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Great Truths, Great Division

Editors’ Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas’ piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. 

By H. O. ‘Tom’ Thomas

Some call it ‘The Great Schism’.  At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’).    Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life?  I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate.  It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split.  Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.

Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two:  territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic.  Both sides were readied for armed warfare.   They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.

‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’.  The presenting issue was serious enough in itself.  However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’.  Over this alone the Church might not have split.  Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.  These truths constitute Christianity.  They could not be compromised!  They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.

As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up.   Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today.  It’s a serious issue in and of itself.  However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church.  I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends.  Under no circumstances can they be compromised!  If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls.  I ask myself, I ask you:  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!

The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’.  An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin.  Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance).  These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God.  Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God.  The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther.  Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity.  What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God?  How can I be forgiven my sin?   What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God?  What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven?  The Church? The Pope?  Or Jesus Christ alone?

The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches.  This alone is serious enough.  Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials.  I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.

(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary.  Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did:  ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8).  One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin.  One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.

You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace.  You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.

No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’.  “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation.  ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons.  All are included.  No one is excluded.  Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone.  He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation.  Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’.   Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today.  The offshoot takes us to the root.  We are not at the periphery.  We are at the heart.  Without this, there is no Christianity!

(2)  The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth:  the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation.  What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation?  Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture.   The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities:  Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries.  These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.

The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’.  Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture.  Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play.  They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus.  That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself:  human beings.  On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture.  We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!

(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue:  does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience?  This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive.  On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church.  They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church.  The same act is both good and evil.  This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.

We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful.  God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love.  God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order.  Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism.  Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’.  Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.

This is wrongheaded.  This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity.  If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows.  ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false.  ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true.  By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people.   The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false.  If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view.  They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong!  In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption.  They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing:  homosexual practice is sin and wrong.

Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church?  Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity.  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?

 

Image: By Anton von Werner – https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320

Twilight Musings: “Gender Benders”

by Elton Higgs  

The worldwide Women’s Marches earlier this year brought to the fore once more the tangled morass of arguments and battles about sexuality launched in the 1960s.  Marchers interviewed by the news media were eager to assert that the marches were not just about women’s rights per se, but about justice in all matters pertaining to freedom of choice and equality of opportunity.  They did not want anybody’s identity to be determined by anything other than each person’s self-definition.  There is certainly some common sense to the principle of equal opportunity and not being defined by incidental characteristics.  Indeed, as Christians we are taught that we are all one before God, to be valued by each other as each of us is by God, without regard to race, gender, or socio-economic standing.  But the current militant arguments on gender turn back on themselves and involve unrealized—or at least unacknowledged—contradictions, because their proponents are sometimes zealots for radical free will and at other times fervent determinists.

The early 20th century granting of voting rights for women gave women a formal voice in the shaping of social and political policy, a privilege which was used to protest against all other forms of discrimination against women.  Western women had their boundaries of activity in society further expanded by being called to work in factories during two world wars in the 20th century.  Added to that, WW I signaled the deliverance of women from the stereotyped image of sexual innocence promoted by the Victorians, and the “Roaring Twenties” brought much license in women’s public appearance and behavior.  After a brief re-emphasis on the domesticated female in the fifties, the baby boomers of the sixties took full advantage of the availability of “the pill” to promote sexual freedom, which enabled women to experience full sexual expression without the “threat” of being taken out of circulation by pregnancy.  With the reproductive handicap removed, feminists at this point were able to argue that traditional sexual roles are not biologically determined, but are merely the cultural constructs of self-interested and self-perpetuating patriarchal power.  And if the biology of sexual identity is incidental rather than essential, people are free to decide for themselves how their sexual roles are to be defined.  Sexual identity is determined by what one wills it to be, not by biology at birth.

