Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Philadelphia's Frank Furness 100 Years after His Death

Frank Furness, Philadelphia's greatest architect, died 100 years ago today, on 27 June 1912. During a career lasting more than 40 years, Furness designed more than 600 buildings — banks, churches, office building, and private residences — all in his idiosyncratic high Victorian Gothic style: apparently out-of-proportion elements, variegated materials and color, and unmistakenly Furness. Yet at the time of his death, his work was viewed as hopelessly out of style, and today the vast majority of his works have unceremoniously met the wrecking ball.

I, for one, have always admired Furness's work. Indeed, one of Philadelphia's distinctives as America's greatest architectural city is its remaining collection of Furness works, all of which are unique in style to the City of Brotherly Love. In tribute to Furness, I will leave you with a collection of my own photographs of his work as well as pictures of a number of his most lamented lost structures.

Furness's Masterpiece, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,
built 1871-76 (photo by the author)

The Academy in 1900
(Library of Congress Photograph,

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania
(1888-91; photos by the author)

Thomas Hockley House, built 1875
(photos by the author)

The Baldwin School, Bryn Mawr, built 1890-91
(photos by author)

The Undine Barge Club, built 1883
(photo by author)

Merion Cricket Club, Haverford, built 1892-96
(photo by author)

Gravers Lane Station, built 1879
(photo by author)

The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, built 1883-85
(photo by author)

Broad Street Station, expanded 1892-94
(photo @

Provident Life and Trust Company (b. 1879) in 1959,
shortly before its demolition (photo from

National Bank of the Republic, built 1883-84 (demolished)
(photo @

Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Company, 1875 (demolished)
(photos @; and

B&O Station, built 1886-88 (demolished)
(photo @

Rachel Held Evans versus John Piper: Advantage Evans

Earlier this month on her blog, Rachel Held Evans posted a helpful series she called "Week of Mutuality."  In case you hadn't heard — are there any such oblivious people still out there? — a somewhat acrimonious split has occurred in today's Evangelicalism between opposing parties who are usually called "complementarians" and "egalitarians" with regard to male-female relationships in the home, church, and world at large.

Such labeling was something of a stroke of marketing genius on the part of conservatives, who could thereby associate Christian advocates of equality of status and roles for men and women/husbands and wives with the more egregious positions of secular "feminists," for whom gender differentiation is nothing more than a human, cultural construct.  Yet Christian "egalitarians" certainly do not deny innate gender differentiation outside the obvious reproductive realm (at least in broad strokes).  Nor do they deny "complementarity."  As a result, Evans, following the lead of such scholars as Scot McKnight, have preferred to speak of "mutuality."  Such a designation has the advantage of referencing the biblical injunction to mutual submission (Eph 5:21) and division of roles and responsibilities based more on giftedness and spiritual/educational qualifications than on mere biological differentiation.

By stressing "complementarity," conservatives have, until recently, deemphasized the hierarchical authoritarian structure of what is more accurately referred to as "patriarchalism," "hierarchicalism," or "androcentrism."  The reason for this is obvious: "patriarchy" is just too offensive a term to be of much help in the current cultural climate.  Better to stress divinely-designed complementary roles, even if the roles assigned to the female half of the population are ultimately subordinate to those assigned to their male counterparts.  Such roles have at least the putative warrant of Scripture (faithfulness to Scripture: check), and hold out the prospect of a blessed life  in keeping with God's supposed design for women ("fulfillment" in life: check).

Somewhat surprisingly, the patriarchalists have grown ever more feisty over the past couple of decades, perhaps glorying in a distinction that confirms their self-perceived counter-cultural stance (counter-cultural on this issue, at least).  One group for which patriarchalism has become something of a litmus test for orthodoxy is the newly-resurgent neo-Calvinist movement.  The group, "Together for the Gospel," for instance, has even included an article on "complementarianism" as one of its 18 fundamental "Affirmations and Denials" that supposedly have direct bearing on the truth of the gospel in this age of "theological and spiritual crisis in the Church."  Just this month, Denny Burk of Boyce College explicitly flew the "patriarchalist" banner, claiming scriptural authority.  More recently, Russell Moore, dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who had previously written an article defending the "patriarchal" label, lamented what he saw as "paper complementarians" living functionally egalitarian lives.  In the same panel discussion, Greg Gilbert, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in Louisville, made the charge that egalitarianism corrodes the authority of Scripture and — note the slippery slope logic! — threatens the integrity of the gospel message itself.

The attraction of Calvinists to patriarchalism is not surprising to me.  I am a Calvinist because of exegesis and my own existential awareness of the depths of my own sinfulness.  But Calvinism, like patriarchalism, is certainly counterintuitive to anyone raised in the postmodern West.  And the "manliness" — indeed, the apparent harshness — of some Calvinist dogmas certainly appeals to a certain sort of Christian temperament.  It is likewise compatible with the androcentrism of patriarchalism and amenable to people hard-wired to a conservative outlook on life.  But any Calvinist worth his or her salt should realize that the complementarian/egalitarian debate has little, if any, relevance to the integrity of the gospel message rightly understood (indeed, Scot McKnight would argue that the salvation-historical focus of the gospel leads to the opposite view).

I was raised in a fundamentalist environment in which patriarchalism was assumed.  I did my theological education at Dallas Seminary, where patriarchalism was held, though at least it was argued for.  What I came to realize is that not all patriarchalists are cut from the same cloth.  Indeed, my friend Bill Webb, an avowed egalitarian who paid the price for his hard-fought views by losing his seminary teaching job, made a distinction that has proved very helpful for definitional purposes.  In his groundbreaking book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, Webb distinguished between "hard patriarchy," which promoted female subservience in every realm of life, and "soft patriarchy," which limited subordination to the realms of family and church.  He even spoke of an "ultra-soft patriarchy," in which mutuality is combined with a nominal notion of male "headship" that can, at times, border on a "figureheadship."  The patriarchy I was taught and experienced in the home in which I was raised was definitively of this latter type.  And so I assumed it was with other evangelicals.

But I was wrong, as I was reminded by Evans this morning.  The "Calvin's Institutes" of the complementarian movement is a multi-author work published back in 1991 entitled Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem and including articles by such scholars as Don Carson, Vern Poythress, and Doug Moo.  It has been more than a decade since I last read some of its articles.  Since that time I had somehow forgotten some of the more extreme stances taken in some of the articles.  Not surprisingly, one such article was written by John Piper, who earlier this year made quite a stir by promoting "the masculine feel" of biblical Christianity (for my response, see here).  Evans quotes Piper in one of his clearest statements:
There are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive, and healthy for the overall structure of home and society.  Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill that role.
This, my friends, is hard patriarchy at its most explicit and blatant.  And such hard patriarchalism has little, if any, claim to be the teaching of Scripture and the ideal for the people of God who live as microcosms of the irrupting, macrocosmic new heavens and new earth.  There are texts which certainly can be used as prima facie evidence for what Webb terms "soft patriarchalism" (classic here are such texts as Eph 5:22 and 1 Tim 2:12-14).  And I would maintain that "ultra-soft patriarchy," in which the "authority" inherent in its vestigial hierarchicalism has been deconstructed along the lines of Jesus' teaching in Mark 10, is certainly a viable position.  I would argue, however, that the evidence in favor of perpetual patriarchy is not nearly as univocal or as universal as its supporters imagine (for those interested, I would suggest reading Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet and his recent e-book, Junia Is Not Alone), and that a nuanced mutuality that embraces complementarity is likewise viable. 

