Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Did Jesus condone homosexual sex?

The statement is often made by those that would like to revise the Church's traditional teaching on sexuality that Jesus never condemned homosexual sex.  I see a couple of weaknesses in this line of argument.

Firstly, as Nick pointed out in his letter to the Methodist Newsletter, this is an argument from silence.  There no written statement of Jesus condoning homosexual sex either  We can actually infer what Jesus thought on this issue.  As Andreas Kostenberger points out, the fact that there is no record of Jesus commenting on the subject suggests that this was not a controversial issue in first-century Palestine.  Jesus endorsed the Old Testament and claimed to be its fulfilment (Matthew 5:17).  As the fulfilment of the Mosaic law Jesus changes our relationship with it (e.g. the sacrificial system pointed to his sacrifice on the cross so it is no longer needed).  How does Jesus change our relationship with the prohibition on homosexual sex?  Presumably in the way he changes our relationship with other sexual practices, by deepening their challenge (e.g. Matthew 5:27-28).

Secondly, we must not create a hierarchy of Scripture.  Paul writes that 'all Scripture' is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16).  The fact that homosexual sex is condemned in some parts of the Bible (e.g. Genesis 19, I am aware of the revisionist interpretations of this passage and find them utterly unconvincing) and is not mentioned in other parts of the Bible is irrelevant.  This is the problem with 'Red-letter' editions that put Jesus' words in red print, as if there were a hierarchy of Scriptural revelation.  

A third point, that should be made on this issue, is that even if a genetic or hormonal explanation was proven to be a factor in homosexual orientation this would not negate Scripture's prohibition on homosexual sex.  Again Ardeas Kostenberger explains: 'even if homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, this would still not make it morally acceptable, for a genetic predisposition toward an act or behaviour can never be the proper basis for determining its moral legitimacy.'    

A few years ago Erwin McManus spoke at J.M.C.  His church attracted a number of homosexual visitors.  He welcomed them in love.  However, when he came to speak on this issue he also spoke with faithfulness.  He said to his homosexual friends, 'you know that I love you despite the fact that I don't agree with all that you believe; now I am asking you to continue to love me even though you will not agree with all I believe.'  I thought that his example was an inspiration.       


John van de Laar said...

I like that you are engaging this issue in a gracious and loving manner. It is refreshing after all the emotive rhetoric on both sides of this debate.

If I can challenge you on point 2, though. You wrote
"We must not create a hierarchy of Scripture. Paul writes that 'all Scripture' is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). I have two sets of questions. Forgive me if this comes across as seeking to "cross swords" with you. That is truly not my intention - I'm just writing as I'm thinking, and letting the questions spill out. If we were in conversation, I wouldn't just rattle off a list of questions like this, but in this forum it feels more honest to just let my thinking out there, and then let you respond as you would like. I hope that works for you, too.

1. Can you really mean that Paul was referring to his own writings when he wrote this? Was he referring to the Gospels and other books that had not yet been written? If Paul did not know, yet, about how the canon of Scripture was ultimately going to be compiled, in what way can he be taken to be referring to the canon as we know it? And, if he wasn't referring to our canon, on what basis do we use this one verse to argue against a "hierarchy" of Scripture?

2. What are the implications of embracing a non-hierarchical view of Scripture? And what are the traditional and historical precedents for such a view? Also, what would be the biblical precedents? Does not Paul select certain verses from the Old Testament as particularly useful for his purposes in his letters?

Let's take a passage like Psalm 137 as an example. We all know and respond to the early "By the rivers of Babylon" part. But can you really say that verse 9 (which rejoices at the thought of baby's heads being smashed on rocks) is of the same spiritual quality and value as Jesus preaching "blessed are the peace-makers"?

It seems to me that when Jesus said that the Scriptures point to him (John 5:39) he was creating a kind of hierarchy with himself and his teaching at the apex. I'd love to hear your response to this suggestion though, and get a better idea for how you work with the Scriptures from a completely non-hierarchical view.

