. Like biblical writings, religious doctrines about beliefs and moral teachings about human behavior have come about through historical processes. With roots in Scripture, they developed over time in response to new circumstances and new questions, as the original core community of believers in the Upper Room at Pentecost moved out into the wider Mediterranean world, the wider European, north and south American, African and Asian worlds, the wider global world.
Ways of thinking and what is just assumed to be the case in one culture do not necessarily translate with the same ring of truth to other times and places. In addition, as the world changes, new issues arise that people in former eras could not have even dreamed of. And always, through the ongoing spiritual experiences of people who treasure the faith, “there is growth in the understanding of the realities and words which have been handed down,” as that same Vatican II document wisely observed (8).
Consequently, what we call a development of doctrine can take place. The fundamental truth of the Gospel can be expressed with new insight. Some teaching may even be reformed, as has happened with the profound changes in Catholic moral teaching on freedom of conscience, lending money for profit and slavery.
As with the Bible, so too with the tradition: Church teachings found in the Catechism and Vatican declarations need to be interpreted rather than read off in a simplistic, fundamentalist manner. The church’s capacity to grasp the Gospel can grow, and good theological interpretation can help make it happen.
Interpreting church teaching on LGBTQ issues
This is surely relevant to LGBTQ persons who are Catholic and to those who love and support them. In a nutshell, church teaching in their regard strongly affirms that all LGBTQ persons are created in the image of God and, as such, should be accepted with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358). Furthermore, it accords them equal human dignity with heterosexual persons, and urges they be treated with pastoral care and compassion.
At the same time, this teaching distinguishes the homosexual orientation from bodily homosexual activity, judging the latter to be “intrinsically disordered” and contrary to natural law. It holds that under no circumstances should homosexual unions be legally recognized, let alone blessed. LGBTQ persons are instructed to live a life of self-denial through sexual abstinence, joining the suffering they experience to the sacrifice of Christ’s cross.
Living with integrity in a church with such teaching requires tools of interpretation to deal with what may or may not resonate with one’s personal experience before others and before God. In a broader framework, these tools are also needed to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading the church, and to figure out God’s priorities and intentions for the world. What tools might be available to us?
The Dulles Toolkit
One exceptionally helpful toolkit* for discernment was assembled by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., a leading North American theologian. Tremendously concerned with encouraging people in their faith, yet worried that many in our culture found church teaching archaic or meaningless, he developed six principles that can be used to interpret official church statements.
Using these tools critically and carefully, people could distinguish the good grain of revealed truth from the chaff of time-conditioned formulas, and so live lives better oriented toward Christ. To be clear, Cardinal Dulles did not deal with teaching about LGBTQ issues. But his tools may be usefully applied by those who do. Here are his six interpretive tools with the varied examples he used to illustrate them.
1). In interpreting church teaching, heed should be paid to different types of literary forms
Biblical scholars have no trouble recognizing metaphor, myth, prophetic oracle, and so forth. Consequently, they do not feel obliged to take literally many statements that were previously thought to refer to miraculous divine interventions. The question of genre should also be applied to official church documents.
In the past, popes and councils often spoke in ways common to high officials of their time, using a majestic, triumphalistic style and issuing anathemas against those who disagreed. Even now, some in authority are inclined to speak with an emphasis that treats the faithful as passive recipients of their teaching. Interpret this rhetoric according to its proper form. “If hyperbole is to be admitted in the Bible, who is to deny that it may also be found in ecclesiastical pronouncements?” writes Dulles.
2). An antiquated worldview, presupposed but not formally taught in an earlier church teaching, should not be imposed as binding doctrine.
Cosmology has changed. People in the biblical and medieval worlds assumed a three-tiered universe. The earth and its creatures sat at the center, surrounded by the heavens with God and the angels above, and the underworld with Satan and his demons below. To force this worldview today is pointless. The teaching of Gospel truth needs to be framed by a contemporary scientific understanding of the world. In the process, many classical ideas about creation, miracle and resurrection, among others, will be transformed.
3). Technical terms should be interpreted in terms of the structure of thought presupposed by those who used them.
Philosophy has also changed. Much Christian doctrine has been phrased in categories of Greek philosophy, such as spirit and matter, substance and accident, etc. As with cosmology, these terms need to be understood in their historical framework and not taken as literal descriptions. For example, transubstantiation makes sense as an explanation of the Eucharistic mystery, if one thinks that physical realities are made up of substance and accident.
But different philosophical systems of today do not think of physical entities in these terms. This requires that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist be spoken of in a different way.
4). When interpreting theological terms, pay attention not only to what they literally mean (denote), but also to the ideas and feelings they imply or stir up (connote).
Truth being taught is often wrapped up in imagery and concepts that are not of the essence. For example, in announcing the Good News of salvation, the New Testament declares that we have been redeemed by the Blood of Christ. The image of sacrificial blood is laden with connotations from the Exodus, Temple worship and Mosaic law.
