The savage text makes hatred holy." There is much in the Bible that seems to endorse cruelty, hatred, violence and oppression, and texts taken from it and read literally and in isolation can be used to justify practices that most people would regard as immoral.
Adrian Thatcher, professorial research fellow in theology at the University of Exeter, has written a powerful book in protest against such uses of the Bible. He argues that the Word of God, for Christians, is the person of Jesus. The Bible should not be regarded as itself the Word of God, but as a witness to the divine revelation in Jesus - a witness that is often hampered by cultural factors and sometimes misunderstood. The biblical witness should be to the unlimited love of God in Jesus. But if it is treated as a "guidebook" of rules, it can be and has been used to justify intolerance and injustice.
Thatcher claims that the "guidebook" view underlies much of the debate about homosexuality in modern religious debate. He argues that the anti-homosexual view cannot even be supported by literal interpretations, once it is accepted that many specific moral rules in the Bible apply to obsolete historical contexts, develop over many centuries and need to be reinterpreted in very different situations. But the basic error is to regard the Bible as a book of moral rules in the first place, rather than as a record of how people slowly learnt how to honour the self-giving God revealed in Jesus.
With reference to specific historical examples, he shows how the Bible has been used to support racism, slavery, violence, the mistreatment of women and children, anti-Semitism and a strongly vindictive attitude to punishment. He then argues more positively that the life and teaching of Jesus undermines all such uses and suggests that Christians should not call themselves a "People of the Book" or refer to the Bible as the Word of God. They should distance themselves from the "tradition of savagery" that results from an "idolatry of the text" and instead commit themselves to seeing the reality of God in the person of Jesus.
The issue of homosexuality divides the Christian churches, and I think Thatcher is correct to see that the issue is partly one of how to interpret the Bible, and in particular the ancient moral rules in the Bible - although the issue is also partly based on an alleged "Natural Law", which he does not consider in this book. More broadly, the question of whether the Bible is a great spiritual text or a savage text that is often morally repugnant is a question of general cultural importance.
The author clearly shows how the Bible has been used to justify savage practices, and the book is a vivid statement of an alternative Christian approach that sees the Bible as a historical record of sometimes tentative faith perceptions rather than as the inerrant words of God.
It is not quite so clear what the positive spiritual use of the Bible should be, or to what extent the traditional claim that Jesus is the Word of God could be reliably founded on a text that is so often provisional or mistaken. Perhaps such a claim is itself only one interpretation of Jesus within the Gospels and need not be taken as a "rule of faith". But this is merely to say that the author has not said everything. What he has said is forceful and challenging and makes a powerful, compelling and readable case against biblical literalism and fundamentalism.
The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible
By Adrian Thatcher. Wiley-Blackwell. 232pp, £50.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9781405170178 and 70161. Published 26 September 2008