Indeed, the hermeneutical and exegetical issues are too complex and difficult to come to such dogmatic and, frankly, irresponsible positions as are propagated by such men as Piper and Gilbert.  The authority of Scripture is not at issue here, as such men suggest.  Even less is the gospel at stake.  But, to turn the tables, what might be at stake when such hard patriarchy is taught is the credibility of the gospel to 50% of the world's population.  Zeal in the defense of what one believes to be God's truth is only praiseworthy if it is accompanied by humility and actually coheres with that truth.  And to encumber the gospel with illegitimate accretions of human imagination is both irresponsible and tragic.

When my wife and I raised our two daughters, we told them they could be anything they wanted to be.  They are both now married to wonderful guys and work as an economist and a nurse.  Words cannot express how proud we are of them.  When my older daughter was asked by our pastor in her pre-marital counseling which of her parents acted as the "head" of the house, she responded, "Neither. They both were equal."  Russell Moore would be distressed by such a situation.  I, however, as one who knows how much more gifted his wife is than he in so many areas, am proud of that.  And I can only shudder to think what would have become of my girls had they associated Christianity with the hard patriarchalism of Piper and company.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 6: Romans 1:24-27

When the execrable Lady Gaga sang, in her club anthem, "Born This Way," that "God makes no mistakes," she was speaking unadulterated biblical truth.  Of course, she should have, as it were, quit while she was ahead.  But, alas, she ran into trouble, theologically speaking, with the deduction she inferred from this premise: because God makes no mistakes, people are "beautiful in (their own) way" and ought to "rejoice" and "love (themselves)"; they are thus "on the right track" if they live accordingly because they were "born this way."  Not surprisingly, she applied this dictum to an issue of major contemporary concern:
No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I'm on the right track baby
Indeed, no argument in favor of normalizing homosexual behavior — no one today imagines "orientation" could ever fail to be acted upon — has achieved greater currency in the modern/postmodern/post-postmodern (take your pick) West than the argument from nature.  Because people are "born gay," it is simply assumed without argument that they should have the same right to act on their inclinations as the majority heterosexual population.  Failure to acknowledge this "right" is, in the eyes of many GLBT advocates, the height of both arrogance and bigotry. 

I am not a scientist; I am a lowly biblical scholar and working stiff.  Nevertheless, as I have often averred, I consider it probable that there is in fact a biological component to homosexual "orientation."  But as a theologian and logician I can also say that the straightforward leap from "is" to "ought," common though it may be, is as fallacious as it is precipitant.  Moreover, as a Pauline scholar I can also state without hesitation that the Apostle to the Gentiles was aware of, and utilized, a very different "argument from nature"  from that which most Westerners commonly use today.  He does this in the passage which has become something of the locus classicus on the issue of the New Testament's view of homoerotic practice, viz., Romans 1:24-27:
Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (NET Bible)
A little context:  in verses 16-17 Paul has just articulated his programmatic affirmation of the "gospel" — delineated Christologically in Romans 1:2-4 in terms of Jesus' Messianic career and exaltation to universal Lordship as a consequence of the resurrection — as the vehicle of God's saving "righteousness" for both Jews and Gentiles in faithfulness to God's inscripturated covenant promises (see my full discussion of these verses, with their manifold difficulties, here).  The apostle will pick up and develop the idea of God's revelation of his "righteousness" in the Christ event in 3:21.  In the meantime, in Romans 1:18-3:20, he sketches the dark backdrop that serves as the necessary presupposition for the positive exposition of that righteousness in 3:21-4:25.  He begins thus (Romans 1:18-23):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (NET Bible)

God's "wrath" (orgē) is his active, personal indignation against everything that contradicts, and everyone who flouts, his holiness.  In the present context — note both Paul's use of the explanatory gar and repetition of the verb apokalyptetai, "is being revealed" in verse 18 — it is evident that God's "righteousness" (dikaiosynē) and his "wrath" (orgē) are mutually dependent.  "Wrath," at least in this context, is the dark obverse of "righteousness."  God's saving activity, Paul is saying, can only be rightly interpreted in the context of his retributive judgment against "unrighteous" people (note the dual reference to human "unrighteousness" [adikia] in verse 18, which makes the intended contrast obvious, and hence such translations as the NIV's "wickedness" less than optimal).

Paul's argument in Romans 1:18-32, in which he draws heavily from the type of theological polemic found in the Wisdom of Solomon 12-15, is straightforward and, hence, easy to follow.  His unspecified target, as all commentators (save for Jouette Bassler) agree, is the Gentile world.  His primary thesis is clearly stated in verses 18-19:  God is even now revealing his (eschatological) wrath against the godless unrighteousness of people who wickedly suppress the truth he revealed about himself.  The remainder of the paragraph unpacks this dense statement.

Paul first articulates the human "unrighteousness" that precipitated God's "wrathful" response in verses 20-23.  The theological implications of these verses are massive.  At the most basic level the important point Paul has to make is that human "wickedness" is the result of primal human rebellion rather than ignorance.  He is certainly not arguing from empiricism or at the individual level at this point.  To that extent Richard Hays is right in saying that Paul is "thinking in mythico-historical categories" here (The Moral Vision of the New Testament [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996] 385).  Ernst Käsemann expresses the idea more clearly: "For the apostle, history is governed by the primal sin of rebellion against the Creator, which finds repeated and universal expression" (Commentary on Romans [trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980] 47).  Humankind are guilty and "without excuse" (anapologētous), in Paul's view, because they have persistently suppressed and rejected the knowledge of God they could have clearly perceived from the creation itself (for a lucid discussion of the "natural theology" articulated by the apostle here, cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans [AB 33; New York: Doubleday, 1993] 269-74, 279-81).  Even worse, they filled the vacuum caused by their rejection of God by "exchanging" (metēllaxan) the worship of God for the idolatrous worship of corruptible creatures.

Paul's logic in these verses is impeccable:
A. God has clearly revealed himself.
B. People ignored and rejected that revelation. Therefore:
C. People are deserving of wrath.
Even more important is the recognition that for Paul individual human "sins" — and the apostle enumerates more in verses 24-32 than anywhere else in his writings — are not portrayed as the cause of humankind's disjointed relationship with God. Indeed, it is the other way around. Paul profoundly gets to the heart of the problem by identifying the primal human sin(s) of unbelief and idolatry. As a result, God's "wrath" takes an unexpected, ironic form here in Romans. To quote the great Käsemann once again, "Paul paradoxically reverses the cause and the consequence: moral perversion is the result of God's wrath, not the reason for it" (47). God, so Paul argues, hands the sinner over to the consequences of his or her action by letting rebellion run its own disastrous course.