It’s obviously a short and seemingly logical step from this position to what we have seen in the latest stages of this sexual revolution: if one’s sexual orientation or desire is contrary to his/her biological identity, what of it?  Biology is incidental, so if I choose to follow an inclination to be other than what my biology implies, and I decide to form a sexual union with someone of my own gender, or even to change my gender, it is my right to follow my own willed sexual path.  The irony of ending up here, of course, is that homosexual militants insist that they are born with the sexual orientation that they identify with, so they should be allowed to accept the way they were born and not be told that it ought to be otherwise.  (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same deterministic principle doesn’t apply to one’s biological sexual identity?)  Which is it to be, choice and willed action, or submission to destiny and predetermining influences?

The most recent militant push for self-defined sexual identity, the supposed right of individuals to decide their proper gender for themselves, abandons even the pretense of logic.  This project assumes that it is an individual’s right to force other people to act toward them in complete acceptance of a self-defined, counter-physical gender identity, so that they are allowed to mix with the biologically opposite sex in the most intimate of public places, the restrooms.   (Those who have gone through medical gender-change are a different matter, practically speaking, although their situation still involves moral questions to be dealt with.)

Ironically, all of this sophistry, by seeking to erode common-sense methods of determining gender, threatens to destroy true liberty rather than to expand it.  If there is any real “freedom to choose” in human beings, it does not consist merely of an anarchy of possibilities that creates infinite islands of individuality.  Rather, the power of choice enables meaningful directions of the will toward participation in a world ordered by both natural and moral law.  Just as the scientist works in the context of a natural order that sets boundaries to what he concludes from his research, so are there necessary boundaries to defining who we are and deciding how we ought to conduct ourselves.  Desire and preference are not self-validating reasons for rejecting those boundaries, nor will they change the disruptive consequences of non-bounded choices.

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight Musings: “Women – Paragons or Pariahs?”

 

By Elton Higgs 

One way of describing the Fall is to say that Eve and Adam “bit off more than they could chew.”  They plunged into territory that they were utterly unable to cope with, and the end of their escapade had terrible consequences for all their descendants.  On a much smaller scale, one which I trust will cost my children nothing, I may nevertheless be “biting off more than I can chew” in trying to explain why, in the Bible and in Western culture, the depictions of the extremes of both virtue and perversity tend to cast them in feminine form.

The subject came up with my wife and me one morning as she was reading the description of the Great Whore of Babylon in Rev. 18.  “Why does this symbol of consummate corruption have to be a woman?” she asked.  That got us both to thinking of other feminine figures in Scripture which were seen in terms like those applied to the girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme: “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid!”  In just the book of Proverbs, we have the figure of the Seductive Adultress (Prov. 7), followed by Wisdom pictured as a woman (Prov. 8:1-9:12), followed in her turn by the woman Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  In the succeeding chapters of Proverbs (as well as in Ecclesiastes), women are repeatedly seen in a negative light, so much that one is tempted to label Solomon a misogynist.  But in the last chapter of the book we have described the Excellent Wife, who is distinguished by her selfless service to her family, praised by her husband and her children.  And to balance out Solomon’s sour view of woman as sexually threatening, we have the idealized sensuality of the Song of Solomon.

This deeply ambivalent view of womanhood is reflected in the New Testament as well.  Over against the Whore of Babylon is the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is chosen among all women to bear God’s Son, and who, in one tradition of Christianity came to be venerated as the paragon of all virtues.  Paul, when he wants to portray the church as perfected in Christ, describes her as “holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27); and this picture is reinforced in the very book that presents the Whore of Babylon, as the New Jerusalem descends from Heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).  But Paul also refers to Eve as the archetypal “original sinner,” because of which she is to be in submission to men in general and to their husbands in particular.  In this passage and elsewhere, women are cautioned against using adornment to get attention, but are admonished to distinguish themselves by “good works” and to let their “adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands,  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.   And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (I Pet. 3:4-6).