Since medieval times, Christ’s bloody death has been seen as a penalty paid to God to make satisfaction for sin. Today, these bloody conceptions of redemption, embedded in patriarchal and feudal culture, are unintelligible and even repugnant. Church doctrine needs to articulate the great issues of sin, salvation and redeemed life in Christ with contemporary vocabulary.
5). No church teaching of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.
In other words: Whenever the state of the evidence about a question materially changes, we have a new question which cannot be answered by appealing to old authorities. For example, the 16th-century Council of Trent, quoting the Apostle Paul, taught that Adam was a single individual and his actions were the source of original sin. Modern science has raised the likely scenario that the human race evolved from more than one original couple.
Using Paul and Trent today to insist on monogenism is “illegitimate,” as Dulles put it, because neither of them was dealing with the question of the origin of the human race. In fact, the question never entered their minds. They read Genesis as history and took for granted that Adam was a single individual.
6). In the Bible and in authoritative doctrinal statements, one should be alert for signs of social pathology and ideology.
Ever a pilgrim wending its way through history, the church must always be reforming a greater fidelity to the Gospel. At times, it fails and sins. For example, fanatical teaching against the Jews who did not accept Christianity, defensive statements against Protestants, vigorous papal rejection of the modern idea of freedom: all are due to socio-pathological forces at work.
In an effort to maintain authority, these forces gave rise to teaching marked by narrowness (e.g., outside the church there is no salvation) and harshness toward adversaries. Gospel truth is not taught by the church in divine form, but in human form. The effects of human weakness and sinfulness can be embedded in the language of church teaching itself. We must take care to draw a line between what is a matter of faith and what is to be set aside as wrongful human judgments.
Dulles makes the case that using these principles will train us in a suppleness of mind capable of discerning the core message of the Gospel. This is not an “anything goes” kind of approach. For one thing, the subject of faith’s commitment is the infinite mystery of the all-holy God made known in Christ, whose Spirit enlivens the church. This is a mystery of love beyond imagining.
This mystery can never be totally captured in the net of church teaching, nor can the divine will be known in absolute terms for all circumstances. For another, historical change can raise severe challenges to faith. While sharing a common commitment across generations, our situation today is different from that of our medieval ancestors as the computer is different from the abacus. Given both the transcendence of God and the historical conditioning of human beings, interpreting church teaching with tools of intelligent discernment is essential. It is, in Dulles’ elegant phrase, a practice of “creative fidelity.”
The Gravity of Tradition
For 2,000 years, the Christian tradition has held that heterosexuality is the norm for human beings. Marriage is the vocation to which most heterosexual people are called. Fidelity to marriage vows is of primary importance. In light of the commandment forbidding adultery (Deut. 20:14), sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s marriage partner is a grave sin.
For various reasons, including the need to provide for children that may result from sexual union, church teaching—and even the sensus fidelium or sense of the faithful, at least until recently—has maintained the immorality of sexual acts outside of marriage. This is a weighty tradition with backing in Scripture and theology, worthy of respect and not to be put aside lightly.
In this context, a new issue has appeared over the horizon in our day, namely, the standing of persons who are not heterosexual. Such persons have always existed, of course, but cultural changes are making it possible for many to “come out” to themselves and others about their own deep identity in body and spirit. What religious assessment is to be made of LGBTQ persons?
For example, are they, too, beloved creatures made in the image and likeness of God? What ethical values should govern their personal behavior, including intimate sexual activity? For example, are there principles within tradition itself that could permit sexual activity within a monogamous, permanent same-sex relationship?
These are new questions. Historically, doctrine has developed as the church grows in understanding of the realities and words which have been handed down in Scripture and tradition. Frequently, this growing understanding comes from the experience of the People of God or some conflict with standard norms. We are living in such a moment. Where is the Holy Spirit leading the church? How can the core of the rich tradition be preserved at the same time it is expanded to address this new reality?
What follows is but one thread in a mighty large tapestry that needs to be woven. I am going to apply one of Cardinal Dulles’ principles to one text of Genesis. There are certainly other principles of doctrinal development that can be applied. There are a multitude of other biblical texts that need to be brought into play. This is but one example of how we can start to think about this subject, not an overall program for development of teaching on gendered identity or sexual morality.
Using the fifth tool
Dulles’ fifth principle states that “no church teaching of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.” Correlatively, “whenever the state of the evidence about a question materially changes, we have a new question which cannot be answered by appealing to old authorities.” How might this work when dealing with church teaching on LGBTQ persons?
The judgment that homosexual genital activity is disordered is based, in good part, on an appeal to the Genesis narrative where, on the sixth day, God created human beings “male and female” and gave them the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28). From this text, church teaching deduces a strong gender binary where persons are either male, with masculine characteristics, or female, with feminine characteristics, the two being complementary.
Marriage brings the two into relationship in order to be fruitful, so that every sexual act must be open to the conception of a child. In this framework, the sexual identity and activity of LGBTQ persons falls outside the norm.