Paul elaborates this "wrathful," punitive divine response in verses 24-32 as a three-fold "Law of Retribution." God responds to humankind's three-fold "exchange" of his created design with a three-fold "abandonment" that delineates how God's "wrath" finds its expression today in anticipation of its ultimate exercise:

1.God abandoned them to sensual idolatry (1:24-25).
2.God abandoned them to sexual perversion (1:26-27).
3.God abandoned them to a depraved mind so that they would practice and approve every sort of sin (1:28-32).
The relevant section, of course, is the discussion in verses 26-27, the second of the three divine "abandonments."  On the face of it, this is a clear expression of a biblical author's condemnation of homosexual practice.  Indeed, one might with justification view this as a specific example of the general principle found in verses 24-25, where God "handed them over" (paredōken), as a judge might a felon to a bailiff for punishment, to "the lusts of their hearts," to (sexual) "impurity" (akatharsia), "so that their bodies might be dishonored (atimazesthai) among themselves."  This connection is made clear by Paul in verse 26, where the "exchange" (metēllaxan) of the "females" (thēleiai) of the "natural (sexual) function" (tēn physikēn chrēsin) for that which is "against nature" (para physin) is illustrative of the "dishonorable passions" (pathē atimias) to which God handed the Gentiles over and which correspondingly dishonored the participants' bodies.  And so every scholar and churchman believed until quite recently.

Not surprisingly, however, such a conclusion has been sharply contested in recent decades, mostly (though not exclusively) by defenders of homosexual practice.  Peter Tomson, for example, suggested that the female intercourse described as "against nature" was, in reality, "'unnatural' intercourse chrēsis para physin of women with men" (Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles [CRINT 3.1; Assen: Van Gorcum/Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990] 94 n. 157).  The Achilles' heel of such a suggestion is Paul's use of the conjunction homoiōs ("likewise") with which, in verse 27, he introduces the structurally parallel abandonment by "males" (arsenes) of the "natural function of the females" (tēn physikēn chrēsin tēs thēleias) in favor of performing "shameless" (aschēmosynē) acts with "males" to which their "inflamed" (exekauthēsan) "lusts" (orexei) had driven them.  On the face of it, the text is dealing with, and evaluating negatively, what we today refer to as lesbian behavior.

No more successful is the famous attempt by John Boswell to claim that Paul had in view "unnatural" homosexual acts committed by people with heterosexual orientations (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980] 107-14).  The two key terms are the verb "exchanged" (metēllaxan) and the noun "nature" (physis).  Boswell suggests that the text refers to the individual decision of some individuals to engage in homosexual sexual intercourse against their native inclinations (or "alongside, in addition to" [para] their basic heterosexual "nature").  But this argument falls apart on only a moment's reflection.  On analogy with the Gentiles' previous "exchange" (ēllaxan/metēllaxen) of the glory and worship of God for the worship of idols (1:23, 25), the "exchange" referred to in verses 26-27 must be a change operative at the most foundational of levels.  Moreover, is it really plausible to argue that the "nature" involved is limited to the "nature" of the orientation and inclinations of specific individuals, so that what Paul found reprehensible was their promiscuous failure to be true to themselves?

The definitive refutation of Boswell's revisionism, no matter how popular in some circles, is found in Paul's conspicuous use, in verses 26-27, of the terms thēleia and arsenes ("females and males") rather than the more common gynai and andres ("women and men").   For these terms are the very ones used in Genesis 1:26-27 to refer to God's creation of human beings as "male and female."   Herein lies the key to understanding both the nature of the sinful "exchange" and what Paul meant by the term "nature" (physis).  The term physis had a long and distinguished use in Greek, not least Stoic philosophy, from which it found its way into Hellenistic Jewish literature, including the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1, a verse with remarkable affinities to Paul's text in Romans 1:18-32.  For the Stoics, "nature" is reflective of the rational order of things according to which a person must strive to live.  Paul, for all the apparent similarities of conception, invests the notion of "nature" with the biblical, Jewish perspective on creation as found in Genesis 1 (cf. Rom 1:20, 25).  According to Paul's perspective, sexual differentiation and complementarity were written into God's creative design every bit as much as the differentiation between Creator and creature.  Accordingly, homoerotic behavior is a fundamental deviation (planē, "error," 1:27) from the nature of how things ought to be by God's creative design.  Paul, as one who did not operate with modern psychological notions of sexual "orientation," but who did wrestle often and profoundly with the devastatingly complex problems associated with universal sinfulness, would have been singularly unimpressed by claims to "natural" homosexuality, as if such would mitigate the sinfulness of such behavior.  After all, in his view all — Jews and Gentiles alike — are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).

One final attempt to circumvent Paul's sweeping rejection of homosexual behavior is provided by Robin Scroggs who, as he did with reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9, restricts Paul's focus to the specific matter of pederasty (The New Testament and Homosexuality [Philadelphia; Fortress, 1983] 115).  No doubt Paul was aware of the prevalence of pederasty in Greek culture, but the context here allows for no such restriction.  In particular, the irrefutable reference to lesbian activity in verse 26 provides the parallel with the male homosexual practice of verse 27.  To restrict the latter to what is, by Western standards, a particularly unacceptable form of homosexual conduct is the worst sort of special pleading born of a hermeneutics of wishful thinking.

We must conclude that Paul's opposition to homosexual practice could not be more clear.  More must be said, however.  As I have often said, it is quite natural, and existentially painless, to denounce sins for which one has little or no inclination.  And so it has often been with regard to homosexual activity.  But we must ask the question: Did Paul view homosexual behavior to be a particularly egregious form of sin?

The first indication of how Paul would have answered this question comes in verses 28-32, where the apostle provides the third cycle of his "law of retribution":

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them. (NET Bible)
This is the longest of Paul's twelve vice lists recorded in his various letters.  As is immediately apparent, the apostle shifts his focus from sensual to antisocial sins.  But there is no hint that these sins are any less serious than the  sexual perversions described earlier.  Indeed, not only the heartless, ruthless, and murderers, but gossips, boasters, and children disobedient to parents (!) are all lumped together as those whose sins merit death according to God's righteous decree.  All sin, as Calvin said, is equally damning, and equally inexcusable. 

Why then did Paul focus on homosexuality in this passage?  I would suggest that he did so because, of all sins, homoeroticism most clearly illustrates the disruption of the natural order that occurs as a consequence of human rebellion against the creator.  Hays trenchantly comments:
[I]n Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a "sacrament" (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor God the Creator.  When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator's design.  Thus, Paul's choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity's primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the Creator. (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 386)
More important, however, is to understand Romans 1:18-32 in the context of Paul's larger argument in 1:18-3:20.  I have alluded more than once to the remarkable similarity in tone and content between this paragraph and such Hellenistic Jewish polemical works as the Wisdom of Solomon, particularly chapter 12-14.  That text indeed excoriates the Gentile world for its rampant idolatry based on a primal rejection of the knowledge they had of God from creation, which resulted in "ungodliness," fornication, and "sexual perversion."  Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that what Paul is doing is using standard Jewish polemic against the Gentiles (which, of course, he agreed with) as a means to accomplish his real objective

Notice how the author of the Wisdom of Solomon continues after his devastating rebuke of the Gentiles:
But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power ... (Wisd.Sol. 15:1-2)
Criticism of the Gentiles here is certainly not wed to a corresponding humility and acknowledgement of the Jews' own sinful unfaithfulness to God.  Indeed, what is clear is a presumption of moral superiority and favored status based upon the nation's covenant relationship with God.

