Biblical Values and Ethics Culturally Contingent or Universal

A fourth area of debate in biblical interpretation concerns whether the cultural norms assumed within the biblical narrative were endorsed by the biblical writers. The case of slavery is of particular importance, and we consider this in more detail later. This question has been particularly significant in recent discussions about Christian attitudes toward homosexuality. Although the Bible makes surprisingly few unequivocal references to homosexual practices, those that can be identified are uniformly negative: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22). While Jesus of Nazareth makes no reference to the subject, Paul explicitly condemns homosexual practice in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26-27). So how are these verses to be interpreted?

A traditionalist reading of these texts holds that they represent unequivocal, clear, and unambivalent condemnations that are therefore valid and binding on the church for all time. A liberal reading argues that it is important to discern the intention that lies behind these prohibitions and to distinguish this intention from the actual condemnations, which reflect issues in the culture of the ancient world (for example, the influence of paganism) that do not apply today.42

This brief account of four of the issues that have arisen in biblical interpretation—some of which have played a significant role in shaping the present form of Protestantism—helps explain the historical and contemporary diversity within Protestantism. It also leads us to reflect on an important consequence of the dangerous idea at the heart of Protestantism, an issue to which we now turn—namely, who decides what is orthodoxy and what is heresy.

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