Let us consider this line of thinking.
According to biblical scholarship, Genesis 1 is not a historical record of an event. In terms of literary genre, it is a myth of origins. It is a religious narrative constructed in a six-day sequence to teach that God created everything that exists: day and night, sky and water, dry land and plants, sun and moon, fish and birds, all kinds of animals that creep and walk on the earth and all people. After the initial act of creation, to provide for continuation, God blessed all living creatures with the gift of fertility. And God saw that it was good. And then rested.
For centuries, church teaching interpreted the six-day timeline of this narrative literally, but it no longer does so. In our day, the state of the evidence on the question has materially changed. Scientific knowledge of the age of the universe and the long history of the evolution of life on earth has cast the six days back into their proper literary form.
Far from insisting on a literal understanding of creation in six days, church teaching has developed a sophisticated reading that honors the religious intent of the story while also respecting modern scientific knowledge. The point is that God created everything, not how.
Embedded in this narrative of origin, the description of human beings who are created male and female in the image of God is meant generically to include all human beings. It writes humans as a category of creature into the creation story as part of the whole wondrous scenario, with an additional responsibility to care for the rest.
To put it plainly, Genesis 1 is not dealing with issues of sexual orientation. Just as Paul’s writing about Adam’s sin was not intended to teach about the origin of the human race in a single couple, so too Genesis 1’s description of human beings created male and female was not intended to define God’s will for a gender binary. Rather, the text intends to bring all people into view as God’s good creatures and responsible members of the community of creation.
Using Genesis 1 today as a source that teaches that heterosexual orientation is the only God-approved way to be human does not work because this text is not dealing with the question of LGBTQ persons. Coming to the text with a prior conviction about a gender binary, church authorities read it into the text. But biblical scholarship today shows that the text does not teach this.
As with the six days, so too with the two genders. The words about male and female and the mandate to be fruitful are embedded in the larger creation story and share its literary genre. They need not be interpreted literally. A small door opens up, one of many that are possible, where the development of doctrine becomes thinkable.
Wisdom on divine love
Searching the Scriptures for a way to think about LGBTQ persons in a framework different from Genesis, we might well begin with a creation text from the Book of Wisdom. It makes a radical claim about God who creates:
For you love all things that exist
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have formed anything if you had hated it.Wis. 11:24
What exquisite reasoning! From the vast spiraling galaxies to the tiniest nematodes, an outpouring of divine love makes and sustains all beings. Without that love there would be nothing at all … no-thing.
Of course this includes LGBTQ persons. They are beloved creatures, called and gifted in their body and sexuality, their spirit, mind and heart, their power and agency, strengths and limitations. Their very existence outside the norm of heterosexuality bears witness to the truth that God is the creative source of the whole sexuality and gender spectrum, “for you would not have formed anything if you had hated it.”
The great holy mystery whom people call God has a heart for all creatures. When sin and suffering mar the lives of LGBTQ persons, the same ineffable Love who makes all beings that exist also moves with compassion to heal, forgive, redeem and liberate. In a psalmist’s beautiful words:
God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds;
determines the number of the stars, and gives to all of them their names.Ps. 147:3-4
As with every beloved creature, the faithful love of God seeks to save and bring them to fulfillment through thick and thin. Violence against LGBTQ persons is on the upswing. Statistics show that LGBTQ persons, especially teens, experience mental heath struggles and suicidality at much higher rates than the general heterosexual population. So much the more is the life-giving care of God with those who struggle in this way, willing their full flourishing.
Such mercy is not a sideline or a minor theme in Scripture, but its major revelation. Jesus who is Emmanuel, “God with us,” embodied this love in his ministry especially in his interactions with marginalized people, as so much biblical scholarship about LGBTQ persons rightly emphasizes.
This is but one avenue along which our thinking could proceed in creative fidelity to Scripture and tradition.
For over 2,000 years, church teaching has been a living tradition that develops. “For as the centuries succeed one another, the church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment,” reads “Dei Verbum” (8). The church is ever on the way, fleshing out more fully the meaning of the Gospel in cultural contexts that emerge over time.
The impetus to new understandings or the reform of older ideas comes from a variety of sources, including the lived experience of believers, crises and conflicts demanding new gospel answers, prayer, meditation on Scripture, new theological analyses, the insights of secular learning, the evolution of human institutions and the examples and instruction given by persons of good will. In our day the voices, struggles, and graced witness of LGBTQ persons and those who love and support them are an irreplaceable resource in this process. “By their fruits you will know them” (Mt. 7:16).
*See Avery Dulles, “The Hermeneutics of Dogmatic Statements,” in his The Survival of Dogma: Faith, Authority, and Dogma in a Changing World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 176-191. These principles are discussed further in Elizabeth Johnson, “Fluency of Interpretation: A Key to Avery Dulles’ Practice of Theology,” in The Survival of Dulles: Reflections on a Second Century of Influence, Michael Canaris, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), pp. 41-50.