Contrast this with Paul, who continues in Romans 2:1:
Therefore you are without excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
Paul has in a very real sense performed a masterful hermeneutical sting operation.  By reflecting standard Jewish condemnation of the Gentile world, he has effectively set up his real target, the Jew naively confident in both his moral superiority over the Gentiles and the efficacy of his covenant status.  Just at the point when his reader would rise to say "Amen" to Paul's litany, he turns the tables and declares that the self-righteous and/or nationalistic Jew was "without excuse" (anapologētos) in the same way as the despised Gentiles were (2:1; cf. 1:20).  This is the opening salvo in the apostle's contention that the Jews, no less than the Gentiles, were "under sin" and in need of God's saving righteousness manifested in Jesus Christ.

It is entirely appropriate to agree with the judgment of Paul that homosexual behavior is a perversion of God's creational intent for human sexuality.  All too often in my experience, however, such an affirmation or proclamation is not married to a humble acknowledgement of one's own moral inadequacy and consequent debt to the mercy and grace of God.  It is indeed tempting to be smug when the focus is drawn away from the areas of one's own moral failings.  But, for Paul, hypocritical, judgmental self-righteousness is every bit as serious a matter as the homosexual behavior he presents as "exhibit A" for humankind's rebellion against God and his creative designs.  All of us — Jew and Gentile, English and Ethiopian, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual — play on a level playing field, and all of us, apart from Christ, stand equally condemned, on merit, in the dock before God who judges justly and impartially.  Let none of us who claim the name of Christ ever forget that or, even worse, pretend it isn't true.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Recent Southern Baptist Brouhaha over Calvinism: Reflections of a Chastened Calvinist

I have been following the most recent brouhaha racking the Southern Baptist Convention with no small interest. For those who are (blissfully) unaware of recent rends in this largest of American Protestant denominations, ever-growing numbers of Southern Baptists are embracing and propagating a certain brand of neo-Calvinism in Louisville, in all Kentucky, and to the uttermost parts of the American South and Southwest. Not surprisingly, this situation has not pleased many Southern Baptist leaders of differing theological stripes with vivid memories of when things were not so.

The current brouhaha was precipitated by the joint publication, on 31 May, of "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," written primarily by Eric Hankins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. As of Monday of this week, more than 650 members of the denomination — including ministers, seminary professors, and even seminary presidents such as Paige Patterson of SWBTS in Fort Worth — have become signatories of the statement. Such a backlash is neither surprising nor new. As has been confirmed to me recently by a friend close to the situation, Dr. Patterson has already attempted to nip the growing influence of "Calvinism" (by which is meant classic, "five-point" Calvinism, not other Calvinistic teachings such as paedo-baptism or amillennialism) in the bud at his institution by summoning reported Calvinists to his office for a "chat."

What is interesting about this document is that it fails to provide a theological label for the position it is advocating. It is, by implication, non-Calvinistic, but it curiously avoids the expected label of "Arminian," opting for the surely emotionally-charged "traditional" label. I assume this avoidance is due to the common Baptist association of Arminianism with the ability to "lose one's salvation," an assumption confirmed by the discussion in article 9,"The Security of the Believer." [an aside: I remain befuddled over the persistence of the belief in the "Calvinistic" doctrine of the security of the believer among those who reject the Augustinian doctrines of grace; not only does the denial of Augustinianism cut off the branch on which they are sitting, it also fails to account for the real possibility of apostasy — which, to be fair, the statement baldly denies the possibility of — and the clear biblical statements about the ultimate fate of those who fall away.]

Even more curious is the claim that the statement reasserts the "traditional" Southern Baptist view. Southern Baptists, as Baptists, are not confessional like Presbyterians and Lutherans are. If I am not mistaken, however, they take their cue from the Baptist Faith and Message, different editions of which were promulgated in 1925, 1963, and 2000 (for each of these presented in parallel columns, see here). This document does not deal with the specific matters under debate. Hence, as Baptists, individual ministers and congregations are free to hold their own positions according to their own good-conscience interpretation of the Bible. No doubt it is true that the majority of Southern Baptists in times past were not Calvinistic. But it is demonstrable that Calvinists have always been a part of the mix.

Most significant, however, is the theological imprecision of the document itself, hardly what one should expect from highly educated clergy and seminary administrators. There are, as one might expect, caricatures of such "Calvinistic" teachings as election, "irresistible" grace, and "limited" atonement. More troubling, however, is Article Two, on "The Sinfulness of Man" (for the time being I will give them a pass for their persistent patriarchalism):
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15
For those not attuned to sophisticated theological discourse, the shocking thing about this statement, particularly its second paragraph, is how it drifts beyond the historic Arminianism of Arminius and Wesley to the treacherous waters of Semi-Pelagianism in its explicit denial of the bondage of the will and the necessity of prevenient grace for a saving response to the gospel message. This unacknowledged Semi-Pelagianism has been recognized by both Calvinist (SBTS president Al Mohler) and Arminian (Baylor professor Roger Olson) theologians who have weighed in on the statement. Olson, in fact, rightly describes it as cohering with the Semi-Pelagianism that, for all practical purposes, serves as the default American Christian "folk religion" [another aside: indeed, I would characterize the Christianity of most of the Baptists and "Independent Bible Church" Christians I know to be "Semi-Pelagian with an Augustinian ending," hardly a stable theological compound]. For the sake of both the framers and signatories of this statement — not to mention the spiritual health of my brothers and sisters in the convention itself — I hope that this is merely an oversight or imprecision caused by the desire for simplification, and that they will clarify their views in the near future.

I am not a Southern Baptist. Indeed, for various reasons I am not a Baptist at all (though I remain a somewhat reluctant "credo-baptist" by conviction). So I don't explicitly have a dog in this fight. Nonetheless, I am no stranger to the "Calvinist wars" that crop up every now and then in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. When I started graduate study at Dallas Seminary back in 1979, the school was still reeling over the recent departure of its two most learned biblical scholars, Bruce Waltke and S. Lewis Johnson, who had adopted historic Calvinism (and this at a historically Calvinistic, if Amyrauldian, institution).

Ten years ago, in the spring of 2002, I was a faculty member in the Biblical Division of a very conservative evangelical Bible college with a largely non-Calvinistic history (apart from the belief in "eternal security," of course). Because the school's doctrinal statement included the affirmation that Christ died "for the whole world," the accusation was made that I and other members of the division who self-identified as Calvinists were being disingenuous when we signed the doctrinal statement for our annual contract renewals. This led to a months-long series of meetings over the issue in which I — ever the one with no self-preservation instinct — almost singlehandedly labored to show how a Calvinist could both remain faithful to Scripture and, in clear conscience, sign the school's doctrinal statement. My attempt was, thankfully, successful, but I bear the scars from that battle to the present day. And from that battle I learned much about human nature and how people arrive at their theological positions [hint: it's a lot less "objective" than people might claim or think].

One thing I learned is that the problems non-Calvinists have with Calvinism have less to do with Calvinist exegesis and theology — though they have innate problems with those, to be sure — than with Calvinists themselves. As I have often said, the only person more obnoxious than an ex-smoker is an ex-Arminian. "Calvinism" is counterintuitive and offensive to people for whom absolute freedom is viewed as the summum bonum. Hence, when a Christian discovers for the first time the truth that God, in his sovereign grace, monergistically saves guilty, enslaved sinners, this truth produces a zealotry for God's honor and glory that often backfires in praxis. Not only do they begin to caricature the nuanced position of their theological adversaries (caricature occurs in both directions, after all), but they also tend to look down condescendingly on the benighted Christian masses who have failed thus far to learn what they have learned about sovereign grace. Worst of all, many in my acquaintance have developed a perverse pride in their theology that would have shocked Calvin as much as it would have grieved the Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 4:7. And when they compound this with an apparent lack of emphasis on evangelism, they have only provided more grist for their opponents' mill.

