Questions of gender and sexuality are polarising the reading of the Bible: “It seems that we are able to negotiate on anything but that”

Any reading of the Bible is always selective: the more political the agenda, the more biased the reading, says Professor Martti Nissinen. According to the researcher, ideals of gender equality have met with surprising resistance within some circles interpreting the Bible.

At the moment, conservative voices in Bible studies are prominent both in Finland and elsewhere, which has been a surprise to many. This is the opinion of Martti Nissinen, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology.

“Language that undermines gender equality is typical of both populists and religious conservatives around the world. While not all conservative Christians are populists, the proliferation of populist rhetoric has given conservative readings of the Bible a boost,” he says.

In the context of biblical studies, Nissinen defines conservatism as seeking to interpret the Bible literally. Generally speaking, conservatism is an ideology or trend that is resistant to change while supporting traditional norms.

“In public discussion, a conservative reading of the Bible is always more prominent if people at the top of society endorse it. In Finland, it’s a powerful signal for someone like Päivi Räsänen, a member of Parliament in the Christian Democrat party, to publicly state she bases her opinions on the Bible.

Now in late 2019, two public statements by Räsänen are under preliminary investigation for hate speech. One case focuses on Räsänen’s written statement on sexuality and marriage in the context of church and social policy, titled “Mieheksi ja naiseksi hän heidät loi” (“Male and female created he them”). The statement was published by Luther Foundation Finland in 2004. The other investigation targets Räsänen’s tweet in which she criticised the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland to become an official partner of Helsinki Pride.

Both investigations are based on allegations that Räsänen’s statements were derogatory towards homosexuals in a way that disrespects their human dignity. Räsänen has denied the claims and considers her statements to be covered by her freedom of religion. She has refused to amend her statements even if convicted of hate speech.

According to Nissinen, most people do not approve of using the Bible in this fashion. Conservative readings of the Bible have relatively few supporters.

“People react strongly to these things, and it often leads to large numbers leaving the church in waves,” the professor points out.

Attitudes towards sexuality and gender are key

Kanye West, the rapper, holds weekly religious services. The singer Justin Bieber was baptised in the bathtub of basketball star Tyson Chandler.  Lately, the media has been full of stories on the religious conversions of celebrities.

Typically the growth of charismatic evangelical megachurches, which originate in the US, has boosted conservative readings of the Bible. Charismatic movements emphasise the significance and impact of the Holy Spirit, while the evangelicalism highlights the personal experience of faith and the Bible as an absolute authority. Such megachurches exist in the Americas and Africa.

“American evangelicals have considerable visibility and power,” Nissinen points out. “Their interpretations of the Bible differ, but conservative voices are usually the only ones heard.”

According to Nissinen, the most crucial test of the new charismatic movements is their attitude towards sexual ethics – for example, who is allowed to be in a relationship with whom and what the limits of acceptable sexuality are. The professor believes that ideals of gender equality are currently facing exceptionally strong opposition in biblical interpretation.

“In the reading of the Bible in today’s world, there is a particularly strong polarisation regarding all issues surrounding gender. It seems that we are able to negotiate on anything but that. Take the fact that 80% of American evangelicals support Trump. We could ask whether the things Trump says and does, or the way he comports himself, reflect Christian values. They don’t, but the main issue is that evangelicals trust Trump because he says he’s against abortion.”

Traditional gender hierarchies are being disrupted – what’s next?

Even though populism and conservatism go hand in hand, Nissinen is still surprised to see the increased prominence of conservative readings of the Bible. Nissinen’s seminal book on homoeroticism in biblical times, Homoerotiikka Raamatun maailmassa, was published in 1994. The book now seems to have been ahead of its time.

“There hadn’t even been any proposals to enact marriage equality in Finland at the time. Considering that Finland didn’t decriminalise homosexual acts until 1971, the progress of gender and sexual equality has been tremendously rapid over the past few decades.” 

Could the speed of the changes explain why conservative readings of the Bible are so vehemently opposed to homosexuality and ordination of women in particular?

“I’ve thought about this often. The issue with both homosexuality and female ministry is that they disrupt the traditional gender hierarchy. There has never been such a shift in gender and sexual culture in history. This feeds into threat- and fear-based rhetoric in conservative readings,” Nissinen says.