So here’s the part where I may have bitten off more than I can chew.  The alternate demonization and idealization of women in the Bible seems to come down to what appears to moderns as blatant sexism. Why should women on the one hand be seen in a worse light than men (the cause of the Fall, sexually dangerous and tainted ) and on the other hand be exalted in impossibly idealized ways (Lady Wisdom, the Perfect Wife, analogous to the Bride of Christ).  I think a possible answer lies (paradoxically) in the very passages that, on the surface, seem to demonize women.

The penalties imposed by God on Adam and Eve are different in ways that can be interpreted as gender-oriented, with the woman’s pain in childbirth and her being ruled over by her husband being consequences with sexual overtones.  In contrast, Adam’s penalty was focused on making difficult for him the task of providing food for his family, including the children that Eve would bear in pain.  The beginning of Eve’s life as a fallen creature established the precarious relationship between the sexes that all humanity has experienced since the expulsion from the Garden.  No longer was the couple’s sexual relationship natural and equal, but problematic.  First is the paradox that the natural result of intercourse would be pregnancy culminating in painful and perhaps dangerous birth, a situation which increases the dependence of the woman on her husband, while also increasing the responsibility of the man to provide for her and the children.  But with the birth of children came also a reward for the woman: through nursing the children she discovered a kind of intimacy with them that was denied the man; an intimacy that must have nourished a love that overcame any bitterness that she might have experienced at being punished by God through the pain of childbearing.

Which leads us to the enigmatic statement by Paul about the connection between Eve’s being the first to sin and her being “saved through childbearing,” if she endures it “in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”  There is reflected here a potential of experience and character development that is greater and more subtle than the opportunities available to men.  It is commonplace to speak of women as natural nurturers, and though it can become a facile stereotype, there is deep truth to it as well, and in that truth lies perhaps some explanation of why extremes of virtue and vice are so often presented in feminine form.  Generally speaking, women have a greater range of moral potential than do men, because they are more vulnerable to suffering, which is the chief developer of moral character.  Pain in childbearing is symbolic of this vulnerability, and it is further manifested in a woman’s dependence on her husband (as mentioned in Gen. 3), and to some extent in her dependency on men in general.  A woman’s nurturing potential finds its most profound expression in birthing and breast feeding a child, but not every woman has to give birth in order to be saved, and there are other ways of manifesting the inborn instincts for nurturing that have to be consciously cultivated by men.  There can be no greater model for God’s love and willingness to sacrifice for a greater good than the love and nurturing that a woman is especially called to; and by the same token, there is no more monstrous a perversion than a woman who has gone against all her nurturing instincts and has hardened herself to all mercy and tenderness.  Thus the tendency toward polarization between feminine-based idealization and feminine-based demonization.

That’s as much as I know to say, but I feel I’m still chewing on the cud in this matter.

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week’s podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Image: “Icarus.” by Rogério Timóteo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icarus..jpg#/media/File:Icarus..jpg

The Humanity of Jesus: A Response to Brandon Ambrosino

By Gary Yates

Like other evangelicals, I appreciate the candor and forthrightness of Brandon Ambrosino’s article “The Best Christian Argument for Marriage Equality Is That the Bible Got It Wrong” in recognizing the problems with revisionist arguments that the Bible condones or affirms same-sex relationships. He further recognizes the unlikelihood that Jesus as a first-century Jew would have approved of such relationships, but he also argues that Jesus’ commitment to male-female complementarity is not binding on followers of Jesus today, because “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.”

The purpose of this response is to specifically address whether Ambrosino’s understanding of the limitations of Jesus’ knowledge fits within an orthodox view of the humanity of Jesus, as he has suggested. I am not writing this response as a personal attack on Brandon and felt compelled to respond in part because of some of the less-than-kind responses I saw in social media yesterday. I do not know Brandon personally, but have had some interaction with him as a student at Liberty, and I hope my response reflects a proper sense of grace and humility, in spite of the fact that I strongly disagree with his conclusions concerning the nature of Christ’s humanity. I am far more concerned with the issues raised in the article of how we view Jesus and respond to his teachings and will not be treating the larger issues relating to the biblical teaching on same-sex relationships that are found elsewhere.

