BEYOND THE BIBLE, OR JUST BEYOND THE PALE?
RECENT PRONOUNCEMENTS in the debate about homosexuality raise significant questions about the limits of Christian theology. Richard Kirker, General Secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, is quoted in the Church Times (16/5/97) as saying he is “confident … the Holy Spirit is leading … in the direction advanced by Bishop Baker, referring to the lecture in which the former bishop of Salisbury overturned the conclusions of Issues in Human Sexuality and called for the Church to seek “the mind of Christ formed in us by listening to each other openly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”.
We thus have two clergymen whose position could loosely be described as `Liberal’ appealing to the Holy Spirit as a guide. The question this raises, however, is what they mean by what they say. Taken at face value, the implications are quite extraordinary. John Baker believes the biblical attitude to homosexuality to be both clear and clearly wrong, being based an understanding which is, in his view, limited and flawed. However, if by `the Holy Spirit’, Baker means what Christian theology traditionally means, his position is not that of classic Liberalism. For him, modern intellectual insight (“as we now see”) still shows the Bible to be wrong. But whereas the Liberal would have continued to apply this critique to `correct’ the biblical view, Baker appeals to the Spirit.
This involves him in several important assumptions, amongst which are, first, that there is a Spirit which has a means of communicating to us. Second, that we can establish both the reality and truth of this communication without reference to Scripture because, third, this Spirit contradicts Scripture. Consequently, fourth, this Spirit communicates more effectively with us than with earlier generations of Gods spokesmen. But, fifth, the method of this communication transcends reason (otherwise we would not need recourse to the Spirit) and inspiration (which created the present problem). This last point is fundamental because the classic Liberal who demolished the biblical view of homosexuality on the basis of reason would also use reason to erect an alternative. By contrast, Baker would presumably look to an `inner light’ or even an outer voice.
This picture, however, is hard to take seriously, which raises the alternative possibility that Baker, Kirker et al. are simply using the term `Holy Spirit’ because it sounds – well, `spiritual’. After all, their conservative opponents can hardly object to being `led by the Spirit’, can they? Thus even though we are contradicting one another at every turn, we are all caught up in a joint enterprise called `seeking the Spirit’s guidance’.
It takes a bold soul to say “Phooey – we have not even heard of this Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit of Christian theology is known to our generation only because we first read about him in the Bible. It would not matter if we had visions, prophecies, tongues, or even love, in abundance. In the absence of the Bible we would have no way of knowing whether this was the Holy Spirit, demon possession, a natural inclination or bad digestion. For us, revelation precedes interpretation. In other words, we are dependent on former generations of God’s people for our current understanding of God – and this requires of us a certain humility. We have to believe that the author of 1 John is right when he says God spoke to him more clearly than he now speaks to us. But this is objectionable to the unregenerate mind which, like Aaron and Miriam, always complains “Has not the Lord spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).
The suspicion is that John Baker and Richard Kirker believe in the Holy Spirit the way Mormons believe in Jesus Christ. This is not to say that the phrase is used meaninglessly in either case – but the meaning is so stretched as to be no longer covered by the umbrella of Christianity. The onus is on Baker and Kirker to justify their theology before they plead their ethics.