Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Bishop Jones's Exegesis: from here to wherever

The great thing about the knight in the game of chess is that it can jump intervening squares and pieces to get from one location to another. This is what gives the knight its attacking power. I think it was Anthony Hoekema, however, who coined the phrase ‘knight’s jump exegesis’ to describe the way some people jump from one part of the Bible to another to ‘prove’ their point.

Hoekema argued that Jehovah’s Witnesses do this with regard to, for example, the date of Christ’s return (somewhat overdue by now, on their reckoning). Unfortunately, as was reported in today’s Guardian newspaper, something like this has now also been done by the Rt Revd James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, in an essay entitled ‘Making Space for Truth and Grace’, published in A Fallible Church (Darton, Longman and Todd, edited by Kenneth Stevenson).

In the essay, Bishop Jones refers to “a forum of four walls” within which he wants debate about sexuality to take place, the second of which is, “the authoritative Biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender most notably in the relationship of Jesus and his beloved and David and Jonathan.”

With regard to this, the Guardian concludes that Bishop Jones, “has argued that the Bible sanctions same-sex relationships.” Whether that is quite so, however, is open to question, for what the Bishop has done is not so much a ‘knight’s jump’ as to pick up the knight and wave it around, without any final indication of where it will come down.

It is clear that the Bishop has in mind if not ‘checkmate’, at least a ‘check’ on the issue of same-sex relationships. The friendship between David and Jonathan, he writes,

... was emotional, spiritual and even physical. Jonathan loved David “as his own soul”. David found Jonathan’s love for him, “passing the love of women”. There was between them a deep emotional bond that left David grief-stricken when Jonathan died. But not only were they emotionally bound to each other they expressed their love physically. Jonathan stripped off his clothes and dressed David in his own robe and armour. With the candour of the Eastern World that exposes the reserve of Western culture they kissed each other and wept openly with each other. The fact that they were both married did not inhibit them in emotional and physical displays of love for each other. This intimate relationship was sealed before God. It was not just a spiritual bond it became covenantal for “Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:3).

Thus he concludes,

Here is the Bible bearing witness to love between two people of the same gender.

We await the final commitment of the piece to the board in its application to the present debate. But then the Bishop writes,

I know that at this point some will ask, “Was the friendship sexual?”, “Were they gay?”, “Was at least one of them homosexual?”, “Were they both heterosexual?”, “Were they bisexual?”

Indeed they will. But how does the Bishop respond?

I want to resist these questions at least initially.

And in fact not just initially but throughout the rest of the essay. Instead, the Bishop concludes this paragraph by asking,

Is it not possible to say that here are two men with the capacity to love fully, both women and men?

To which the only possible answer is ‘yes’ — but that is entirely beside the point. The problem with ‘knight’s jump exegesis’ is not the starting square so much as the squares the ‘exegete’ has jumped over and the square on which he lands to reach a conclusion.

It is therefore not enough to dismiss these questions, as the Bishop does, because they “conjure up stereotypes and prejudices.” Nor is it true that in asking them it assumed that “it is a person’s sexual inclination that defines their personhood. On the contrary, if you do not ask (and answer) these questions, you have established no link at all between David and Jonathan, on the one hand, and a homosexual couple on the other. You therefore have no exegesis, but simply verses hanging in the air.

Compare, for example, the similar invocation of Naomi and Ruth as an instance of same-sex love between women. Does the fact that Ruth clung to Naomi have any bearing on lesbianism? Some indeed argue that it does, but only because there is a prior conclusion that there is a connection that this relationship involves sexual attraction.

As to the relationship between David and Jonathan, no firm conclusions whatsoever can be drawn about a sexual component, despite the Bishop’s somewhat misleading statement that “they expressed their love physically.” It is by no means clear that Jonathan’s love for David was even reciprocated in precisely the same terms. Jonathan, the Bishop observes, loved David and David appreciated that love and grieved when Jonathan died. But David, and all his men, wept and grieved for Saul as well as Jonathan (2 Sam 1:11-12). We must not read into the passage what is not necessarily there, especially when such serious issues are concerned.

And even if these ‘squares’ can be jumped, there is the question of whether an ‘is’ implies an ‘ought’ — in other words, even if David and Jonathan were ‘lovers’ (though I doubt they were), we are not thereby required to approve this aspect of their lives.

And there are other difficulties. The development of a bond of love between men who experience combat together is, for example, well-documented. Does this fall into the same category as love based on same-sex attraction? Is any and every experience or commendation of ‘same gender’ love an argument for ‘same sex’ attraction of the kind Jeffrey John advocates in Permanent, Faithful, Stable? Whatever happened, we may ask, to CS Lewis’s discernment of ‘four loves’?