I am a Calvinist, however, and I am struck here, as always, with the inability of many non-Calvinists to take seriously the powerful exegetical arguments undergirding the Calvinist position, and the reliance on a bushel of proof-texts (of course, in my experience the use of proof-texts is not restricted to non-Calvinists) that, at best, point to Arminianism as a possible implication. Of course, I am not naive. To me it is obvious that the offensiveness and counterintuitive nature of Calvinism, especially to those brought up with American cultural assumptions, will continue to render it unacceptable to the majority of Christians. On the other hand, the "toughness" — indeed, the apparent harshness — of some Calvinistic teachings only serve to make it more attractive to people with a different temperament. None of us, after all, can entirely escape the biologically- and culturally-inherited grid of predispositions, presuppositions and preunderstandings that inevitably inform our thought processes and influence our conclusions. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner it will be that we can at least understand and dialogue with those who disagree with us.

One further thing: theological confessions and statements such as these are never politically neutral, dispassionate documents. They are always tethered with the strings of power and control. To the non-Calvinists, I am sure that the almost evangelistic spread of Calvinist doctrine in the SBC appears as the intended consequence of a concerted effort by the Calvinist wing to wrest control of the denomination away from them. I am in no position to attribute motives to any of the involved parties. But one wonders. In my old Bible college, I always got the impression that my view was tolerated so long as it remained, and was understood as being, a minority position. It only became a problem when too many faculty and students started espousing the position. The same seems to be the case in the SBC. The signatories affirming the "traditional" position obviously feel their ideological hegemony to be slipping away, and they intend to alter the course of the denomination before it becomes too late by means of restating, in confessional form, what they claim to have been the tried-and-true position of their forebears.

Is this not, then, simply a less-than-subtle attempt to wrest power and control of the denomination back from the Calvinist usurpers? It sure looks that way to me. If both positions are allowable under conditions agreed to by both sides, both by definition have a place at the table and neither should attempt to trump the other by dubious and irrelevant claims to be the "traditional" position. One thing, unfortunately, is clear to those of us who have been around for a while: the one thing conservative Southern Baptists have a good track record at accomplishing is a well-orchestrated power grab. Let's hope this is not, in fact, another of them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 5: The "Vice List" of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Critics of the traditional Judeo-Christian rejection of homosexual practice never tire of pointing out that biblical texts explicit in such rejection are "few" in number.  Apart from such critics' underestimation of the number of such texts, such an observation has little argumentative value.  For, the question begs asking, how many explicit statements and/or prohibitions are sufficient to establish the biblical authors' views on a matter?  To cite a parallel case, does the paucity of explicit biblical prohibitions of bestiality breed uncertainty as to Jewish and Christian attitudes about the practice?  Does the fact that, in the New Testament, only Paul speaks out against incest (1 Cor 5:1-13) give potential wiggle room for anyone who feels inclined in that direction ("After all, Jesus never said anything about it")?  As only a moment's reflection will make clear, there are any number of reasons why a particular matter is addressed only infrequently in Scripture, not least the observation that the few texts that do address it are both clear and decisive.  That, as I have argued, is indeed the case with the Levitical prohibitions against homosexual behavior that formed part of the religious and theological inheritance of Jesus no less than it did of the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus.

Not surprisingly, it is to the latter of these that we must look for the two prima facie clear texts in the New Testament in which homosexual practice is clearly portrayed as behavior counter to the revealed will of God, viz., 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Romans 1:24-27.  In the present post I will discuss the former of these texts, reserving the latter for a following installment.

These three verses conclude Paul's discussion of the second of three moral problems in the Corinthian church that underlined the need for the church to discipline offenders who compromised the holiness of God's covenant people: incest (5:1-13), lawsuits (6:1-11), and coitus with temple prostitutes (6:12-20).  For us (post)moderns, it comes as something of a surprise that the first and third of these issues even needed to be discussed.  The second, however, begets the opposite reaction.  Few Christians today would hesitate to take a brother or sister to court, perhaps hoping that their religious identification is hushed up, but always with the intent of upholding one's personal honor and/or protecting one's financial interests.

For Paul, however, the matter was a serious one.  By appearing before pagan, "unrighteous" (adikoi) judges, the failure of the the Corinthian litigants was, in the words of Gordon Fee, "primarily a failure of the church to be the church" (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987] 230).  To rebuke them, the apostle turns to eschatology.  Perhaps making a deduction from the "Son of Man" vision of Daniel 7, he argues from the premise that the "saints" will ultimately judge both the the world and angels to the conclusion that they should be competent to appoint "judges" of their own — like Moses in Exodus 18:13-26 and (especially) Deuteronomy 1:9-17 (cf. Brian S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture, & Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 [Leiden: Brill, 1994] 94-122) — to adjudicate such trivial intramural property disputes (1 Cor 6:1-6).

Even more fundamentally, followers of a crucified Messiah should prefer to be "wronged" (adikeisthe) and "defrauded" (apostereisthe) rather than to file a lawsuit against a brother or sister at all (6:7-8).  Paul concludes with a terrifying eschatological warning based on what likely was part of their common catechetical instruction ("or do you not know?" [ē ouk oidate]):  the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (6:9a).  The Corinthians, Paul is more than implying, were acting just like the "unrighteous" ones whose wickedness will preclude them from entering God's kingdom.  The point could not be clearer: the notion of wicked people inheriting the rule of God is an oxymoron.  Therefore, those who consider themselves Christians must actively work to rid themselves of their anomalous sinful practices that mimic the behavior of the "unrighteous" and are thus alien to God's kingdom

In order to aid the Corinthians in avoiding self-deception in such matters, the apostle provides a list of such "unrighteous" people: 
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (6:9b-10)
I have intentionally left the two disputed expressions untranslated.  The KJV translated the terms, respectively, as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind."  Despite the obscurity of the latter translation, the reference to homosexuals, or at least to people who engage in homosexual acts, is obvious.  The NRSV translates them "male prostitutes" and "sodomites."  The new NIV translates the two terms together as "men who have sex with men."  The REB likewise combines the two expressions in their rendering, "sexual perverts." All these translations interpret the expressions as references to some form or other of homosexual practice.  Thus, on the face of it, Paul is quite clear at this point.

Modern scholars, no doubt under implicit pressure from the culture at large, have proposed various explanations for Paul's apparent condemnation of homosexual behavior in the effort to mitigate its force.  E. P. Sanders, for instance, simply attributes Paul's attitude to his having not given the matter much thought (Paul [Oxford: OUP, 1991] 116).  Others, noting the terms' presence in traditional vice lists, think the apostle simply took over Hellenistic, especially Stoic, lists without more ado (cf. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983] 85-97).  More recent studies, however, have demonstrated both the Jewish background of the lists (e.g., Rosner, 53-55) and the probable relation of the listed vices to the specific situation at Corinth (e.g., P. Zaas, "Catalogues and Context: 1 Cor. 5 and 6," New Testament Studies 34 [1988] 622-29).