The Gospels present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others.
Ambrosino is certainly on the right track in asking his readers to reflect on the implications of a human Jesus who learned and processed new information like any other human as he progressed from infancy to adulthood. Luke 2:40 states that Jesus “grew in wisdom” like any other human being. In his book Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Chris Wright makes the point that Jesus’ reading of the Hebrew Bible informed his understanding as a human of his mission and calling.

It is another thing entirely, however, to then make the argument that Ambrosino does that “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.” Ambrosino qualifies his own statement when he writes, “Jesus is, in many senses, limited by the first century.” His lack of precision here raises the issue whether he believes Jesus is fully limited to what was knowable in the first century or if he is only “limited in many senses.” If he is arguing the former, his argument is problematic for an orthodox view of Christ. If Jesus as the perfect and unfallen human did not progress in his understanding of the world around him beyond that of his contemporaries, he certainly made poor use of his unfallen intellectual capacities. If Jesus did not progress beyond first-century understandings of a culture living under the noetic effects of the Fall, then it also seems difficult to merely believe that Jesus was just a guy “who was wrong about stuff.” This view of the humanity of Jesus seems to require one to believe that Jesus also held to beliefs, practices, and prejudices that were sinful and evil in the eyes of the Creator.

The Gospels clearly reveal a human Jesus whose knowledge had certain limitations. In the Incarnation, the Son of God surrendered the independent use of his divine attribute of omniscience, and thus he states that “only the Father in heaven knows the hour of his return” at the second coming (Matt 24:34). Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus had limited knowledge concerning the timing of the second coming does not mean that the other information he reveals concerning eschatological events is invalid, and it is wrong to infer from Matt 24:34 that Jesus was “horribly mistaken about the end of the world” or that Jesus’ predictions concerning the end-time events constitute an example of “failed prophecy.” Why would failure to know the exact timing of an event invalidate the entire prophecy?

If Ambrosino is arguing that Jesus was “horribly mistaken” because of the way in which he conflated events from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE with his second coming, then he would have to say the same about virtually all eschatological prophecies found in the Scriptures that combine near and far events in precisely the same manner as Jesus did. The fact that Jesus views Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” as yet future despite its connections to what had happened historically with Antiochus and the Jews in the second-century BCE suggests that he would intend his prophecy of future events to be read in the same way. Or, one could simply argue for a more figurative understanding of the prophecies in Matthew 24, which also would not require one to conclude that Jesus’ prophecies were false or mistaken.

The implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.
The Gospels present a different portrait of the human Jesus than the one offered by Ambrosino. They present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others. Already at the age of twelve, he has knowledge of the Scriptures that confounds the religious authorities, and he has a deeper understanding of his mission, calling, and unique relationship with God than do his parents. He has knowledge of the thoughts, intentions, and motives of the individuals he interacts with at times that clearly goes beyond psychological insight (cf. Mark 2:8; 10:52; Luke 5:22; John 1:4-49; 2:24-25).

As others have noted, the use of questions, such as “Who touched me?” does not necessarily entail a lack of knowledge (cf. Gen 3:9). Jesus accurately predicts his rejection, the defection of his disciples including Peter’s three denials, his death, resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem, and his second coming. At the very least, he speaks with the revelatory insight of a true prophet. The clearest indication that Jesus was much more than a product of his first-century environment was how his view of his mission as Israel’s messiah radically conflicted with contemporary expectations. If the Gospel witness is true, then Jesus combined the roles of Davidic messiah, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Daniel’s heavenly “son of man” in ways that were unique in perspective and novel for his day.