Readings of the Bible are always selective

Nissinen is an internationally acclaimed Bible scholar. His specialities are ancient prophecy, Assyriology and gender studies.

Nissinen would like the expertise of Bible scholars to be used more in decision-making, both inside the Evangelical Lutheran Church and throughout society.

“There is considerable demand for our work on the local level in the parishes. I would say that the decision-makers in the church are less interested in our research than the members of the congregations. Since the church bases its work on the Bible, academic Bible studies would make for a natural discussion partner in matters of scripture.”

“When we evaluate the impact of various readings of the Bible we must remember that all readings are necessarily selective. The Bible is a vast mass of text, created over centuries from separate manuscripts. During the time the Bible was created, major shifts took place in religion, culture and the text itself,” Nissinen states.

“It’s impossible to live ‘according to the Bible’ as if the Bible were a uniform and unambiguous book of law or an infallible oracle. This is why it is always important to ascertain the premise and purpose of each reading and interpretation of the Bible. There’s always an agenda behind any reading of the Bible: the more political that agenda, the more biased the reading,” he continues.

In spring 2019, Nissinen wrote an article (Vartija 3/2019) together with Päivi Vähäkangas to address their dissatisfaction of the way the Constitutional Committee of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has intentionally picked passages from the Bible that support the concept of marriage as being restricted to heterosexual unions. The Synod has a committee dedicated to ensuring that the church has sufficient theological expertise when making important decisions.

“The memorandum on marriage from the committee reads more political than theological to me. It was clearly written in an environment where two sides are fighting each other and the winning side is overruling the position of the loser. I do not consider this an appropriate way of determining the theological and scriptural basis of the concept of marriage.”

“I think the words of Jesus can be applied to the interpretation of any sacred commandment: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ Many sacred laws, commandments and principles have been venerated and applied for millennia, but they are still less important than people,” states Nissinen.

Invoking the authority of the Bible to avoid responsibility

The power dynamics of biblical readings should be recognised in all situations where the Bible has some kind of role in decision-making. This includes academic readings, says Nissinen.

“The Bible itself has no power, but people use passages from it to wield theirs. When they defer authority to the text they can avoid responsibility: ‘It’s not me, it’s God saying this’.”

“The Bible cannot speak until a person assigns meaning to the text through interpretation. The Bible isn’t a magical talisman that can make things look the way we want them to,” Nissinen quips.

According to the professor, any reading of the Bible is always accompanied by an extensive context of interpretations, making Bible readings anything but infallibly literal. Nissinen points to the passages pertaining to homosexuality as an example.

“If someone claims to be reading the passages literally, we can start off by asking which texts have been selected and on what grounds. The second question should be what modern terms and words are being used in the reading. The word ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t appear in any texts before the late 19th century.”

“And further, how are the passages placed in a concrete context? The texts of the Bible describe reality as it was 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, when gender roles were hierarchical and equality was not the political ideal. The fourth question is, what is the passage being made to address: how is it used, why, by whom and against whom?”

Nissinen considers Bible readings that justify or even demand discrimination and unequal treatment to be harmful. He calls for accountability in Bible interpretation.

“Discrimination against gender minorities in particular locks people in a space of shame. The only option given to them is to be constantly ashamed of their very existence. Stopping this from happening to anyone is my main motivation in engaging in biblical gender debates.”

Changes in sacred texts and traditions

Martti Nissinen has headed the centre of excellence Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions (CSTT) at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology since 2014. Funded by the Academy of Finland, CSTT is one of the largest biblical research units in the world.

CSTT has 50 members, of whom 37 have received a salary from the centre of excellence. The members represent ten different nationalities.

Set to conclude at the end of 2019, CSTT’s accomplishments as listed by Professor Nissinen include roughly fifty published books and 500 articles, 350 of which have been peer-reviewed. Between 2014 and 2018, CSTT researchers were interviewed in television and radio 40 times and in newspapers, 95 times. During that same period, members of the centre of excellence also gave nearly a thousand talks at international conferences as well as 124 presentations or speeches at public events.