Others, noting the use of the term malakoi — an adjective meaning "soft" which, when applied to men and boys, refers to "effeminate" males and catamites who were on the receiving end of sodomitic activitity (BDAG, 613; "passive homosexuals" [EDNT 2:381]) — have suggested that Paul limits his revulsion here to "call boys" and specific types of pederastic practices (e.g., Scroggs). By implication, so it is argued, it would be inadmissible to assume Paul would have disapproved of all types of homosexual practice.  However, if such was the case, one wonders why the apostle could not have stated so more clearly.  There is no contextual reference to male prostitution; moreover, there was a Greek word for pederasty available (paiderastēs) to Paul had he wished to use it.  Furthermore, even if Paul had pederasty primarily in mind, it begs the question to assume that the only thing he found problematic with it was its pedophilic and/or abusive aspects.  As a Shammaite rabbi, there is little or no likelihood that such would be the case.

Perhaps the most famous example of revisionist lexicography in this matter was performed by the late, openly gay Yale historian, John Boswell.  According to Boswell, the Old Testament, specifically the Levitical regulations, held no sway over the first Christians, and thus it would be wrong to assume they would have a negative attitude toward gay sexuality per se (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980] 105).  In keeping with this presumption, he argues that malakoi refers to "masturbators" and arsenokoitai to"male prostitutes." With regard to arsenokoitai Boswell idiosyncratically understands "male" to be the implicit subject rather than the object of the compound word, as had previously been assumed (338-53, 363-64).

Interestingly, the way forward to a definitive understanding of the twin terms malakoi and arsenokoitai was provided by Scroggs, himself a defender of homosexual practice.  He was the first to notice that the latter term, the earliest known occurrence of which in Greek literature is found here in 1 Corinthians, is a translation of the Hebrew term mishkov zakur ("lying with a male"), derived from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and utilized in rabbinic discussions as a reference to homosexual intercourse (The NT and Homosexuality, 106-108).  The same conclusion could easily be drawn from the LXX of the two Levitical texts:
  • Leviticus 18:22 — "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman, for it is an abomination" (kai meta arsenos ou koimēthēsē koitēn gynaikos; bdelygma gar estin)
  • Leviticus 20:13 — "Whoever lies with a man as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination; they are liable to be put to death" (kai hos an koimēthē arsenos koitēn gynaikos, bdelygma epoiēsan amphoteroi; thanatousthōsan, enochoi eisin)
Thus, as David Wright has persuasively argued, Paul's inclusion of arsenokoitai in this vice list both indicates that the term refers, contra Boswell, to "(males) who lie with males," and, by implication, picks up and confirms the prohibition of same-sex intercourse found in the Levitical Holiness Code (David F. Wright, "Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai [1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10," Vigiliae Christianai 38 [1984] 125-53).  The Torah, it would seem, is not irrelevant for Christian morality.  This ethical relevance of the Old Testament law was argued persuasively two decades ago by Rosner in his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on 1 Corinthians 5-7.  As a case in point, in the immediately preceding context Paul condemned a case of incest in the church (1 Cor 5) and enjoined the excommunication of the offending party on the basis of the Torah.  In particular, the apostle came to his decision by analogically applying the deuteronomic motifs of holiness, covenant, and temple exclusion.  The Corinthians, according to Paul, were to "expel the wicked man from among" them (1 Cor 5:3 [Deut 17:7, etc.]) because, like Israel under the Sinai Covenant, they constituted the sanctified, covenant community, indeed, the very temple (1 Cor 3:16-17!) of the holy God.  By analogy, homosexual behavior — here the syntagmatic relationship of malakoi and arsenokoitai points to the pair referring to the active and passive participants in homosexual intercourse [cf. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians {BNTC; London: Black, 1968} 140: "catamites and sodomites"] —  is viewed by the apostle as inconsistent with the church's identity as the sanctified, covenant people of God.

Paul makes this point explicit in his remarkable verse 11:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Such vices as enumerated in verses 10-11 were illustrative of what the Corinthians, despite their manifold problems, used to be.  Paul's decisive use of the imperfect tense (ēte) implies that a definitive change had taken place in their lives.  What this change involved is described in three affirmations. 

First, the Corinthians had been "washed" (apelousasthe).  This is a transparent allusion to baptism (perhaps a true middle voice should be reflected in the translation, i.e., they "had themselves washed"), and points them to the act that marked the definitive end of their old life and identity and symbolized their incorporation, by the Spirit, into Christ.  For Paul, this cleansing incorporation is the fountain from which the following two blessings flow.

Second, the Corinthians had been "sanctified" (hēgiasthēte).  Like the covenant people of old, they had been set apart as holy for God's service, with all the behavioral implications that follow upon that consecration. 

Third, the Corinthians had been "justified" (edikaiōthēte).  Whereas they had once been "unrighteous" (adikaios), they had, by divine judicial declaration, been placed in right relation with God as his forgiven, covenant people. 

The point Paul is making is clear: it is not simply that identity informs behavior (Rosner).  It is that transformed identity must fundamentally determine behavior.  As Richard Hays writes,

Paul emphasizes that those who are baptized into the community of faith have been transferred out of one mode of existence into another.  The behavior is to leave behind the behaviors characteristic of that old mode just as the butterfly leaves behind the cocoon and the habits of caterpillar life. (First Corinthians [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997] 100)
Living like adikoi is not an option for those who name the name of Christ and have been "justified" in union with him.  And this applies to all of the vices enumerated by Paul in verses 9-10 as well as the (implied) greedy litigious activity that called forth the apostle's rebuke in these verses.

In applying this text to contemporary discussions about homosexuality, it must be emphasized that homosexual practice occupies only two of ten slots in Paul's vice list. Indeed, malakoi and arsenokoitai do not occur in the majority of such lists in the New Testament.  Those of us with heterosexual orientations might be tempted to view such acts as particularly reprehensible acts of a magnitude greater than such ordinary sins as greed, thievery, drunkenness, and reviling, and worse than more "natural" sins of a heterosexual variety such as adultery and fornication.  This text gives no warrant for such assumptions.  Indeed, as Raymond Collins remarks, these two vices "are no more egregious than fornication, adultery, greed, and drunkenness" (Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief [New York: Crossroad, 2000] 92).  True.  Unfortunately, however, most will read that statement in a way that lessens the seriousness of homosexual acts.  It would be better to read it as St. Paul intended, viz., to cause us to realize the true heinousness of such "mundane" sins as greed, drunkenness, and reviling as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bonhoeffer on the "Relevance" of the Bible

Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic . . .
Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it . . . Trust to the Word.
It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I was reminded of this little nugget of wisdom this morning by Joel Willetts over at EuangelionAs I learned long ago when I first read The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer has much to teach those of us who come from differing theological and ecclesial traditions.  This particular quote is a classic, expressing a truth I have long embraced over against the shallow evangelical homiletics I was taught three decades ago.

The rallying cry for much of the evangelical world is "relevance."  People are turned off from church, so I have often been told, because they don't see it.  All those old, "boring" rituals and creeds, all the old hymns and strains of Bach emanating from the pipe organ, all the "incomprehensible" theological jargon from the pulpit leave people cold.  Or so I have been told ad nauseum.  I have much I could say about all these charges, but I would like to focus especially on the one issue I am most qualified to address, namely, the content of what is preached from the pulpit (or, as is unfortunately now most often the case, the stage).