Even viewing Jesus as an inspired prophet creates significant problems for the argument that Jesus’ affirmation of “male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement” or his likely agreement “with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin” is merely the product of being first-century Jewish male. As Robert Gagnon has already noted:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

If Jesus as God’s supremely-anointed spokesman simply defaulted to a first-century Jewish understanding when teaching on something as vitally important as the marriage relationship, then it raises serious questions about his credibility as both prophet and son of God. Ambrosino himself acknowledges that Jesus challenged current Jewish thinking regarding lust, adultery, and divorce, but perhaps Jesus simply did not go far enough in jettisoning his first-century worldview.

Should we view his teaching on adultery as antiquated because it was based on the belief that the woman was the property of her husband or should we abandon insistence on the duality of the marriage relationship because it was based upon the literalistic reading of the story of Adam and Eve that prevailed in Jesus’ day? What other issues related to Christian life and practice that the teaching of Jesus bears on should be subjected to the same type of scrutiny? If Jesus’ practice of casting out demons was merely the product of a pre-modern understanding of physical and mental illness, does it invalidate the gospel message that Jesus came to destroy the power of Satan and evil? To what extent do antiquated Jewish views of blood sacrifice and atonement influence Jesus’ understanding of his death as a “ransom for many”? These questions are not easily answered, but the implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.

A significant piece of Ambrosino’s argument is that he equates Jesus’ teaching on male-female complementarity in marriage with his affirmation of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is problematic for several reasons. He engages in a bit of “chronological snobbery” in thinking that the non-or post-Mosaic materials in the Torah that are so evident to us courtesy of critical biblical scholarship would not have at least raised questions for even a first-century thinking individual like Jesus who was not simply constrained by tradition in his beliefs. If Jesus could quote Deuteronomy three times when under the duress of temptation from Satan in the wilderness, he might have at least pondered once or twice how Moses could speak of Israel having a king (Gen 36:31) or why Moses wrote the account of his own death in Deuteronomy 34. If I can figure it out and Brandon can figure it out, then I expect that Jesus was intelligent enough to do the same.

The larger issue is that what Jesus means by attributing the law to Moses is a complex issue. As Ambrosino acknowledges, Jesus’ references “to the Torah with the shorthand ‘Moses’ is hardly proof-positive that Jesus was wrong about the books’ provenance (many scholars refer to the books metonymically).” Was Jesus merely using a form of citation or was he accommodating himself to current Jewish belief? Was Jesus saying that Moses wrote every word and verse in the Torah, or was he attributing Mosaic authority to the whole of the Torah? Ambrosino is correct to argue that a literalistic reading of the words of Jesus as proof that Moses wrote every word of the Torah is wrong, but incorrect inferences from the words of Jesus do not mean that Jesus himself was wrong. Even with prophetic updating, revision, or expansion of an original core of Mosaic material (or a core of material originally attributed to Moses), there is nothing untruthful or misguided in Jesus attributing the law to Moses. Ambrosino’s argument that this proves Jesus “got stuff wrong” goes beyond what is really here.

Finally, Ambrosino’s argument that Jesus’ incorrect attribution of the law to Moses because of first-century Jewish beliefs makes it likely Jesus was also wrong in affirming Jewish beliefs in male-female complementarity as normative for marriage fails because it compares apples and oranges. Ambrosino’s argument rests upon the same rather simplistic understanding of what is meant by “inerrancy” as the literalists he seeks to refute. Even if conceding the possibility or likelihood that Jesus believed that Moses wrote all of the Torah, the attribution of authorship is simply not the same kind of truth claim as the normative teaching of Jesus on marriage. In their 2013 work, The Lost World of Scripture, John Walton and Brent Sandy have advanced the discussion of biblical inerrancy by distinguishing between “locution” and “illocution” in biblical texts:

The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical questions, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). (p. 41)

Further, Walton and Sandy argue that doctrinal affirmations of inspiration and inerrancy attach to the illocution of the text and what is intended by the communicative act rather than requiring the truthfulness of every locution in the text. Whether the mustard seed really is the smallest seed is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the illocution concerning the kingdom of God conveyed by Jesus’ words about the mustard seed. Similarly, the locution of attributing authorship to Moses could be a culturally-bound perspective, but the illocution of ascribing prophetic and divine authority to the Torah is truthful and inspired.

