This summer I’ve been making my way through Peter Leithart’s excellent work on the theology of Athanasius. Laying out Athanasius’ hermeneutical principles, Leithart explains that for Athanasius the primary framework determining right and wrong interpretation is the overall shape of the biblical story. Thus Leithart says,
The standard of right reading is the ground motif of Scripture as a whole, the history of creation, fall, incarnation, glory. As Frances Young puts it, “Athanasius is not neglectful of the details of the text,” but more basically his reading is guided by a “sense of the overarching plot” that he has inherited as the fundamental narrative of salvation. Thus “the ‘Canon of Truth’ or ‘Rule of Faith’ expresses the mind of scripture, and an exegesis that damages the coherence of that plot, that hypothesis, that coherence, that skopos [scope], cannot be right.”
While this is hardly the only criteria for biblical interpretation, it strikes me as a particularly helpful one. When explaining to others why I’ve been convinced by the traditional interpretation of the biblical text with respect to same-sex sexual behavior, I’ve often said that the first three chapters of Genesis were far more persuasive than any of the so-called “clobber passages”. Of course Genesis 1-3 don’t explicitly talk about same-sex sexuality at all, but I think what I’ve been trying to get at is the point that Leithart is making above about Athanasius: the overall shape of the story should guide our interpretive decisions.
Athanasius argued against Arianism on the basis that the loss of the divinity of the Son actually “damages the coherence of the plot.” Of course, many supporting revisionist readings (note: I’m using this term descriptively, not pejoratively) of the text on same-sex marriage would have no problem with this criteria, contending that just as same-sex relationships don’t obviously harm anyone else, neither do they harm the overall coherence of the biblical story. So the appeal to the shape of the story is not a sort of debate-deciding maneuver.
However, I do think the shape of the story is a point in favor of the traditional reading of the biblical text. For Athanasius, the shape of the story was particularly Christocentric, and the discussion of whether a doctrine damages the coherence of the plot rests on what it does to Christ’s role in the plot. Here emerges the importance of the Pauline image of Christ as the bridegroom coming for his people, his bride. The marriage illustration wonderfully displays both Christ’s solidarity with his people (so much so that he will be one with them) and his distinction from them (he is creator, they are creature). The marriage typology emphasizes the loving relationship between Christ and his church while maintaining their corresponding distinction as well. Thus, altering our understanding of marriage and same-sex sexual behavior actual does damage the coherence of the plot because it flattens the creator-creature distinction and therefore cannot simply fall under the “debatable topics” that denominations agree to disagree about.
I want to conclude by bringing this back to my personal experience with the text. When I was in undergrad wrestling through the arguments for and against the traditional reading of the text, I found myself unpersuaded by revisionist readings of individual texts. However, I did not find the conservative readings of those same six or so texts compelling in motivating me to live in fidelity with scripture. Sure, those six texts seemed like they were saying same-sex sexual behavior was bad, but they didn’t give me a vision for living my life in accordance with the overall purpose of God. It was only in stepping back and looking at the overall shape of the biblical story—with Christ at the center—that I found myself captivated by the story of a Creator, a Lover, becoming incarnate to save his Creation, his Beloved.
Kyle Keating received his M.Div. at Covenant Theological Seminary and teaches theology and history at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.