I was taught — even at a seminary famous for its rigorous emphasis on biblical exegesis from the original languages — that the focus of sermons must relentlessly be on application, and that the congregants (again, unfortunately, they are increasingly being viewed as the "audience") must recognize the "relevance" of the message from the very beginning of the sermon.  Now, I realize that sermons differ from the academic lectures I enjoy delivering and attending, and that they are certainly not meant to be showcases for the preacher's historical-critical and theological expertise.  As the Second Helvetic Confession and many theologians (including Bonhoeffer) have realized, sermons are, in a very real sense, God's word directed to his people.

What I have long contested is the notion that the preacher has to "make the Bible" relevant to people in the 21st century Western world.  On the contrary, as Bonhoeffer noted, such a notion severely undercuts the inherent power of Scripture itself which, as the author of Hebrews stated, is "living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb 4:12).

The problem is simply this: by attempting to make the Bible relevant, the preacher leaves uncontested the inherited understandings and assumptions that shape the lives of the people who are meant to be confronted by the word of God.  As a result, there are endless sermon series on the family, business, sex, and countless other "practical concerns."  Of course, I am not saying that the Bible doesn't have much to say that impacts our understanding of such matters.  What I am saying is that trying to "make the Bible relevant" too often leaves the congregants' foundational worldviews unaffected.  Consequently, as I have often noted, "evangelical Christianity" too often is presented as a sanctified "Americanism" that has little, if anything, prophetic to say to the culture at large.  No wonder we evangelicals have, despite our numbers, been derelict in our calling to work for God's kingdom by implementing the victory won by Jesus in his cross and resurrection.

It is better, as Bonhoeffer understood, to recognize that the Bible is inherently relevant to our lives.  This indeed is the importance of the "indicative" strains that dominate the Bible's story line.  For it is the "indicative" content of Scripture that gives rise to the "imperatives" and is capable of shaping the worldviews of Christians who have, despite their (at least at the lip-service level) adoption of Judeo-Christian sexual mores and boundary-marker avoidance of culturally-specific "worldly" activities, by and large bought into "worldly" system that defines American life.  Recognizing the Bible's inherent relevance is the first step toward the preacher's renewed confidence in Scripture as God's Word.  There is no need to treat the Bible as a Procrustean Bed and force alien "applications" onto "indicative" texts not designed for that purpose.  Let the Bible be the Bible.  That means trusting God to work through Scripture to change people in the most fundamental way, viz., by progressively working on the minds and hearts of his people to bring their view of the world into conformity with his.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 4b: "Eunuchs from Birth" (Matt 19:12)?

During the course of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus developed quite a reputation as a teacher of charismatic authority and startling originality.  Hence it is no surprise that the Pharisees, the well-respected and self-designated guardians of the Torah (with the intent of thereby hastening the coming of the kingdom of God), would question his legal views and, when it became apparent that his was a competing agenda to theirs, to attempt to trip him up.  In the triple tradition pericope of Matthew 19:3-9, the Pharisees ask him to weigh in on the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai over the matter of "no-fault divorce," which the Hillelites had promulgated as an interpretation/application of Deuteronomy 24:1.  Jesus' response, in effect, was that they were asking the wrong question.  Divorce was only allowed by Moses, not commanded.  It would have been better for them to look back behind the Deuteronomic injunction to God's stated purpose from the beginning, i.e., in Genesis 2:24.  Indeed, divorce — unless precipitated by adultery (in effect he ends up agreeing with the stricter Shammaites) — inevitably leads to adultery when, as was assumed, the parties remarried.

Matthew alone appends the disciples' response to this teaching from his special source:
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12)
The disciples' response, as Davies and Allison remark, "does them no credit" (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew [3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988-97] 3:19).  The lack of an escape clause led them to consider the spectre of marriage to be an intolerable burden.  Better, so they reasoned, to endure a life of celibacy than to commit oneself for life to one woman!

As one might expect, Jesus' response is unexpected.  Instead of reeducating them about the glories and benefits of marriage (which, of course, he would not have known from personal experience), he qualifies their comment.  Anticipating Paul's contention that celibacy is a "gift" from God (1 Cor 7:7), he states that their putative "insight" cannot be received by all, but only by those to whom "it has been given (sc. by God)."  In verse 12, Jesus makes it clear both who these gifted people are and why they have chosen that path.  In doing so, he uses graphic imagery to show how draconian such a lifestyle is.  In imagery no doubt designed to cause as much discomfort as it does today, Jesus distinguishes between three kinds of people who may be described as "eunuchs":
  • Eunuchs by nature's design
  • Eunuchs by human operation
  • Eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven
Jesus' emphasis lies on the third group.  Those to whom "it has been given" (v.11) are "eunuchs," not in the literal sense of being sexually impotent either by nature or by castration, but metaphorically: they are celibate by choice out of their conviction of God's purpose for them in service of the kingdom of God.  Whether or not Jesus uttered this saying in partial defense of his own celibacy, his teaching on this occasion both defended the sanctity of God's original purpose for marriage and relativised its normative status in a culture in which marriage and fatherhood were largely viewed as civil obligations.

Over the past few years much ink has been spilled over the first of the three types of "eunuchs" described by Jesus.  Particularly vocal have been homosexual advocates (both gay and straight), who have found in Jesus' mention of people who are eunuchs "born that way from their mother's womb" a reference to what we today call "homosexuals" — not simply those who perform homosexual acts, but people with an innate, same-sex orientation.  Thus Jack Rogers makes this identification and infers from it that "Jesus acknowledges and accepts people who are sexual minorities" (see his more detailed argument here).  Robert Gagnon even would include those we would call "homosexuals" within this category, though he infers from this the fact that the ancient world did indeed, contrary to the claim of many, "conceive of persons that were congenitally influenced toward exclusive same-sex attractions."  More radical gay apologists claim that the ancient category of "eunuchs" refers specifically to "gay men," thus including not simply the "eunuchs by nature," but even such classic eunuchs as the Ethiopian palace attendant converted by Philip in Acts 8.  Thus, so it is argued, God "welcomes" and "honors" formerly marginalized sexual minorities "just as they are," without condemnation.

The argumentation and logic utilized by many of these revisionists would be humorous were it not so sad.  Much of it is explicitly based on confirmatory rather than exploratory research, and hence draws conclusions from the evidence few reputable scholars would countenance.  All scholars know that the Hebrew term sārîs is used in a general sense of a "courtier" or "official" as well as the narrow sense of a castrated male (cf, e.g., BDB 710), in keeping with its Akkadian cognate.  Thus recognition that not all "eunuchs" were castrated does not give one the right to conclude that the term is but a reference to those we now call "gay men."  Likewise, it is a priori likely that many effeminate men and those who were disinterested in sexual relations with women could have been chosen especially as courtiers to queens and guardians of the harem.  Yet, once again, this was clearly not the standard practice, and certainly doesn't give one the right to assume such was the case in any particular instance.