Whether one agrees with every aspect of this view of inerrancy or not or whether one believes that a human Jesus could have believed that something was untrue or not, this explanation helps in part to demonstrate the problem with Ambrosino’s argument. One cannot simply equate an attribution of authorship in one text with normative teaching on marriage in another text. In both cases, the illocution of what Jesus proclaims (prophetic authority of the Torah and male-female complementarity in marriage) is truthful and authoritative for followers of Jesus. One can choose to believe that Jesus was wrong in one or both cases, but one cannot reject the teaching of Jesus in either instance within the boundaries of orthodoxy as easily or comfortably as Ambrosino suggests.

 

Image: Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 3)

By Chad Thornhill 

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[1] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.
If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.

Notes: 

[1] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

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The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 2)

By Chad Thornhill 

Part 1

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[1] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[2]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.


 Notes:

[1] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

 

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The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 1)

By Chad Thornhill 

Part 2

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Notes:                                                                                                          

[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/october/1.10.html and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/08/04/gay-christian-celibate-the-changing-face-of-the-homosexuality-debate/33482 and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/28/evangelical-leader-russell-moore-denounces-ex-gay-therapy/.

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/same-sex-attraction-and-the-inevitability-of-change.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologyintheraw/2015/04/the-sin-of-homosexuality/

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Pornography: A Dangerous Deception

 

By Joshua Herring

On April 26, the Wall Street Journal Business section offered a new prophecy: Robot Sex! Sex Therapist Laura Berman predicts that technology will enable cheap but fulfilling robotic sex, conception of children without physical touching, and chemical drugs to allow for the experience of more pleasure.

While on the one hand I am surprised the Wall Street Journal would print onanistic meanderings fit only for the trashiest of sci-fi novels, I think this article illustrates the dangerous deception of pornography and its ability to sever us from our own humanity. Pornography could be condemned on many grounds, but I want to consider the possibility that porn poses a subtle danger, causing us to value pleasure over love, solitude over community, and the present over a lifetime.

St. Augustine argued in his City of God that the quest for human happiness has everything to do with rightly ordered love. When we situate the love of God in its proper place, followed by love of neighbor and other subordinate categories, we find the best opportunity for human flourishing. When we displace our loves, perhaps elevating lust over relationships, Augustine argues that we will find our lives filled with dissatisfaction.

This understanding of life as a constant evaluation, or searching the heart for what it should value to the proper extent, goes against our 21st century eroticized culture. Media—including film, television, and music stars—upholds a certain vision of the good life consisting of ever-more exotic sexual experiences producing happiness. Pornography—by which I mean the print, internet, and video aspects displaying sexuality through a mediated form intended to stimulate lust—falls under a certain teleology of sexuality with devastating consequences.

With the advent of the birth control pill, it became possible to sever sexuality from children. Certain strands of Christianity, primarily Catholic, immediately objected to this severing, claiming that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. Most low-church denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, either dodged the moral questions raised by birth control or formulated a different argument: the purpose of sex is pleasure between spouses. Married couples can then make the decision about whether or not to have children. American culture at large accepted the pill with excitement, rushing onward to the Sexual Revolution. For many people, concerns about the purpose of sex paled in comparison to the pleasure of consequence-free intercourse.

If the purpose of sex is pleasure alone, then pornography is an acceptable route to that goal, as it provides pleasurable mental and physical stimulation. Berman’s sex-bots are merely the next logical extension of this pursuit. If, however, the purpose of sex is something different, then it merits further consideration. Sexual intercourse brings together two human beings—male and female—and permits them to mingle, creating the opportunity for new life. This is a profoundly human moment, where two separate consciousnesses, two souls, mix physically and, in their unity, could produce another human soul. If this is the purpose of sexuality, then pornography becomes far more dangerous.

