Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues; 3rd Edition
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.
“How could they believe that about _____!? Haven’t they read X-Passage in the Bible? What about X-Passage do they not understand?” Fill in the blanks with any given controversial subject and supporting scriptures and you’ve thought this before. Don’t lie. God is watching.
I was taught to read scripture, to make sure all my beliefs and practices were grounded and consistent with scripture, but I was never really taught how to read scripture until much later in life. So I tended to think those aforementioned kind of things all the time. I had no notion that, indeed no way of knowing how, other people could read the same texts with the same sincerity and intellectual ability and still come to different conclusions until I learned how to read scripture.
If you’ve ever wondered how there’s even a debate about certain issues, like gender roles or homosexuality, Victor Paul Furnish’s now-classic text will help you to understand the real difficulties of reading texts.
The book focuses on four controversial issues—(1) sex, marriage, and divorce (2) homosexuality (3) women in the church, and (4) the church in the world. In all these issues Furnish provides the basic historical and exegetical data that helps us put these issues in perspective. What emerges is a fresh perspective on all these issues.
Furnish’s goal in each is outlined in his introductory chapter “The Sacred Cow and the White Elephant.” In this chapter Furnish addresses two attitudes about interpretation that are false. The first, the sacred cow, sometimes referred to as “blunt readings” or literalist readings assumes that the Bible is too sacred to be taken otherwise than literally. All nuance, contextualization, and comparison to other texts is disregarded as mere “human” interpretation. The second polar extreme, the white elephant, refers to those readings that trivialize Biblical texts as outdated, obsolete, or even plain wrong. Furnish urges his readers to reject both views. They are not polar extremes with some middle ground. “Rather, they are both wrong” Furnish says, because good biblical reading does not afford a moderate amount of either ‘sacred cowing’ or ‘white elephanting’. The alternative cannot be expressed in terms of some middle ground, but by a rejection of both attitudes and an embrace of the Bible as God’s Word that we must use all our faculties and abilities to understand. We both respect the whole of the Biblical text as containing some essential wisdom, without at the same time disallowing our God-given rational mind from trying to make sense of texts that come out of a world that is very different from our own.
A final note about the book itself is that it is written for both scholars and lay audiences. Some things are written just for scholars and are filled with technical language and enormous detail necessary for scholarly standards. Some things are written with the average person in mind and aims for readability, sometimes sacrificing a good chunk of the substance of the argument for the sake of broader accessibility. This book is for both scholars and lay audiences, and it achieves this by sacrificing a good deal of technical jargon and citations, but not substance or discernment.
There is a certain proverb that goes like this: if you can’t express yourself without complex and technical language then you don’t really know what you’re talking about. This book shows a seasoned scholar who has struggled with these issues over a long period of time, and proves he knows what he’s talking about by offering his perspective in plain language without diminishing its intellectual depth.
I think this book achieves three interrelated things.
- It provides rich historical and biblical context to these four issues. On any of these issues Furnish not only provides a fair representative sample of the cultural and philosophical world surrounding Paul’s writings, but also puts the main texts of any given issue in dialogue with other biblical texts relevant to the issue. Moreover he offers an example of charitable, careful, and sensitive readings of these texts.
- It demonstrates the strangeness of the biblical world. This is something we don’t often realize. The first century world is strange compared to our own. It’s not easy to say which of our worlds is the stranger, but it is essential to understand that Paul’s world accepted a whole host of values and norms that we are likely to be uncomfortable with. Furnish doesn’t shy away from showing just how strange Paul’s world can be.
- It leaves the reader with the task of figuring out how all this fits into our own world. The perceptive reader will be able to make a good guess as to Furnish’s own opinions (he tends to challenge traditional or conservative readings of these texts), but he never states his opinions outright, and this seems important to the book. Furnish wants to provide an often-missing context on these issues without, at the same time, saying that this solves all the issues. He allows that a reasonable, intelligent, godly person will come to a different conclusion, though perhaps, or hopefully, slightly less radical in their particular school of thought.
Because this book tends to focus on very particular issues it’s hard to find quotes that make sense out of context or even won’t find their meaning utterly butchered out of context. As such, just a few quotes will have to suffice.
Whenever we treat Paul’s moral teaching as if it were a sacred cow, we run the risk of turning it into a white elephant. That is, if we regard the particulars of Paul’s moral instructions as automatically applicable and binding in our times and circumstances, we will almost certainly end up with a good many requirements that are either irrelevant or, what is worse, clearly inappropriate. (25)
To some degree, every one of these issues has a different character today. An immense gulf exists between the particular circumstances and conditions that gave rise to these issues in ancient society, and formed the context in which they had to be addressed, and the circumstances and conditions that obtain for us. For the same reason, we will find nothing in Paul’s letters, or anywhere in the Bible, about certain moral issues that the modern world dare ignore. (26)
Our task, therefore, is not to search the Pauline letters for ready-made answers to the moral questions that confront us. It is, rather, to consider whether, and if so, how Paul’s approach to the moral issues specific to his day may inform and guide us in thinking through the moral issues that are specific to our times and places. (26)
Victor Paul Furnish is a celebrated New Testament scholar who has written several books, including this one, that have achieved classic status amongst scholars, and he has arguably written the best commentary on 2 Corinthians to date. The upshot here is that he is a guy who the smartest people in the room listen to, even if they don’t agree with him. And this wide appeal accords with what Furnish demonstrates in this book, something he does that not many interpreters of texts (scholarly or lay) do: namely, reading texts in terms of their own strange-to-us world and acknowledging the difficulties involved in bringing the wisdom of this world into our own. Many people can do one or the other, not many do both biblical exegesis and interpretation with as much intellectual generosity and sensitivity as Furnish.
In a time when biblical literacy itself is on the decline, much less historical knowledge or understanding of interpretation (hermeneutics), we need people like Furnish to help us get up to date on all three levels. So to return to the statement at the beginning: if you want to understand why there’s a debate on a set of controversial issues that seem pretty cut and dry to you, I highly recommend you spend some time with Furnish’s book. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with him on any given issue its worth it to see that there are smart, godly people who read texts differently and they have plenty of good reasons to do so.