Thanks again for your post. Looking forward to your input.


To whom it may concern said...

Thanks John.

I would be glad to respond to your questions as adequately as I can.

As you know there is some debate as to whether Paul includes his own writings in the statement of 2 Tim. 3:16. Even if Paul's writings are not in his mind when he writes this, the issue of homosexual sex seems to be clearly prohinited in the Old Testament. I would also want to point out that the early church gave special attention to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42), Paul gave claimed special authority for what he taught (1 Cor. 14:38) and Peter recognised Paul's writing as Scripture (3:16).

As for the various things that are said in Scripture. I would agrue for the infallibility of the Scriptural text in its original intent. By this I mean that it is God-breathed but needs to be understood in its context. For example we are told what Job's three comforters said to him, however we are not intended to take their words as being correct Given that we seek to understand the intent of what is said I would argue that it is either God-breathed or not.

As for the imprication in the Psalms. Another great point of debate. C.S. Lewis suggests that what we have here is the recorded feelings of the Psalmsist but not a direction for how we should feel. I am not convinced of this. I think that it is significant that in the impreciation of the psalms there is no hint of the psalmist taking matters into their own hands. However in both the Old and New Testament there is a cry for justice to be done (e.g. the maryrs of Rev. 6 crying out that God would avenge their blood). As hard as it may sound I think that in Psalm 137 is recalling what the Edomites and Babylonians did to them and asking that God would set the matter straight.

To whom it may concern said...

I could probably have been clearer on the thorny issue of imprecation in the psalms.

Kidner points out that there is an appeal to the 'lex talionis', which applied to legal but not personal decisions. There is the appeal that they deserve to have done to them what they have done to others. "... the New Testament replies that ultimately God will 'render to every man according to his works", but also makes it clear that wrath is only for the "hard and imenitant heart" (Rom. 2:5f).' 'So this psalm takes its place in Scripture as an impassioned protest, beyond all ignoring or toning down, not only against a particular act of cruelty but also against all comfortable views of human wickedness, either with regard to the judgement it deserves or the legacy it leaves; and not least, in relation to the cost, to God and man, of laying its emnity and bitterness to rest.'

Carson (in 'Love in Hard Places') commenting on Psalm 139, writes, ‘David seeks to align himself with God’s perspective. He chooses to hate those whom God hates . . . And even in this he is careful not to seek vengeance himself as to ask God to slay the wicked (139:19)' '...the Bible can simultaneously affirm God’s wrath toward people and his love for them: it does not intimate that God’s love and his judicial “hatred” are necessarily mutually exclusive. So why should love and hatred be exclusive in us? Even in a psalm of malediction such as Psalm 109, which is very rich in curses, the psalmist makes it clear that he has loved his enemies and prayed for them: “In return for my friendship [lit. ‘love’] they accuse me, but I am a man of prayer. They repay me evil for good, hatred for my friendship [lit. ‘love’]” (109:4-5).

Kaiser suggests Jesus has Psalm 137 in mind when he speaks in Luke 9:44. Certainly Jesus’ words are not those of petty spite, rather he spoke through tears (verse 41).

John van de Laar said...

These are awesome responses, and I agree (almost) wholeheartedly with all of your well-researched approaches to these passages. You may have noticed that I did not mention the issue of homosexuality in my comment (although I recognise that was the original intent of your post). I did that deliberately because I didn't want to cloud the question of a biblical hierarchy with this one contentious issue.

Here's my problem, though: It feels to me like all you've done is provide a good, solid, scholarly justification for your hierarchy. You haven't actually read these passages in a 'flat' non-hierarchical way. Rather, you've explained - very well, I might add - why we need to approach these passages with care, and why we need to come to grips with the authors original intent. Then, based on this, you have made a call with regard to how much or little, or in what way, these passages apply to our lives today. This is not, from my perspective, a non-hierarchical reading. On the contrary, you have clearly given more weight to some passages (and even some sections within passages) than to others.