The ancient Greeks had a concept of sin drawn from an archery metaphor. Hamartia, translated as sin, originally described an archer who missed the target. He aimed at a bird, and hit the tree. If the goal of sexual intercourse is the mingling of two persons, then pornography causes one individual to miss the mark. In gazing at the sex act through a mediated lens, whether paper, ink, or a screen, the impulse that should move an isolated individual to form a micro-community causes him to dwell in solitude. The dangerous part, however, is that the deeper into a pornographic habit one goes, the further he is from the target of human community.

Pornography exacts a price; it changes the way a viewer sees the other sex, and it ingrains a habit of self-gratification within the heart. Where sexual intercourse calls for serving the partner in love, pornography produces the illusion that selfish viewing gives greater joy than actual intercourse. To maintain the illusion, the viewer continues in search of ever deeper, more depraved depictions of sexuality. Perhaps the saddest result comes when one who has spent years viewing pornography comes to the bed with a lover and expects sex to be what he has seen and imagined. Sex can be fantastic, but a real sexual relationship takes time, effort, love, commitment, and service. These capacities have been stripped from the pornography viewer’s expectations of sexuality.

Here then is the subtle lie of pornography. It promises satisfaction, but strips one’s ability to appreciate the real thing. It upholds a cheap pleasure as the highest good, removing one’s ability to recognize that children and a loving marriage are infinitely more valuable than orgasm alone.

It reminds me of the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable of a son who has it all, but takes his inheritance and parties it away in the city. After experiencing his epiphany in a pigsty, the most morally reprehensible place for a good Jewish boy, he poignantly recognizes his need for repentance. The danger of pornography is that it trains the one in the pigsty to mistake it for a grand mansion with capacious and ever expanding rooms. Uncovering the deception involves retraining the heart and the eyes to appreciate real love, and place that love in the proper order.

Stories of men and women who have reached the other side of a pornography addiction abound. One of the most well-written of these accounts comes from Erica Garza who tells her story in “Tales of a Female Sex Addict.” By the end of her article, Garza finds hope. Her story reveals the depths of pornographic depravity, but also the existence of the human soul.

As humans, we exist as body and soul. Sexuality is a point where our dual-nature combines in a mixture of desire and expression. The desire for intimacy and relationship reveals humans as more than just physical creatures. If we were only bodily creatures, then physical satisfaction of our physical longings would be sufficient. Pornography feeds this desire. Without the spiritual component of human relationship, however, we create a raging monster of lust within ourselves. Rooting sexuality within marriage, aimed at the teleology of children, satisfies our creational design as body-soul, mortal-eternal beings.

Sexual expression has always been an area of problematization, worthy of contemplation; this is an important question to get right. At stake is our ability to love other human beings, to see in them an image of the Creator worthy of love, sacrifice, respect, and honor.

The hope of joy in this life rides on recognizing pornography not as a harmless habit, something all guys will do, but as a deadly deception which retrains the heart to be nothing but an engine of lust. We are more than bodies with pleasure centers. We are embodied creatures with eternal souls, “designed to live in community,” to quote Aristotle. We live in a deceptive age, in which pornography is held out with the promise of joy but leaves us holding the ashes of our hope.

 

Image: “Unmasked” by JD Hancock. CC License. 

Biblical Ethics and Moral Order in Creation

By Andrew J. Spencer

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics as a close second. In addition to blogging at www.EthicsAndCulture.com, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

With the constant press of present troubles, it is easy to forget the simple truth that our contemporary cultural concerns are not all there is. As we look for somewhere to anchor our ethics, it is easier to pursue fashionable schemes than to look for simple explanations in ancient books. It is easier, but often less helpful.