Most importantly, the identification of "eunuchs from birth" in Jesus' statement with gay men is rendered unlikely by the fact that Jesus' distinction closely mirrors a distinction found in rabbinic Jewish literature, not least the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.  In the Mishnah tractate Yebamoth 8.4, the rabbis make a distinction between the sěrîs ’ādām, "eunuch of man," and the sěrîs ḥammâ, "eunuch of the sun" (i.e., from the time he first sets his eyes on the sun's light).  The Gemara to the Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Yeb. 79b-80b) reads as follows:
What are we to understand by A SARIS BY NATURE? — R. Isaac b. Joseph replied in the name of R. Johanan: Any man who has not experienced a moment [of life] in a state of fitness.1 How could this2 be ascertained? — Abaye replied: [By observing whether] when he urinates no arch is formed. What are the causes? — That the child's mother baked at noon4 and drank strong beer.
R. Joseph said: It must have been such a saris of whom I heard Ammi saying. 'He who is afflicted from birth', and I did not know [at the time] to whom he was referring. But should we not take into consideration the possibility that he might have recovered in the meantime! — Since he suffered from affliction in his early as well as in his later life, no [possible interval of recovery] need be taken into consideration
R. Mari raised an objection: R. Hanina b. Antigonos stated, 'It is to be examined   three times in eighty days'! — Precautions are to be taken in respect of one limb; in respect of the entire body no such precautions need be taken.
R. ELIEZER SAID: NOT SO etc. A contradiction may be pointed out: If at the age of twenty he did not produce two hairs, they must bring evidence that he is twenty years of age and he, being confirmed as a saris, neither submits to halizah nor performs the levirate marriage. If the woman at the age of twenty did not produce two hairs, they must bring evidence that she is twenty years of age and she, being confirmed as a woman who is incapable of procreation neither performs halizah nor is taken in levirate marriage; so Beth Hillel. But Beth Shammai maintain that with the one as well as with the other [this takes place at] the age of eighteen. R. Eliezer said. In the case of the male, the law is in accordance with Beth Hillel and in the case Of the female, the law is in accordance with Beth Shammai because a woman matures earlier than a man!  Rami b. Dikuli replied in the name Of Samuel: R. Eliezer changed his view.
The question was raised: From which statement did he withdraw? — Come and hear what was taught: R. Eliezer said. A congenital saris submits to halizah, and halizah is arranged for his wife, because cases of such a nature are cured in Alexandria in Egypt.
R. Eleazar said: As a matter of fact he did not change his view at all, but that statement was taught in respect [of the age of] punishment.  It was stated: If a person between the age of twelve years and one day and that of eighteen years ate forbidden fat, and after the marks of a saris had appeared, he grew two hairs.  Rab ruled that the person is deemed to be a saris retrospectively.  But Samuel ruled [that the person is regarded as] having been a minor at that time.  R. Joseph demurred against Rab:  According to R. Meir, a woman who is incapable of procreation  should be entitled to a fine! — Abaye replied: She passes from her minority [directly] into adolescence.  The other said to him: May all such fine sayings be reported in my name. For so it was taught: A saris is not tried as a stubborn and rebellious son, because no stubborn and rebellious son is tried unless he bears the mark of the pubic hair.  Nor is a woman who is incapable of procreation tried as a betrothed damsel because from her minority she passes [directly] into adolescence. R. Abbahu stated: On [the basis of] the marks of a saris, of a woman incapable of procreation, and of an eight-[month] child no decision is made until they attain the age of twenty.  Is, however, an eight-[month] child viable? Surely it was taught: An eight-month child is like a stone, and it is forbidden to move him; only his mother may bend over him and nurse him in order to avert danger!  — Here we are dealing with one whose marks have not been developed.  For it was taught: Who is an eight-month child? He whose months [of conception] have not been completed. Rabbi said: The marks, his hair and nails which were not developed, would indicate it. The reason then is because they were not developed, but had they been developed it would have been assumed that the child was a seven-month one only his [birth] was somewhat delayed. With reference, however, to the practical decision which Raba Tosfa'ah gave in the case of a woman whose husband had gone to a country beyond the sea and remained there for a full year of twelve months, where he declared the child legitimate, in accordance with whose [view did he act]? [Was it] in accordance with that of Rabbi who maintains that [birth] may be delayed!  — Since R. Simeon b. Gamaliel also maintains that [birth may] be delayed. he acted in agreement with a majority. For it was taught: R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: Any human  child that lingers for thirty days can not be regarded as a miscarriage.  Our Rabbis taught: Who is a congenital saris?  Any person who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs.  And even if he produced them afterwards he is deemed to be a saris in all respects. And these are his characteristics: He has no beard, his hair is lank, and his skin is smooth. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said in the name of R. Judah b. Jair:  Any person whose urine produces no froth; some say: He who urinates without forming an arch; some say: He whose semen is watery; and some say: He whose urine does not ferment. Others say: He whose body does not steam after bathing in the winter season. R. Simeon b. Eleazar said:  He whose voice is abnormal so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman. What woman is deemed to be incapable of procreation? — Any woman who is twenty years of age and has not produced two pubic hairs. And even if she produces them afterwards she is deemed to be a woman incapable of procreation in all respects. And these are her characteristics: She has no breasts and suffers pain during copulation. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said:  One who has no mons veneris like other women. R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: One whose voice is deep so that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or of a woman. It was stated: As to the characteristics of a saris, R. Huna stated, [Impotency cannot be established] unless they are all present. R. Johanan, however, stated: Even if only one of them is present.  Where two hairs were produced all agree that impotency cannot be established unless all characteristics are displayed. They only differ in the case where these were not produced. With reference, however, to what Rabbah b. Abbuha said to the Rabbis, 'Examine R. Nahman. and if his body steams I will allow him to marry my daughter'; in accordance with whose view [was he acting]? [Was it] according to R. Huna! — No; R. Nahman had some stray hairs. THE SARIS NEITHER SUBMITS TO HALIZAH NOR CONTRACTS THE LEVIRATE MARRIAGE, AND SO ALSO A WOMAN WHO IS INCAPABLE OF PROCREATION etc. The saris was mentioned in the same way as the woman who is incapable of procreation; as the woman's incapacity is due to an act of  heaven so must that of the saris be an act of heaven; and this anonymous [Mishnah] is in agreement with R. Akiba who stated [that halizah applies] only to a man-made [saris but] not [to one afflicted] by the hand of heaven.
From this it is evident that the intended contrast lies between those who had either been castrated or lost the ability to reproduce sometime after birth due to injury or disease (eunuch of man) and those who were unable to reproduce due to some congenital defect (eunuch of the sun).  That the latter is certainly not to be understood in terms of homosexual men is clear from the remark that such men were "afflicted by the hand of heaven."  To suggest otherwise manifests a woeful grasp of Jewish moral thinking.

Furthermore, even if those we now call "homosexual men" are to be included in the category of "eunuch from birth," this would by no means affirm them in their acting upon their innate orientation.  In the context of Jesus' statement, it is abstaining from marital relations (the only valid biblical context for sexual relations) that is the common denominator of the three classifications.  Even an elementary logician can realize that permitting other types of sexual activity for one classification ruins the point of Jesus' statement.

At this point it might be helpful to emphasize once more that the Bible does not condemn "homosexuality" as an orientation, but the homosexual activity of people regardless of their "orientation."   As I have said before, I consider such orientation to be almost certainly a complex result of biological and/or environmental factors.  It is certainly perverse to claim that all homosexuals "choose" to be the way they are, just as it is a grave sin to persecute such people for their identity and lifestyle.  In this extended sense, Gagnon is right to see a parallel between the "eunuchs from birth" and homosexuals.  Yet Jesus' call to his followers who may experience such temptations is not to accept who they are and act upon their desires, but to submit themselves to the kingdom of God and its vision for human flourishing, abstaining by the grace of God from what is clearly disallowed in Scripture.