The Bishop’s treatment of the love between Jesus and John is similarly as inadequate as it is incomplete. We are told that the beloved disciple reclined against Jesus’ bosom (Jn 13:23), but then so did the deceased Lazarus with Abraham (Lk 16:22-23), just as the Bishop acknowledges Jesus was in the Father’s bosom (Jn 1:18). The clear lack of a sexual component in the latter two examples cannot be glossed over as irrelevant when the whole issue is to do with sexuality.

Of course John loved Jesus in a way that was, as the Bishop puts it, “spiritual, emotional and physical”. But without a connection being made between that and the issues of same-sex relationships currently dividing the Anglican Communion it is a conclusion awaiting an application.

The problem, as the Bishop must know, is that there are those who are quite prepared to complete the move he begins: who will not only place the knight firmly on the square marked ‘same-sex relationships’ but who intend to move it on from there across the whole inclusivist board.

By insisting that the relationships between David and Jonathan and Jesus and John have direct bearing on discussion about human sexuality, without answering the essential question about what kind of relationships they were, the Bishop has, sadly, done a disservice to the debate.

Revd John P Richardson
5 February 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Peter O, Poppy Tupper, et al, please see (and apply) the comments policy.

  2. Peter Ould (who is post-gay) has an interesting take on the Bishop's essay at


    Chris Bishop

  3. Mine is rather different - but I think worth considering.

    The fact is that JJ has moved away from an Ugley position on this matter, in both senses of the word....


    Mike Homfray

  4. His first point is "the authoritative Biblical emphasis upon the uniqueness of marriage as a divine ordinance for the ordering of human society and the nurture of children." As long as he takes is four points as listed in order of importance he is moving the debate on to the application of scripture with greater love. If his 4 principles are equal they are likely to lead to deadlock. This is not the last word but a first word pointing Lasmbeth towards a fruitful discussion rather than the feared slanging match.

    David Hey
    West Yorkshire

  5. I guess it's also worth bearing in mind that David is not just "some bloke" Jonathan was friends with, he was the Christ - God's anointed. Jonathan's devotion and commitment to David might therefore not necessarily be intended as a model for same-sex love, but for Christian devotion to Jesus. Worth considering?

    Sam Allberry, Oxford

  6. David Hey, thanks for your comment. However, I'm not sure that the Bishop's first point is quite the anchor you take it to be - nor even perhaps the anchor he meant it to be.

    He writes, "The first point of the quadrilateral is to recognise the authoritative Biblical emphasis upon the uniqueness of marriage as a divine ordinance for the ordering of human society and the nurture of children."

    This looks sound. But actually I could affirm it even if I were entirely 'revisionist' in my view of sexuality. 'Revisionists' in the Anglican Communion happily affirm that the Bible is authoritative. As to the 'uniqueness' of marriage, marriage is 'unique' in that it is not, for example, a civil partnership - it has its own distinctive character. And, yes, it is "a divine ordinance for the ordering of human society and the nurture of children" - but who says it has to be the exclusive social arrangement? We accept singleness, we allow fostering - why not civil partners who foster children?

    So the Bishop's first point is not a bastion for a Conservative (re-assertive) view - though he may well have thought it was.

  7. Merseymike, thanks for your link - a very interesting insight, especially your conclusion: "Unless he was open to the possibility of embracing change, then he wouldn't be suggesting this as a way forward. That doesn't mean that he necessarily fully embraces it himself, though.
    Not yet, anyway. But he has moved."

    Obviously I will have a different 'take' on this than yours!

  8. John,

    I almost fell off my chair last night when I came accross the Guardian article. Your use of a knight to analyse the bishop's writing is terrific. It seems to me that his language of pausing and refraining from answering questions is not a reasonable thing to be saying when this issue has been talked about for so long. There is a point in time when it is wise to refrain from speaking certainty- but there also comes a point when failing to draw certain conclusions is itself pastorally harmful. This knight's move is not harmless. Peter Sanlon, Cambridge

  9. Someone else sent me this e-mail, which I think merits a 'post':

    How quaint that the Revd JP Richardson should use the metaphor of a knight's move in chess to describe a complex theological proposition. Sounds a little bit militaristic to me, and I'm sure Bishop Jones' book is not to be compared with a parlour game.

    The problem here, I suspect, is that most of us are prone to dodgy
    'moves' in our urge to prove our own point (even in theology). In the meantime, the real world suffers from a distinct lack of charity from that segment of the Church that professes to follow in the footsteps of Christ, while yet ignoring the implications of his New Commandment - to love - as in 'agape').

    Perhaps the good bishop is just trying to imply that we are not capable of assessing the quality of love that one person has for another person - except we be that person.

    I can quite see that the 'ugleyvicar' web-site does carry a rather unfortunate logo, which rather militates against the points John is trying to make (suggestion: try changing it to 'lovelyvicar' it might get better noticed).

    Father Ron, Christchurch, NZ