Oliver O’Donovan’s ethics, founded on the biblical storyline, are some of the most helpful for moving readers outside of their cultural context. Though his reasoning is nuanced, the basic principles of his ethics are simple. Ethics is founded on the objective reality in the created order. This order was distorted when Adam chose to sin. The resurrection of Christ began the process of renewal that will eventually restore all of creation to its objective, undistorted goodness.

We live in the time between the beginning of the restoration and the complete renewal of all things. As Christians, we stand with one foot in the fallen world and the other foot poised to step over the threshold into complete renewal. We have certain hope in the coming restoration, but equal certainty of the sinfulness of the world.

Ethics must continually seek to identify the order and coherence with which the world was created. This reveals the reality of the Creator and uncovers the way we should live within creation. Since the created order has been distorted by sin, special revelation––i.e., Scripture––is necessary to point us toward an undistorted moral order.

One of the most dangerous and popular fallacies, or logical errors, is the “naturalistic fallacy.” By definition, the naturalistic fallacy is improper reasoning from the way things are to the way things ought to be. For example, if most teenagers smoke, then it is morally acceptable for teenagers to smoke.

Using the example of smoking, which has been demonized by our culture, this fallacy seems unrealistic. However, if the example is shifted to pre-marital sex, its explanatory power is better revealed. According to the naturalistic fallacy, if many people engage in pre-marital sex, then it must be morally acceptable to engage in pre-marital sex. A logical corollary to this is that those who oppose engaging in pre-marital sex are either sexually repressive or even morally evil for opposing something that has been determined to be morally acceptable.

These conclusions stand in contrast to the traditional Christian perspective, as revealed through Scripture, that sex is designed to occur within marriage. However, this sort of faulty reasoning is common in contemporary ethical debates on issues well beyond sexuality. It is also trapped in a vision of ethics that assumes that morality is determined by social acceptance, rather than an objective standard. In other words, societal norms can be based on a statistical evaluation of present practice, without considering the true nature of the common good.

O’Donovan’s pursuit of an objective moral order that reflects the unchanging character of God frees us from the tyranny of contemporary trends and provides a way of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy. Although it does not rely on proof texts, it is profoundly biblical as it explains why Scripture is an absolute necessity for ethics and shows how Scripture should be applied to ethics.

For example, if an unchanging God created all things in a particular manner that was morally good, then it stands to reason there is a specific way of living that is consistent with that original ordering. That way of living would be an objective, moral good.

However, the status of the created order as morally good leads to a question as to why things are out of line with that moral good. The answer lies in the pages of Scripture, as Genesis 3 informs us that Adam chose to defy God’s command by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This set in motion the disordering of the created order. Humans became sinners and creation itself was put out of line with its original moral goodness.

Thankfully, God didn’t simply leave creation in its distorted state, but he set in motion his plan to restore it all. The resurrection of Christ punctuates that plan, as an exclamation point that points toward the complete restoration of the moral goodness of the created order. The resurrection event reveals the future renewal, but it also exposes the reality of the present disordering. No mere human action could restore the creation to its original moral goodness, it required the death of God himself in Jesus Christ.

In other words, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are key events in ethics because they explode the myth that things are the way they ought to be. Instead, the radical distortion of creation set in motion by Adam’s sin needed a second Adam, who lived without sin, to set it right. However, to know this, we must have it revealed to us in Scripture.

All of this is freeing as we engage in moral reasoning. Instead of determining what laws should be passed based on current trends in popular opinion, we are freed to look for patterns that promote the common good and are as consistent as possible with the original, objective ordering of creation. While others may reject our proposals and indict us for not applying their reasoning, we can humbly pursue actions that best reflect the restoration of the created order that will come at Christ’s return.

The biblical pattern, built upon the objectivity of the created order and the resurrection of Christ, enables a Christian to seek a timeless ethics, rather than one driven by the winds of contemporary culture concerns.

Image: “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. By Alexander Ivanov. CC License.