And this is really my point. We may speak of a non-hierarchical approach to the Scriptures, but in reality, no one is capable of such a thing, and there is no one who actually practices it. It is not within our capacity to do so. So, I can't help but wonder whether we shouldn't acknowledge our need for hierarchies, and then seek to find a hierarchy that is most faithful to the Scriptural revelation. When Jesus claims to be the fulfilment of the law, and when the New Testament points to Christ as the "author and perfector of faith" I believe it does just that.

In truth, few of us would deny that in Christian exegesis and hermeneutics, as well as in praxis, we inevitably raise the level of the Gospels, and Christ's own words, above those of the Old Testament. Or do I deceive myself?

Thanks for a very helpful conversation.


To whom it may concern said...

Thanks again for your response. I am glad you are forcing me to think through this one.

I am hestitant to drop the language of non-hieracry for fear that it divides Scripture into less-inspired verses more-inspired texts. I beleive in non-hierarcy in the sense that the whole of Scripture is equally God-breathed but must be read in its original intent.

Of course original intent does mean that we differentiate between Scripture. The words of Job's three comforters do not carry equal weight as the words of Jesus. But then they were not meant to be read as such. As Christians we also read the Old Testament in light of the further revelation of the New.

I think that my problem with Red-letter editions still stands. If we accept that Paul's words are to be accepted as Scripture, and agree that the Old Testament is God-breathed (recognising that we read it with its original intent and in light of its fufilment in Christ) then we should not make it any less authoritative than the words of Christ.

Of course this will only surface as a problem if we think that there is a contradiction between what two texts say. If we are serious about the idea of divine inspiration then we will read each text in light of all the others, in the beleif that God does not contradict himself.

Hope you are having a good day,

John van de Laar said...

Thanks for your gracious response, Paul. Again, I agree with almost all of your comment.

I guess where we part ways - and where I wrestle with how your approach would work in practice - is at the point where you say the words of Christ can't be more authoritative than other parts of the Scriptures. It seems to me that if we accept Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament, then we have done this already.

I agree that each text must be interpreted in terms of the rest of Scripture (including Christ's words). This is an important and significant point that you rightly emphasize. Personally, I can't escape the feeling that the Scriptures themselves offer what I might call a "guiding hierarchy", though (Acts 10-11 vs. the OT food laws comes to mind). I have always struggled to see the Scriptures in any other way than hingeing on Christ.

I guess I'm concerned that if we level Christ's words to the same place as the rest of Scripture we lose more than we might gain. of course, other questions that this all raises are these:

What do we mean by inspiration, or when we say all Scripture is equally God-breathed?

To what extent does the writer influence, affect and/or 'distort' God's inspiration, and to what extent does the progressive revelation of God through Scripture affect the authority of its various parts?

I'm not sure we have time to go into all that - so feel free to close the discussion here if you would prefer. I'm really just thinking out loud as I digest your comments, in the hopes that some of my musings may be helpful for you as well.

Again, thanks for a thought-provoking conversation.


To whom it may concern said...

Dear John

Thanks again for your comment. Sorry there has been a delay in my reply, I have been having trouble with my internet connection.

I am in agreement with the first part of your comments. I suppose we could say that jesus is the one who gives us the key to fully understanding the rest of Scripture.

From your second last paragraphs I think we might differ on the nature of OT. I suppose my view would be a very high view of the OT given 2 Peter 1:21.

thank you so much for the pleasant tone of your conversation.


John van de Laar said...

Strangely (or maybe not) I love 2 Peter 1:21, and find it very helpful as a guide for approaching the Old Testament, specifically because it makes the collaboration between the divine and the human so clear.

I like the way the New King James Version puts it:
"holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (italics original).

So, while we are in different places here, we may not be as far apart as we imagine.

I've really enjoyed this conversation, Paul - thanks.

Keep up the great work on your blog.